“Cooling the Medium” b/w “Big Trees”
Current/RCA Records WAKE 8 (Canada)
Released in summer 1984
Produced by Daniel Lanois, Mark Gane and Martha Johnson

All album versions for this single… although apparently there’s also an alternate Canadian 7″ of “Cooling the Medium,” even with the same WAKE 8 catalogue number, that swaps out the album version for a 4:08 remix. (I’ve never heard that version, nor can I find it online, so I won’t be talking about it here.)

On the heels of the remarkably successful dance hit “Black Stations/White Stations,” Johnson and Gane rolled out this upbeat yet smooth track, which feels like a Talking Heads cut pitched for adult contemporary radio. “Cooling the Medium” has its arty touches (the hypnotic layering of acoustic and electronic percussion, a loop of decayed vocals on the fade-out), but a different set of musical priorities is noteable: Martha’s vocal is front and center, Mark’s guitar is given a glossy mix, and the minor-chord verse/major-chord chorus structure does considerable heavy lifting to convey the song’s mystical theme. Background vocals by Shawne Jackson and Sharon Lee Williams, two accomplished Canadian R&B singers from the 70s, as well as Parachute Club’s Julie Masi underscore the U.S. urban radio format that M+M and its labels presumably aimed for once again. Lanois’s relatively light touch and rich bass tones (from Canadian bassist David Piltch) soon fell out of favor in R&B of the time — think of Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who (produced by Narada Michael Walden) or Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 (produced by Arif Marden), both released the following year — but here is a preview of the sounds he would develop a year later on Peter Gabriel’s So.

“Big Trees” is a short track with a Mark Gane vocal that recalls the Muffins’ more experimental pieces from This Is The Ice Age. Its foundation is a rapid loop of what sounds like a music box from an old pop-up clown toy (you hear it in the first ten seconds of the “Cooling the Medium” promo video, below). Gane’s fascination with natural environments informs the experiential observations of the lyrics: “Sound swallowed whole,” he sings.

I have to mention the British version of this 7″ (catalogue # RCA 452, with the sleeve featured in this post) because its alternate b-side is a killer: “Come Out And Dance,” the strongest non-single cut from Mystery Walk. The song has several charms, the first being the unbridled force of the rhythm track laid down by bassist Tinker Barfield and drummer Yogi Horton. Then there’s Martha’s flirty vocal, sung in an uncharacteristically higher pitch. “I really wanted to get other sounds out of my voice,” she told me. “My voice in the early days was very flat and even, and I wanted to stretch it a lot.” Finally, the song features one of Mark’s favorite guitar solos, with feedback and ghost notes wrung out of by chance. Martha remembers witnessing it behind the recording studio window: “Dan and I just went, ‘That’s it!’ I was just ‘What are you doing, [Mark]?! Keep going, keep going — don’t stop!'”

The “Cooling the Medium” single had a long commercial momentum, initially not quick enough for the label’s needs. Consequently, this is the last single from Mystery Walk — the only Martha and the Muffins album with just two singles. But the singles benefited from the August 31, 1984 debut of Much Music, Canada’s own MTV (headquartered in the heart of a now-gentrifying Queen Street West). With its own Canadian content regulations to observe, M+M videos soon became staples of mid-80s MuchMusic programming. The 12″ version of “Cooling the Medium” swaps in a dance mix and dub version for the album version. These are also available on the 2014 CD reissue of Mystery Walk.


The 7″ catalogue:
Martha and the Muffins – “Insect Love” b/w “Suburban Dream” (MM 001)
Martha and the Muffins – “Insect Love” b/w “Cheesies and Gum” (DIN 4)
Martha and the Muffins – “Echo Beach” b/w “Teddy The Dink” (DIN 9)
Martha and the Muffins – “Saigon” b/w “Copacabana” (DIN 17)
Martha and the Muffins – “Paint By Number Heart” b/w “Copacabana” (VS 1115)
Martha and the Muffins – “About Insomnia” b/w “1 4 6” (DIN 19)
Martha and the Muffins – “Suburban Dream” b/w “Girl Fat” (DIN 21)
Martha and the Muffins – “Was Ezo” b/w “Trance And Dance” (DIN 27)
Martha and the Muffins – “Women Around The World at Work” b/w “Twenty-Two in Cincinnati” (DIN 34)
Martha and the Muffins – “One Day in Paris” b/w “Women Around the World at Work” (104.209)
Martha and the Muffins – “Swimming” b/w “Little Sounds (Excerpts)” (VS 1136)
Martha and the Muffins – “Danseparc (Everyday It’s Tomorrow)” b/w “Whatever Happened to Radio Valve Road” (WAKE 1)
Martha and the Muffins – “World Without Borders” b/w “Boys in the Bushes” (WAKE 2)
Martha and the Muffins – “Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing” b/w “I’m No Good at Conversation” (WAKE 4)
M+M – “Black Stations/White Stations” b/w “Xoa Oho” (WAKE 7)
M+M – “Cooling the Medium” b/w “Big Trees” (WAKE 8)
M+M – “Song In My Head” b/w “Riverine” (WAKE 14)
M+M – “Someone Else’s Shoes” b/w “Million Dollars” (WAKE 16)
M+M – “Only You” b/w “Watching the Boys Fall Down” (WAKE 18)