Album of the week : The Vermilion Border - Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine is one of the great unsung heroes of punk.  She was a member of The Slits, played alongside Sid Vicious and Keith Levine in the legendary band The Flowers Of Romance, and her distinctive guitar style was one of the defining sounds of late the 70s UK music scene.  And she effectively retired from music in the early 80s to become a full-time artist and filmmaker

And then, in 2007, she picked her Telecaster back up and began to tour and record again.  Because of this, her 17 year marriage imploded. During the following years she played live, wrote songs and recorded a 4 track EP called ‘Flesh’ - released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. Touring the UK, she teamed up with different musicians and began to record again. Now, she’s unleashed The Vermilion Border, her first full-length solo album

With The Vermilion Border (apparently a biological term for the border between the reddish skin of the lip and the more regular skin of the face), Viv is documenting a border crossing in different ways: from the safety of domesticity to the uncertainty of life as an artist; away from the comfort and bustle of family life, towards solitude and introspection. And even the juxtaposition of the featured bass players with her signature trebly guitar-playing is the meeting of two distinct planes

She has a refreshingly honest take on songwriting that makes the album a pretty astonishing listen.  It has plenty of the chirpy, angular textures that she pioneered with The Slits, but mixes in some breathy atmosphere, some girl-group harmony backing vocals, some herky-jerky rhythms, and some swirling detuned electric pulses.  It’s mellower and quieter than her earlier work, but that reserve should not be mistaken for softness.  This is a confident artist, completely in control, and every move matters

A song title like the album’s opener ‘I Want More’ could simply be a greedy call for bling in the hands of so many; instead, here it is the sound of someone taking control and wanting more from life, where over a seething swirl of guitars, Albertine shouts a simple rallying cry, “I want more!” It sounds like a manifesto - in a good way -not just for the album, but for the continuation of her musical journey, having effectively downed her guitar for the best part of a quarter of a century

The Vermilion Border is a heavily bass orientated album - Viv uses a different bassist for each track (Jack Bruce, Tina Weymouth, Glen Matlock, Mick Jones, Dennis Bovell, and Danny Thompson, amongst many) - though not to the point that they overwhelm the song. Take ex boyfriend Mick Jones’ spiralling, metronomic background guitar lines of ‘Confessions of a MILF’, or the almost folky/lullaby ‘When it Was Nice’. Then there’s ‘InVitro’ with Jack Bruce whose playing is an almost the perfect foil for the guitar

The subject matter ranges from domestic life, drugs, prostitution to a commentary on England, some funny, others not so. Viv Albetine’s vocals are for the most part semi-spoken though on sparse ‘The False Heart’ she does actually sing a bit. It’s a very effective tool and gives the album an all round aura of semi disorientation

‘Confessions of a MILF’, the best song on the album, ping-pongs between repression and release. Documenting an unhappy housewife’s inner voice, Albertine whispers the verses’ exaggeratedly saccharine melody (“I’ve peeled the potatoes, there’s not much left to do/ Lovely lemon drizzle cake, heat up the fondue”) like a Stepford Wife. The longer the song goes on, the more its undercurrent of darkness bubbles to the surface. By its finale, a warping, manically chanted refrain of “There’s no place like home,” the song becomes reminiscent of a quietly dystopian dream to choked to death on its own fairy dust

And there’s a fabulous sense of humour within too, particularly on tracks like album closer ‘Still England’,  a catalogue/diatribe of the country’s good, bad and ugly, recounted to a percussive march, and ‘Hookup Girl’

The latter is a hilariously biting fairytale of modern courtship (“I was his forever girl/ Now he’s asking me to be his hookup girl”), it first seems like the song’s narrator has it better than the miserably repressed self-proclaimed MILF. But instead, the song unfurls a provocative question: Is hookup culture liberating, or just another gilded cage? Albertine’s narrator would probably say the latter: As the affair corrodes into boring sex, she finds herself sighing a lyric that could have been lifted from ‘MILF’: “We don’t talk, he doesn’t want to know my thoughts”

As Courtney Love attests “Viv Albertine made a place for girls in music before girl became grrrl”

Let’s hope it’s not another 25 years before she makes another album. This one is a genuinely thrilling ride. Give it a listen

Buy it here

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March 15, 2013

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