REMARKABLE WORDS ABOUT TONY MANSFIELD
"I have never heard so many sweet songs about utter alone-ness" (Mark Jacobson upon discovering the new music of Tony Mansfield's New Musik)
I had made a Tony Mansfield mix tape in the mid-80s for a writer friend, Mark Jacobson (Rolling Stone, Esquire, Time Out, New York), visiting Florida from New York City, with his wife Nancy and young daughter, Rae in tow. Mark, a Greenwich Village hipster without peer, was exiled from the hectic pace of Manhattan looking for rest, relaxation and inspiration for finishing his sci-fi novel Gojiro in the quiet sleepy environs of South Florida. Given a choice, Mr. Jacobson would have preferred John Coltrane, Roland Kirk or any atonal jazzbo bebop from the '50s to my offering of obscure '80s British synth-pop. But as they say, "when in rome..." The following notes eloquently state what anyone subscribing to this mailing lists [Mansfield mailing list] knows already.
Hope you all enjoy.
"What a break it is to finally get a tape to write about that is really something I'm very much in support of - which is a diplomatic way to put it. I've listened to this tape maybe 25 times. It's hard to take it out of the player, it just plays and plays and plays and there's never any wear or tear. It just slithers through. Even Rae (Mark's 2-year-old daughter at the time) thinks it's the best music in the house. It's her current favorite, especially, (who else?) the Captain Sensible stuff. I can't see anyone who understands what the electronic sound is, which is a sweet detachment, better than Tony Mansfield. It's amazing to hear how much he gets out of the narrow definition of the style that he is working within. All four of the artists (New Musik, Captain Sensible, Mari Wilson and Naked Eyes) have a distinct sound and, seemingly, a different purpose.
I have never really thought of this tape as individual songs. It's all a wash - all one piece. Mansfield's production values are so pervasive. So I don't want to run through this song-by-song, which I think is a disservice, because after all these listenings I still have no idea what New Musik song is which, and only a vague idea of which is which among the other artists. It's not like there's an immediate recognition of song and title, but rather a placement of different emotions once you realize which tune is playing, in the sense that you remember hearing it before.
It's all mood.
There are some songs that are especially good, and maybe if I got real clinical I could identify which they were. But that would be defeating the purpose of the music. Likewise, there are a few of these songs that fall below a certain standard of Mansfield's artistic limitations of what he's willing to be released. There's not one tune on here that I get sad when it comes on (although I admit to liking Naked Eyes less than the other three groups), and that's pretty amazing.
Listening to it gives you a certain idea about how Mansfield approaches his own work and the record industry. To my mind, he is aware of certain trends in the business and wants to cash in, which is one of the most honorable things about the music business - cashing in! It seems the Naked Eyes material is designed as a Top Ten band. They have all the songs with the hooks. They have less dreamy instrumentation. They're about ten times brassier than New Musik, which puts out a sound as repressed as an uptempo band can. Mari Wilson is a kind of stab at getting the tacky B-52, current '60s hero-worship thing down, and you suppose you can't really get what she's all about unless you see her live, which I'm sickened to say I passed on when she was around for about 200 shows in New York a few months ago. Tony Mansfield is doing a "girl singer," and it's pretty strong. As for Captain Sensible, I suppose that that is basically for the pub crowd. He's got the perfect pubbish sound, and it being Tony Mansfield producing him, he's not a pub band at all. The fact that he sounds so pubby to begin with is probably part of the joke.
Without a doubt, however, the Captain is a major artist, at least in the trappings Mansfield has him in. His songs are the most memorable of the ones on this tape, and for reasons that go beyond up-and-down vocals and moron lyrics. Each song really has character. I mean, I know that's sort of a dumb word nowadays, but somehow you really get the feeling he means each of his songs to be a statement, as opposed to New Musik, where I think the statement is the quiet despair of the mood the music creates. With Capt. Sensible, I think we're close to the Brit protest scene, maybe with some Hell's Angels thrown in for good measure. I don't have any idea why I feel this way, I just do. I feel a certain literal and political commitment in the Captain's songs. Not to mention the heavy metal cadences, smoothed out by the producer, which are bitching! Brenda, as you know, is in a league with the Modern Man song (Wasteland) I liked so much last year. Tony's relaxed, yet relentlessness pacing makes an irresistable sound.
Even though I said I wouldn't, I'll make some observations on what I dug in individual songs:
A Very Hard Act to Follow - May be my favorite of the Naked Eyes' numbers. Really fluid. The piano-like synth break behind the chorus is great. Singing is very evocative, although I'd have reserved some of the enthusiasm you have for these guys, which isn't to say that they don't know how to deliver a pop song in the modern way. I don't know..there's a coyness there, which I guess is intentional, but somehow feels debilitatingly alienated, even if I do like it.
Dr. Love - This has some nice levels of sound. In fact, Mari Wilson's best (Tony Mansfield's best with her) is multi-tracking of her and other voices that set up an emotional counterpoint to supposed subject matter of the song. Properly grandiose, not every chick singer can be singing Stay With Me Baby all the time, but you can try! Unfortunately, for ole' Mari, I think when she no longer has Tony Mansfield to somehow make it all right that she sounds more like Olivia Newton John than Dusty Springfield, her career will become as tinny as her range.
Tell Me Something New - One of about 799 great songs by New Musik. In fact, it seems like Tony Mansfield put the only average songs he's ever done on Warp, because that's the only place I've heard them. Mostly these songs all have the same structure, but Vivaldi had a similar set up.
(I've decided to group the songs by "authors.")
