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The Durutti Column and the Art of Simplicity

           

My friend Erik and I often remind one another of the importance of keeping things simple when it comes to making music. It’s not that we consider, say, sonic complexity to be a bad thing. What matters is keeping everything focused on a limited set of goals. Thus, tarting up an arrangement with layers that get in the way of, rather than complement, others is something we tell each other to avoid. And, right now, I’m listening to a record that is a testament to what one can achieve by keeping things simple.

Imagine, if you will, the sound of a group whose arrangements, at one point in their career, consisted primarily of guitar and viola. The guitarist favored plucking the strings of his electric guitar with his fingers and thickening the sound with clear, Echoplex produced delays. The viola player relied less on effects, but teased all he could out of the instrument’s traditional playing techniques. If no sounds come to ear, then let me tell you how to find them.

Seek out the Durutti Column’s 1986 release Circuses and Bread. In a fashion similar to the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand from the same year, this recording eludes categorization. Circuses and Bread and CD Cover Different elements of it connect it to rock, to be sure, but there are also details that might conjure up the sonic spaces of new age and light classical music. And one of the more intriguing things about this recording is the label that released it: Factory Records, most famous for acts like Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays (whose fortunes along with those of the label are chronicled in the film 24-Hour Party People). Although it seems to lessen their importance, DC were the other band that was responsible for establishing the label’s reputation in Great Britain.

The first time I heard anything by the group was when this recording was released. Once again, the culprit was WRVU at Vanderbilt University. For a number of years, they ran a program, possible only before the mass embrace of compact discs, called “The Side at Five.” On that program (surprise, surprise), they would play a whole side of a new release each weekday at 5 p.m. Thus it was that I heard “Tomorrow.” There are only a few other songs I’ve heard that had such an immediate and lasting impact on me. Up until two weeks ago—when I was no longer content with my memories—I hadn’t heard it in nearly 20 years. But after all that time, I could still sing parts of it. (Another other song that had that impact, with a similar 20-year delay, was Gil Scott-Heron’s “A Lovely Day,” whose source album, From South Africa to South Carolina, includes that song as well as “Johannesburg” and was reissued by TVT in 1998.)

“Tomorrow” is a deceptively simple tune. It begins with Vini Reilly, the chief writer and only constant member of the group, plucking a plaintive figure with his signature delays as well as some expressive slides that almost make it sound as though he’s managed to amplify a nylon-string guitar. And as you realize that there are multiple guitars playing, you might also discern that the one that sounds muted is actually Blaine L. Reininger’s viola. This is such a delicately beautiful song, with the arrangement simply complementing the resignation of the lyrics:

All I ever wanted was your time

All you ever gave me was tomorrow

All I ever wanted was your time

All you ever gave me was tomorrow

And tomorrow never comes

Tomorrow never comes

Tomorrow never comes

Tomorrow never comes

 

I’ll admit that isn’t the most upbeat way to begin a track, but it’s far from being the most depressing (a better candidate is the opening of the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over”: “Oh, mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”). “Tomorrow” shares the album with other lush and haunting music, both instrumental and vocal. The core guitar/viola instrumentation is augmented here and there by cello, trumpet, piano, and drums (real and programmed). Among the standout tracks are “Pauline,” “Blind Elevator Girl/Osaka” and “Royal Infirmary.”

I could write much more about why I love those tracks and others, but the CD is nearing its end, and I’d frankly rather be listening than writing. Ah, the pleasures of simplicity…

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