On Second Thought
The KLF - Chill Out






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

The America of Chill Out is a warning and respite, and increasingly, it’s unfamiliar. Truth be told, open spaces make me nervous— I need urban claustrophobia—so perhaps this is my substitute for escape. But when I delve into it, I increasingly find a dated world that I have never and never wanted to visit, yet somehow feel that it—pre-prefab, fiercely regional, uncomplicated—should be lamented.

From sonic terrorists to art world absurdists to clever peaceniks, there’s little way to condense the career of the KLF. They never did anything quietly—except this, a masterpiece that casually belied the tongues in their cheek. Still, it’s not straight-faced—there is wit under the ambiance. If it’s meant to be sneering, if the KLF are slowed to a near halt here because they are gapers on the highways of the Tex-Mex border, I’ve never heard it. True, the duo has probably never been to Texas—and this record is most likely an illuminated and romanticized idea of traveling though the South and of America as a land of wide, open spaces—but in the hands of fellow provincials and rural dwellers, I only hear the sounds of the last bastion of American regionalism struggling to assert itself in the face of suburbia, ironically, through the tools of technology.

There are a lot of legends surrounding the KLF and deliciously most of them are true. The legend says that this album was made editing a huge “White Room” session lasting more than 480 minutes. The truth seems to be that Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty recorded the album live—without edits, and in one take— at their Trancentral studio. According to Record Collector, the entire album, made with two DAT machines and a cassette recorder, was attempted several times over the course of two days, and if a mistake was made, they started again. Either way it’s a tall tale that would make any Texan proud.

At the time of its release, Chill Out was among the leading lights of Ambient House. This record, along with works by contemporaries (and sometimes collaborators) the Orb and, to a lesser degree, Ultramarine and the FSOL, became the soundtrack for chill out rooms, post-rave comedowns, and smoking spliffs, and in hindsight have been shackled with the albatross of hippiedom.

If Chill Out is Ambient House, the “house” bit is sort of a misnomer, associating the record with its clientele rather than any sounds. Whereas the Orb kept much of house’s four-on-the-floor, mid-tempo speed, and repetition, and blended it with prog and Eno, this much closer to ambient music or John Cage’s musique concrete, and his belief that the phonograph can be a composition for “motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.”

That description is fairly apt. Fittingly, after a night of synthetic thrills—musical and mind-altering—the trip home or the next morning seemed a perfect time for the acid house generation to commune with the natural world. Fortunately this communing with nature doesn’t mean pseudo-spiritual stream sounds or fantastical, uplifting new age music but the quiet of undisturbed nature, (birds, livestock), slightly interrupted by modernity (automobiles, the radio, trains, boats.) The band also uses radio voices, “Jesus Loves You” samples, preachers, and, um, Fleetwood Mac. Always self-referential—in part through economic necessity—recyclical, fragments of songs they performed in past and future incarnations, most notably “3AM Eternal”; and “Justified and Ancient,” also appear.

Despite the increasing embrace of technology, there aren’t many (or any?) albums like this anymore. Maybe that’s because there isn’t a universal dance crowd these days the way there was in the UK during the heights of acid house and rave. Just as the dance fans have scattered to different subgenres for their thrills, there is no universal comedown.

Perhaps this sort of field recordings and process music lives on in Akufen’s trek through the radio dial or the work of Godspeed You Black Emperor! or the Books, but the latter two are too steeped in joylessness, chaos, and despair to make any serious link. Drone musicians such as Stars of the Lid or ambient electonic records such as Gas’s Pop or Autechre’s Amber are slightly similar in feel but not execution. And those slow washes of sound are not only without the wit or the transcendence of this record, they make no attempt to connect organically to lives the way the KLF marvelously do.

Today, ambient has long been annexed by chillout—a term defined again by its purpose, its use by a listener rather than its sound. Today, chillout is an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban living. It was to unwind specifically after being out all night not after the grind of the 9-to-5 day. The sleek, cosmopolitan of today’s fashionista chillout compilations are well selected for dwelling alongside functional modernist furniture, hosting dinner parties, and making everything—including music—an accessory. They are affectations of borrowed sophistication, another slice of luxury.

The KLF’s version nearly the opposite. Chill Out is a drive through a land populated by the simple, uneducated. When Elvis rears his iconic head it’s not for a porch swing ballad or a grandstand shimmy but to lament the plight of those “In the Ghetto”—and over heavily reverbed Hawaiian guitar of all things. The rest of the voices heard are largely anonymous. The ambient noises could come from almost any American rural outpost, but the people are Southern. It’s a remarkable achievement, in a way—capturing the languid pace of Deep South life but not dressing up its quaint, down-home charm or waggling at its stubborn pride. The KLF skips the steel magnolias and the truck pulls for the roadhouses and shacks.

The original UK version is one long track. I have the U.S. version, which—although it plays the same—is split into 14 titled tracks in order to accommodate publishing rights and songwriting royalties to those the band sampled. With titles such as “Pulling Out of Ricardo and the Dusk Is Falling” and “3 a.m. Somewhere out of Beaumont,” it also marks spots on the imagined journey. It sounds more like a travel diary, with the incessant “are we there yet,” and the truck stops, and landmarks that add to the charm of the highway strip.

The cover’s pastoral sun-drenched English farm complete with lounging lazy sheep belies the album’s content. It’s not midday it’s dawn—in America. Although it was treated as such, this isn’t a comedown album. It’s less a morning after and more the slow awakening to a new day. I rarely listen to it without taking it all in and, even though it is designed that way, I wind up focusing on it more often than not. I never choose to listen to it as a background, I choose to become enveloped in its slowly unveiling soundscape. When I do, it hits slowly but it always comes. Like the groggy feeling of setting out somewhere just after dawn, focusing on the road and suddenly realizing the day has broke and the gray of dawn has been transformed into an illuminating sunshine, the album slowly unfolds its charms.

When a trip is over, the ride is remembered for everything except the driving. Much like our lives, the more monotonous they are the more the slightest disturbance or thrill resonates, and the busier and more rushed the less of our natural surroundings we comprehend. Here the foggy mind strains to recall much except when the coffee went cold, a rumbling train, the half-remembered echoing sound of the radio, or the beauty of a rising sun—and it’s a lovely memory.


By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01
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