The uncomfortable, undeniable appeal of black midi

The uncomfortable, undeniable appeal of black midi
Album, “Hommage à M. Cusson Pour M. Höek,” Album (Telephone Explosion Records)

“Hommage à M. Cusson Pour M. Höek” by Album

The Yellow Pages is an unseasonable anachronism. It’s hard to fathom, but only two — certainly no more than three — decades ago, a large yellow book containing the telephone numbers of local businesses was published and distributed for free to each and every telephone-owning household. For a long time, the phone book was the sole resource for contact information for everything from Astra to Zeneca. And because entries were listed alphabetically, many businesses went out of their way to give themselves titles beginning with either A or Z, to place their listings first or last in the big Yellow book. The theory was that people were too busy or lazy or whatever to do a thorough search and would simply riffle right to the front or the back, choosing their products or services arbitrarily. Hence it was common to see ads for AAAardvark Muffler, say, or ZZZZ-Top Pancake House. Something like proto-search engine optimization. 

The new and wildly cool jazz-tronica band from Hull, Album, have done themselves zero favours by naming both their outfit and its debut album, Album. That is, aside from some inevitable Abbot and Costello meets Beavis and Butthead-like chatter amongst a handful of Mile End music nerds, it’s going to be difficult to peruse the vast and unforgiving internet for Album’s album without first knowing exactly what you’re looking for. Or was that the plan?

Giant Claw, “Disworld” (vocals: NTsKi), Mirror Guide (Orange Milk Records)

“Disworld” by Giant Claw

I remember being enthralled with a film installation called City Self/Country Self by the Canadian artist Rodney Graham upon my first visit to the Musée des beaux-arts after moving to Montreal in 2004. As well as I can recall because it’s not available anywhere online (reportedly, a DVD numbered 2/4 sold at auction in 2017 for a whopping £56,250), the four-minute loop depicts a 19th century scene of a rural peasant walking bewildered around the streets of Paris. The loop begins and ends with the character picking up his top hat after being kicked in the arse by a “citified dandy.” Graham embodies both the peasant and gentry roles. So, the obvious critical interpretation is that it’s something about conflict between class and power structures, rural versus urban, ignorant versus educated, poor versus wealthy and so forth. But what is really going on on paper, or celluloid as it were, is an artist literally kicking his own arse every four minutes. It’s a perpetual motion machine reminding us of the absurd modern necessity for our own perpetual motion.

black midi, “John L,” Cavalcade (Rough Trade)

“John L” by black midi

I like black midi like Uncle Junior of The Sopranos likes his oncologist, Dr. John Kennedy. Kennedy’s character is arrogant, downright rude at times, ignores Junior’s frantic answering machine messages, his hairdo is too manicured, he plays golf, he talks into a handheld memo recorder, he’s a pretentious prick. But his name is John F’ing Kennedy. 

Regardless of their ambitious King Crimson wishes and unsettling Mahavishnu Orchestra dreams, black midi, by virtue of their name alone, whether capitalized or diminutive, and by additional virtue of their music having the least bit to do with the industry technical standard otherwise known as the Musical Instrument Digital Interface — much less the impenetrable electronic music genre called Black MIDI — eternally endear themselves to me. When there’s news of a new black midi record, I’m waiting like patience on a monument.

Populous, “Luna Liquida,” Stasi (La Tempesta Dischi)

“Luna Liquida” by Populous

“The failure of the 21st century,” said Mark Fisher in a 2014 interview for Nero, “is that the 21st century has yet to really start.” For the West, the 21st century started abruptly in 2016 with Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. But the future was put on hold again in the twilight’s last gleaming of 2019 by a virus that took on that year in its very name: COVID-19. And so again, the 2020s have yet to really begin. With nowhere to go, there is only the melancholy remembrance of better days to occupy our thoughts.

19 doesn’t just refer to 2019; it harkens back to the 20th century, the 1900s, arguably the last truly lived century in human history. Capitalism ultimately aspires to endless repetition — a perfect circuit of production and consumption that expands predictably until it inescapably collapses its environment. Capitalism is now in the business of reproducing time itself, as measurable units of the past. As the present increasingly reiterates the past, the past outpaces the future. The future becomes obsolete, an antiquated notion of modernity’s unnecessary forward drive. Not long ago, some future, any future, seemed certain. Nowadays, progress spells stasis at best.

Andy Stott, “Hard to Tell,” Never the Right Time (Modern Love)

“Hard to Tell” by Andy Stott

In the Pet Shop Boys’ nostalgia-laden 1990 single “Being Boring,” the glad lads sing throughout the chorus: “We were never being boring / We were never being bored.” Lyricist Neil Tennant correctly characterizes the bourgeois state of boredom as equally boring for the observer and the observed. There is nothing more boring than reading a review by a bored music critic. We get the newest, coolest, most technologically advanced, most avant-garde, cutting-edge, smart, sexy sounds plugged into our ears on the daily as if we were aristocrats, or worse, their ancestry. Any critic who isn’t right now wildly interested by everything that comes across their desk, whether or not it resonates with them personally, doesn’t deserve to hold a pencil. Boredom is a luxury in the 21st century — the conspicuous consumption of other people’s time. ■

This feature was originally published in the May issue of Cult MTL. To see previous editions of Play Recent, please click here.
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