9 min read

Notes On Trash Kit, Post-punk, Electrelane, never sleeping

Plus the usual egregious, violently lacking in self-awareness, jabs at music criticism
Notes On Trash Kit, Post-punk, Electrelane, never sleeping

Welcome to the newest Abundant Living! I’m going to try to keep this semi regular (at least once every eight days or so) but I realized that 4,000 words a session just wasn’t sustainable, neither for my brain nor an average reader’s patience. Especially now that (hopefully) you and I will be returning to old modes of existence, be that work or irl human interaction. So this week I’m gonna keep it simple. A few words on two things I like very much; post-punk and the band Trash Kit’s second album, Confidence.

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Whither, post-punk? Reasonable people, in 2020, can counter “who cares?” The second question negates the first but, if we subscribe to a Greil Marcus-ian view of punk (punk, and by extension post-punk, basically being a big “NO”), negation ain’t a dealbreaker. And one question rendering the other irrelevant is only a problem if we fail to see the obvious-in-hindsight truth that punk and post-punk were always the same animal. You can argue against that truth all you like, but the actual chronology of punk and post-punk releases and the discography of WIRE will make a liar of you till the cows come home. So, even if nowadays “post-punk” is all too often shorthand for “Joy Division vocals over Joy Division bass, with some Joy Division clothing thrown on top for good measure” or just “lyrics that wouldn’t sound half as clever sans British accent,” that doesn’t have to be our lives! We’re free!

Anyway. I like post-punk. I like Algiers, Rakta, Native Cats, Big Joanie, Slum of Legs, and at least five or six other bands. I like that post-punk tougher than indie while being more wimp friendly than capital “P” punk. And, while I hypocritically rail against contemporary nerd culture for it’s transition from “being good at math” to its current manifestation of a self-designation for adults emotionally invested in tentacle porn and/or corporate baby food, I like post-punk because it has all the trappings of “being smart” without requiring me to actually know anything beyond being able to recognize constructivist typography in a record bin.

Someday I’ll write a long and irritating exploration of what is and what is not post-punk and, tremble before your keyboard, what is “good” and “bad” post-punk. And what a glorious, tedious, pay-attention-to-me-please-the-Quietus day that will be. But today, with the nation malaising like malaise is going out of style, let’s focus on the positive. I want to tell you about one of my favorite post-punk albums of the last decade, Trash Kit’s Confidence.

Trash Kit are a post-punk/DIY (in the aesthetic loose genre sense. The band operate on record labels and have publicists, etc) band from London, UK. For Confidence, the band consisted of guitarist Rachel Aggs, drummer Rachel Horwood, and bassist Ros Murray (since replaced by Gil Partington). The trio formed in 2008 and Confidence was their second album.

I’m not going to describe Confidence in great detail. As I’ve said in other editions of Abundant Living, notes and chords ain’t nothin’ but a number to me and there are critics better at describing said math. I trust your ability to both google “Trash Kit Confidence review” and even, shudder the thought, just listen to the album yourself. But I do want to talk about some of the things I love about the album that maybe other reviews didn’t touch on.

As others have noted, Trash Kit are post-punk in the vein of The Slits, Essential Logic, and Raincoats (and the contemporary bands that punk labels like Thrilling Living excel at putting out). Meaning Trash Kit play a sparse, borderline chaotic, punk music that us critics like to call “shambolic” a lot. The guitars veer between jagged bursts and finely picked lines, lines that themselves veer between highlife melodicism and Robert Quine-esque No Wave piercing. The bass is centered in the songs, playing a caffeinated, almost conversational, dub. The drums dip into full kit polyrhythms but largely keep their clatter focussed on snare and crash. Whatever the positively phrased opposite of drum bombast is, Rachel Horwood plays it. None of these styles of playing buck too hard against the template set by all the Skronk ‘n’ Rollers that came out of England, Scotland, and Switzerland in the late ‘70s and it would be foolish to deny Trash Kit’s continuation of the tradition. But as someone who actually prefers the pop-punk that came out of Lookout Records in the ‘80s and ‘90s to the halfshell firstborn of The Ramones, I can say Trash Kit are the band in the Slits/Liliput tradition I listen to the most, even more than I do the originators, and still I sleep at night like a baby swaddled in jackets spiked only in the plushest of dewdrops and velveteen.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with either my twitter or EOY lists knows that I’m a fan of guitarist Rachel Aggs. I buy, with American money, all her output even when I’m lucky enough to be sent a promo. Aggs is the closest, while OF COURSE rejecting all systems of hierarchy, we have to a guitar hero. (Along with Marissa Paternoster, Kel Assouf, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, Matt Sweeney, Fatou Seidi Ghali, and, you know, whoever else I forgot…) From Trash Kit to Shopping to Sacred Paws, if it’s got Rachel Aggs playing guitar, I dig it. And I don’t necessarily like one Trash Kit album over another, just like ‘em differently. So it’s no slight to Aggs when I say that, to my mind, the secret weapon of Confidence’s particular charms is bassist Ros Murray.

