The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'music'
My impressions of the new Belle & Sebastian album:
- The disco/club/EDM direction. It's not all over the album, but in enough places (and lurking in the background elsewhere; i.e., the subtle pumping synth pad underpinning Nobody's Empire, a piece of layered indie-pop à la B&S played otherwise straight), and it works convincingly. This wasn't Belle & Sebastian's first foray into dance music, of course; not counting the synth noodlings of Electronic Renaissance, there was the DFA-pastiche of Your Cover's Blown. And it works convincingly; they seem to get the idioms and work with them competently. The Party Line is essentially Your Cover's Blown II; following it, The Power of Three is reminiscent of Saint Etienne in its combination of sixeventies popular song and dance/electronica, without sounding very much like them, and Enter Sylvia Plath goes into eurodisco territory; sounding a little like Geoffrey O'Connor hypothetically covering ABBA's Lay All Your Love On Me.
- There has always been something very male-gazey about Belle & Sebastian; Stuart Murdoch, in his musical practice, has always had an eye for the girls, photographing them for cover artwork and telling stories about them, their inner lives and their struggles with faith, sexuality, social issues and body image, in his lyrics. (One can imagine an alternate universe where, by some bizarre twist in the time continuum, Belle & Sebastian signed to Sarah Records, but ended up parting ways with the label after a heated argument over cover artwork.) This record is not an exception. Granted, Murdoch is a middle-aged man, and in some cases, the girls his gaze rests on have aged with him (“now I look at you, you're a mother of two, you're a quiet revolution”); in other cases, such as The Everlasting Muse, the subject of his medusa-like gaze is that classical cliché, inspiration as feminine object of desire, or perhaps any one of a number of a succession of ingenues. And then there's the question of whether The Power Of Three is itself a mildly pervy double entendre, in the Carry On-esque vein of Step Into My Office Baby.
- Belle & Sebastian never were, nor claimed to be, a band from the radical vanguard of indie music, preferring instead to find subtleties in the quotidian. Publicly Christian (though in a thoughtful, soul-searching sort of way, with neither fire nor brimstone) where others leaned towards Marxism, Situationism or the heady brew of continental philosophy, studiously apolitical, and emphatically heterosexual, in a way that manages to eschew any trace of swagger or machismo, in a scene where, between Blueboy and riot grrrl, heteronormativity was anything but a given. In any case, this has positioned Belle & Sebastian well to comment on the everyday, and Perfect Couples continues this, ever so gently skewering the discreet charm of the Waitrose-shopping bourgeoisie, and weaving a wry narrative of marital boredom and that cliché, the mid-life crisis break-up.
- The big surprise, musically, is not so much the disco elements, but the Balkan groove of The Everlasting Muse, whose chorus sounds like a thigh-slappingly good knees-up in a Greek taverna.
- The gentle, wistful melodies B&S are famous for are still there, i.e., The Cat With The Cream and Ever Had A Little Faith; now, of course, filled out with string arrangements which work nicely without being overwhelming. And the closing track, Today (This Army's For Peace), echoes the rustic languor of Yo La Tengo at their most mellow.
I am writing this on a train to London from Birmingham, where I have spent the past two days at an academic conference about the electronic music group Kraftwerk. There were some 175 people in attendance; their ages varied from those who had not yet been born during Kraftwerk's heyday to a sizeable contingent of (mostly) men of a certain age who had been at various legendary shows back in the early 80s. The conference, whilst theoretically an academic conference, was open to the general public, and the talks presented varied from critical-theoretical analyses of the signifiers in various records to autobiographical monologues.
The conference began with Stephen Mallinder, of Cabaret Voltaire, talking autobiographically about his own experience of Kraftwerk and how they inspired his and his bandmates' own music-making; he mentioned that, back in the 1970s, he and his mates would refer to traffic cones as “kraftwerks”. Later, Nick Stevenson talked specifically about Cabaret Voltaire, the Sheffield scene, their use of Dadaist techniques and Burroughs' cut-up technique, and the themes of “the control culture” in their music. Other than that, the rest of of the first day was occupied with going through Kraftwerk's early career and first few albums, as well as the “archaeological period” of the three pre-Autobahn albums one gets the impression Ralf Hütter would rather were struck from the historical record. David Stubbs, author of the recent Krautrock book Future Days, talked about this period, tracing the band's history from their shambolic start as The Organisation (which, in surviving footage of live performances, looks like an “on-the-nose parody of Krautrock” in all its scruffy, hippie shambolicness), through the first three albums—Kraftwerk 1 (whose pastoral sound prefigured what Boards Of Canada would do several decades later), Kraftwerk 2 (where the potential of drum machines first appeared) and Ralf & Florian (which, in its title and cover photograph, showed the artists starting to make themselves part of the artwork, perhaps echoing Gilbert & George, who had visited Düsseldorf in that period). This was followed by a talk by David Pattie, a Glaswegian academic, elaborating on Ralf & Florian and from that, the question of Kraftwerk's relationship with Germanness. Among other things, Pattie pointed out a progression in the works of Kraftwerk and other West German bands (Can, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kluster/Cluster) through the early 70s; a divergence from pure rhythm and/or noise and rediscovery of melody in subsequent albums, and put forward the theory that all these bands had initially set out to reject the musical heritage of their forefathers, and gradually come to an accommodation with it.
In the afternoon, Melanie Schiller (from Düsseldorf, via Groningen) examined Autobahn and its cover artwork, examining the use of space in the sound and the past, present and future as depicted in the LP artwork, and the sense of forward motion, and of there being a start (the sound of the key in the ignition) but not an end (the road going on forever ahead; the self-referential lyrics referring to turning the radio on and hearing the song on it, forming a loop), and, of course, the Beach Boys reference alluding to the American car-song trope. This was followed by a talk by Hillegonda Rietveld about the Trans-Europa Express album; its theme of a borderless, unified Europe, the echoes of an elegant/decadent pre-war past (Neonlicht has a vaguely Weimar feel to it), and its musical antecedents (such as Pierre Schaeffer's 1948 Musique Concréte sound-poem etude aux chemins de fer, and parallels with railway rhythms in the blues in America). The final talk of the day, by Uwe Schütte, about Die Mensch-Maschine, and the idea of the Man-Machine, was rich with details and connections; he tied in Soviet structuralism (the cover artwork drew heavily on El Lissitzky's compositions), a notorious (though in today's climate, quaintly tame) 18th-century atheist pamphlet titled L'Homme-Machine, musical automata throughout the ages, a French novelty act named Les Robots Music, E.T. Hoffmann's 1817 Romantic novel Der Sandmann, Karel Čapek's Rossum's Universal Robots, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the evolution of Kraftwerk's own stage robots. After this, former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür was to read from his memoir, I Was A Robot, but was somehow unable to make it; in his stead, Rüdiger Esch (formerly of electro-industrial band Die Krupps) spoke about his book Electri_City, about the history of the Düsseldorf music scene.
The second day of the conference had a few more interesting talks; Pertti Grönholm spoke about the nostalgic retrofuturism in the music of Kraftwerk, specifically singling out the Autobahn B-side Morgenspaziergang, a short pastoral tone-poem of sorts, and Radioland, with its nostalgia for childhood radio listening. Ulrich Adelt (an academic from Hamburg based in Wyoming) talked about Amon Düül II and their unsuccessful Made In Germany novelty record, Faust (who played with the whole idea of authenticity by projecting footage of their guitarist playing a solo while he stood still), the leftist squatter blues-rock/proto-punk band Ton Steine Scherben (who never made much of an impact outside of the German-speaking world) and the Kosmische Musik movement and their prefiguration of what would later devolve into the New Age genre, finally finishing by boldly attempting to reclaim Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for the Krautrock genre. This led into a monologue from Rusty Egan, former Blitz Club DJ and drummer from new-romantic synthpop band Visage, Camden nightclub proprietor and currently still a working music producer and DJ. Egan was not so much an academic speaker as a force of nature; attired in jeans, turtleneck and leather jacker, all black, his hair slicked back, he went on for over an hour, pacing the stage, showing photographs on his laptop, playing fragments of tracks he had worked on recently, and telling anecdote after anecdote, often framed with sound effects, funny voices, hand gestures and beatboxing. One gets the feeling he could easily have gone on for another few hours, had it not been time to adjourn for lunch.
After the break, there were three more talks: Heinrich Deisl (who edits an Austrian music magazine titled Skug, which is a little like The Wire, only in German) talked about the metaphors of the Autobahn and the German forest in the music of Kraftwerk, Wolfgang Voigt and the Detroit techno project Dopplereffekt (who, like most Detroit techno artists, are African-American, but affect a stylised Germanness in their art; one of their albums is titled Gesamtkunstwerk). Alexei Monroe spoke about Laibach, their own relationship to modernism and problematic history, and their engagement with dystopian ideology. Finally, Alexander Harden talked about the topic of post-human authenticity, and the question of how one can ascribe authenticity (or its absence) to an act like Kraftwerk.
One theme that kept emerging in the talks was that of Kraftwerk's (and, to a lesser extent, other bands') relationship to the idea of Germany and Germanness, and the country's problematic history. In the late 60s and early 70s, the trauma and shame of the Third Reich and World War 2 was still relatively recent; most night porters in Düsseldorf hotels (as Rusty Egan mentioned) had missing limbs, the British music press made crude Nazi references when faced with the idea of there being bands from Germany, and the youth of the nation were waking up to the idea of post-war denazification having been largely unsuccessful, and of people in positions of power having done terrible things. The idea of Germany was contaminated by Nazism, and so was a lot of its much-vaunted culture, to which music had been central. There was the very real idea of Stunde Null, hour zero, of there being nothing before 1945 worth salvaging; and, indeed, a lot of the Krautrock bands started partly with this assumption, rejecting both the Western classical canon and the Anglo-American blues/rock-based sounds that were filling the airwaves, and venturing outward, to the extremes of experimental noise, the “ethnographic forgeries” of Can, to heavy psychedelic experimentation or the sounds of an imagined Cosmos. But, of course, that is not sustainable forever; and even if one does keep it up, one only has to venture abroad to be put in one's place as one of the Krauts.
