I don’t wanna be in your family tree: The best of The Raincoats

My affection for blank technician Bernard Sumner as singer-guitarist rests on how anonymously he expresses him as vocalist and on his guitar — he could be your cousin Bernie, unemployed since last Friday, with a thing for Cheez-Its. When I stumbled on Greil Marcus’ theories on blankness, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. The spirit of punk, if it meant a thing, inspired men and women into noise-making that may or may not cohere into songs. But as Jenn Pelly writes in her excellent 33 1/3 book on The Raincoats, the women in this English band were neither ingenues nor primitives. Guitarist Ana Da Silva, who had experienced the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, and bassist Gina Birch were true bohemians, taking advantage of the early Thatcher era’s squats. “We lived on fresh air,” Birch told Pelly.

Together with Vicki Aspinall sawing away on violin and Palmolive’s unpredictable-if-I’m-kind percussive patterns — she played, in Pelly’s on-point description, as if she were a second voice — The Raincoats recorded music that at any moment could be blown thither by the movement of a rudimentary Birch bass pattern, or prettiness tugged toward discord by the abrupt screech of Aspinall’s violin. “It is the sound of finding things buried inside you that you did not know were there,” Pelly writes. Although Richard Dudanski had replaced Palmolive by 1984’s Moving, he remained as committed to a foundation as unstable as a sandbar; often “No One’s Little Girl,” from which I chose a headline, is my favorite Raincoats performance. I re-listened today, quite by coincidence, to Moe Tucker’s Life in Exile After Abdication; I like to think cross-pollination occurred between “You’re a Million” and Tucker’s “Work” and “Chase.”

By then the band, infatuated with kalimbas and baliphones and keyboards, had learned how to channel sounds from unfamiliar instruments into filigrees too integral to be vestigial but that a “real” producer might have dismissed as primitivist tokenism. When Birch or Da Silva — I’ve trouble distinguishing at times, even knowing that Birch was the secret melodist — sings, “I don’t wanna be in your family tree,” she sounds both plaintive and defiant, as if she understood she’d piss off a relative.

I listen to The Raincoats for those smudges of ambiguity. To assemble a longer list of The Raincoats’ material risks canonizing them — never forget Birch’s line, “We lived on fresh air.” Twelve will do.

Finally, how might The Raincoats respond to my acknowledging that I bought the eponymous debut through Columbia House in the late nineties?

1. The Void
2. Shouting Out Loud
3. Fairytale in the Supermarket
4. In Love
5. Dance of Hopping Mad
6. No One’s Little Girl (live, Extended Play)
7. No Side to Fall In
8. Odyshape
9. Looking in the Shadows
10. You’re a Million
11. Go Away
12. Don’t Be Mean
13. No Looking

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