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Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Young Marble Giants – N.I.T.A. – Live at the Western Front (1980)

Listening to Young Marble Giants in 2016, there’s almost the sense that something’s missing. The barest electric bass and organ, the plainsong sail of Alison Statton’s voice, the verses without chorus, and all of it over inside 200 seconds. Shouldn’t there be more? Shouldn’t a song be insulated with layer upon layer of … something? Has someone forgotten to plug in the guitar track, the drum kit, the backing vocals, the strings?

It’s a music moulded by its absences. There is nothing for it to hide behind. The songs seem delicate, almost nude; so much is missing that it’s hard to even identify the genre. Is this unrolling rock? Spriteless pop? The books refer to it as “post-punk” – not for what it is but what it came after. Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants drew on a different sonic palette than fellow minimalists such as Arvo Part, Chet Baker and Brian Eno. Theirs was not a sound of silences. The band found grace in something stranger than quiet.

Young Marble Giants released just one album, 1980’s Colossal Youth, with 15 songs, several of them instrumentals, most of them less than three minutes. That same year, they visited Vancouver, performing at the Western Front, an artist-run centre that still stands mightily today. A film of that performance, unearthed for the Front’s website, captures the band in all their monumental humility. The footage is not black and white so much as grey. Statton and her bandmates, brothers Philip and Stuart Moxham, look as if they spent the day wandering in the rain. (It was November in the Lower Mainland; they probably did.) And unshowy N.I.T.A., the opening number, gleams like a cold glass of milk.

Aretha Franklin – Rock Steady (1971)

Someone slipped an ancient mix CD into the car’s stereo and then this song wouldn’t leave any of us alone. First of all, there’s nothing steady about it. All of us were moving, even the baby. Second of all, Aretha’s voice. So good and so wise – it should be everybody’s vice-president. It should be vice-president to people who don’t even normally have vice-presidents. Like the baby. And thirdly, lastly, everything else about the song. Every other part. I like to imagine that all of the players – the funky bassist and guitarists, the horn section, the cowbell person, the backup singers, all of them – spent six months getting ready for Rock Steady’s studio session. They stayed at home, shut in, studying. They quit smoking. They practised. They ran drills. Six months, two seasons, to prepare these parts. And still not good enough, Aretha told them. Still not good enough; try harder.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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