Kraftwerk's work, at least from Autobahn (their own Stunde Null) onwards, attempts to answer the question of what is to be done with the past. For all its futurism, it is deeply nostalgic, albeit for the forward-looking pulse of modernism, the future that never was; in part for the Bauhaus-era modernism that was so brutally cut off (as evident in the video for Trans-Europa Express, with its 1930-vintage turbine train model zooming past Metropolis-style buildings), though partly also for the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder years of their own childhoods. What is to be done with the terrible years in between? Well, as much as in one sense, Kraftwerk strive to close the gap, their works are peppered with references which German audiences can pick up, alluding to the unspoken time before Stunde Null: the radio on the cover of Radioactivity, for example, resembles those distributed by the Nazi authorities to households, and indeed, the Autobahn system itself was bound up with the Third Reich (who did not initiate the programme though greatly extended it). As for audiences abroad, rather than seeking to escape German stereotypes, Kraftwerk took them and played, mischievously, to them; becoming the stiff, deadpan robot-men, and throwing in the occasional ambiguous turn of phrase like “total music” or the “mother language”, as if to see if they can jar the foreigners into Mentioning The War again. But Kraftwerk have, discreetly, the last laugh.
Kraftwerk's significance in popular music is hard to overestimate; on their shoulders stand not only electronic pop music (from the early synthpop bands of the late 70s to today's commercial hits), house, techno and dance music, but also much of hip-hop, via Afrika Bambaataa. As Heinrich Diesl quoted, “Before Kraftwerk, German pop music was perceived as Schlager; afterward, it was perceived as Techno”. And, because of their position at the intersection of various historical currents, there is enough to discuss about them to fill an academic conference. Speaking of which, the organiser, Dr. Uwe Schütte, says that, if all goes well, there should be an academic conference about Krautrock at Aston University in a year or two.
Once again, the year is almost over, so it's time to look back on the music of the past year; and so, here are the records of 2014 (in alphabetical order):
- Ben Frost, A U R O R A
Frost's most recent album sees him put aside the processed electroacoustic sounds he has used on previous records and instead start experimenting with electronic/dance-music instrumentation (as alluded to in one of the track titles, Diphenyl Oxalate, after the chemical used in glow sticks); though, by the time they've been put through his production process (whose details are a closely-held secret), the sounds are almost unrecognisable, Frost also collaborates with two drummers, who play in tandem. The result is layers of vaguely distressed textures; slow build-ups, often of corroded timbres, and intricate soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of searing, cathartic noise; contrasts between vast spaces and overwhelming intensity. Highlights include Venter and the closing triptych of No Sorrowing/Sola Fide/A Single Point Of Blinding Light. Sublime, in the Burkean sense of the word.
- East India Youth, Total Strife Forever
William Doyle, aka East India Youth, juggles the hats of songwriter, minimalist composer and producer of bangin' choons; as such, Total Strife Forever could be summed up, somewhat reductionistically, as two parts Hot Chip to one part Philip Glass. The opening track, Glitter Recession, seems to have begun its life as a piano piece in the Glassian vein, before being given a doing-over in Ableton Live; the result is an atmospheric buildup, easing into a more typically dance-music second track, albeit with an unusual 5-bar loop. Track three, Dripping Down takes it into more mainstream club-ballad territory, combining beats and basslines, a chorus of “soulful” gospel-via-Radiohead backing vocals, and lyrics with asomewhat introspective and soul-searching theme (as befits the inner-space exploration that so often happens when electronica meets songcraft). This segues into Hinterland (a rather good bleepy techno banger that transports you to a sweatily euphoric basement rave in Hackney), possibly the highlight of the album, before Heaven, How Long, (a techno-ballad of chemical alienation morphing, in its chorus, into a club floor filler), and Looking For Someone (which sounds like a spiritual for millennials). Doyle's more avant-garde tendencies reëmerge in tracks like Midnight Koto and Song For A Granular Piano, as well as the four-part title track interleaved throughout the record.
- Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch
A relentlessly postmodern, multilayered cross-cultural mashup like something out of a William Gibson novel; a Kuwaiti-raised, Brooklyn-based producer's concept album about the futuristic Far East, titled in German for some reason, and executed in a dubstep/grime idiom. Asiatisch starts off with the appositely-titled Shanzhai, a knockoff of Sinead O'Connor's cover of Nothing Compares To U, performed on synthesized choir pads, with the vocals replaced with nonsensical lyrics in Mandarin. The interlude Loading Beijing ramps the cyberpunk up to 11, as affectless machinelike voiceovers seemingly announce the initialisation of the virtual reality that is Al-Qadiri's gritty, high-tech new Orient. Other tracks, with titles like Forbidden City, Dragon Tattoo (its very title a semiotic layer-cake, juxtaposing Orientalism and cyberpunk via a recent Swedish crime thriller; the song itself sounds like M.I.A. reinventing Warm Leatherette) and Shanghai Freeway, combine oriental (and occasionally Middle Eastern) scales, synthesized shakuhachis and subbass drones to create an impressionistic sound-painting of something sprawling, neon-lit and aggressively futuristic.
- I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro
The Stockholm electropop duo's second album is a decidedly darker affair than its predecessor, seemingly having picked up DNA along the way from witch-house, coldwave and/or the recent wave of neo-goth synthpop like Former Ghosts and Cold Cave, and having an brooding, elegiac majesty to show for it. The opener “You Burn”, with its heartbeat rhythm, slow minor-key piano chords and measured vocals, sets an ominous mood; this is followed up eight tracks, alternating icy detachment and urgency over layers of coruscating synth arpeggios, bass drones, pulsing sequencers, gothic/industrial drum machine patterns and cathedraline reverb, with titles like “Faith”, “Denial” and “Disclosure”; the album is bookended with “Heart To Know”, knowingly weary vocals over a stripped-back piece of dusty, distorted ambience somewhat redolent of Polygon Window (i.e., Aphex Twin)'s Quino-Phec.
- Makthaverskan, Makthaverskan II
Technically a 2013 release, but it was released outside of Sweden this year, so it scrapes in, and if anything qualifies, this does. Among some of the better C86-almost-meets-shoegaze indiepop of recent times, sounding in places somewhere between The Sundays and The Cure's poppier mid-80s moments, with tight bass lines, choppy processed guitars and punchy, reverb-drenched female vocals; a highlight is No Mercy, which burns with righteous energy.
- Oh Peas!, Shades Of Intolerance (BandCamp)
Welsh multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith, who is also one half of post-punk duo Totem Terrors, makes an impressive solo début with a collection of varyingly askew yet technically meticulous bedroom-pop songs, a few spoken-word pieces and the odd instrumental, layered from a variety of instruments (guitars, keyboards, melodicas and such) and lyrics alternating between pop idioms, quotidian observations, and the odd touch of wry surrealism and clever wordplay (example: “take a book of poetry to your best friend's birthday party, read them every poem about love, hate, war or death”, “you're so much sexier since I found out that you had dyslexia”). Highlights include the opening track Thick Like Snow, the Casio VL1-and-skronk punk-pop of Peanuts And Pickled Onions (which almost reinvents the key concepts of Ninetynine's Wöekenender from first principles), and the closing track Warm World, which is sweetly romantic and yet not cloying, not unlike early Mirah. This record manages to be at once uncontrivedly sincere and technically accomplished. Look for Oh Peas! to go places.
- Penny Orchids, Worse Things
London's Penny Orchids theatrically straddle the spaces between the scabrous end of rock'n'roll and older, though not necessarily more salubrious, traditions such as sea shanties and outlaw balladry; one could compare them to the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though the artists they remind me of the most are two antipodean bands, The Paradise Motel and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen. It starts off in fine form with One More Drink, a nautical murder ballad of sorts, and then goes on from there. About half of the album is themed, being the story of an Irish immigrant named Maloney who falls in with old New York's Jewish mafia; it's set sometime between the late 19th century and the Prohibition era, and adopts a klezmer idiom, which the band manage to pull off respectably (indeed, if one were to coin a genre name for this album, it would be “klezmerbilly”). The album closes with Shell Beach, a wistful piano ballad sung by the Penny Orchids keyboardist Kate Dornan, whose voice sounds a little bit like Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar. Dornan has been doing more singing in new, yet-to-be-recorded songs, which can only be a good thing.
- The Royal Landscaping Society, s/t (BandCamp)
Another new band from Spain's increasingly vibrant indiepop scene, The Royal Landscaping Society wear their Sarah Records influences on their sleeves, and combine that with more electronics. This year, they played at Indietracks and released their eponymous début EP, on French online label Beko. The opening track, Goodbye, starts off a little like The Field Mice's Five Moments; the Sarah comparisons continue in the third track, La La La, which doesn't sound too far from The Orchids or similar bands; other tracks (such as Frost) lean more on the synthesizers and drum machines, though often adding a guitar, not unlike bands like Kuryakin. The EP proper ends on a mellow note with Early Sunrays, all guitar arpeggios and synth strings, but this is followed by three remixes, from other Spanish indie artists. As this sort of classic indiepop goes, there are few better examples from 2014.
- Todd Terje, It's Album Time with Todd Terje
They like to have fun with their house/disco/electro/whatever up in Norway, and Terje Olsen, aka Todd Terje (his pseudonym itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chicago house DJ Todd Terry), is no exception. The album comes with playfully colourful, retro-styled cover artwork, and starts with a short theme tune, followed up by two tracks (Leisure Suit Preben and Preben Goes To Acapulco), which sound like TV-show themes and surf the fine line between cool and cheesy. The pace steps up into an unselfconscious 80s-flavoured retro-disco with Strandbar (which means “beachable”, I think) and Delorean Dynamite, before suddenly dropping the pace with a cover of Robert Palmer's anthem of middle-aged coupled ennui, Johnny and Mary; it's glazed over in soft, glossy layers of mid-to-late-80s overproduction (listen to those delayed drum-machine handclaps!), and sung by a weary-sounding Bryan Ferry, who could be the sharp-suited, melancholy drunk riveted to his barstool at the end of the night, his tie loosened and a cigarette burning to a stub in his fingers. The highlight, in my opinion, is the bipartite Swing Star (whose first part, all ambient synth arpeggios and drones, manages to sounds uncannily redolent of the Reload (The 147 Take) remix of Slowdive's In Mind, and whose second part reprises this with beats); finally, the album ends on a high with the bouncy disco anthem Inspector Norse.
