Friday, February 16, 2007
We need to be a little kinder to the few remaining popular music geniuses we have. We are running seriously low these days, perhaps the sixties and seventies spoiled us. Looking back at those decades it was like a new one was popping up out of Britain, France or America every other week. Since that moment when Elvis Presley first starting singing "That's All Right" in between takes with Scotty Moore and Bill Black joining in it seemed like we would never run out of people who would really be willing to take a chance. But in the past ten years it has begun to happen. Every year brings new talent but the true visionary is dying out. Perhaps it was inevitable, I mean how much can you do with sound in popular music?
David Holmes is these days best known as a top soundtrack composer, and why not? His scores for Out Of Sight, Oceans Eleven and Oceans Twelve among others have provided some of the most thrilling music of the past decade. The popularity of his film scores has unfortunately overshadowed his solo work as well as his powerful funk group The Free Association. At this date nearly all of his most innovative and influential music has slipped out of print in the States. Much like The Velvet Underground, Big Star and countless other under appreciated in their times acts, his work now resides in cut out and used record store bins. Check those 99 cent bins carefully next time you are at your favorite record haunt, you might just find something that will change your life.
David Holmes has had two big strikes against him in the rock community. Anytime the words DJ and Dance are mentioned many rock fans will recoil away in horror. It is there loss, since the sixties much dance music has at times been the most innovative around, but wait David Holmes doesn't perform typical dance music. The there is the DJ moniker, and an Irish DJ no less. Holmes did start out his career as a club DJ, and still spins on occasion, but his eclectic mixes would alienate as many clubbers as those that he would turn on. So, David Holmes isn't your typical DJ. Actually he isn't your typical anything which is one thing that adds to his allure, even his soundtrack work differs from most composers who only want their work featured. One of Holmes most enduring characteristics is his love for his record collection, and his need to bring it to us.
After Djing in his native Belfast as a teenager Holmes recorded his first album, The Films Crap Lets Slash The Seats, in 1995. He was 26 years old and the double cd films inspired set was well received but it was overlong and remains Holmes' least essential work. He would get some producing and remixing jobs from it though and he would soon start to plan the follow up.
After the death of Sarah Veronica Holmes, whom his second album would be dedicated to, Holmes wound up Djing in New York City. Inspired by the city and especially the people in it Holmes got the idea to start recording conversations on his daily walks through the New York streets. These snatches of colorful conversations would provide the genesis for the album he was getting ready to record, the first of his decade long string of masterpieces, 1997's Let's Get Killed.
Many albums have featured samples of found conversation but none have ever sounded like Let's Get Killed. In fact Holmes second album really doesn't sound like anything else. While it was recorded ten years ago, it sounds like something that is going to be recorded in about twenty years from now.
The album begins with a track entitled "Listen, 49 seconds of Street Noise" and an anonymous New Yorker telling us why New York is the greatest city on earth. "Listen", without a break goes directly into the single, "My Mate Paul". This track is one of the least groundbreaking on the album but it has a nice dub progressed sound scape that lasts for over five minutes. All of Holmes work is cinematic in nature and this is obviously the albums opening credits, the sampled drum loop that plays throughout is particularly nice. Holmes continually messes with the drum's time signature, giving the song a dizzying feel. It sounds repetitive at first but further listen s reveal a very complex track that Holmes has built from a variety of sources that would undergo many transformations on future remixes.
The title track is next and here we are presented with our first snatched conversation. The track has a chilling film noir feel to it and the violent narration is carried through by a propulsive drum pattern. It's here that the album really begins to take shape as Holmes begin to throw in a barrage of sound effects and samples.
The classic "Gritty Shaker" follows, one of Holmes signature tracks and another single off the album. More traffic noise and this time dialogue from what sounds like a street psychic rambling on about money, sex and past presidents. It's the kind of dialogue that can't be written, it is too naturally shambolic and features the great line, "I advise you to become a lawyer because you are going to have to represent yourself some day."
The delightful "Gritty Shaker" flows directly into the rap of "Head Rush On Lafayette", made entirely out of a frantic drum pattern and a rhyme that sounds like something off of a Last Poets album.
