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Talk Talk - Laughing Stock CD (album) cover

LAUGHING STOCK

Talk Talk

 

Crossover Prog

3.96 | 177 ratings

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auralsun
5 stars In 1991, Mark Hollis and the rest of Talk Talk were in a unique position for avant-garde musicians. Their previous album, Spirit of Eden, was one of the biggest changes in music history of a band's artistic direction, and, unfortunately for Talk Talk's record label, that direction ultimately produced an album that was essentially commercial suicide. Spirit of Eden saw Talk Talk venture into the avant-garde music that would influence (or create, as some say) what is now known as post-rock. Given that the band was known for releasing somewhat above-par synth pop albums, this left many of their fans feeling confused and alienated.

Due to the enormous financial success of the band's first three albums, Hollis and co. were in a position to indulge in their artistic endeavors free of monetary constraints. As a result, the band hired session musicians by the dozen to play (usually improvise) on their final two albums. The band was also, as a result of the money they'd accumulated, able to produce and finalize their albums over the course of about a year, whereas most other bands only have about 1-2 months.

The implications of the band's artistic freedom are staggering. The bassline of After The Flood, for example, was constructed using the improvisations of four different musicians playing four different bass guitars. Much of the musical appeal on Talk Talk's final albums is created from improvisations being taken out of context and inserted into preconceived song structures. The final albums were mostly completed in darkness, which must have been a rather grueling experience. For Hollis, however, it was a source of inspiration.

This was the basis of the creation of Talk Talk's last two albums, which, despite having been created using similar methods, are quite distinct musically. Spirit of Eden, when compared to Laughing Stock, is much more intuitively structured and a bit less musically adventurous. Laughing Stock features instances of odd and sometimes ambiguous time signatures that for the most part weren't present on Spirit of Eden. There are sections of music on Laughing Stock played in a tempo with no relation to that of the rest of the music. In addition, Laughing Stock possesses a degree of chromaticism not present on Spirit of Eden, and the musical form of the songs is much less intuitive. On Laughing Stock, there are no choruses to be found, and in fact, Laughing Stock is almost completely through-composed (there are very few exact reiterations of prior melodic/rhythmic ideas). Some of the music on Laughing Stock seems essentially meandering and expresses very little development at all. As a consequence, I would recommend anyone interested in but unexposed to Talk Talk's later work to check out Spirit of Eden prior to Laughing Stock.

Myrrhman, the album's opener, doesn't help to remedy the album's inaccesibility. It's probably the album's most unusual song; it begins with fifteen seconds of what is essentially silence, and when it really begins, the song is essentially arhythmic. Instrumentation is very sparse, and the song seems structureless: one hears little repetition and very few instances of melodic/rhythmic themes being reiterated during the song, and when they are, these themes aren't what one would call catchy. Even the song's ending is unusual: irregular piano notes played over a constant, droning violin tone. For this reason, I'd recommend that first-time listeners of Laughing Stock skip this track, or at least keep in mind that it is not indicative of the rest of the album's music. It isn't a bad song, per se, but I could understand being turned off by the album on first hearing it.

Although Hollis' vision is unapologetically forward-thinking, he remains one of the most unpretentious songwriters I've encountered. Due to the heavily improvisational nature of Talk Talk's later work and the inherent beauty of Hollis' musical aesthetic, the music seems to spontaneously unravel before the listener, as if revealing some deeper truth. The music, as a result, seems more natural and earthly than any I've ever heard.

The music on Laughing Stock is highly synesthetic. There is no songwriting for the sake of songwriting here. The goal here is not explicitly to expand the bounds of conventional tonality through novel chord progressions, frequent modulation of key, and synthesis of arbitrary musical genres, as is the goal of most progressive music. The songwriting on Laughing Stock was rather inspired predominantly by emotions and life experiences, I think, and the end goal of the music is to portray those emotions and experiences. New Grass, for example, is an expression of hope, the realization that there are always new things from which to draw happiness and inspiration.

Laughing Stock is highly complex, although only subtly so. At any given time, there are usually four to five instruments playing at the same time, and given the diverse instrumentation present on the album, this allows for some interesting combinations. Given the nature of the album's production, when I say that four or five instruments are typically playing at any given time, sometimes the instruments are only playing two or three notes before fading into the background. It's almost impossible to focus on just one instrument at once, as Hollis explicitly passes the main melody/rhythm from instrument to instrument often.

Although I continuously refer to the music on Laughing Stock as songs, much of it could better be described as atmospheres. New Grass, for example, is a nearly ten minute piece of music that features very little change of instrumentation or thematic material. The music is held together by a constant, repetitive drum beat. The structure of After the Flood is much the same, though the ideas being portrayed are quite different and indescribable.

Taphead, which can be considered the centerpiece of Laughing Stock, is probably the band's greatest work. The lyrics in this song are as sparse as ever, but the story is so ingrained into the music itself that they're almost unnecessary. To me, this song has always represented an extremely lucid dream, or possibly even dying and being revived.

The song begins with a slightly out-of-tune guitar (or possibly different guitars tuned differently playing together?) playing a repetitive melody based on a D# octave. Hollis' voice, and eventually woodwinds enter the picture, and soon we find ourselves in what is basically a free-form composition. This, to my ears, is the shift to lucid dreaming.

Woodwind instruments, at times extremely dissonant, dominate this period of the song. That said, it's almost impossible to count the number of instruments playing at any given time: we hear everything from organ, piano, pizzicato violin, bowed cello, woodwinds, guitar, and strange percussion, each weaving back and forth between foreground and background.

Eventually, drums enter the song, and the rhythm becomes more stable and comprehensible. The music gradually builds in intensity and reaches a roaring crescendo before dissolving into almost nothingness. The only instrument left is that droning organ tone that was pushed into the background minutes before. We are jostled suddenly back into the realm of wakefulness.

The song then reprises the initial section: a slightly altered melody based on the same D# octave and eventually fades out in what is possibly the most relaxing last minute to a song I have ever listened to.

I can't even begin to imagine the level of meticulous effort that went into creating this seven and a half minute masterpiece. The song would probably be impossible to perform given that instruments are often played in completely unrelated rhythms, and also due to the sheer number of musicians playing over the course of the music. This is one of the few pieces of music I've heard that is literally perfect. As a consequence of Hollis' perfectionism, each instrument sounds exactly as it should for this type of music. The atmosphere is unparalleled. The guitar at the end of the song sounds almost as though it is crying. It's mind-boggling!

Finally, I can't end a review without evaluating each individual band member's contribution to the album. Given that Laughing Stock is the most complex Talk Talk album musically, the technical precision exhibited by each of the musicians is higher than on any of the band's previous albums. That said, Lee Harris does not play like Neil Peart, nor does Mark Hollis play like Michael Romeo. Hollis' voice, which sounded like a bit of a twisted mix between Thom Yorke and Cher(?) on previous albums, has improved further here and sounds even better on his solo album, which would be released in 1998. Finally, I can't forget to mention the album's main producer, Tim-Friese Green. He was responsible for a significant portion of the songwriting on Laughing Stock, and without his thorough production, the album would certainly not be the gem it is.

I would recommend Laughing Stock to fans of 20th century and modern classical music (and especially the impressionist music of Ravel, Debussy, etc.), of Kraut rock, of post-rock, and of In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. This music bares almost no resemblance to most golden-era prog bands (e.g. Yes, Genesis, Gryphon) or newer progressive metal bands (e.g. Dream Theater, Symphony X, Opeth), so if you're looking for that sort of music and for whatever reason haven't stopped reading this review, try looking elsewhere :)

auralsun | 5/5 |

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