- Jane Weaver, The Silver Globe
Jane Weaver was hitherto known mostly as a “folk” singer in a Wicker Man-esque vein; her new album is a surprise in its maximalist intensity; a densely cosmic, psychedelic affair, stacked with propulsive grooves, analogue synthesizers and lush textures, and not too far from Broadcast or Stereolab. The opening (and title) track is 47 seconds of ambience, all analogue synths and tape delays, easing into the metronomic kosmische grüv of Argent; a Krautrock juggernaut which motors along on a wave of pulsing bass, filter sweeps and choppy guitars. Weaver's ethereal soprano floats over this, weaving a tale of technological enchantment, and setting the mood and the theme for the rest of the album. Next up is The Electric Mountain, a prog-rock ballad built up over a Hawkwind sample and analogue synth riff, its story-telling vocals sounding somewhat like a more sci-fi-influenced Wendy Rule. Arrows (apparently based on a meditation on the cycle between the feathers from killed birds and the arrows used to hunt them) is a lovely, languidly ethereal piece, Weaver's vocals, singing a repetitive mantra, melting into a clunking bass guitar, wash of reverb over string machine and home-organ drums, before segueing into the Casiotone-driven disco stomp of Don't Take My Soul, with its circus-style melody and country-style falsetto, which would probably be the obvious radio hit. Cells has a dreamy languor about it, sounding not unlike Saint Etienne as heard from another room whilst still waking up; the tempo goes back up with the cosmic disco of Misson Desire, which one could imagine as the theme song from an obscure, infinitely cooler Barbarella-analogue filmed in, say, Yugoslavia or somewhere during the early 1970s. (There are undoubtedly layers of reference and allusion throughout this work; Weaver's husband and partner in music is the arch-obscurantist curator Andy Votel, after all.) The album eases to closure, with a few more mellow, though no less intricate, tracks, before bidding adieu with Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary, its reverbed barroom piano courtesy of BC Camplight. In any case, this is a record which reveals more with each repeated listening.
The album of the year is, of course, Taylor Swift's 1989, but were it not, it'd be Jane Weaver's The Silver Globe.
As far as the gigs of the year go, the highlight would be a tie between the Slowdive gigs I saw; they were all great, but I'd say either the very first one at Hoxton Bar (for the “I'm watching Slowdive play live!!” factor), the one at Primavera, for its epic scale and energy, or the very last one at the Forum (by when they had had half a year of live gigs under their belt and some appropriately psychedelic visual projections to boot); they were all magnificent. I'll just say that watching them play what their cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair has grown into—a sonic cathedral of coruscating majesty—is the musical equivalent of watching the most breathtaking sunset one has ever seen, until its very last rays disappear below the horizon into the velvet night.
This, of course, is a very hard act to follow, but the very strong runner-up was seeing
For your listening pleasure and/or curiosity, there is a streamable mix taken from the records mentioned above here.
Last week was the annual ritual the year's iPhone launch. It followed the usual routine: new models (with larger screens and a new iOS version), new technologies (Apple Pay, a contactless payment system) and a preannouncement of an as-yet unready product (the Apple Watch, which, to all appearances, doesn't quite work yet, hence the carefully managed demo). And then, another surprise: Bono, that Tony Blair of adult-oriented rock took to the stage, looking particularly greasy and ratlike in his trademark rock'n'roll sunglasses, and, through a scripted “spontaneous” exchange with Apple CEO Tim Cook, announced that his band U2 have recorded a new album, and that Apple have bought each and every one of their users a copy; it would be showing up in their record collections whether they wanted it or not. And, soon enough, it did. Those whose phones were set to automatically synchronise with iTunes Match found the new U2 album waiting on their phones.
Of course, not everyone was happy with having a record shoved into their record collections; even without it being by a band with such a sketchy reputation (musically and otherwise) as U2. The similarity between Bono's rationale—that those finding the music on their computer may listen to it and may like it, and if they don't like it, they can delete it—and the rationalisations of old-fashioned email spammers, was pointed out. Though, actually, you couldn't even delete it; you could remove it from your computer, and meticulously scrub it from all your Apple devices, but it would always be waiting for you in your list of downloadable purchases on the iTunes Store, like an unflushable jobbie, taunting you with its noisome presence every time you lifted the lid. The most you could do with it was “hide” it, as you would a mildly embarrassing drunken binge-purchase; but you and Apple would know it was always there, mocking you.
This was not so much the “turd-in-a-can” business model of lowest-common-denominator consumer capitalism as the “unflushable turd” business model; or “now you have our album in your music collection; deal with it”. A bit like the Los Angeles band who blocked a freeway with a truck and treated the trapped motorists to a live gig from a stage on the back, only scaled up to the size of Bono's messianic ego and international-level schmoozing abilities. When you're Bono, it seems, you can push your music to millions of people. As for Apple, could this mean that their hubris about knowing their customers' needs better than they know themselves has extended from which controls a user needs in an app to what sort of music the user likes, or ought to like?
After considerable kvetching and sarcasm on social media and the web (and undoubtedly a number of complaints to iTunes Support), Apple relented, and created a world first: a dedicated web link for removing U2's Songs Of Innocence from one's iTunes collection; a privilege (if one can call it that) that no other musical act has merited, or is likely to merit any time soon, with the levels of hubris, influence and public antipathy required to pull off such a feat.
Apple surely have statistics about how many people have availed themselves of this link, and expunged the most recent U2 album from their record collections. It's unlikely that they will publish them. It would be nice if this whole episode had been a lesson in humility for Bono and his people, but, somehow, I suspect that's too much to hope for.
There is, however, some hope from this affair; it seems that, after all, enough people to be counted and listened to still consider their music collections—the recordings they have chosen and curated themselves—to be a personal artefact, rather than just another advertising billboard. Sure, Facebook may abridge our friends' party photos and emotional dramas and squeeze in ads pushing weight-loss plans and financial services in the spaces freed up, Twitter may season our (now similarly algorithmically winnowed down) feeds with “sponsored tweets”, Shazam may turn our phones into micro-billboards for the new Justin Bieber record when we hold them up to check what the bangin' track the DJ is playing is, and Spotify may bombard us with gratingly obnoxious ads until we relent and become paying customers, but both our record collections and our not-inexpensive, non-ad-subsidised, devices are off limits; and woe betide anyone who messes with them.
They call me Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate… it's records that are available only on LP with a download code; with no CD, and no option to buy just the download.
On one hand, this is an improvement on the previous state of affairs: records being available only on vinyl, with no downloads or digital copies whatsoever, so if you were the kind of weirdo computer-nerd to whom the words “download” and “MP3” meant something, your options would be to rig up one of those USB turntables, play your newly-bought record through them, recording to a WAV file, trim it to the separate tracks and do your best to EQ out the inherent suckiness of vinyl so you'd have something approximating what a hypothetical digital copy would sound like. Or if you don't have a USB turntable or reasonable Audacity skills, you would illegally pirate the digital copy from someone who does. At least with download codes, there is an audio file which hasn't been through the vinyl-transfer wringer. On the other hand, though, you can't have it without also accepting the slab of vinyl it comes with, because Authenticity.
The existence of the download code mockingly acknowledges the shift in ways of listening to music, the fact that not everybody owns a turntable or is willing to partake in the vinyl ceremony (taking the record gingerly out of its anti-static sleeve, placing it reverently in the middle of the vinyl shrine, sitting down cross-legged exactly between the two speakers and, for the 22 minute duration of a side, reverently contemplating the gatefold artwork with a joint in one hand, as one's forebears did in the prelapsarian Sixeventies, when love was free, weed was good and rock was the real thing), and that, with the rise of digital audio and portable sound players, the vinyl record has metamorphosed from the humble, utilitarian carrier of most convenience it was in the age of the teenager's Dansette into a fetish object; one part collectible trophy, one part quasi-religious totem of Authenticity. The denial of downloads on their own affirms the primacy of the cult of vinyl: you will take the vinyl record, it dictates, and you will regard it with quasi-religious reverence, as it is a sacred relic, a splinter of the True Cross, in which is embodied Authenticity.
The cult of vinyl-as-ark-of-Authenticity is a sort of conservative (with a small 'c') reaction to, and attempted brake on, the hurtling pace of technological and social change, which, in less than a lifetime, has rendered ways of engaging with music obsolete. The way people consume music has changed as the amount of music has increased and the price has plummeted; consequently, one has considerably more music at one's disposal than one's parents (or even one's younger self) would have, saving up for a few months to get the new LP by their favourite band and then listening the hell out of it. (A few years ago, Jarvis Cocker said that music has become something like a scented candle; something consumed casually in the background, without one's full rapt attention. Of course, Cocker's reaction to this phenomenon is coloured by the contrast with his own formative experiences in the early 1980s, which in terms of the culture of music consumption, were an extension of the Sixeventies.) Meanwhile, with the world's rising population (there are roughly twice as many people alive today as in 1970) and urban gentrification, the size of the typical residence (i.e., one affordable to one of ordinary means) has shrunk; as such, a nontrivial collection of music in physical format is increasingly becoming a luxury only wealthy eccentrics and rural hermits can afford; and this goes doubly so for space-inefficient formats such as vinyl records. The upshot is that each piece of recorded music in one's collection can expect both less attention and less physical space than might have once been the case. Which is why digital files come in handy. But, of course, that wouldn't be Authentic; when you listen to an MP3, you're not really listening to the recording and having the authentic experience of the music; you're a ghost, alienated from your own music-listening life, listening to a ghost of the music, having a ghost experience that doesn't really exist, not in the way that your dad's experience of the Stone Roses did. Or so the narrative of the vinyl mandate goes. Which is why we are stuck buying a slab of vinyl, opening the package, pulling out the card with the download code, and then putting the actual slab of vinyl in the gap behind the IKEA BILLY bookcase with all the other votive icons of Authenticity, its grooves doomed to never be touched by a gramophone needle. Time goes on and the mass of reluctantly adopted household gods grows.
