Jarvis Cocker's new album hit the shops last week, and more than one reviewer has referred to it as "lo-fi" (see here for example). Well, it may feature more fuzz guitars than the average Pulp album, but it's certainly not lo-fi. Can we please get this straight? Of all the people on the planet, Steve Albini, who was in charge of recording Further Complications, is one of the most concerned with absolute sonic fidelity. Don't believe me? Take a look at his Chicago studio, Electrical, where the album was recorded. Take a look at the Alcatraz room or the Studio A control room. Then tell me again that Steve Albini deals in lo-fi.
In fact, Jarvis has a higher than usual disposition towards sonics, too. I know that for most people, Pulp were all about the lyrics, and that the music was a secondary consideration. I think, though, especially on Pulp's last albums, that the quality of the music, and a willingness to experiment with sound, really sets their work apart from straight-ahead Britpop chancers like Supergrass. Check out The Night That Minnie Timperley Died from We Love Life (below). I love the contrasts in the song between, for example, the rawness of the guitars and the spectral backing vocals. In fact, turn it up to 11 for the first 15 seconds and be prepared for a shock. Pushed, no doubt, by producer Scott Walker, Pulp really stretched themselves on We Love Life, roping in the Swingle Singers (with whom Pulp had previously collaborated on the soundtrack to Randall and Hopkirk Deceased) and Alasdair Malloy, among others. The results, especially on songs like Trees and and the astonishing Sunrise, show the extent to which Pulp were prepared to forego popular acclaim in favour of sonic experimentation. Predictably, the British public, who preferred the Jarvis who waggled his bum at The Brits and sang about supermarkets and canal towpaths, stayed away from the album in droves.
Alasdair Malloy reappeared on Jarvis's first, self-titled solo venture, and while Scott Walker was no longer involved, the commitment to sonic adventure remained. Check out the album's (apparent) closer Quantum Theory, or Black Magic (below). The combination of Jason Buckle's decaying Wasp synth, Ross Orton (of Fat Truckers)'s monolithic drumming, Alasdair Malloy's hand bells, Richard Hawley's guitar and Steve Mackey's bass, along with a deftly-placed Tommy James and the Shondells sample, is a total winner. The lyrics, notably, are more elliptical, more impressionistic, less concerned with people and place. The music is centre stage.
Even when not being pushed by name producers or heavyweight musicians, Jarvis can still come up with the goods, sonically speaking. His pseudonymous side project of 2003, Relaxed Muscle, again eschewed the lyrical precision for which Pulp had been feted in the mid-nineties, instead opting for sparse and fairly banal imagery backed up by beefed-up cheap synthesised throb. The effect, as Dave Simpson said in the Guardian at the time, was like Cabaret Voltaire at Batley Variety Club (though he was wrong to claim that Hawley was Cocker's partner in Relaxed Muscle- in fact most of the musical side of things was shouldered by the aforementioned Jason Buckle). You can hear The Heavy, the first track on A Heavy Nite With... below.
Download The Night That Minnie Timperley Died by Pulp (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)
Download Black Magic by Jarvis Cocker (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)
Download The Heavy by Relaxed Muscle (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)