Ros Murray’s band before Trash Kit, Electrelane, are largely unsung. Even during their existence (1998-2007, 2011-2012) the Brighton band, while praised and respected enough to be signed to the revered Too Pure label, and credited for transcending their krautrock and motorick influences, they never got the credits a band like, say, Stereolab got. I only know this injustice after the fact. Luckily for me, 1998 to 2007 were the years that the music press, from print to the nascent blogosphere, was my nemesis in a war in which only one side was bothering to show up. So I, in a turn one can call “principled” if one likes, read next to zero music criticism during that period. My friend worked at Beggars and gave me lots of promo CDs though and one of them was Electrelane’s 2004 album The Power Out. I, existing in a state of innocent grace where there was no Pitchfork only Virgin Megastore and the heavens above, was able to hear Electrelane completely devoid of context. The Power Out, eleven songs of pulsing madrigal sorrows and guitar burn, became my come-down album of the decade. To be played on those long mornings where I came home alone from Mars Bar at 8AM to afterparty with pounding daylight, a single electric fan, and a spasming brain full of ninjas and self-recrimination. The Power Out was to be soon alternated with 2007’s No Shouts No Calls as the CD I’d spin over and over, letting the wash of the songs edge out my anxiety, until I could finally sleep a bit before noon. I know you guys like personal stuff interspersed with the music talk. So, yeah, even when the drugs were gone but the wires were still sparking, and the blue laws were still enforced on Sundays, Electrelane never let me down even a little bit. (There’s a fine album, Axes, in between the two I love but it didn’t have enough singing for me.)

The energy of Electrelane in Confidence’s sound hasn’t been overly remarked upon (even though the former band’s Verity Susman also plays horns on the album). Perhaps that’s because Electrelane was a band that notably took its time finding its way through a melody, with songs like “Take The Bit Between Your Teeth” taking on the air of a (non-boring) blues workout. While Trash Kit are a band prone to fidgeting from burst to burst. (Or at least they were on Confidence. 2019’s Horizon is a decidedly more groovin’ affair.) Maybe people were just distracted by all of Horwood’s skittering, far punkier than Electrelane’s hypnobeat, snare. But to me Electrelane’s shadow is pronounced enough that, before I knew Murray was in the band, I listened to Confidence and thought “huh… I wonder if these guys like Electrelane.” (Immediately after thinking this, I thought “nahhh.” Having first heard of Trash Kit from the hardcore punk zine MRR and Electrelane from the Manhattan offices of Matador Records I just assumed that musicians in the UK were operating under the same scene compartmentalization. Live and learn!)

Whether it’s the bass playing or Murray’s contribution to the vocal/song writing (the level of which I can’t speak to), there’s a minor key melancholia, a mortality laden sublimity of vibe, to Confidence that is absent from most of Aggs’ catalog. Again, not a dis of any of Aggs’ other works (like I said… endlessly big fan), just a different kind of sadness. All of Trash Kit’s discography hues closer to the expansiveness of The Slits’ underrated second album, Return of The Giant Slits, than the frenetic classic debut. But Confidence arguably conveys best the stretching disarray underneath Ari Up’s exploration of space. Even with only one song on Trash Kit’s second album approaching the 4-minute mark. The songs feel short but deep.

When Confidence came out in 2014, it was met with positive reviews of that 7 out of 10 variety. These days, artists and fans alike joke about the infernal vanillaness of getting anything within a 7 range. There’s even memes about P4K bands that have gotten 7.7. Some artists claim they’d rather get a lower score than a middling 7. And maybe they would. I know, for myself, that I remember the name of every motherfucker who gave anything I did a 6 or lower and can’t recall a word of any of the 7s. So that certainly supports their supposition in one way or another. But, setting aside the supposition that assigning a numeric rating to art is the purview of those with the souls of Dickensian bankers, let’s just pretend that all the 7s assigned to Confidence was a collective tribute and calling back of both the consensus-agreed year zero(ish) of punk and, arguably, the totemic post-punk inspiring power the 1977 Culture album, Two Sevens Clash. When you look at it in that light, our faith in criticism is renewed. Navigating the music industry is a series of choices.

Rachel Aggs’ art since Confidence, in Trash Kit’s Horizon and the various albums of Sacred Paws and Shopping, has garnered (correctly) pretty much universal praise. Horizon was a work of profound hope and sophisticated joy, Sacred Paws consistently make the kind of pop that would make English Beat proud, and Shopping is the World’s Good Dance Punk Band. Ros Murray contributed to a song on the excellent Deep Throat Choir album and is now mainly a Lecturer in French at King’s College of London (her book, “Antonin Artaud: The Scum of the Soul” came out the same year as Confidence).

I love Confidence. It’s one of my favorite records. It does what I want post-punk to do: take the template set by PIL, Slits, etc, and then scribble all over it. It makes me anxiously happy and when I used to play it at the bar, if a customer failed to comment on it, the service would suffer. You should buy it. It’s irritatingly not on Bandcamp, which I cruelly held against Trash Kit’s label, Upset The Rhythm, until I thought to just write the label and ask them what was up. They responded “We let bands set up and sell their music on Bandcamp (they keep all proceeds themselves), we feel it's primarily a platform for acts to sell their music directly, rather than being used as a label as another online catalogue. Many of our records are available up there via the individual band, TK haven't set one up presently however.” And then they wished me good luck on my essay and I felt like a real heel for assuming there was some offshore tax avoidance reason why one of the UK’s most consistently good record labels wasn’t letting me buy Trash Kit albums on my preferred shopping platform.

Thanks for reading! Like Moses told the cow: “They can’t all be gold.” JK! This was fine! Please share and subscribe!

UPDATE: Dan Selzer has just pointed out that Electrelane got back together this year. Huzzah! https://www.facebook.com/electrelane

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