The vinyl mandate is the product of a Baby Boomer elite (and, to a lesser extent, the Generation X that followed it and absorbed some of its superstitions and prejudices), having aged into seniority and cultural power, staring into the abyss of its own mortality, feeling the chill of rapid change having made its own formative experiences obsolete, recoiling before the sublime terror of one's insignificance in the face of the march of time and desperately clutching for the conditions of its own long-gone youth and virility; since these involved listening to rock'n'roll from vinyl records, it is decreed that the way that they consumed music (record player, reverent contemplation, possible recreational substance use; definitely not with a pair of white earbuds at one's desk or in the gym, and absolutely not sacrilegiously shuffled with the rest of one's collection of music) is the one true, Authentic way of truly connecting and engaging with the music. Granted, many of the artists and label owners who enforce this mandate are too young to have invested in this myth first-hand; perhaps they are motivated by a Couplandian displaced nostalgia for the golden age of authenticity they weren't born in, or perhaps such is the power of cultural transmission that values get propagated beyond the rationale from which they sprang. In any case, the myth persists for now, and we're stuck with piles of vinyl records which will never be played, all for want of a download code.
As for physical artefacts: could they not be something more practical? Personally, if I'm at a merch stand, I'd rather buy a band T-shirt or button badge with a download code affixed to it than a vinyl record with one.
A report in The Verge from a conference in Las Vegas about the business side of electronic dance music (EDM). EDM is not to be confused with the electronic dance music that older readers will remember; the 303-heavy acid-house played in underground clubs in Chicago and New York in the 1980s, the rave-techno that crusties dropped E to in illegal (and definitely undermonetised) raves during the Second Summer of Love, or even the glossier house/trance that superclubs played in the 1990s and 00s, but is a new phenomenon, as different as rock'n'roll was from jump blues. Having moved to Las Vegas, cut its name down, Diddy-fashion, to three VIP-worthy letters, and replaced the loved-up Goa-beach hippyisms with some high-octane all-American shock-and-awe, EDM has had an extreme makeover, and in doing so, not so much sold out as absorbed the whole concept of commercialism and monetisation and become one with it. The fans, apparently, couldn't be happier with it (or so the boosters of the brand synergies say, of course); on some level, being part of a super-hot marketing demographic is this generation's equivalent of the distinctly shabbier solidarity of being a Mod or a punk or whatever your grandparents did because there was nobody around to sell them energy drinks or LED jewellery.
Not surprisingly, people who love electronic music also love electronics. They have "a high propensity to purchase high-tech devices versus other genres, making them ideal for partnerships in the mobile and tech space," Simonian said. They’re more likely than other music listeners to purchase songs after hearing them in an ad. They’re also 50 percent more likely to buy energy drinks and 18 percent less likely to buy diet soda — presumably because they spend too much time dancing to worry about calories, Simonian joked. They spend more of their music money on live events, and they’re trendsetters — EDM listeners are generally regarded as "key influencers" among their peers.
Festivals also offer fertile ground for millennials, a generation entirely unfamiliar with the concept of selling out, to engage in "brand immersion." Swedish House Mafia pioneered the trend when they partnered with Absolut in 2012, releasing a single called "Greyhound" — named after the popular combination of vodka and grapefruit juice — that featured the trio behind a roboticized race dog on its cover. The move successfully cast the cocktail as an EDM staple, and the band incorporated the digital dog into its visuals for an Absolut-sponsored tour. Simonian says Nielsen’s research has revealed that electronic music fans "want brands to sponsor artists." If this concept sounds like "selling out" to you, your problem might be that you were born before 1990, or that you were raised on some form of punk rock ethos that requires strict division between creativity and capital (I’m guilty of both). Selling out is an alien concept in the EDM market — when Simonian says that fans want brands to sponsor artists, it might just mean that fans are happy to see their favorite producers making a decent wage to create amazing music.
So when I hear Skrillex in a Best Buy commercial, hear Calvin Harris teaming up with Rihanna, or a mediocre deadmau5 rip-off while I’m browsing through the underwear section of Target, I can only smile contentedly: finally, the sound I wanted to hear everywhere when I was growing up is actually everywhere. EDM has become the first "voice of a generation" that openly accepts a partner all other types of music bristled at: unabashed capitalism.Well, there was such a thing as “commercial dance” in the 1990s, but the word “commercial” in that case cast it as a lesser form of dance music; something churned out by hacks in Germany and the Benelux countries to sell to mobile-phone ringtone companies, undiscerning preteens and those too hammered on flavoured vodka to know the difference. In this case, though, the big, well-hyped megastar DJs are the hypercommercial players, and the pervasive commerciality of EDM goes unremarked; the phrase “commercial EDM” would, indeed, sound awkward and ungainly, like “water fish” or something.
An article enumerating the eight mistakes that rock music critics make:
I’ve made some mistakes along the way. We all have: it’s a learning curve, this rock-writing thing. First we imitate Christgau and Bangs, then we imitate Spin and NME, then we forget what the hell we were trying to do in the first place, then (after several hundred reviews) we find our own voice. Well, some of us do. Some bail out; others turn to writing press kits. Some stalwarts continue hyping, lying, mushmouthing, and being generally annoying. Still, I’d like to say I’ve learned from my mistakes, and that’s the purpose of this column. Here are the Eight Biggest Mistakes That Music Critics Make, intended to supplement Lankford’s own list on how we critics can bring out our inner asshole. And yes, these mistakes: I’ve made them all. In fact (for all you pomo kids out there) I believe on at least two occasions I make the mistake while writing about it, below. Keep your eyes peeled.
This may sound absurd, but writers with Good Taste are inevitably the worst critics. Yes, yes, all critics have “good” taste, or at least they have faith in their own idiosyncratic eardrums. But Good Taste is something different altogether: it’s a combination of middlebrow sentiment, political correctness, multicultural blandness, and moral jitters. Fear of violence and speed and sex and cusswords are somewhere in there, too. Good Taste is what makes a critic love Lauryn Hill but fear Li’l Kim. Good Taste means putting Willie Nelson ahead of David Allen Coe in the country-music canon. The only way to be a truly discerning critic is to brave the elements: slap on albums by ANTiSEEN, Def Squad, Cyndi Lauper, Anal Cunt, Commodores, Star Death, Pink & Brown, Voivod, Johnny Paycheck, Ja Rule, Iron Maiden, Hanson, .38 Special, Blink 182, and see what you like. (Just for the record, I like all of ‘em except Ja Rule and Anal Cunt). Don’t stick to the safe critically received Beck’n'Wilco mulch or you’re gonna dull your ears too fast. Good Taste is for brainless elites. Go for bad taste first, then work your way up.(Though I emphatically disagree with his dismissal of Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out as an "ether-soaked gauzepad"; sure, it's no balls-to-the-wall rock workout, but it is in my opinion among their best albums. Hey, if you want shock and awe, buy a Skrillex album or something.)
On occasion of a Women In Rock mini-festival on Melbourne radio station 3CR, Mess+Noise got Ninetynine's Laura Macfarlane and the members of the all-female rock trio Dead River to interview each other:
Laura: Overall I think things with gender equality in music have improved slightly but it still needs more work. There could be more female presence in the technical side of music. For instance there aren’t many female masterers still. It also varies a lot between countries. Ninetynine has played in countries and cities where being a female musician is still a novelty. Those shows always stick out in my memory because usually one female person in the audience will come up and tell you that they really appreciate seeing female musicians. Maybe they were thinking of starting their own band, but hadn’t seen a live band with women in it. It is always special to feel like maybe you have helped encourage other women in some small way.
Laura: Although Ninetynine does not exclusively reference Get Smart, we do like a lot of things people relate to the name, including agent 99. She’s great. We also wanted to use a number as a band name because it can work well in countries where people don’t speak a lot of English. I think the The Shaggs would be my favourite ’60s girl group.
Dead River: Despite plenty of evidence that women are capable and creative masters of their instruments and gear (PJ Harvey, Savages, Kim Gordon, to name a few), there are prevailing paternalistic attitudes that continue to undermine women in music. I’m sure many female musicians can relate to the experience of a male mixer walking on stage and adjusting her amp or telling her how to set her levels. Or being asked if you’re the ”merch girl” or “where’s your acoustic guitar?” after you’ve just lugged an entire drum kit or Orange stack through the door.Meanwhile, the members of Ninetynine have recorded a song to raise funds for protests against the East-West road tunnel, under the name “Tunnel Vision Song Contest”. It sounds like Ninetynine at their most Sonic Youth-influenced, though is a bit light on the Casiotone and chromatic percussion.
It's official: Slowdive are reuniting. Their first announced gig will be at Primavera in Barcelona, though in an interview with The Quietus, Neil Halstead said that the original plan was to record some new material, with the gigs funding the recording.
Certainly, if one looked closely enough, one could spot hints of Halstead's former hard line against a Slowdive reunion softening, from conciliatory remarks in more recent interviews to last year's not at all folksy Black Hearted Brother album.
Today, I cancelled my iTunes Match subscription.
I subscribed to iTunes Match as soon as it became available in the UK, because the idea of being able to upload my music collection into The Cloud™ and access it without physically shlepping it around seemed very useful. Over the next few weeks, I embarked on the project of uploading the contents of my music collection (which, in its unabridged form, resides on a small Linux machine running mpd); manually copying it to a MacBook, dragging it into iTunes and waiting for it to sync up with the servers and verify or upload my music. Slowly but surely, a virtual copy of my music collection took shape in the cloud, accessible remotely wherever I have my iPhone and an internet connection. And then, towards the end, I hit the 25,000-song ceiling, and no more songs would go on.
iTunes Match, you see, has a limit of 25,000 songs per user, not counting purchases from iTunes. This is a hard limit; there are no premium tiers which will bump this up to something more generous for those outliers on the right-hand side of the music-collection bell curve, not at any price. Well, you could always repurchase part or all of your collection from the iTunes Store, freeing up slots for out-of-print rarities and CD-Rs bought at gigs and such, but that kinda sucks. It is not clear why Apple did not offer any sort of reasonable option for prolific music collectors; perhaps the various music rightsholders, long used to the role of the dog in the manger, decided that those people could pay extra and demanded extortionate prices, or just flat out refused to allow it, because they could. Perhaps Apple thought that having different usage tiers broke up the elegance of their iTunes offering, that 25,000 songs was more than enough for the typical user (whose music collection consists of about two dozen albums, among them Coldplay, Skrillex, a few albums of classic 90s alt-rock and the obligatory stylishly understated European indie wallpaper music), and that the tiny minority of power users who need more aren't really the kinds of clients they are interested in. Perhaps this is simply a cynical ploy by Apple and/or the RIAA to arm-twist the punters into repurchasing their record collections in another format (namely a digital file much like the one they already have, but with the option of accessing it on iTunes Match for free). But in any case, the upshot is that one is stuck with the 25,000-song hard limit.
