Split Loyalties

Electric Eden, Rob Young (664pp, £17.99, Faber)
Acoustic Territories, Brandon Labelle (276pp, £14.99, Continuum)

Let me make it clear that both of these books are highly enjoyable and informative reads. Rob YoungÕs has had me hunting out a number of great albums and artists previously unknown to me, whilst Brandon LabelleÕs has challenged me to think about sound and listening in interesting new ways. Having said that, I think both books try to do too many things, and suffer because of that.

Electric Eden is subtitled ŌUnearthing BritainÕs Visionary MusicÕ, which in the main Young has taken to mean ideas of rural utopias filtered through folk and its electric offspring. In fact, the bulk of this book is a history of folk music and the experimental hybrids formed when folk collided with pop and rock. Young is particularly good at digging up obscure names with tenuous connections to other obscure names, less convincing when discussing well-known artists such as John Martyn and Nick Drake. This might, of course, simply be over-exposure to them; but the same could be said about the likes of Bob Pegg and Mr. Fox, whose work I know well. But here, Young seems fresher-eared and offers new contexts; I also learnt Pegg had written two books, which courtesy of Amazon are now on my shelf.

ItÕs not just me being grumpy about Martyn and Drake Š both are artists whose music I like, itÕs just that, for instance, Bill FayÕs quasi-religious keening and Shelagh McDonaldÕs
Stargazer album are far more pertinent to YoungÕs idea of the visionary which he pursues.

IÕm interested and informed, entertained and educated by this volume, but the final part of the book is both a let down and a signpost to what might have been. As folk rock and the art of singer-songwriters expires in the early 80s, Young makes a strange, intuitive jump to Kate Bush, Talk Talk, David Sylvian and Julian Cope. These obviously fit with the idea of electric visionaries, but itÕs a strange leap from electric folk to themÉ  ItÕs here I think Young needed to go back and decide if he was following through the idea of folk music [whatever he decided that is/was], which might perhaps lead through the acoustic punk of The Pogues and the Levellers to the post-punk of The Raincoasts and on to the gnostic occult outpourings of Current 93; or if he was pursuing the idea of visionary music, in which case I suspect heÕd have had to backtrack to rewrite earlier chapters without focussing on folk so much, and then broaden later chapters to include others as original and innovative as the four late 20th century artists he has selected. Actually, what we probably need is simply volume 2! I for one would buy it.

As I said, this is a fantastic book, which IÕve enjoyed reading twice straight through and dipping into again. Any book that leads me to a dozen new albums is alright by me, and as a kind of hybrid of Michael BracewellÕs wonderful volume on Albion and a personal take on 60s and 70s obscure folk music it canÕt be beaten. As a tome on BritainÕs Visionary Music itÕs pretty good, too.

Brandon LabelleÕs book is very different. It considers the way urban spaces shape and inform our hearing, and how we hear and/or listen to the urban. Labelle takes umbrella topics such as ŌUndergroundÕ and ŌStreetÕ for each chapter, and considers a number of observations, thoughts and concepts within each. Along with the fact that I think at times the book needs an editor to tidy up the writing, I think there is a problem: is this a book of personal observation and response or an academic discourse? IÕm more comfortable with it as the former, a volume rooted in LabelleÕs own music/sound practice. A step back from trying to legitimise his ideas by quotation and theoritical quotation would have resulted in a clearer, more readable volume.

My opinions aside, however, this quirky, original and very personal book reaches out to science, musicology, media studies, sociology and urban studies as contexts for sound and our engagement and is a fascinating if at times muddled read.

     © Rupert Loydell 2010