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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Arts Music |
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My Favourite Album, Ever: The Laughing Stock of Salient Talks About Laughing Stock

There comes a time in many small-talk situations when you move past talking about, say, adored pets and life plans (mine is to achieve a doctorate and then work at a supermarket with the name Dr Philip emblazoned on my name-badge) and start discussing music. From there, it’s only a matter of time until the question ‘what’s YOUR favourite album?’ rears its ugly head. I have had the same answer planned for years now–Talk Talk’s seminal album, Laughing Stock.

But I always bluster around the issue. How can I rave about this obscure album without coming across as an insufferable douchequeef? Even worse: if the person I’m talking to is familiar with Talk Talk’s cheesy ‘80s pop without being aware of the dramatic about-face they made towards the avant-garde, how do I retain my indie cred? If they ask me what genre it is, things get mystified further:I could describe it as ‘post-rock’, or ‘jazz’, or ‘easy-listening’, or ‘shoegaze’ or ‘ambient’, and while none of these descriptors would be wrong per se, none of them would be accurate either. It’s a difficult album to put into words, but via the written form I hope to do it justice.

The recording process of the album was complicated by frontman Mark Hollis’ eccentricity and perfectionism. He insisted that incense be burnt constantly, to get the ensemble of musicians he hired into the correct ‘mood’. He had a full jazz band improvise over a basic chord set for an entire day, and the only moment of those recordings that made it onto the album was a mistake a violist made when her hands slipped (the obsessive that I am, I’ve identified that moment as popping up at 7:32 of ‘New Grass’). For days Hollis would barricade himself inside a room and listen to records by Can, Miles Davis and John Coltrane over and over, trying to absorb them. Essentially, Laughing Stock was painstakingly constructed and composed by a deranged man intent on achieving perfection.

Knowing this, it astounds me that the album sounds as organic as it does. Hollis’ unrelenting perfectionism paid off; not a single arrangement sounds superfluous. The album begins with ‘Myrrhman’, which features perhaps the most haunting violin lick ever committed to tape. As the album progresses, the diversity of instrumentation and moods become apparent.

‘New Grass’ is the crowning achievement of the album, a sumptuous epic backed with Hollis’ lush guitar and drummer Lee Harris’ dependable percussive work. The instrumental passages are majestic, and the song seems to float by at a speed that belies its actual length.

Having listened to it countless times, what minor flaws I perceived the album to have on earlier listens have been erased. Just as one comes to not just accept but embrace the flaws of a lover, the seventeen second silence that opens ‘Myrrhman’ and the bits in ‘Ascension Day’ that didn’t seem to go anywhere have transformed from nuisances into lovable quirks.

Those searching for prescient reviews from the time of its release are going to be disappointed. While Melody Maker gave a positive review, they were tentative in their praise, and the NME went so far as to call it ‘pretentious’ and ‘horrible’. They’re the laughing stocks now(!). Cokemachineglow.com recently awarded it 99 out of a possible 100.

Some critics see the darkness in it more than others; yet while the album has emotional heft, I’ve never considered it a depressing album. Instead I find its hollistic (Ha!) shape to be rejoiceful and redemptive. When the last note of ‘Runeii’ melts away, I feel cleansed more than dejected– the album encapsulates human longings and moments of disquiet and transcends them with uplifting musical arrangements and contemplative production. Catharsis? More like CathARTsis!

My favourite remark about the album, though, comes from YouTube. Commenter ‘Farcallo’ likened listening to Laughing Stock to “finding a new emotion”, and it’s an apt observation. If music as an art form is meant to inspire, challenge and reproduce human feelings and emotions in innovative and insightful ways, then Laughing Stock is the pinnacle in it’s conception, composition and execution.

So it’s really good, basically.

The Laughing Stock 20th Anniversary Re-Issue is available on vinyl at a record store near you.

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