For a while, I made do with the limit. My plans were downgraded from “get everything into iTunes Match” to “get most of it into iTunes Match”. I scanned my iTunes collection, performing triage, coldly relegating albums into a second tier: non-essential; not to be uploaded. The non-essential albums were deleted from my MacBook (there is no way to mark part of your iTunes collection as “yes, I might want to listen to this, but please don't waste any of my 25,000 iTunes Match slots on it”); should I wish to listen to them, I would have to do so at home, on the small Linux box in my living room. Initially, only a handful of albums got relegated, with the rest squeezing in at somewhere over 24,000 tracks. And all was, if not perfect, then acceptable for the time being.
Time went on and, as I bought CDs (some at gigs, some in record shops I visited, and some just because they had artwork and packaging the digital copy was not privy to), every now and then I'd run out of space in iTunes Match, and would do another sweep of my collection, finding more records to consign to the outer darkness. As the low-hanging fruit disappeared, subsequent sweeps became more difficult, until, at some time last year, I resigned myself to not having any new music in my iTunes Match collection, unless it had proved itself so good as to be worth killing something else for; Album Deathmatch.
And so, when the email from Apple came in, notifying me that the renewal date for iTunes Match had come around and I would be billed £21.99 for another year of a flawed service, the choice was clear. Enough was enough, and so I cancelled the renewal. As of now, Apple's systems will have undoubtedly deleted the obscure Australian indiepop tracks that iTunes uploaded some two years earlier.
I would have kept iTunes Match, had it had one of two changes: ideally, the option of a higher limit. Or, if the limit is, for some reason, not negotiable, the option of keeping tracks in one's iTunes whilst keeping (or taking) them out of iTunes Match. The “I like this, but not enough to want to get to it from my iPhone” option, if you will; a no-brainer when dealing with a scarce resource one has paid for.
So what comes next? Well, all the rival services, such as Amazon's and Google's ones, seem to also fall short with large numbers of tracks. I suspect that my next music locker will be a USB flash drive I carry with me; there are 256Gb flash drives on the market now, and while they're expensive, their price will inevitably drop. It's not implausible that, by the end of the year, they will cost less than £21.99.
As 2013 draws to a close, it's once again time to look back on the records of the year, and so here is this year's list (ordered by artist name):
- Beaches - She Beats
The second album for the Melbourne indie-rock combo features kosmische legend Michael Rother guesting on three tracks. Musically, it straddles the boundaries of shoegaze, post-rock and the more impressionistic end of rock. Layers of guitar fuzz drive forward, propelled by metronomic drumming, as bass and guitar lines interweave and play off each other and reverbed vocals float ambiently over the mix; at times, it sounds like the bastard child of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, or possibly the first Wolf and Cub album. The overall effect is vaguely mesmeric.
- Black Hearted Brother - Stars Are Our Home
A surprise collaboration from Neil Halstead (originally of shoegaze legends Slowdive, though ploughing folkier furrows in the decade or two since), his producer Nick Holton, and Mark Van Hoen (of IDM outfits Seefeel and Locust), which dropped late in the year on US indiepop label Slumberland, though sounding anything but twee, or, for that matter, folky; instead, we are presented with a coruscating slab of kosmische prog-disco, space rock and more than a hint of shoegaze; maximalist music which is not afraid of layeredness. Stars Are Our Home opens with the title track, a portentious minor-key electronic instrumental one would expect to have been brought into being on a modular synthesiser the size of a room (in reality, it may well have been made on a MacBook running Ableton Live like every other track these days, but such is modern life); this leads into the most Slowdive-esque track, the gloriously fuzzy (I Don't Mean To) Wonder; the rest of the album consists of a mixture of Halstead's languid vocals and honed songwriting, underpinned with combinations of strummed guitars, analogue fuzz, bold, crunchy drums and electronics both subtle and bold, often building up into layered, gleefully multitracked crescendos reminiscent at times of Caribou/Manitoba. One of the highlights was My Baby Just Sailed Away, a cut of supercool kosmische disco that motors through the darkness in a haze of analogue synth arpeggios and guitar crunch.
- Factory Floor - s/t
Factory Floor, a trio who originated in the industrial/noise scene in East London, purvey an album of ecstatic electro workouts which meld the icy cool of early-1980s New York disco à la Arthur Baker with the minimal club scenes of Berlin and Cologne and just a hint of Throbbing Gristle-style menace lurking beneath the glossy surface.
- Haiku Salut - Tricolore
The début full-length album from the band that formed from one half of The Deirdres treads a far less rambunctious, and slightly less twee, path. Eschewing the handclaps-and-glockenspiel mayhem of indiepop, Haiku Salut venture at times into cinematic chamber-pop reminiscent of Yann Tiersen (Los Elefantes, Lonesome George), Múm-style glitchy dreampop (Leaf Stricken) and the more pastoral ends of the post-rock spectrum (Rustic Sense of Migration), alternating between piano, classical guitar, various percussion, accordion and electronic beats.
- Kosmischer Läufer - Volume One
This year's faux-Krautrock record comes with a backstory of being a compilation of tracks composed in the 1970s and 1980s by "Martin Zeichnete", a young East German sound engineer who, because of his illicit listening to West German Kosmische Musik, was drafted by the Stasi to create training music for the DDR's athletes. Which is a more interesting story than it having been made by two guys in Edinburgh in 2013. With a bit of suspension of belief, this record creates a semi-convincing alternate-history Krautrock fantasia, like a less fanciful Endless House. Besides the implausible story and even more implausible digital crispness of the recording, it is a compelling and listenable piece of motorik electronica; if you like music self-consciously rooted in 1970s Germany (and aren't too fussy about it citing the wrong Germany), you might find this to be an enjoyable homage.
- The Magic Theatre - The Long Way Home
Seemingly tailor-made for those missing Isobel Campbell's Gentle Waves project, The Magic Theatre (from two of the members of indiepop cult heroes Ooberman) delivers a package of immaculately retro-styled and impeccably artful chamber-pop. Released on credible Madrid indiepop label Elefant, The Long Way Home has the widescreen Technicolor sheen of high-end 1960s productions, with sweeping strings and woodwinds and nary a distorted guitar to be heard. Of course, in 2013, making a record that sounds like this is a deliberate decision, and some would say an affected one. The record nails its stylistic colours to the mast at the outset with The Sampler, a fairy-tale account of making a dress for a ball, sung over sweeping strings and sugarplum bells; this is followed by It Was Glorious, an paean to a youthful summer and/or a soundtrack to Jack Wills catalogue photography. (There are vaguely posh undertones to much of this album, perhaps echoing él Records' faux-aristocratic indie in the 1980s.) Festival of Fire veers in a Bollywood-via-Wes-Anderson direction, while Cathedrals Of The Mind, a whir of erudite references, explores the complexity, and ultimate futility, of civilisation, with more than an echo of Windmills Of Your Mind to it; this song in particular seems written for the end credits of a vintage spy thriller. The highlight would be the lovely I Want To Die By Your Side, which sounds like a synthless Dubstar and will undoubtedly end up a fixture of many mix tapes and indiepop kids' weddings. The closing track, which is also the title track, ends the record on a high.
- Samarís - Samarís, and Cuushe - Butterfly Case
This year's odd couple of albums; this time the shared theme being chilled-out electropop from volcanic islands. Samaris hail from Reykjavík, Iceland; their self-titled album actually consists of two EPs released last year, but those were not widely available prior to being rereleased as an album this year. They make a sort of low-key electronic dream-pop, with subtle subbass, skittering beats, artful use of dub delay, the odd arpeggiated synthesizer and quiet vocals in Icelandic; I was reminded a little of GusGus' 1997 album Polyesterday; not so much by the sound, but by the feel of it. Meanwhile, Cuushe, who hail from Kyoto and Tokyo, are slightly more upbeat and (for want of a better word) electronic-sounding; though sharing the IDM influences; there are slightly more layers of synths, the tempos are a bit faster, and the overall impression is a bit more urban. Their vocals, often multitracked and layered, are in English on all but one song, and sound slightly reminiscent of Múm.
- Underground Lovers - Weekend
It has been a long time between records for the Underground Lovers; their last album was 1998's Cold Feeling, a homage of sorts to their influences (Suicide, the Velvet Underground, Neu! and New Order are all in evidence there). And those who waited 15 years would not have been disappointed; this album has all the elements one expected from the Undies' 1990s heyday; the skronky too-cool-for-school alt.rock guitar lines married with slightly obsolescent dance-music electronics (no wubwubs or mad drops here), the mild incongruity adding texture. The Go-Betweens' influence can be felt in places in the record, in some of the more wistfully reflective songwriting (such as in the almost shoegazey Haunted (Acedia)), and more explicitly in the track Riding, recounting a party in the bygone days of a scene. The lushness of the production is particularly evident on the quieter tracks, including the opener Spaces, and the stylish dream-pop of Dream To Me, which is a Bacharachian trumpet accent away from being a Birdie song. The album closes with The Lie That Sets You Free, a motorik workout on a par with Cold Feeling's Feels So Good To Be Free. This record carries its weight in years, as befits a band of the vintage of the Underground Lovers, and does so gracefully. All in all, a fine return, and hopefully not the last we'll hear from the Undies.
- Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen
The best New York C86-revival band to come out of London, Veronica Falls hone their chops for their second album, which is a somewhat more tightly-coiled, groovy and melodic affair than the affable scruff of their début, whilst maintaining a similar theme of stylised teenage drama executed in boy-girl vocal harmonies.
