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Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Water of Europe


Misfit City ezine, Issue 2, December 2000
Water of Europe

DES DE MOOR: Water of Europe

Irregular Records IRR038 (CD-only album)


Like a cherubic smart bomb, Des de Moor pops up whenever London needs a sniff of wicked European song - helming Pirate Jenny's, fighting for chanson and acidic cabaret old and new, or tying together songwriters as diverse as Boris Vian, Martin Jacques, Bowie, Georges Brassens and Stephen Merritt. His new album must have been recorded in bursts of enthusiasm between all these other burst of enthusiasm, and bears the stamp of that sweep of songcraft and resistance he's devoted himself to, elbowing his way into his own niche and into the history of chanson.

When "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" is our most famous protest lyric, and resistance is measured by the PC-baiting of Eminem, Marilyn Manson or Wu-Tang Clan, it's good to hear a dash of genuinely sharp social writing. Even couched in a musical language nearly a century old... which suggests that we've been missing a lot since we cut it out of the popular consciousness. No Dagmar Krause big-budget job this, all respectably outrageous: "Waters Of Europe" must've been recorded for tuppence, and sometimes sounds as if it was lashed together with parcel string; cellos, pianos, snapping percussion, bumped guitars, Daniel "Boum!" Teper's accordion and all. Des' voice is the key, though - a florid, unusual mixture of madrigal tenor and soapbox preacher, each word bitten into shape and flung out with flair. It sits at the heart of the de Moor way of working, and is as pugnacious and theatrical as his barbed lyrics.

And though the music could've been around in the '30s, those lyrics dig into the dirt and humanity of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The skidding, ascerbic accordion tango of "Dirty Pictures" tears into the hypocrisy and voyeurism of censorship ("you've seen the camera, it's seen you... / you've wanked in front of mirrors too.") "Heart Of A Heartless World" - like a state- of-the-world take on "Fairytale Of New York" - retells human history as a journey from a lost African paradise into a famine filled by suspicious prophets and priests ("vultures that pick at the corpse of the poor"), bequeathing us a present-day of false hearts, superstition and moralistic humbug where "priests and prime ministers pray for our sins / and mystics on telly guess lottery wins..."

The words spit and crackle even when, Germanically, they cluster, fight and split the envelope of the tune. The magnificent "Margins" - just Des in marvellous stroppy voice, waspish accordion, and the bitter backdrop of the Bosnian conflict - jumps out at you as it lays waste to the complicity of media and state interests in the parcelling-up and selective suppression of a world in conflict. Little escapes the de Moor lash - not journalists who "roam far and wide collecting tales of atrocities / from regular soldiers and mercenaries"; not the conferences that re-order things and ratify the mess the way the biggest powers want it; certainly not the scapegoating stories that thrive "so long as they're hearsay, undated, / uncorroborated / and blame the right side... / We've forgot the Ustashe and found the new Nazis / in Belgrade this time..."

A debt to the history of chanson and folk is paid via a handful of gutsy covers and interpretations. Terry Callier's "Ordinary Joe" is one (boasting gloriously hooded trombone from Dave Keech) and a rough'n'ready, guitar'n'free-verse declamation of Brecht and Eisler's "To Those Born After (An Die Nachtboren)" is another, exploring the crummy details of toiling in the revolution. Most impressively, a new translation of Jacques Brel's "My Father Said" polishes de Moor's claim to be the best English-speaking Brel interpreter - in either sense. And not only does it have a magnificent solo from Kev Hopper's musical saw, it explicitly links Britain and Europe: a legend of severance by high North winds and high water, of kinship, and of humanity blown before the rough and beautiful forces of nature.

And it stands as a counterweight to "Water Of Europe" itself - another exploration of kinship. Des, on a fantastical odyssey of his own out from Britain and around Europe, finds first an island and then a continent locked in defensiveness and ugly purity, exploiting "the Other" but denying them harbourage - "If they desire a water of Europe / it is the cold grey sea that divides. / Or the deep and inviolable water / taking and making sides." And against this he calls on the forces and floods of history, hoping for the day when "truth decontaminates water supplies", and "the fracturing chains of the workers of Europe / have strangled the boy with his thumb in the dijk." Whips snap, castanets rattle, accordions and guitars throw punches. It's going to be a party out there when the storm breaks.

These gestures aren't carried so well in the squabbling, tricky words of "Big Sister", a surveillance satire where Des' voice drowns in his densely-packed lyric. Nor even in the Fairground Attraction swing of "Grandmother Was A Hero", despite its perceptive picture of human flaws (Des weighing up his monstrous grandmother's peacetime behaviour against her wartime protection and concealment of refugee Jews). But the loose trilogy about workers in London merges a realist's acceptance with the strong protest of an angry survivor. In the gritty detail of the kitchen worker's desperate struggle between hopes and exhaustion in "Avocado", memories crumpled in the heat and hubbub but not yet devoid of the sting of style. Or in "Joey's Dreams", a rock song turned seething left-wing ballad of a "gentle bloke" ground into resentment by hard times and defeat - "a beast that pacing in a pen / at the edge of a feast for rather richer men." And, beyond these small fierce sketches, the fractured battlement of "Sleaze City"; a uneasy stroll through Des' beloved south-east London past strangled docks and thriving bailiffs, a muggy wind of corruption shrouding Westminster while homeless beggars huddle in sleeping bags in the Strand.

And for more personal struggles, there's "Sharp Contradictions" and "Last Orders Please". On the former, with Julia Palmer's [actually Julia Doyle's] double bass and David Harrod's needling piano picking out itchy broken harmonies like the stab of toothache, Des anatomises the terrifying wonder of a fall into love, like an attacking scalpel or virus winding to the very centre of a person. Surreal spiralling rhymes paint the upheaval, with a dark coda of sombre feeling - "And it is the time I spend sinking / that sharpens and tempers my thinking. / And it is this feeling you give / that reminds me just how much I live." "Last Orders Please" in contrast, is a death song filled with defiance and fear, and the only outrightly gay song on the record. Here Death is "a bronze Adonis with eyes as blank / as a half-filled diary's empty pages", and the song is overshadowed by the horrific harvest of AIDS. But although it starts in a rumble of melodrama, it bursts into a fiery salsa, and Des has the energy - and more - to spit out a last rallying call for the scared and threatened: "We've nothing to lose in the trying / If life is a bitch unless you're fucking rich / no wonder we're frightened of dying." The bloodstream of folk music also harbours germs of resistance, and Des de Moor's very much part of that particular flow, provocatively pumping heart and all.

(DANN CHINN)



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