One of the more mellow moments on the record follows. Entitled "Rodney Yates" and resembling his later soundtrack work on Oceans Eleven, this track features incredible guitar work by Keith Tenniswood and a lovely Holmes Synth track that is reminiscent of Eno. It is one of the most ambient feeling of all the tracks but it never loses it's groove. One of Holmes' great moments.
The next track is one of Holmes most audacious moments. Beginning with an argument over who is the best, John Shaft or James Bond. Coming right off the immortal line, "James Bond was Hispanic" Holmes rips into his own version of the immortal Bond theme. A completely retooled masterwork of one of the most famous themes on earth. Samples come in and out but it's the crazed Samba like feel that takes the track over the edge. Much better than Paul Okenfield's later commissioned James Bond remix, this track smokes and is a splendid tribute to the Bond films that Holmes loved so much as a youth in Ireland.
More dialogue in "The Parcus and Madder Show" is followed by a track that would have been right at home of Sandinista by The Clash, "Slasher's Revenge". A top dub track that still has echoes of the Bond theme, like us Holmes can't quite get it out of his head.
"Freaknik", with it's opening dialogue of a guy just thrown out of a downtown punk club, is one of the only sort of dance tracks on the record. Holmes can't resist challenging expectations though as he continues to play start-stop with the rhythm.
"Caddell Returns" opens with a junkie lamenting about all of the drugs he has taken and ends with, "I can't even tell you what day it is." One of the most soulful spots on the album and predicting the future Free Association project that Holmes would throw himself into later. The Bond theme comes back in again briefly and then suddenly the album shifts into one of the most beautiful moments Holmes has ever put onto vinyl, with a sample of Patti Smith's "Easter". It's a dramatic, haunting turn where we hear Holmes tipping his hat to one of New York's finest. It's also a reminder of why Holmes pissed so many people off in the club world, whether it was closing his sets with Elvis Presley's "If I Can Dream" or sampling one of Patti Smith's most tender moments, he was never willing to pander to expectations. This is a guy who will beyond all else, always deliver the unexpected.
The album's, and David Holmes, most jaw dropping moment is the penultimate track. Entitled "Don't Die Just Yet", Holmes deliverers and audacious reworking of the legendary "Cargo Culte" off Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire De Melody Nelson. This was the first time many people would have heard this remarkable piece of music as most hipsters and music lovers were just starting to immerse themselves in the legend of Gainsbourg. Holmes delivers us a mission statement on this track and it is an extraordinary moment. On first listen he has barely touched the song but the subtle and substantial differences will be apparent to anyone who worships Melody Nelson. Holmes damn near tops Gainsbourg's original on the album version. He manages to bring British music dance, New York punk and the historically unfairly maligned French music scene together in six breathtaking minutes. It's right up there with the finest Portishead, Bjork and Massive Attack moments of the 90's most progressive and daring music.
The album ends with "For You", in which we hear our passenger exiting his cab and stepping out into the street. More voices that have their first and only album appearance, immortalized on vinyl by someone who appreciated that they deserved to be heard.
Steven Soderbergh would hear Let's Get Killed and asked Holmes to record his the film he had began work on, Out Of Sight. It was a match made in heaven and Holmes has just finished up Soderbergh's Oceans Thirteen. He would record another solo masterpiece entitled Bow Down To The Exit Sign in 2000, this time utilizing singers over snatched conversations. His mix albums have become the stuff of legend and have turned on, for those lucky enough to hear them, many young people to a wide variety of music they had have never heard before.
He continues searching through old records trying to find sounds and moments that touch him. He was the one responsible for unearthing Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" and sent it to Soderbergh to use in Ocean's Eleven. Holmes refused to remix the Presley song though as he said he didn't want to touch perfection or perhaps even more appropriate was when he would say, "It was already as funky as fuck." This refusal led to Junkie XL remixing it and having a global smash number one hit, but it was Holmes who was responsible for digging it up.
David Holmes has slowed down a bit in the past year or so. As much as I love his soundtrack work I hope that he continues cutting his own albums. His solo catalogue represents some of modern musics most unknown treasures, his best music may be lost in your corner store's cut out bins but it will be someday be re-discovered by those adventurous enough to dig.