Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Talk Talk Series, #12: Talk Talk- Laughing Stock (1991) MP3 & FLAC

"Stair by idle stair, faith one path and the second in fear."

Addressing Talk Talk's fearless approach to conceiving and recording their masterful penultimate album, Spirit of Eden, Creation Records founder Alan McGee once said that the band "was given the keys to the kingdom and return[ed] with art." What he was referring to is the unlimited budget and virtually open recording schedule Talk Talk was awarded by EMI on the heels of the commercial success of The Colour of Spring. The record company's expectation was an even more commercially viable follow-up, but what they received instead was a largely improvised piece of Jazz-inflected Art-Rock from a band that now made no pretense to having an interest in commercial success. The fall-out included a legal dispute over Talk Talk's desire to sign with another label, and after the dust had settled, the band signed with Polydor, specifically the small but venerated Jazz-imprint, Verve. In many ways, Verve made sense, not only because this allowed Talk Talk complete artistic control over the recording of Laughing Stock, but also because their recording process employed many of the same techniques that were used in recording some of the great Jazz albums of the fifties and sixties. The band, now minus bassist Paul Webb, spent seven months cloistered in Wessex studios in London in order to filter out all worldly concerns and distractions. As Mark Hollis has recounted about the approach to the sessions, "What we did on this album is what we call rehearsed spontaneity. There are no demos, no plans at all. I go in and put down a basic outline of something using my Country Gent guitar and then we fly other stuff in to build up the dynamics, the space. That's the key- space -it helps to build and resolve the tensions. Silence is the most powerful instrument I have." This emphasis on silence and space is clearly evident throughout Laughing Stock, for example, on "Taphead," a song very reminiscent of experimental Jazz recordings of the sixties, although this is more the case in terms of its arrangement than of its sound. Lushly minimalist (if such a description makes any sense), "Taphead" opens with the repetition of a desolate and slightly bent bass-note guitar melody sounding as if emanating hollowly from the other side of the studio until Hollis' nearly indecipherable vocals puncture the aural detachment with a sense of emotional immediacy. As the song progresses, the bleak mood never lets up, though additional sound textures swirl through the arrangement as if blown in by a cold wind. Following on the heels of this somber beauty is the even more stunning "New Grass," which functions as the closest thing there is to an emotional centerpiece on this insistently (and brilliantly) unstructured album.  In contrast to "Taphead," it favors a more hopeful, almost ethereal, feel with Hollis' vocals pushed down in the mix to the point where they simply share space with the various instruments rather than standing out front. "New Grass" also features some beautifully spacey guitar-work from Hollis and the haunting sound of a church organ, both of which lend the song its almost religious atmosphere. A true masterwork in an album full of masterworks top to bottom. Laughing Stock was fated to be Talk Talk's swan-song and a fitting one at that given that it feels like a sort of culmination of the long trek the band had made from major-label fodder to brilliant musical iconoclasts. However, for Hollis, it was always simply about attaining a purity of approach: "Really, it's just going back to one of a couple of things- either the jazz ethic or y'know, an album like Tago Mago  by Can where the drummer locked-in and off he went and people reacted at certain points along the way. It's arranged spontaneity- that's exactly what it is."

Laughing Stock

1. Myrrhman  (5:31)
2. Ascension Day  (5:59)
3. After the Flood  (9:25)
4. Taphead  (6:59)
5. New Grass  (9:44)
6. Runeii  (4:58)


  1. It's perhaps my favorite album, but reading this write-up has made me love it even more. Excuse me, I'm going to lock myself in my room and drift away with it for a few hours.

  2. elliott, your comment is the highest form of praise for a review writer. Thank you. "Laughing Stock" is in my top two or three favorite albums and it never ceases to reveal new things to me. There's nothing else like it, except maybe Hollis' solo album (which is coming soon)

  3. i love this album!and spirit of eden ....ciao nice blog!!!

  4. The definition of 'deserted island disc' must have been made up with Lauging Stock in mind. This incredible piece of sublime, mind-altering Art will change your view on pop-music forever.

    Oh, enough with the superlative ranting...get this and go and listen to it you silly man!!!

  5. mark hollis skills are from above no doubt about it............ Love to have another album however, I sure he can use HIS gifts , just how he wants ,, after all they are his gifts!!!

    Probably one of my top 3 out of my favorite 100 from USA

  6. Anon., I completely agree. I get the feeling Hollis said what he had to say and repeating himself didn't have any appeal. Nevertheless, he did give us quite a bit of great music to enjoy. Thanks for the comment

  7. A splendid album, where labels do not fit. Thanks for the post.

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