Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Planet Sleeps

"Bird boy rides fish boat with tree of life"

The next time someone claims that there is a God, I will show them my body. "Look me in the eye", I will say, "and tell me that God created this", and then I will point to my body and that will show them. They will fall silent and there will be no God.

God would not have designed a machine with such obvious flaws. We can't fly, we don't spit fire, we break down; we have two lungs and two kidneys but only one brain, and I struggle to find logic in the arrangement of our naughty bits. We have to endure long periods of unconsciousness during which we hallucinate, and there's no reason for it because we regenerate our bodies by eating, which is something that we can't do when we're asleep. Wouldn't it be great if cum was actually full of heroin. Then I would have women queuing up around the block to sample my wares. It would be a much better world.

These and many other thoughts swirl through my mind when I am half-asleep, which brings us neatly to The Planet Sleeps, an album of lullabies from 1997. Top internet ambient radio station Sleepbot occasionally plays excerpts from it, so I decided to try out the whole album. It's widely available on the used market for pennies. As far as I can tell it was a labour of love that didn't chart anywhere. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Packaging, although reading through the list it appears that every record released in 1997 and early 1998 was nominated for a Grammy Award. In that year R Kelly won three Grammies for "I Believe I Can Fly" and in those days Hip-Hop was called Rap. It was a very different time.

The Planet Sleeps has developed a small following on the internet and is a good example of The Long Tail in action; every few years it pops up here and there, viz viz viz. The music and packaging haven't really dated, and it could probably have remained in Sony's catalogue forevermore (it was released on Work, a subsidiary of the label that was closed in 1999). Nonetheless a couple of things link it to 1997. It was released during The Long Night of Vinyl - the period after vinyl stopped being a mainstream format, but before it was revitalised as hipster city - and so it was only ever released as a CD, not on 180gm vinyl or as a digital download.

Contemporary reviews mention a CD-ROM element, either as a separate disc or as an extra track, but my copy doesn't have this, or any mention of it; Discogs says nothing about it either. People on the internet have written about the CD-ROM content but only in vague terms, which makes me wonder if they were just parroting a press release. Perhaps the CD-ROM element was removed before the album was released. CD-ROM content is very much of the late 1990s. The album comes with a 35-page booklet that translates the lullabies and has little stories about the recording, from which I learn that Sophie Rockwell's contribution, which is one of the highlights, was recorded in her apartment. The recordings are, as far as I can tell, exclusive to The Planet Sleeps.

What's it like? As a means of getting to sleep it suffers a bit from indifferent mixing; given that the tracks are short but the record has to sustain a mood long enough for the audience to get to sleep, the mixing is crucial. Unfortunately the opening and closing tracks are louder and more energetic than the stretch in the middle. The Rankin Family are the most famous musicians on the record and I can understand putting them first, but their track isn't a lullaby - it would fit better on a Celtic Moods compilation. Similarly the closing track feels out of place. The Sarajevo-based Trebevic choir has an arresting story but their track isn't a lullaby, it's church choir music. Neither of these songs are bad, as such, it's just that they don't work in context. Michelle's "Schlafe Mein Prinzchem" is a bit naff however, with an unfortunate air of Eurovision about it.

Sherrilyne Blakey-Smith's "Yhanaway Hay Yowna"

The highlights include Sherrilyne Blakey-Smith's Iroquois "Yhanaway Hay Yowna", which has a massive, open sound but is sadly only a minute long. "Ana Latu" by the Kingdom of Tonga Cultural Group is the nearest thing the record has to a hit, judging by YouTube views. Until five minutes ago I assumed that Tonga was a country in Africa, but it is apparently a bunch of islands in the Pacific. You learn something every day. Sophie-Meriem Rockwell's a capella "Fais Do Do" is the other Youtube hit, and again sadly it's only ninety seconds long. Who is Sophie Rockwell? I have no idea. She has a website and has released several albums, but the internet has very little about her. Ordinarily an album like The Planet Sleeps does double-duty as a label sampler, but compiler David Rogers went all the way downriver and picked musicians who were genuinely obscure.

His goal was to demonstrate via the medium of lullabies, that human beings across the world are fundamentally the same, which is nice. I firmly believe that even if all of our differences were ironed out, we would still have wars; massive wars. The problem is not that we are different, it is that we are the same. We have the same desires for power and domination, and the same fundamental need for food and energy. Even if there was a single global culture and we were all the same colour and gender, what happens when one bunch of people find themselves living on fertile ground, and another bunch have a famine? On a historical level very few wars are the result of cultural differences; the Nazis were an aberration. Wars are instead fought for political and economic reasons, for possession of the Earth's natural resources, and no-one will ever have enough. Money is colourblind.

But I digress. If you sequence the record 2-13, 15 it jumps up a notch, and if you skip tracks 10 ("Sleep, Queen of the Dolls", which is a relatively energetic raga) and 13 ("Itsuki No Komoriuta", which is piercing) it jumps up again. That leaves 33:26 of music. Can you get to sleep in half an hour? In 1997, when The Planet Sleeps was being recorded, it seemed as if the world might be on the verge of a new age of fat bellies and happy peace; instead the best most of us can hope for in 2016 is a good night's sleep, and a combination of The Planet Sleeps plus Ambien and midnight Amazon surfing via mobile phone - I bought some stick-on hooks and a sun hat, I don't know why - is just as good as anything.

Do you know what happens after you go to sleep? You have to go to work, that's what happens. That's why I don't like going to sleep. Hence the midnight Amazon surfing and the stick-on hooks and triangular backpacks and battery holders and the box of plates etc, so that I will never run out of plates.