GUEST: Mick Karn – The Tooth Mother

18 April 1995

When Richard Barbieri was first introduced to the history constructed in this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to rip through every album he’s done up to Beginning to Melt, to get a sense of context to what he was doing on that album and what Wilson was doing there. Since I was decidedly less than impressed with The Tooth Mother, I figured a similar revisit would help nail down what I was missing…even as the possibility of doing the same for every artist SW collaborates with gives your author the howling fantods.

So, what’s Mick been up to, since Japan collapsed in on itself?

  • First up, Titles. It’s…well, it’s okay. There’s some good stuff here, like Saviour, Are You With Me? and The Sound of Waves, but one nevertheless gets the impression that its modest yet respectable showing on the UK album charts in 1982 was in large part due to ex-Japan curiosity.
  • In 1984 Karn teamed up with Mister Peter “Bauhaus” Murphy and, as Dalis Car, released The Waking Hour. Fact magazine says it’s one of the 20 greatest goth records ever made. Whatever you say, bruv. If you ask me, the most goth this thing gets is on Cornwall Stones, the soundtrack of nerds playing DnD in basements. (As a friend of mine said, “I want to stuff [Murphy] in a locker.” That’s how much Mister Bela Lugosi’s Dead has debased himself here.) The extended improvisation of Artemis, which is basically four and a half minutes of Karn warping his bass back in on itself, is pretty sweet, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • In 1987, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters. Naturally, given the title and cover, this’ll be somewhat darker than what we’ve seen up till now. (Certainly more gothic than Waking Hour, I’ll say that much.) The most complete (and, therefore, best) songs here have good old David Sylvian on vocals. When Love Walks In comes especially highly recommended, thanks to those loud, heavily distorted synths in the midsection.
  • 1990 saw a collaboration between Karn, Michael White, Michel Lambert, and David “The Next Day” Torn, called Lonely Universe. This album is a decent enough bit of dark experimental jazz, the sort of thing I imagine university music professors listen to on their downtime.
  • 1993, Bestial Cluster. This was evidently re-released in tandem with The Tooth Mother at some point later on. Of the two, this album is definitely the more complete, polished work, by which I mean the songs sound like songs and not just extended improvisations. The wall of sound that is the title track is a particular standout.
  • In 1994, Karn once again teamed up with David Torn, and this time they tagged in Terry Bozzio for something called Polytown. I would like to emphasize that these are all excellent musicians, some of the best at their craft. However, I have just listened to this album and I remember absolutely nothing about it.

So, what’d I learn? How to pad a blog entry, but that’s about it. If we want to be really mean, I finally understand where Wilson was coming from in that one interview where he says that technically gifted musicians, when left to their own devices, often produce rather boring music. The only non-Japan chunks of what he’d release up to 1995 that I’d recommend in any way are probably Bestial Cluster and some cuts from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters.

The Tooth Mother is your usual Mick Karn outing: leisurely, vaguely jazzy instrumental jams, peppered with occasional world music influences, that sound like they belong on a 1990s strategy game soundtrack. We’ve been here before, so in that respect it’s a disappointment. Anyway, because most of this album is, quite frankly, a snoozer, here’s are the high points instead:

First, Mick Karn is at best a mediocre singer. Not damning in and of itself, no; no one would ever give awards to Dylan or Springsteen for their singing, but they also make up for it by being two of the greatest lyricists in music history. Karn on The Tooth Mother doesn’t have that level of lyrical prowess, but at the same time he doesn’t strain or warble or do anything particularly embarrassing. His vocals are low and rumbling, as close to spoken world as you can get without actually being spoken word. Think Spiderland without the narrative and you’re about there.

Second, Plaster the Magic Tongue clearly works its magic when it gets ahold of a flute. Dang. You can thank Gary Barnacle for summoning the spirit of Ian Anderson to further accentuate what is already a delightfully goofy, off-kilter song. It’s like the intro to Lampshades On Fire if I didn’t have the uncontrollable urge to punch Isaac Brock in the face every time I heard it.

Third, There Was Not Anything But Nothing sounds a lot like a reworking of JBK’s In the Black of Desire (or is it the other way round?). Makes sense, Karn wrote both.

Fourth, those first two tracks are funk-ay. They sound less like something you’d hear in Age of Empires and more like something you’d hear in a 70s/80s exploitation movie. This is somewhat surprising, given that this never really registered as a mode for any of the ex-Japan guys…but even more surprising is that it’s Wilson, of all people, bringing the funk here.

We, or at least I, or at least the mental construction I have of the man’s Anglophone audience, have mentally imprisoned Steven Wilson in a box. We think of Wilson almost exclusively as a maker of Dour Prog Songs. This when he’s said countless times that he doesn’t think of himself in those terms and actually has a considerably wider range of influences than something like The Raven that Refused to Sing lets on. This when he’s made drone music as Bass Communion, krautrock as I.E.M. and on Signify, dream pop and ambient music with No-Man, and, most critically for our purposes, pop music with Blackfield and on To the Bone. The existence of a song like Permanating should have put paid to the idea that he’s comfortable being the Dour Prog Man, and that in reality he’s just as influenced by Prince as he is by, say, Pink Floyd. You know, Prince. The artist whose songs he’s covered on multiple occasions, dating back to the old Porcupine Tree demo tapes. The artist whose name is, was, and is again, Prince. And who is funky. That guy.

In that context, that funky wah guitar he threw in Thundergirl Mutation and Plaster the Magic Tongue becomes much more explicable. Just because he doesn’t bust out that part of his personality very often doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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