Brad Laner, art, and the tyranny of smoothness

This month comedian and writer H. Anthony Hildebrand graces our blog with an insight into what rocks his musical world …

The first time I heard a Brad Laner track was on Fremantle, Western Australia community radio station 100FM. The show was called Exploding Plastic, and it opened my ears to a lot of interesting alternative sounds, like the work of Chris Knox, both solo and as part of New Zealand’s influential Tall Dwarves, dub reggae, and garage rock of the ‘Nuggets’ variety. The year was 1995.

I was in my second year of university, sharing a flat with a student politician, smoking a lot of cigarettes, drinking when I could afford it, eating very little, and constantly listening to music.

The Laner track played on Exploding Plastic was by his band Medicine. It was ‘Never Click’, off The Buried Life album. Never Click is a pretty pop song swathed in distorted wah-wah guitar, and it was a guitar sound I’d never heard before, piercing through my little stereo’s speakers and into my little brain. It was thrilling.

It was thrilling in the same way that hearing the air raid sirens on Public Enemy tracks had been in the past, or the way that the treated guitars and drum loops on Tomorrow Never Knows hade made the 17-year-old me go: “This could have been made yesterday!” As if that was the greatest possible measure of success. But I suppose for pop music, it kind of is. Particularly for a teenager.

Never Click was also weirdly danceable, I thought. I loved The Jesus and Mary Chain – in high school, in mining town Karratha, north Western Australia, I’d purchased and proudly worn a long-sleeved JAMC shirt which prominently highlighted the word ‘Jesus’, and had been stopped by a middle-aged woman in the local shopping centre who wanted to tell me how happy she was that a young man like me could be so secure in his faith that he’d show it off for all to see – and I’d bought both Psychocandy and Honey’s Dead, their most recent, slightly Madchester-influenced album on a school trip to Perth a couple of years earlier. So I was no stranger to foregrounded distortion and feedback, but for me Never Click just clicked. It was pleasingly abrasive yet sugary sweet. The harshness was offset by the cooing twin vocals of Laner and Beth Thompson. It was the first time I’d really thought about the notion of ‘noise pop’, and I liked it.

As soon as I could I headed off to Dada Records to see if I could buy a copy of the single. But the single hadn’t been released – or if it had, it wasn’t available in Australia. So I bought the album instead, and immersed myself in that. Not long after I got hold of Medicine’s first album, Shot Forth Self Living, which leads off with the immense ‘One More’ – a full three minutes of harsh, undulating guitar drilltone before the vocals kick in, and perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the record.

(Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life have both been recently reissued by Captured Tracks: I’d recommend getting hold of both.)

I remember being excited to see The Crow on VHS, not particularly for the film itself, but for the fact that Medicine appeared in one scene playing non-album single Time Baby III. Checking online now, it appears that Shot Forth Self Living came out in 92, The Buried Life in 93, and third album Her Highness (which I didn’t get hold of until years later) in 1995. It seems like I was well behind the curve (and Curve), looking back, but in those pre-internet days it didn’t feel that way at all.

When I had access to reasonable speed broadband I put in some hours tracking down more of Laner’s work – post-Medicine project Amnesia, electronic experimentalism as Electric Company, a contributing member of prog-pop ‘supergroup’ Lusk (Grammy-winning! for best packaging), a one-off Medicine album with Brandon Lee’s sister Shannon (which was essentially a marriage of old-Medicine’s guitars with the tech rhythms of Electric Company), a brilliant guitar drone album with Christopher Willits as North Valley Subconscious Orchestra, psychtronica with The Internal Tulips, a myriad of other collaborative and guest spots, and two solo records as ‘Brad Laner’, which bring together Laner’s penchants for 60s Beatles and Beach Boys pop, krautrock, drone, fractured beats – and the thrilling, surprising possibilities of COOL SOUNDS.

What do I mean by that? Well, I guess the one unifying aspect of Laner’s discography is that any moment on any track could introduce a new and unexpected noise – a buzz, a bleep, a woozy, bending guitar phrase – that also functions as an undeniable hook. It’s these moments of unexpectedness, of wrong footedness – while still anchored in a classic avantpop sensibility – that keep Laner’s work fresh, for me at least.

