This was a bracing shock to the system. After the sweetness and innocence of the Superorganism and the Shack‘s albums, Daniel Blumberg’s “Minus” is like having your face plunged into a bowl of icy water, having woken up in the middle of the Outback in an Australian post-apocalyptic dawn. If you dug Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s recent soundtrack work (Jim White of the Dirty Three drums on “Minus”) or David Michod’s films, “Animal Kingdom” or “The Rover”, then “Minus” is for you.
There’s a squall underpinning much of “Minus”, which comes to the fore in the coda of the twelve-minute long side one closer, “Madder”. At about the ten-minute mark, the drums start ricocheting like a firefight, the guitars are struck in an atonal blizzard and we are in the realms of Michael Gira’s full frontal assaults. It’s two minutes of heavy going and you may want to warn the family and clear the room if you are listening to it with company.
With specific reference to “Madder”, Blumberg said in a recent Billboard interview:
I went to go up to work with a painter in the Orkney Islands every summer. There was a painter that I met and I was really blown away by called Brendan Colvert, and I just really felt an affiliation with him and wanted to learn from him. And so every summer I would go up for a month to work, more on visual stuff, but the last time when I went up there with a broken heart. And I wrote ‘Madder’ there, in his bungalow. And when I finished writing that song was when I thought, ‘Okay we’ve got a record. We need to make a record, we’ve got enough.’ It felt like the moment that the record came into being.
The album isn’t without melody though. Blumberg’s register is similar to Neil Young’s tenor and he has a similar gift for overlaying tunefulness on a sense of chaos. “Stacked” in particular brings to mind Shakey’s best with a circular chord sequence and a tender piano background and mournful fiddle.
I knew little of Blumberg before I got the album. He has recorded under a number of aliases and banners over recent years – Hebronix, Guo and Oupa and he used to be a member of Yuck. He’s a Londoner and has been spending a great deal of time recently in Hackney’s Cafe Oto. This makes more sense when you hear the bonus disc which is a series of sometimes lengthy improvisations by his supporting musicians for the “Minus” project. They are cacophonous and challenging, and something I’m not sure I’ll dip into very often. Their astringency needs Blumberg’s melodic touch to bring them into the realms of approachability. The lyrics are often repetitive mantras, as if the act of singing them by Blumberg is providing some salvation for him. The video for “Minus” itself gives the impression of an intense artist at work.
“Permanent” feels Brechtian, lolloping along like as if the whisky bar crawl of Alabama had been relocated to the bottom of the A10. “The Bomb” is stately, harking back to Nick Cave’s more reflective work.
It transpires “Minus” is a break-up album and when you hear the news, the album slots into place. (“All my records are stacked and I can’t stop looking back”). Blumberg had split with Stacy Martin, who won plaudits for her performance in Lars Von Treer’s “Nymphomaniac”. They are back together now but the detritus of their separation is laid bare for all to see.
The album feels like a fantastically alive album, despite its occasionally gloomy tone. The sense that all of the musicians were present simultaneously and only contributing when they felt like something needed saying. This is a mark of the improv scene that Cafe Oto celebrates and “Minus” skillfully harnesses those wilder talents of Blumberg’s ensemble.
After the comparatively lightweight recent albums of the month, “Minus” provides something very different and for all the challenges that the musical setting provides, it never fails to draw you in. It sometimes exhibits a fragile beautiful such as the violin lead that opens the closing “Used to Be Older”. Blumberg had some mental health issues around the time of the recording and this makes it a raw listening experience.
This video taken from a session at Cafe Oto gives a feel for the live experience, which appears pretty spartan.
This clearly means the world to Blumberg and at a time when many of the artists that Rough Trade champion have a “couldn’t-be-arsed” deadpan persona, it heartening to hear something real.
This one’s from the heart.