Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Nature prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-1987

Sound of the Sand

Having already made much of the lack of commerciality of The Sound of the Sand it seems appropriate to announce that, four tracks in, the album does actually hit what could almost be a pop ballad – albeit one with a rather obtuse subject matter. But Thomas is singing in the most accessible manner he can; Eddie Thornton (multitracked) is skillfully accentuating the ebb and flow of the melody with verve; Philip Moxham is similarly attuned.

It might be fair to suggest that this track and ‘Happy to See You’ are the heart of each side of The Sound of the Sand. They are closer to conventional songs – to the degree that you could imagine them performed by other artists to some acclaim from people who otherwise had no interest in David Thomas or Pere Ubu.

At the same time as this may be true (I have a bad habit of lacking the imagination to understand why others don’t like everything I like) it’s also useful to look at the context in which The Sound of the Sand was released. This was the period at Rough Trade records during which focus switched very strongly towards commercial concerns, notably the Scritti Politti phenomenon, whereby Rough Trade which had been the leading (?) independent label and distributor in the UK for some years ramped up its operations in a bid to become a player in the pop market. The most unusual bit of this story – which otherwise has very little to do with the David Thomas oeuvre – is that Scritti Politti had, until very recently, been the absolute nadir of scratchy, indie, scrappy music; at a certain point, they changed direction to try and cut it with the slickest, smoothest of contemporary pop. When I say ‘try’, they not only tried but actually succeeded. It didn’t hurt that the main (soon to be only) member of Scritti Politti, Green Gartside, was a handsome man with a great voice. David Thomas was an overweight, odd-looking man with a voice that, while distinctive, was absolutely an acquired taste. However, one might imagine that at RT there was something of a change of focus, based on economic and even political (‘change the system from within’) reality. It may also be important to note that Adam Kidron produced both Scritti Politti’s first album Songs to Remember and Sound of the Sand.

The changes may also have been about identifying a demographic for the label per se. Charles Hayward, an exceptional drummer with origins in British art rock who then went on to be a part of a group considered more postpunk than anything, This Heat, recalls in Neil Taylor’s great Rough Trade history, Document and Eyewitness:

After This Heat finished, I became associated with Rough Trade… I remember one night working with Stuart Moxham from Young Marble Giants and Geoff came over to me and enthused about Stuart’s songs. He said to me that a lot of people who had listened to This Heat’s music had now paired off, bought flats, and they wanted music to reflect that.
 Neil Taylor Document and Eyewitness Orion, 2010 p. 196

Note also that Philip Moxham, Stuart’s brother, plays on six of the tracks on Sound of the Sand, and note too that I have no idea what to make of that fact beyond that it is a fact.

Mayo Thompson (who I admit I am a bit obsessed with) might have had some major input into this scenario. He worked at Rough Trade, produced a lot of the label’s records, and even ‘looked after’ The Smiths when they came to be RT’s main commercial hope after Scritti Politti moved on to a major label. Thompson plays on one track on Sound of the Sand and was a member of Pere Ubu for the last two albums of the original iteration, both released on RT. Additionally, David Thomas (and most of Pere Ubu) also appear on the remarkable 1979 Soldier Talk LP performed by Thompson and Jesse Chamberlain, at that time the two members of the Red Krayola. The peculiarity of this relationship, however, is that Thompson – possibly one of the most ‘art rock’ of guitarists to have ever sustained a fifty year career primarily in music – was on some level part and parcel of this shift to commercial music. Thompson was not Thomas’ ‘label boss’, and it’s hard to imagine him talking strategy with Thomas about marketing much less about the content of his records. Nevertheless, he has a presence at this time: perhaps that’s all we can say with certainty.

To the song itself. Though David Thomas is insistent that his solo work should be regarded as separate from Pere Ubu, he’s wrong to do so. Even on the most superficial level, this is a peculiar suggestion; lyrically the connections are numerous (as per ‘Yiki Tiki’). The third Pere Ubu album New Picnic Time has a track called ‘Voice of the Sand’; the words are by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) from his book The Daniel Jazz.

There may be other ‘sand’ reference songs in the Pere Ubu oeuvre; I can’t think of any off the top of my head but if I do I’ll come back here and add them in. However, the connection is undeniable. The main thrust of Lindsay’s poem fragment – which Thomas hiss-whispers – is that there is far more sea than sand. The sand’s ‘sound’ is a lot less distinctive in Thomas’ own song, which conjures up various words – relating to quietness and contemplation. The sand is vocal here too: it says ‘hush do not cry’, strange but true.

The ensemble playing here could be bracketed stylistically with the last two songs on the album, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Man’s Best Friend’, as having a particular ‘sea shanty’ lilt, true particularly of ‘Sound of the Sand’ in the concluding section.

It does have a certain sadness, true, but ‘Sound of the Sand’ is an uplifting and captivating piece of work, which I endorse.

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