- T.R.A.S.E. - Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble
Not a new record per se, but a new find, consisting of demos and experimental recordings made by Mancunian teenage synth boffin Andy Popplewell in the late 70s/early 80s on synthesisers he built himself; abandoned for a few decades, it surfaced when Popplewell, now a middle-aged tape-restoration consultant, used his old tapes as an experimental subject for restoration, and then happened to chance upon obscurantist cratedigger Andy Votel, who was getting some tapes restored for his Finders Keepers reissue label. A lot less rough than one would expect; highlights include the proto-shoegaze of Harmonium, the beats of Electronic Rock and a cover of Gary Numan's We Are So Fragile.
Nothing immediately jumps out as a record of the year, though Samarís and Underground Lovers are strong contenders; had Black Hearted Brother come out earlier, it could well have given them a run for their money.
My gigs of the year would be:
- Loney Dear, Majornas Missionsyrka, Gothenburg, 5 October; Loney Dear performing a number of songs, including some classics and a few new ones, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, in a rather lågom church next to a Gothenburg tower block. The orchestral arrangements were exquisite, and the whole experience was worth the flight to Sweden.
- Kraftwerk, Harpa, Reykjavík, 4 November; not having managed to see them in London or New York, I jumped at the opportunity when they announced a show in Reykjavík, making my second trip to Iceland of they year. The show was spectacular; more about it here.
- Haiku Salut, St. John's, Bethnal Green, 12 October; Haiku Salut playing in a church, accompanied by several dozen electronically controlled lamps that lit up in time with the music. A great show and a somewhat twee spectacle.
For your listening pleasure, there's a streamable mix taken from the records of the year here.
This weekend, I went to Indietracks, which, as previous years, was ace. Highlights were:
- Bis, who headlined on the first night, playing an energetic set (even with Manda being in the late stages of pregnancy). I saw them the night before at the Lexington, but preferred the Indietracks set, as the crowd at the Lexington had a macho, aggressive vibe (a big chunk of the front of the audience seemed to be muscle-shirted Rollins-wannabe meatheads looking for some action), which the twee pop kids, bless them, didn't have.
- The Secret History, the New York cult heroes (mostly) formerly known as My Favorite, playing on the main stage; they did two My Favorite songs (Absolute Beginners Again and The Suburbs Are Killing Us), which was great, along with songs from their current incarnation's two albums.
- Haiku Salut, doing a set in the intimate setting of the church, accompanied by an assortment of MIDI-controlled lamps, which waxed, waned and blinked in synchronisation with the music. The effect was quite spectacular.
- Flowers, a promising young band, playing on the main stage on Sunday. They're well worth seeing; I'm looking forward to their album.
- Factory/Sarah veterans The Wake were amazing. Probably the oldest band there (I imagine they could claim a modicum of seniority over The Pastels), who made a return last year after a 17-year hiatus; their 2012 album was in my list of favourites of that year. They played some songs from this album, but mostly older material from their Factory years (which, if you liked Joy Division and the first New Order album, you'll probably like as well); and it sounded every bit as stark as on the record only far more vivid. Meanwhile, the bassist kept stealing the show with his moves; one cool cat.
- Still Corners closed the festival as the sun went down over the stage.
- Sets on the trains: London ukulele-pop combo Owl And Mouse did a great set on Saturday. On Sunday, Harvey Williams of Another Sunny Day played on the train, though there were a lot of people who didn't manage to squeeze into the parcel van it was in. Harvey did manage to do a second set in the workshop tent later.
The Quietus has a piece on the decline (if not reversal) of the equation of rock'n'roll with youth, as evidenced in the recent milestone of a 70-year-old Mick Jagger fronting the stage at Glastonbury:
Most of my predictions as a music journalist have come to grief in the near three decades I've been practising the art but one at least, which I first made 25 years ago, has successfully come to pass – that rock groups would still be touring in their 70s. Others demurred at this – we're talking about a time when a 45-year-old John Peel was considered unfeasibly senior still to be hauling his old bones to Fall gigs, like some old tennis pro ill-advisedly hitting the tournament circuit for yet another hurrah. This was a time when rock & roll still just about considered itself youth culture and the first crease had yet to be ironed into its jeans. In the 80s, the mid-20s was considered some significant cut-off point. When Q magazine was launched, it was aimed at what it considered an audaciously senior, Jeremy Clarkson-style demographic – the over-25s. Still earlier, it was still worse. In 1964, Melody Maker ran a concerned editorial about the ageing Beatles drummer entitled “Ringo – Too Old To Rock At 24?”
It's not so much that the old guard of artists have necessarily redeemed themselves, or rediscovered their old powers, it's that the critical mood has changed. The iconoclastic scepticism of the punk generation gave way, in the conservative, nostalgic, Oasis-dominated 1990s to a reverence for wealth, prestige, superstardom, a longing for the old days of mega-mania, rather than interesting, diverse, locally sourced clusters of new music. This has gradually intensified, as a sense grows that the mainstream rock narrative has run its course, the smoke is clearing, and we can look back at the legends of yore with renewed biographical clarity, their often trite sayings and doings regarded with utter fascination, their present day activities reviewed with slavering, uncritical awe.Rock'n'roll's focus on youth was itself an anomaly amongst established genres; in other genres such as jazz and blues, artists have often created work, and often groundbreaking work, well into advanced age (the article mentions Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins); rock, however, started as a commercialised adaptation of the blues, packaged into 7" singles and marketed at teenagers, and remained tied to youth until its intrinsic momentum as a genre overwhelmed the scaffolding of commerce and/or a generation of middle-aged people refused to give up rock'n'roll and start listening to something more age-appropriate like, say, Mantovani or Harry Belafonte.
There are countless examples from the avant-garde world that old age doesn't dim the creative powers and reduce them to a twilight of tea and biscuits, Max Bygraves and the 'Semprini Serenade'. Musique concrète composers like Luc Ferrari, Henri Pousseur and of course Karlheinz Stockhausen were still operating on the ultra-radical fringes of music before they died of eventual, natural causes early in the 21st century. The same can be said of Derek Bailey, vigorous and active and expanding the guitar lexicon way beyond the confines of rock until his death, aged 75.
Quite simply, music isn't sport. You can perform to the physical level required well into your senior years. Your faculties, health permitting, are quite capable of seeing you through the flails and thrashes and moves like Jagger. This is an extremely gratifying spectacle because, of course, the rock audience itself is growing older year by year, and is most pleased to see that while death will claim us all, old age (as lived out by previous generations sometimes from about their mid-30s onwards if old photos are anything to go by) need not. And so it will go on. I predict rock groups touring and working into their 80s, maybe 90s, with the 70+ brigade, currently a relatively select group, a commonplace band filled out by the likes of Prince, Elvis Costello, Dexys. No one stops. Why would they? Why should they?The article also mentions David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney, and finishes with taking Jagger to task for taking the easy way out and resting on the laurels of mega-celebrity rather than pushing boundaries:
And so, happy birthday, Mick Jagger. You truly deserve your slice of cake. You are, after all, Fucking Mick Jagger. Never mind “Sir” Mick Jagger; you should replace the “Sir” with “Fucking” and insist, at all times on that far more appropriate mode of address. You should have a party. Only, don't invite the Kate Mosses, Chris Martins and the rest of the showbiz kids – you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else. Invite your own contemporaries, who deserve their slice of cake also. Invite Leonard Cohen. Invite Alan Vega, who just turned 75 but whose group Suicide have never enjoyed the good commercial fortune their innovations deserved. Invite Hans-Joachim Roedelius, whose birth in October 1934 is the very first event on the krautrock timeline, whose work with Kluster and later Cluster is foundational in the histories of noise and ambient respectively, and who is still cutting it, as shown in his very latest release Tiden. Invite Irmin Schmidt and Jaki Liebezeit, surviving founder members of Can, whose continued inventions (on the Cyclopean EP for example) are a discreet counterpoint to Kraftwerk's more widely feted Touring Synthpop Museum. Invite Joni Mitchell, who might have a thing or two to say about why women aren't necessarily granted the same indulgence to carry on being rock stars into their senior years as their male counterparts. Happy birthday and rock on – we know you will.Meanwhile elsewhere, how Guns'n'Roses' Chinese Democracy made possible the current wave of comeback albums, including albums like My Bloody Valentine's m b v and the new Kraftwerk, Stone Roses and Smiths albums we'll almost certainly hear over the next few years.
I think the record is the equivalent of an honest, expressive film or novel…something people can spend a bit of time inside. I know it’s good. But those are not the kind of attributes that a lot of the Pitchfork side of indie culture values. They mostly want clever abstraction of a good idea or aesthetic from the past. Which is like the same thing say… a trendy clothier does. Presented by skinny young white people whenever possible. Which is also what a trendy clothier does actually. I mean all artists explore what’s been done before, that’s WHAT ART IS, but ideally on top of a foundation of intention, something with a bit of warm blood in it. Music like DIIV seems to just aggregate other good records and blur the meaningful bits that aren’t quite as easy to ape. Youth as the best car commercial ever. VICE on the other hand just promotes what I call ”transgression tourism”. Nothing entertains rich kids quite like the fucked up things poor people, or better yet, poor people of color do. But beyond that, people aren’t really looking to take chances with what they expose. Thus you get coverage for a whole label, with the same publicist whom essentially do the same thing. Honestly, soon we will only be thinking in 7 second intervals and real art will be something exchanged in the shadows like cigarettes or Levi jeans in the 60s Soviet Union.
So our plans are to try to get people to give a listen, and our dream is to be part of a wave of groups that starts a discussion about the state of ”overground” music in the boutique subculture. Capitalism has finally alienated us from our music. Rock n’ roll was actually one of the success stories of capitalism in the 20th century. But no longer. We need to demand poetry.
It seems that yesterday quite a few notable people died; among them:
- Kim Thompson, co-founder of venerable independent comics publisher Fantagraphics, who championed both the publishing of new alternative voices and the translation of European bandes dessinées into English; aged 56:
- Melbourne urban planning expert Professor Paul Mees; a tireless advocate of improving public transport in a city running on a 1950s-vintage American vision of wide freeways, one car per adult and public transport as something nobody who can afford a car would use (and thus inherently unworthy of taking Your Tax Money, Suburban Liberal Voter, to fix up for the bums who use it). It's sad that he died so young (at 51), and that in his last months, he would not have seen any signs of his vision coming any closer to realisation; if anything, the signs would have pointed the other way, with the PM-in-waiting announcing that “we don't do urban rail” in Australia and pledging to double up on freeway building.