Churches, This World of Walter, From the Village, Adventures, Chik Musik - As a point of information, who wrote these songs? I assume Tony Mansfield wrote all of the New Musik ones, but did he do any of the others? Of the above-named tracks, there's really little to pick between them as to quality. If I had to name my favorites among these five, I'd take Adventures because there's so much in it. It has a wondrous straight-aheaded-ness in the drum part, but the rest of the music seems to be sliding along, almost dragged. Tony Mansfield's singing is impeccable for the conception of these songs. I don't know how it could be better. Without Tony Mansfield singing, these songs don't exist. It's not like you could give these to someone else and you've still got something. It's constructed in one piece. Think I must have said that already, but it keeps coming up, because in the New Musik songs, with the aforementioned few "experiments" (i.e. Warp) that don't work you get the sense that these are very private little comments that represent only Tony Mansfield's point of view.
They couldn't suit everyone.
The theme of most of these songs is formal, but the overall mood is insular. So insular, in fact, that I continue to maintain, as I have since first hearing Sanctuary, that the majority of these songs are about pre-birth situations.
For sure, This World of Water and Back to Room One are that. What Tony Mansfield attempts to do, I think, is to extend that sensation of the great alone-ness in the vast, yet confined world - it's all the womb, maybe, for him. But now, instead of the spectacular security, there's slithery terror everywhere. Yet he doesn't seem despairing over it. It's like he's dealt with these alienated feelings all of his life, faced the lurking snakes around every corner, and reached a point of acceptance, even fondness for the state.
I have never heard so many sweet songs about utter alone-ness.
When I was driving through New Mexico and there wasn't, I mean there really was nothing around, I played Tony Mansfield's music and his perception bathed over me, gave me an informed comment on the experience of being disconnected to almost everything. It was a comfort, but not an insensible one. Not just some song to mouth the lyrics to and feel like, well, at least I'm not here alone. What Tony Mansfield's songs did was make me understand that I was there alone and that it was somehow okay.
A good feature of his music is that he gives you a little something new, musically, in each tune. He's got little snatches of Indian beat here and some Oriental stuff there, and mostly he knows how to utilize the heavy metal chord progressions and mold them onto things which are primarily folk songs, and then run them through the Modern Sensibility Machine and have them come out how they are.
Also, there are occasionally arresting lyrical snatches, like "Someone said the magic words today," from Churches, that kind of tip off his ambivalences about giving into what appear to be his mystical inclinations. Mostly, though, I like the scope of the New Musik songs. They are all so scaled down, especially when compared to the opuses Tony Mansfield has constructed for Mari Wilson and Captain Sensible. With Naked Eyes, it seems like if the route is either ornate or simplistic, he'll go for the ornate, but with New Musik he is always aware of the artistic intention, which I think, is to create these little polaroids of deep feeling.
This is It? and End of the Affair:
I said some shit about the Mari Wilson stuff earlier, and I don't know what else to add, except to say the songs and production are strong, but there's something tinny about it all that doesn't really bother me. I understand it as part of the whole idea, it just keeps it from being major-league. It's certainly likable. This is it? is the best Mari Wilson song I've heard. It really uses that bright drum machine and drives along. Has a cliche-turned-inside-out - if this isn't a Peggy Lee song, what is? The last minute of it is totally great, repeating the title and those false endings, all of is great showstopper stuff, but I just can't get with this all the way because I get the idea it wants it both ways - It wants to parody and create honest excitement all at the same time. This is a worthwhile ironical goal, and maybe all that can be done in this kind of music now, what with all we "know" about emotions. But that excessive knowledge and slight distancing is what makes Irma Thomas major and people like Mari Wilson minor. Her voice isn't bad, it's better than Debbie Harry's anyway.
Oh, before I go into the Captain, let me just say what I've already said about the other New Musik songs I haven't spoken about: Well, I want to say exactly what I've already said! Changing Minds is today's favorite, but that changes all the time. Not to say that Design isn't positively brilliant tomorrow....
Some final notes on the Captain:
Just wouldn't have guessed that I would come away from listening to this thinking of the pieces of music, taken simply as exciting rock and roll, but Captain Sensible would have the best stuff. But it's true. If I had to pick an individual favorite here: the Captain's songs really stand out past the others as individual efforts. Brenda is nothing less than monumental, like I said. Gimme A Uniform has a brilliant kind of moronic glee to it. Sort of a classic sense of resignation in the lines, "I'll do whatever the hell they want me to." The harmonies behind him are special, and I guess you've got to credit Tony Mansfield with that. In fact, the whole Captain sound strikes me as a great producer triumph. I mean, I don't know shit about who Captain Sensible is, but I've got a feeling that maybe he's some acid-head Tom Waits, a Wildman Fischer Brit-style. His stuff is much better than that - better than Ian Dury, even with Chas Jankel! But I feel without a sympathetic production, you could have gotten Tom Waits. Love the chorus of Stop The World, too. Wot is, of course, only fabulous, and we sing that to Rae a lot. I guess I sing Captain Sensible songs more than the others, for whatever that's worth.
In closing, I've got to say I wasn't too knocked out by Yukihiro Takahashi's Disposable Love, but maybe it's the Yuki-man's phonetics. As for Naked Eyes, think we've talked about them enough.
Thanks for the tapes. Send more!
(Mark Jacobson has recently released his second novel, Everyone and No One and it (and the cult-classic Gojiro) is available from Amazon.com if anyone is interested)
Copyright (c) 1999-07-13 Mark Jacobson.
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