Friday, October 03, 2014

“The Fun Is Over”: Delicate by Martha and the Muffins: A Review In Two (Possibly More) Parts

Funny people are dangerous.

I once knew a very funny guy who did tarot card readings. A woman called, and he spent an hour doing the usual Q&A over the outlay. As their time approached a close, she remained pensive. He sensed he wasn’t getting to the nub of what she’d come to him for. He asked if perhaps she had questions she’d like answered before she left.

“I just want to know,” she said, “when is the fun coming back?”

“Oh. I see. May I ask: how old are you?”

“Thirty-five.”

He threw up his hands. “Oh, honey,” he said, “the fun is over.

****

In the summer of 1980 I went with my church youth group to Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg. Typical youth group, typical beach activities. I drove back with a guy whose car had an AM radio.

“Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins was playing.


There were only two pop stations broadcasting out of Winnipeg, plus a third that played a mix of easy-listening and country.

“I’m not a fan of this song,” said the driver, punching the radio to the other pop station.

Within minutes, “Echo Beach” was playing. He switched to the country station. There was Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, then . . . 

“Unbelievable,” he said, punching it back to the first station. Ten minutes later they were playing it again.

I actually liked the song, especially after a day at the beach. It had a brooding quality that kept it tethered to the id. I mean, what an existence: My job is very boring/I’m an office clerk . . . The only thing that helps me pass the time away/Is knowing I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day. God, spare me!

****

The ‘80s were a decade that was good to MatM, in all the ways a young band wants a decade to be good to it. Which is to say, a big label came along, dropped a pile of money and made their lives a nightmare, until the founding members finally figured out what was going on, and got the right gears linked up with the proper chain.

A new label, a new lineup, a smaller contract, a much smaller budget — but considerably more freedom, so who cares? The bass player has family in Hamilton with their own mixing board in the basement. We’ll just get them to do it on the cheap. A couple of brothers, genuine nerds, freaky about getting the sound just exactly right, last name of “Lanois.” 

Two amazing albums came out of that arrangement — This Is The Ice Age and Danseparc. After that, things got blurry for me. Did MatM disappear? Or did they and I just move on to other scenes?

****

Delicate came out in 2010, and is MatM’s eighth studio album.


I picked it up a couple of months ago. A lot of history has passed since Danseparc, the last MatM album I listened to, including parenthood/kids, Parkinson's and cancer. Also, the band lineup has undergone yet another sea-change.

I gave the album a couple of spins. After listening to Delicate, I’d cue up This Is The Ice Age, or Danseparc. Then for a week or two I listened to nothing but Danseparc.

This Is The Ice Age is in some ways the more daring, and most accomplished MatM album, but Danseparc has its own unique thrill and thrall. It is the sound of a band completely in sync — with each other, and with the scene around them. And the music scene in Toronto, 1982, was wildly vibrant and not a little wacky, from-here-to-NYC-to-the-world global — and always super-danceable. 

Listening to Danseparc you can hear the influences of George Clinton, Adrian Belew, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Rough Trade — but it’s not as if MatM is “stealing” a synth-note from here, a hook from there, a tom-tom fill from that guy. Bands were swapping this stuff like LEGO pieces back then, reaching into the same enormous pile of smooth, brightly-colored oddly-shaped bricks, and pushing them together to make architecture you had to move your feet to. MatM was constructing and deconstructing with the very best of them, but Danseparc is a vibrant demonstration of a band that isn’t at the center of The Scene, it is actually somewhere near the edge of the wild frontier, producing sounds that prompt Brian Eno to speak with Steve Lilywhite about maybe getting that Irish band to call those Hamilton boys for the next album.

That is a very heady place to be. So if you toggle from Danseparc back to Delicate, you quickly realize: 

the fun is over.
M(artha Johnson) + M(ark Gane)


Or is it? Stay tuned . . .

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