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Planningtorock
W Tim Burrows , May 26th, 2011 16:42

It is interesting that Doris Lessing referred to her fantastical, futuristic works such as the Canopus in Argos series – which included The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, a key influence on the spirit of Planningtorock's brilliant new album, W – as "space", rather than science, fiction. In a sense it reflected the writer's preoccupation with the inner-space of her characters, as much as their move away from earthly locations.

W, the second album from DFA's Berlin-based Bolton lass Janine Rostron, aka Planningtorock, similarly tries to fuse the extra-terrestrial and the everyday. The imagined world here is known as on Planet 9 as opposed to Lessing's 8 (the nine deriving from Rostron's playground nickname J-9), but it seems as much an evocation of her host city as an idea of a far-off place. Much like the city that much of it was created in, W is bursting with ideas while appearing static and slow-paced. The relatively abundant creative space and artist-friendly economy that Berlin offers has not for the first time given birth to an album that seems, like Bowie's Low, off the pace and at the same time ahead of it.

A sometime collaborator with The Knife, PTR follows in the footsteps of other Berlin-based creators of feminist-sonics, namely Peaches and Chicks on Speed. Yet Rostron has refused to fall in line with their same dancefloor code, instead serving up slices of strange-pop perfection at varying speeds. The slow burning opener 'Doorway' pitches it perfectly: "I know my feelings," Rostron sings with low, heavily-treated voice, "Under my deep skin". 'The Breaks' is a seductive torch song for human frailty; 'Living It Out' is an intense Studio 54-era cracker. While the album is the antithesis of current "in-da-club" type pop, it definitely fits into some of the more esoteric nighttime establishments the world has to offer. Veer in one direction and you meet the working men's club croon of 'I'm Yr Man'; head off into another and you're inside the future-Weimar cabaret of 'Milky Blau'.

Much is atmospheric, filmic: the instrumental 'Black Thumber' is a wide-eyed, majestic wander into an uneasy new dawn; there's drizzle out there on the plains, but also hope. There's deep-rooted humour too, in the frequent visits of the saxophone, and in the vocals: the wiry, whiny voices that trouble the edges of 'Going Wrong' sound like the Bolton bench drinkers' production of Cats. Always pitched dead-centre though are Rostron's intriguing, competing aural-masks.

There are remnants of the dismantled kitchen sink of Northern drama in her creations; Lancashire grit smoothed into odd, voluptuous shapes. Vocal groans and grunts making it an album that approaches the problems, yearnings, frustrations and power imbalances that sex and relationships bring with them. It is an album fringed by awkward sounds: again, those sax parps, hideous vocal groans, and a general air of synthy playfulness.

The videos to 'Doorway' and 'The Breaks' depict Rostron, heavily caked in prosthetics, playing with the idea of female image expectations in a way not too often seen these days, despite oft-cried claims to the contrary. Which brings us to the obvious: however trite the comparisons, it is useful to compare PTR to another apparently schizoid pop femme releasing an album this week, Lady Gaga (who it must be said owes more than a little to the teaches of Peaches), who has sucked all discourse on female pop into the hype whirlwind that surrounds her (and who are we to act against type?).

Rostron's fans use the admittedly fairly difficult album's listen-again-ality as a positive when contrasted with the instant smack round the chops of Born This Way; PTR detractors invert this argument, suggesting that it is a deliberately obscure and – gasp! – pretentious work when compared to the brash, four-to-the-floor benevolence of Gaga. Both are albums made by performers who claim to make a virtue out of (artistically) schizophrenic tendencies – yet with W, many sonic selves pour out of one vessel; Born This Way sees one vessel being externally transformed by stylistic shifts and (yawn) self-aggrandising religious proclamations tea-leafed while Madge wasn't looking, while the Europop stomp carries on in earnest behind her.

What Rostron might be trying to do is give voice to a kind of suppressed femininity, as opposed to the one sold by Gaga – which is probably the reason why the cover of Born This Way brings to mind Pamela Anderson in 90s Hollywood's attempt at a page-three-dystopia, Barb Wire, whereas the structural ambiguity of Rostron's face on the cover of W actually takes you by surprise.

In March, Doris Lessing was included in the 'Top 100 Most Influential Women' list published in The Guardian on International Women's Day, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga. Yet while Gaga was praised in those pages for her "metamorphosis", after the initial thrill of the new, the high-frequency of her public transformations now seem too traditional, too close to the inevitability of consumption patterns to be heralded a real game-changer. If her apparent strangeness is uninteresting right now, it will be an odds-on irrelevance when future generations sit down to debate who was really killing it in the weirdness stakes in 2011. Planningtorock is a definite contender – and if she keeps on this exploration of deep (inner) space, she'll be outta this world.

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