Prinzhorn Dance School
, February 9th, 2012 14:14
Prinzhorn Dance School's eponymous DFA debut was sparse, to put it mildly. Its assiduously mid-paced two-note bass nag and minimalist percussion stretched a canvas to which cobwebs of guitar and diligently jaded boy-girl vocals were added sporadically. The lyrics flitted between undecryptable obscurity and the confrontationally literal, addressing Home Counties banalities such as a satellite town's civic amenities ('Hamworthy Sports and Leisure Centre'), the trappings of the litigious ('Lawyer's Water Jug'), and, well, the resentment of change ('I Do Not Like Change'). If you've never heard it, imagine a record made by people whose entire cultural consumption amounted to Shellac's Terraform and the Blind Date wedding special.
Reviewers were confused, particularly as to what a group so redolent of the John Peel Festive Fifty were doing on a 'fashionable New York dance-punk label' (sic) like DFA. Amid the bewilderment, the implications of the band's name were discussed only rarely. Purportedly a combination of the surnames of frontpersons Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn, the real root of the moniker was Dr Hans Prinzhorn, who developed a vast collection of art by psychiatric patients. The work he curated, in its extreme repetitiveness, revealed the private (and frequently trivial) fixations of its untutored creators. Echoing this art brut, Prinz and Horn generated a sound which posed as the handiwork of musical savants, and focused their lyrics on the dull minutiae of commuter-belt England.
If one was prepared to let PDS off the hook for the ethically thorny appropriation of outsider art's tics, a record so driven by repetition and the inane still risked painting the band into a corner. Clay Class, on paper, isn't fundamentally different from its predecessor. The drums still serve a perfunctory, timekeeping role; the bass still eschews rhythmic variation; Prinz's guitar is still all trebly abrasion of the Andy Gill school. But something has changed. There's now a warmth which implies that the sardonic posture of the first album was untenable. Even songs like 'Usurper' and 'The Flora And Fauna Of Britain in Bloom', which stick most closely to the martial/ mundane template, have been recorded with the type of reverb that serves as studio shorthand for intimacy. This contrast with the carefully cultivated emotional anaemia of Prinzhorn Dance School is accentuated by 'I Want You' and 'Turn Up The Lights', which broach a low-key romanticism.
This probably isn't the direction anyone expected PDS to take: the pastoralist homilies and illegitimate folksiness of Cameron's Britain would warrant an even greater withdrawal from sentiment. How better to deliver a fuck-you to Big Society than by serving notice that each mug who moves to Wiltshire to start an artisan cider press is still outnumbered fifteenfold by bri-nyloned Partridges running mental league tables of their favourite service stations? The shift seems incongruous with the crabby left-leaning absurdism Prinz and Horn have inherited from toilet-circuit ancestors like Prolapse and, further back, Young Marble Giants. Yet the scions of post-punk and C86, often did locate space in which to render personal relationships amongst their polytechnic dialectic and third-hand interpretations of Burroughsian cut-up, lapses into tenderness usually set up in opposition to the alternately slushy and misogynistic romantic tropes of the mainstream.
With this in mind, Clay Class begins to look like an exercise in which the odd juxtaposition of their debut's cantankerousness with an exploration of cosier regions opposes the rote sincerity and hand-me-down candour which currently soundtracks the nation's delicatessens. 'Seed Crop Harvest', for example, steers a new-folkish lexicon into a position where it is forced to shed its bucolic connotations under the strain of music bereft of naturalness and plasticity. Where it's the done thing nowadays, at least if you want to get your song on an Apple ad, to come across as gracefully organic, PDS buck the trend by imposing inflexible structure and rigidity onto what might be – in other hands – a jargon of poignancy. A desire for emotional détente is clear, but this album's great strength lies in the rearguard action its brittleness mounts against kitsch accounts of authenticity.