- Country singer Slim Whitman, whom your parents and/or grandparents may have had in their record collections; he was 90, and while his creative peak was in the early 1950s, his last new album came out in 2010.
- Character actor James Gandolfini, best known for his role in Mafia-themed TV drama The Sopranos; in Italy, aged 51.
There's a strangely cheery energy to the album as well. This is something that would be a hallmark of the intertwined dance that New Order and The Cure would perform over the next couple of years. This was to the extent that it sometimes seemed the distinguishing factor of a song wouldn't emerge fully until it was clear if the singer was Bernard Sumner or Robert Smith. However The Cure always possessed the sense of a singular voice going through eternal moods of structure and collapse in equal measure, wooziness and queasy pirouetting. Whereas by this point the rigorous structure of what was New Order remained crucial, especially that sense of being something not too far removed from Can, Kraftwerk and other Teutonic proponents of total focus. And now this sound was more openly underscored by the electronic disco rigour that continued to flourish worldwide.
Sumner (or his narrative voice) opened the album confessing that he doesn't necessarily want to have to say what his desires are. This is an apt statement from the singer for a band who hadn't even wanted the job. But then he has to spend an entire album - for the first time ever - teasing a lot of things out song for song, however guardedly, however flippantly, however metaphorically. So why not write a song revolving around an image of lonely souls on deserted islands, except avoiding the kind of approach that the Police had dealt with a few years previously on 'Message In A Bottle' say. So Sumner, who heard so much desire for connection from Ian Curtis, came up with a much better lyric than Sting ever could. And he did it in a less mannered fashion, in a way that actually didn't want to resolve into easy romantic sentiment, on 'Leave Me Alone'.Power, Corruption and Lies is an album I have listened to a lot, mostly in the 1990s; first to a dodgy Indonesian cassette copy, adorned with a cut-out photograph of the album cover and padded out with tracks from other albums, which I picked up at a flea market, and then to the official Australian CD release, padded out with Blue Monday/The Beach. I lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne then and thus spent a lot of time driving, and a cassette of Power, Corruption and Lies would often spend time in the car stereo. I haven't listened to it as much over the past decade or so (taking it out occasionally, but that's it), but I still know the lie of the album like the back of my hand. (Though, the Power, Corruption and Lies I was familiar with segued from 5-8-6 into the 12" mix of Blue Monday, before easing back into the more languid, resigned Your Silent Face, a flow which, despite its historical and authorial inauthenticity, made perfect sense to me.) Anyway, Power, Corruption and Lies remains my favourite New Order album (though in my opinion, they drop off a bit after Low-Life, a close follower), and Leave Me Alone is probably my favourite of their songs.
Sad news: Christina Amphlett, frontwoman of post-punk rock band The Divinyls, inspiration to many, first crush to many more and arguably the archetypal Australian Rock Chick, has died in New York, aged 53. The Divinyls are best known outside of Australia for I Touch Myself, though in their career had many more hits, including Pleasure And Pain, Back To The Wall and Science Fiction, through the 1980s and until their generation was displaced by the JJJ Grunge Revolution (many of whose key players, like Adalita from Magic Dirt, were inspired by her).
It's fair to say that Amphlett lived the lifestyle. Born in industrial Geelong, she left home in her teens and spent time busking in Europe, at one point being imprisoned for three months for singing in the streets; she was born at the right time to be there when punk broke, and her artistic career embodied its values—aggressively forward, unapologetically raunchy and cuttingly honest, expressing both toughness and vulnerability; her voice certainly did.
Amphlett was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 and breast cancer in 2010; had it only been one of the two, she'd probably had more of a chance, but apparently the MS made radiotherapy impossible.
There is more coverage, including quotes from other musicians who knew her, here
A new book, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, makes the claim that the Beatles contributed greatly to the collapse of the Soviet Union (or at least to the collapse of the legitimacy of the communist regime among its youth; whether glasnost, perestroika and the disintegration of the USSR would have happened as they did without the Beatles is a matter for historical inquiry):
The book's main character, the Russian writer and critic Art Troitsky, makes the claim that: "In the big bad west they've had whole huge institutions that spent millions of dollars trying to undermine the Soviet system. And I'm sure the impact of all those stupid cold war institutions has been much, much smaller than the impact of the Beatles."
A grand assertion, maybe – but widely shared. "Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society," explains Mikhail Safonov at the Institute of Russian History. And the Russian rocker Sasha Lipnitsky – snowflakes falling on his beret as he talks to Woodhead in a park bandstand – insists: "The Beatles brought us the idea of democracy. For many of us, it was the first hole in the iron curtain."The Soviet authorities didn't quite know how to respond, and alternated between trying to co-opt the new fad and attempting to stamp it out, but to no avail; once music fans contrasted the music with the authorities' denunciations of it, they became more sceptical of the official party line:
Indeed, the repression and harassment of the music ebbed and flowed as the party controls lapsed or intensified. "It went in waves: sometimes you could be approved for an official recording, and sometimes you were banned, losing your job or education. It must have driven them insane," says Woodhead. He not only excavates the minds of the rebels but also the propaganda machine at work. He recounts how a school staged a mock trial of the Beatles – broadcast on radio – with a prosecutor and denunciations in the manner of Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. A critical bulletin shown on state TV, entitled Pop Quartet the Beatles, told the story of how "these gifted guys could be real cash earners" while, "struck down with psychosis, the fans don't hear anything any more. Hysterics, screams, people fainting!" So ran the TV commentary, accompanied by shots of dancing fans intercut with images of the Ku Klux Klan and dire poverty in the American south. "Keep on dancing, lads, don't look around," the programme taunted, "You don't really want to know what's happening. Keep going, louder and faster! You don't care about anyone else."The article also mentions the USSR and its satellite states' interaction with other forms of countercultural and popular music, some deemed less threatening than others. (Disco, it seems, is OK because it's easy to contain. By then, the sclerotic Brezhnev-era USSR must have given up on trying to inspire its youth with Leninist zeal in its vision and was merely hoping that their recreations would remain safely apolitical, and, dare one say, bourgeois.)
Looking through the other end of the telescope, it is enlightening to find what the Soviet authorities approved of. They "positively encouraged" disco music – the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever, Abba and Boney M (though Rasputin was officially banned) – because, says Woodhead, "it was musically rigid and could be contained within the dance floor, it wasn't going to spill out on to the streets".
Why the Beatles? There is no hint of the Rolling Stones or the Who in all this. In Czechoslovakia, the underground was being inspired by dark dissonance in the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. "I think the Czechs had that recent memory of democracy, before the war," reflects Woodhead. "And their culture has roots in Kafka and the surreal. But Soviet taste was more melodic, they like tunes above all, even a little sentiment, verging on the beautiful – and there, I'm describing a McCartney song, not hypersexual rock'n'roll, or Street Fighting Man.
In Boston, the local police are cracking down on unlicensed hardcore punk shows in private homes, and to find them and shut them down, have been attempting to infiltrate online message boards looking for details, often doing a laughable job of it:
“Too bad you were not here this weekend,” “Joe Sly” wrote. “Patty's day is a mad house I am still pissing green beer. The cops do break balls something wicked here. What's the address for Saturday Night, love DIY concerts.” He might as well have written “Just got an 8 ball of beer and I’m ready to party.”
You don’t have to be a local-music Agent Smith, though, to tell that some of these emails smell pretty fishy. “Hey there, local P native here,” wrote one probable imposter to a local band, (who probably meant to type JP, slang for Jamaica Plain). “What is the Address for the local music show tonight?"Granted, whilst these profiles do look laughable, the police have successfully shut down a lot of shows before they happened, presumably from intelligence gathered elsewhere; whether that was done by more successfully impersonating punk rock fans or from obtaining warrants to intercept the email/Facebook messages of known organisers. Meanwhile, in a climate where one knows that narcs are about, it's hard to promote shows and yet make sure that only the right people hear about them:
As a result of efforts like this, promoters and houses have become much more cautious when they receive requests out of the blue for information about shows. And this kind of caution may be, in its way, a kind of success for the BPD initiative. It's kind of hard to put on a show when you can't tell anyone ahead of time where it's going to be. In that sense, the cops seem to be succeeding through another tried-and-true Internet tradition. Trolling is almost always transparently obvious, but when it's unflagging and endlessly annoying, it can be extremely discouraging. Troll a group of people hard enough, and they may end up saying, like famed Boston Beat Gang punk Joe Sly, “What's the point?”As such, requests for information that sound like they're obviously from clueless cops may be exactly the right tactic; they're not meant to catch the prey, but rather force the prey to keep their heads down, because there are predators about.
Backseat Mafia, a music blog from Sheffield, has an interview with Clare Wadd about Sarah Records:
I hate the term twee, loathe it. I think there was a lot of sexism in the abuse we got from the music press, we were girlie we were fey, we were twee, they were all bad things, but they’re feminine rather than masculine things. Most indie labels still are and were then run by men, I was co-running as an equal, we were called Sarah, & that was all a reason to put us down. Quiet concerning really. That said, I hate all the childishness side of twee that a few people embraced, I always wanted to be a grown up, felt required to be a grown up, I’m not a fan of escapism.
‘We don’t do encores’ your press statement said on ‘a day for destroying things’. does a little part of you, if only occasionally, think well……maybe if….
Not really, not now. It was weird at first, and someone said to me soon after “… didn’t you used to be…?”, but it’s 17 years since we stopped, I’m 45. One of the things I thought was good (although in some ways I guess it was bad) was that we were kids the same age as the bands, give or take, in that sense we could never be a proper record label.