I was thinking about that recently when I saw a bus drive past me bearing an advertisement for ‘Smooth Radio’. And seeing that inoffensive, bland bus advertisement lead me to the central thesis of this overlong and meandering article:

Smoothness is the enemy of art.

That’s not particularly revolutionary, I know. But it helped crystallise for me what it is I think is that is interesting and compelling about art, and what isn’t.

It’s also a visceral reaction. I’m probably a bit of a dick, but things that are really smooth often give me a headache. Literally. Apart from human skin. (I am wearing a silky-smooth human skin bodysuit just now, as it happens.)

Objects that are super-smooth make my brain cringe. I yearn for some kind of abrasiveness – something to cling onto, or to feel. And the same thing applies to music, and, the more I think about it, to all forms of art.

You might know the sort of thing I’m talking about – that kind of bland music production that rounds off all the interesting edges. Here’s Smooth Radio’s current playlist:

  • Michael Kiwanuka – I’ll Get Along
  • Nell Bryden – Buildings and Treetops
  • Rumer – P. F. Sloan
  • Jason Mraz – I Won’t Give Up
  • Will Young – Losing Myself
  • Lady Antebellum – Dancin’ Away with my Heart
  • Rebecca Ferguson – Glitter and Gold
  • Emeli Sandé – My Kind of Love
  • Katie Melua – Moonshine
  • Paloma Faith – Picking Up the Pieces
  • Norah Jones – Happy Pills
  • Honey Ryder – Marley’s Chains
  • Ren Harvieu – Open Up Your Arms
  • Lissie – Go Your Own Way

I don’t know most of those songs, but I can guarantee you I’d find them mind-gratingly irritating. Because they’re boring.

And here’s another thing: I’ve never understood why ‘smooth’ tunes are meant to be sexy. To get you in the mood for love. The best kind of sex surely is fun, exciting, funny, and thrilling. It doesn’t feature a saxophone solo. I don’t really get Marvin Gaye. I really don’t get Sade. Or the Captain and Tenille. Or “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. These are songs as sexually exciting as being put on hold by a gas utilities provider.

I don’t ‘get’ art that aims to be nothing more than familiar. If there’s a song with really polished, precision-tooled production, I like to hear interesting or unusual sounds, or surprising lyrical content. It’s exactly why music talent shows are so tedious once they eliminate the so-called ‘nutters’ – the process actively encourages participants to dial down their individuality and show that they can slot neatly into a market full of bland warblers, willing to add unnecessary vocal acrobatics to any given moment of a tune we’ve heard a million times before.

I don’t want talent shows to unearth performers who are capable of reproducing the music of other people. I want performers who can ONLY sing their way. I want them to be unique and weird and oddly compelling. Competence is dull. Give me failed ambition every time.

The same applies to visual arts, to fiction, to film and TV. Let’s have things accessible and strange. Or really weird, with a compelling hook that provides the accessibility. A little bit of free jazz is plenty, thanks. But the brilliance of things like dubstep emerging is their embrace of odd, thrilling noises, avant-garde strangeness allied to that poptastic urge which drives all the most interesting movements in art.

In some ways this is a stupid thesis. I know, don’t worry. Only you can decide what it is that you find thrilling or abrasive or interesting in the art that you enjoy. But creators of art – you can choose to produce work which genuinely excites you, that you haven’t seen or heard before, that isn’t ‘pleasant’ or ‘nice’ or ‘solid’.

Be funny or harsh or unsettling or surreal or anything. Throw an element in that the listener or reader or viewer won’t expect. Avoid being ‘safe’. Avoid being smooth. My brain will thank you.

H Anthony Hildebrand puts together and hosts his  comedy night, an Event of Some Kind, at the Black Heart in Camden every other month and is performing at the Brainchild festival in July. He is also one of the funniest tweeters on planet Earth, and worth following even if you fucking hate Twitter. For real. 

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