In Extremis – Jon Fletcher Gets To Grips With The Caretaker

Masterful hauntology, says Jon Fletcher, our writer. He's always been our writer.

Blink and you’d miss it. Actually, stare hard without blinking for a month and you probably wouldn’t be any the wiser. One of this decade’s most innovative, heartbreaking and downright eerie musical projects has been playing to shadows under dimmed lights for the past 12 years. That this has manifested itself from a background of ferociously independent and often brutalist plunderphonic (s)mash-ups only adds a further layer of disembodied strangeness. To celebrate The Caretaker’s latest and most powerful CD release, Persistent Phrases of Repetition (a highly limited release on the Insatllsound label) and the free download of his debut live performance at the recent Hauntology symposium, The (couldn’t-be-more-perfectly-named) Quietus dances a ghost-waltz through the vague history of this shadowy leviathan.

The Caretaker is an alter-ego of James Kirby, the sole proprietor and agitator behind the V VM label. V VM has embarked on many wayward activities in the past: wrecked vinyl pop artefacts meant for hiding in record stores so that they could be re-stolen, terrifyingly noisy DJ salvo’s with Kirby resplendent in disturbing pig-mask and the bordering-on-insanity ambitions of the 365 project (at least one piece of free audio made available every day throughout the duration of 2006 come rain, shine or leprosy. The Caretaker’s first three releases, the evocatively-titled Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom, A Stairway To The Stars and We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow came packaged in plastic zip bags and decorated with faceless art-deco ghosts. The sounds therein defined an instantly recognisable musical identity of British tea-room pop (dance-band and swing music from the from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s) plugged into a multitude of effects to create a Proustian Replicant inverse. It’s a stranger’s past relocated within your own memories, a re-imagined history from an alien past. The mannered romantic swing of a bygone era is rendered beguilingly uncanny. There are obvious precedents and influences – Dennis Potter and Pennies From Heaven, Roxy Music’s early weirdness (Ferry the displaced and distorted lounge-singer-turned-lizard) and of course Kubrick’s revisioning of The Shining. These first releases flitted from bursts of noise (September 1939) to gaseous ambience (We Cannot Escape The Past) to subtly-soaked moments of outright beauty (Stardust – a moment so captivating that this writer got married to it (not to the song itself, oh you know what I mean)).

Even when the distortions are at their most extreme though, enough of a trace of the original is left to provide that unique sense of temporal displacement. But despite the uncanny affect and despite the eeriness, there is something warmly seductive about this debut triptych. Kubrick’s film, like the best horror, still injects a thrill and there a remnant of comfort in being haunted, a strange warmth. These early forays have the allure you find in childhood ghost stories. By the time of the third release though, it was hard to imagine what more could be done with the project. Never less than beautiful, it was just hard to conceive of actually needing any more of it.

But then in 2005, new memories started appearing online. These releases coalesced into the monolithic set, Theoretically Pure Anterograde. By releasing the music as free MP3 downloads and taking advance orders online, 72 pieces eventually find their way onto a lavish boxed set. No track titles, no order of listening and no information on 6 visually identical discs. K-Punk’s bleakly poetic notes note that things at the Overlook have gotten “immeasurably worse”. He wasn’t kidding. The labyrinthian set is a k-hole for the mind. Vague clouds of noise, barely flickering signals of life, only the starkest traces of past romanticism (no matter how poignant)- nothing to cling onto. The title refers to the condition made famous in Christopher Nolan’s Memento – the impossibility of making and retaining new memories. The movement from the haunting allure of the music’s once “homesickness for the past” is transformed into “the impossibility of the present”. The Caretaker project becomes a hideously clear analysis of the post-modern condition – the sheer ephemerality of contemporary culture degenerating into a hopelessness – a sickness so debilitating that we forget the moment whilst it is still taking place…

There is a depth and sincerity to these subsequent releases that seems more personal, more pointed. This paradoxical genuineness has infected every release since.

Which brings us to now (and then) and Persistent Phrases of Repetition.

A Proustian replicant inverse – a stranger’s past relocated within your own memories – a re-imagined history from an alien past.

Press play and this poignant sonic universe has undergone a further transformation. A simple piano sings softly from a thousand miles/years away whilst hiss and crackle dance around. The effects are still highly present but the melody stands, a glimpse strong in the distance. After a few minutes you realise that something is stuck. The refrain seamlessly but endlessly returns, circling back on itself, waiting to evolve but falling back to where you started (which is not to say back at the beginning). Lacunar Amnesia, the failure to recall a specific event, a permanently locked door within your own life’s narrative. It fades out. The title track follows next, a resigned and heart-breaking piano melody, spinning on forever – The Caretaker at his most Basinski-like. You re-check the title and there it is. Persistent Phrases of Repetition. Each song is tightly looped, a single event, chasing its own resignation. No development, no narrative, no story. Poor Enunciation simply appears, entirely ungraspable, the vaguest of voice(s) hovering above decayed and empty swimming pool clicks – the forgotten decayed ambience actually rains down on you, drowning you in a past that it is just out of reach. Not every locked groove is entirely hopeless. Rosy retrospection fixates on an event with a sense of less-bereft nostalgia – the memory trap seemingly resting on a happy moment.

So, it looks like we could be in for a foggy summer. With this release, the forthcoming reissue of Wolfgang Voigt’s repackaged magisterial Gas project and the return of My Bloody Valentine the summer sun (if we get any) will have to fight through an aural pea-souper.

You can download The Caretaker’s debut live performance at the Hauntology symposium as well as We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow, the unmastered version of Theoretically Pure Anterograde and a wealth of other releases on The Caretaker microsite.

I corrected them sir.

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