The Focus Group
The Elektrik Karousel
, May 22nd, 2013 09:54
A carousel scene from a black and white movie has been at the edge of my mind as I listen to the new Focus Group album. At first I thought it was from Bunny Lake Is Missing, but then I realized there is no carousel scene in that film, in one of those slippages of televisual memory explored to such great effect by Ghost Box artists in recent years. No, it was Hitchock's Strangers on a Train I was thinking of. There is a scene at a theme park where the two main characters duke it out among the wooden horses on a rapidly accelerating merry-go-round. One of them has shot the operator of the ride, so the whole thing is spinning wildly out of control. Meanwhile, a little boy is happily clinging to his horse, oblivious to the mayhem. He even gets in a few punches on the bad guy.
The demented fun that kid having is a lot like the fun of listening to The Elektrik Karousel. The imaginary carny ride we are taken through joyously and deliberately spins off its axis at times. With its off-piste rhythms and telescoped half melodies, this magpie music appears to fall apart and come together all at once, a quality Focus Group's Julian House has described as being a key element of Ennio Morricone's little-known free noise experiment Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. The other, more obscure scene coming to mind is from a Czech film called Romance pro křídlovku (or "Romance for Bugle"). In the frame narrative, a man remembers falling in love with the beautiful carousel girl in a traveling circus. As the frame dissolves and we enter into his teenage memory, we see a close-up of something spinning, something that initially looks like a twirling film reel but gradually reveals itself to be the decorated surfaces of the carousel itself. That connection between memory and merry-go-round, with the merry-go-round as a technological point of access to other times and places, also seems operative in The Elektrik Karousel. In the best Ghost Box tradition, it's hard to locate not just where we are but when we are as we listen to these sounds. The vinyl record as magical or memory-evoking spinning object (here housed in a glorious gatefold sleeve doubling as pop-art board game) gives the title a further layer of meaning.
If I had to hazard a guess, though, it's 60s Britain where we ultimately end up. The Focus Group's clockwork bird melodies and hobbyhorse percussion aren't the usual instruments of psychedelic music, but the spirit of a certain experimental, baroque psychedelia is alive in every one of these nearly 30 tunes. It is this musical tradition, rather than some engineered roster of "hauntological" artists, to which House and frequent collaborators Broadcast truly belong. For House "psych" isn't fuzz and wah; it's an inclination, a turn of phrase, the way the chords fit and don't quite fit.
The Elektrik Karousel sounds like a fun-house reflection of 60s psych, the likes of Tintern Abbey or Child Harold or some other obscure sunshine psych act you can imagine House putting on mix tapes. The Focus Group has always moved parallel to, if somewhat at a distance from, the recognizable currents of psychedelic rock music; the John Ylvisaker sample in the title track of Hey Let Loose Your Love, released in 2005, is a good example. But here that inheritance is made more explicit. With its slightly more prominent use of electronics and guitar, the Focus Group feels fully plugged in here, like Dylan going electric at Newport. The full title of the album, beginning "The Focus Group and friends invite you on board..." carries on the imaginary travel bus conceit of The Magical Mystery Tour, or perhaps Lindsey Anderson's forgotten film The White Bus.
There's no gainsaying the Britishness of those reference points. Ghost Box artists are often thought of as celebrating a certain pastoral Albion, but to me the England of The Elektrik Karousel is a decidedly more urban one than we have previously heard from House. In the faux broadside design of the sleeve and in the playful spirit of art school radicalism driving the music, House emerges as the heir to a certain London avant gardism embodied by figures like Derek Boshier, John Latham, Malcolm Le Grice, Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, and the Videheads collective – the kinds of people you might have seen attending London Arts Lab happenings in the late 60s. But this is no high-toned art music only suitable for adults. The thing that's so refreshing about the Focus Group is its suggestion of a childlike imagination at work. Often the album sounds like a bunch of kids let loose in a large, echoey amphitheater strewn with musical instruments, snacks, and little supervision. Those are House's two boys on the album sleeve.
In the 70s, a London-based agit-art group called Inter-Action once conducted tours on a red double decker Routemaster they renamed the Fun Art Bus. They toured council estates and engaged local communities in various art-making projects, displaying art and poetry in the windows and where the advertising should be. Videos and slides were shown downstairs, while the upstairs space became a small proscenium arc theater, with mimes often signaling to passersby outside. They called this the Kinetic Window Box Theatre. It's an apt phrase for the Focus Group's joyride of an album.