Review Summary: You better start laughing now.
Talk Talk two final albums could have been, on the preface, a completely disjointed experience. Recorded with the intention to only capture improvised moments. Mark Hollis, singer and perfectionist, even went as far as to let brought in musicians listen to just a sliver of a song, that might as well been an improvised part, to then improvise themselves to that incomplete picture of a song. Then these parts are connected and built upon each other in post production to become full fledged songs. A process stemming from a belief that “the first time something is played it is at its finest, and the minute you try to recreate that it becomes an imitation of something that was originally better…” In the same interview Hollis also remarks on another problem with this belief, in the context of making an album; “But… the problem with a lot of improvisation is that it meanders away from the point too much. “ and later goes on to say: “ninety percent of what you play will be rubbish “. Supposedly 80% of the recorded music record for Talk Talk's last album, Laughing Stock, was scrapped.
But the 20 % remaining percent still had to become an album. This set up for an arduous task of sorting through all that has been recorded and building upon the already existing skeleton of a song. Knowing this it's no surprise this album took 7 months of studio time to complete (Albeit with a 3 month break in between) and then taking a year to mix and master. Not also to mention the fact that the band was basically locked in to the studio working in black out rooms with strobe lights and other non conventional lighting as the only source of light. A round about way to record an album but it has without a doubt left its mark on Laughing Stock. The unique atmosphere Laughing Stock has can certainly in part be lent to this fact. Combined with the brilliance of Mark Hollis and everyone else involved in the recording and making of the album has made Laughing Stock into something that really is quite like nothing else.
A statement that one cannot say about many albums. One that springs in mind however, is Slint
's Spiderland. But what's interesting about these two albums, that despite both being often called as the starting point for the genre of post-rock, their conception and recording process couldn't be more different, yet both having over arching similarities that together can pin point the sound of an entire genre. Unlike Talk Talk 7 month studio time Spiderland took 3 days to record. But previous to entering the studio Slint had been practicing, a lot. Having not enough money to be able to pay for a studio and producer etc, the band knew they had to be efficient once they were in there and have down exactly what they wanted to record leaving little time fore improvisation and experimentation. In contrast Talk Talk had a big music label behind them that basically let them be done when they were done. Yet both bands portrayed a hard work ethic to recording and were under a certain pressure to how the album came to be. Slint, having basically one chance to produce the album they rehearsed months prior to whilst Talk Talk, being able to almost make every sound they felt like making, and then sorting through it all to make what they wanted. There are more analogous to be drawn between these two bands (Their morph of sounds between albums, releasing “ahead of it's time” albums that then cam to be cult classics) but I feel confident in saying that both of these bands recording process is a factor in that no-album-quite-like-it-feel they both posses.
As godfathers to the genre of Post-rock both Slint and Talk Talk managed to convey quieter sounds in their own ways, a staple in the genre. To create atmosphere and build up to climaxes. However the silence found on Laughing Stock feels different, it's not the conventional quiet loud dynamic. It's there but not to be quiet and then loud, it's there to be silent, to be less. The silence was, as it turns out, another important part of Hollis beliefs:
“The silence is above everything, and I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.”
Having the silence to be intended helps to explains the natural sound of Laughing Stock and how melodies and instruments leave and enter a song without the listener being distraught. It all manages to add a certain air of a improve live performance. Where the musicians are forced to take a second to pick up and setup before playing a new instrument to then feel the music and then join in on it (My mind drifts to the story of how Miles Davis
“Right Off” came to feature Davis himself!).
It may be strange to applaud an album for it's silence, but without it I don't have any trouble imagining Laughing Stock being a mess of sounds and instruments making for a dense sounding record. But Laughing Stock isn't sparse either. Despite the “Less is more” (Still how much can “Less” have been from what appears to have been a huge amount improvised recording to choose from) philosophy being at large this is an album to get lost in. Each song is brimming with small details and sounds that only make a brief appearance which only reveals themselves upon further listens. Another joy with this album.
It is a challenge to talk about how Laughing Stock actually sounds. I find myself more talking around the album (or the silence of it!) than it's actual sounds along with the bands history. Which provide a multitude of insights and guesses as to why Laughing Stock is just Laughing Stock. But once you hear the music it truly speaks for itself. And it speaks only as a whole. It's an album meant to be heard as a whole. It isn't a perfect soundtrack to go about your daily life, nor a does it have a song fitting for just that
“occasion”. The album carries emotion but it is its own emotions. Listening to it is more of a reaction to it than it meshing with whatever mood you find yourself in. It can be difficult at times to simply, let an album be what it is. But Laughing Stock is at it's best when you do just that. Your supposed to hear every jazzy rhythm produced by drummer Lee Harris. His wisps on the cymbals and hits on a snare drum that sounds like it's being hit from another room. To hear the organs, piano, guitar, acoustic bass, harmonica, cello, trumpet, flugelhorn, contra bass clarinet, harmonium, percussion, viola played by the plethora of guest musicians, and of course Hollis own volatile vocals. It's all in there. There to be heard now.