It’s disappointing that nothing much seems to have changed, particularly with regard to feminism and the preponderance of bands or labels still to think the main role of women is decoration – a cool sixties chick on the sleeve or poster, some nice female backing vocal – and to fail to question what they’re doing and why. We tried to run the label we would have wanted to be consumers of, so we didn’t do limited editions or extra tracks or things designed to get people to buy the same record several times over, there’s a degree of respect for the audience and the fan that was completely lacking through a lot of the eighties and nineties – they were the little people essentially, and that’s a very Tory attitude.Previously:
John “Menk” Doran on the last 10 years in music genres; it's not pretty:
Even naysayers would have to admit that new rave was MDMAzing when compared to what we have now: EDM or Electronic Dance Music. Despite its utilitarian, almost sexy nomenclature, EDM is utter fucking neo-trance bilge for those who can’t tell the difference between a nightclub and the Stanford Prison Experiment. So we’re talking David Guetta, Afrojack and that cunt with the big metal rat helmet. Seriously, America, what the actual fuck? Your boys (mainly gay and/or black but still your boys) invented techno and house in the fucking 80s and you decide to wait 25 years until some spray-tanned berk from France who looks like Owen Wilson in Zoolander does this to it before you’ll dance to it? It’s a fucking disgrace.(Previously on “EDM”.)
Weirdly, despite arguably being the most sonically progressive and inventive mainstream genre of the last ten years, R’n’B doesn’t really seem to have thrown up any particularly memorable or clearly defined sub-genres. Much to the dismay of fans of Usher and Ciara, the indie kids and hipsters have been getting in on the act to bring you PBR&B or R-Neg-B, a smacky, bro-friendly take on 80s/90s smooth music, with Gayngs, Destroyer and the Weeknd being the best and worst of the bunch, designed to give the bromantic a broner, which then may require the attention of bromide. Or a court-sanctioned brostraining order preventing you from going within 100 metres of her house.
Elsewhere, the class system is as entrenched as ever with cakeeating aristocrats and the upper middle classes (hypnagogic pop), the students (chill wave) and the lumpen proletariat (glo-fi) all having different names for the same genre, which is not dissimilar to listening to Hall & Oates on a Walkman with a head injury while throwing orange-tinted Polaroids of your 1982 summer holiday to Morecambe into a swimming pool. The rest of the feral underclass had shit gaze, which, oddly, didn’t trouble the charts much.It's not all shit, though; Doran has some good things to say about hauntology, ironically possibly the most redeemably original phenomenon of the past decade.
A Parisian outfit named Rectangle Radio has an interview with Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, in the form of a podcast, in which she discusses the label's origins, history, end and legacy.
It was totally plucked out of the air; I guess you look back and I guess it was just on that cusp of, kind of.. lad rock, that whole kind of grebo thing, that then became the 90s Loaded thing; that's probably unfair on some of the grebo bands, but it was almost which side of the fence are you on. And record labels were run by boys as well, so I guess we were making a point about that. I ws reading “Emma” by Jane Austen at the time, so it kind of came from if a book can be called Emma then a record label can be called Sarah. It was never meant to be Sarah Records, it was just meant to be Sarah, but that was too difficult.
I think in a way, though, the thing I'm most proud of ... is the way we ended the label when we did and the reasons for doing it. One of the things that drives me absolutely crazy is when people think we went bust, or something like that. We always felt that there were about three or four ways to end a record label. One's to go bust, which happens reasonably often; two is to start putting out crap records and everyone stops buying them and you just kind of dwindle away. You could sell out to a bigger record label. We didn't want to do any of those. And then there's just getting to a nice round number ... throwing a big party, and taking out some ads in the press and saying, you know, we're basically destroying it. That I'm just so pleased we did, even though it was so hard to do.Whilst derided, somewhat though perhaps not entirely unfairly, as twee at the time, and not getting much recognition in histories of alternative/indie music (Sarah Records is mentioned in a footnote in Richard King's alternative-music history “How Soon Is Now”, in reference to being even more idealistic and out of touch with commercial realities than the labels the book's about), Sarah seems to be finally getting its due, with a book about the label (by Canadian writer Michael White) due this year and a documentary in production.
Sarah Records as a label is gone, and definitely not coming back, but the name exists on Twitter; Clare uses it to post music-related items.
The Grauniad has a piece on the heavy metal scene in Botswana, which combines the music and aesthetics of metal as we know it with local influences (cowboy hats, it seems, are big among Kalahari metalheads):
Dressed from head to toe in black leather, sporting cowboy boots, hats and exaggerated props, they draw some curious looks on the dusty streets. "People think that we are rough, evil creatures, but [metal] teaches us to be free with expression, to do things on our own," said Vulture, the vocalist of the band Overthrust. He says there is a long way to go before the genre is considered mainstream, but that audiences have grown steadily in the past decade.
Though attendance at concerts is small in comparison to the west, the scene has slowly built a steady fan base. To date, no western heavy metal act has performed in Botswana, and no Botswana metal act has performed outside the region.And there are photos of some Batswana metal dudes, with sobriquets like Death, Warmaster and Maximum, here. I imagine wearing all that black leather in the Kalahari heat must be an even greater peacock-tail signal of commitment than being a Goth in Brisbane.
This week, the formerly unthinkable happened: My Bloody Valentine released a follow-up to Loveless, simply titled m b v. It took them 21 years, and not much was heard of it until they announced that they finished mastering it late last year, on Mayan Apocalypse Day, and announced its announcement a few days before it came out. Anyway, you can buy it from their web site, either as a download or a download plus CD or vinyl, though I suspect that if you were holding out for a new MBV album, you have already done so.
The album itself follows on from Loveless, though diverges somewhat. It sounds like they've spent the first part of their exile from recording listening to a lot of other music; I imagine that I hear the influences of Stereolab and The High Llamas in a few songs (Is This And Yes sounds almost like it's a Beach Boys harpsichord line away from being a Llamas song), and he album ends with a track built up on a chopped-up Amen break through a flanger, a bit like that drum'n'bass thing that was big some 15 years ago. One gets the impression that this is not so much new material as material that has been in the works for two decades, finally wrapped up to make way for new material.
Meanwhile, in VICE, John “Menk” Doran posits the claim that MBV's absence from music-making is to blame for the rise of Tony Blair, the Iraq War and the grim meathook dystopia we're living in today. Presumably if Shields had hurried up, Britpop would have never happened and a charlatan like Blair could never have ridden on its Beatles-quoting, Union Jack-festooned coattails into No. 10, and thus we'd be living in a socialist utopia of some sort. (Either that or perpetual unvarnished Thatcherism, of course.)
When C17th Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” he was thinking about Kevin Shields. For when MBV hung up their guitar pedals at the height of their fame, a terrible power vacuum yawned open. The field was clear to stripey-tousered, juggling wazzocks like the Wonderstuff and lycra wearing buffoons Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine to become famous – when in a more civilised age you wouldn’t even have bothered to cross the road to set fire to them. The absence of the most forward looking guitarist of his generation in the early 90s, also led to a slew of appallingly boring shoe-gaze copyists such as Chapterhouse and Slowdive, meaning guitar music was literally anyone’s for the taking.
This meant, the retro-head guitar owners got their first look in since the late 60s. Suddenly making your guitar sound like a sighing whale wasn’t an option any more, all the FX pedals and psychedelic drugs were swapped for Kinks riffs, cocaine and talking like a brickie from Bermondsey. Utter bullshit like Blur and Menswear were hailed as heroes.(I don't agree with him on Slowdive, but he's on the money about Blur and Menswear, and much of the rest of Britpop.)
If only it had stopped there, though. Britpop itself ushered in the Cool Britannia era which erased the social and sonic progressiveness of the 1970s and 1980s in one fell swoop and culminated in the morally blank New Labour administration. (It is important to note that as soon as Tony Blair was ensconced into 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister, the first thing he did was to summon Alan McGee and Noel Gallagher, the singer of Creation’s biggest signings Oasis, to visit him. He wanted to be sure that Kevin Shields’ amazing drum and bass records would never see the light of day – literally the only thing that could have threatened his premiership at that point.)
Remembering our appearances during the 70s and the 80s, so much had moved on. But I understand that today's Kraftwerk fans won't be able to sense this. We used to move; these robots don't. The non-performance of Kraftwerk Mark III made me yawn; the concert went on too long. Thirty minutes less might haved worked, perhaps. But performing as Kraftwerk seemed to offer no joy to the four people who had to be Kraftwerk.
The whole spectacle appeared to me like a farewell-tour for ever. The guy [Stefan Pfaffe] who replaced Florian three years ago has latterly been replaced with a figure whose name is hard to keep in mind [Falk Grieffenhagen], and the turnover of music-workers is becoming quicker and quicker. At Ralf’s age, if he has become Grot – the alerter of the machines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – he may find it hard to get new cogs who agree to examination. In some ways, Kraftwerk's story has become a bit like Goethe’s Zauberlehring, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The sorcerer had activated something all those years ago, and maybe now he can't stop it. The musique is non-Stop. The Volkswagen runs and runs and runs and runs...
In a play for the wallets of synth fetishists and authenticity-hungry hipsters, Korg have released a new edition of their MS-20 analogue synth. The MS-20 Mini is slightly smaller, has a USB MIDI interface and uses 3.5mm plugs for its patch leads rather than 6.5mm ones, but otherwise is identical to the 1978 MS-20, with the exception of a slightly cleaner voltage-controlled amplifier. It follows a number of software recreations (including an iPad app named iMS-20 and various softsynth plug-ins for use in music software).
There was a time slightly after the dinosaurs that I owned a small wall of KORG. There was two MS20′s, an MS50, a SQ10 and a billion of those short patch cables. And you know, it was pretty grand for 1980 something. For 2013, it’s… well… gee what a nice watch, does it tell the time?
But here we go again with a reissue of Old and Safe for the New Conservatives. Already been asked if I am going to buy a new midget MS20. I bought a MiniNova instead – maybe I made the wrong choice. Let’s be scientific about this:
MiniNova: there’s four banks of 256 patches which can be sorted into categories and saved back to a patch librarian over a USB connection.
KORG MS20: photocopy pages from the manual and draw the approximate positions of the knobs with a pencil.
Advantage: KORG for being legendary and analogue.
I keep reading the articles and hearing the talk and wondering if people use this stuff for making music. Or does it go next to the “Christmas Tree”? You know, that elaborate, expensive modular system that people build to look fantastic but sounds like a Roland preset that goes bwooooouuuw?
An interesting article on the genesis of the Roland TR-808, and how Roland's famous line of drum machines owes its existence to an American musician and circuit-bending pioneer named Don Lewis:
Raised with a rich gospel tradition in Dayton, he brought his myriad musical talents to San Francisco in the ‘60s, where he was a staple in nightclubs. His one-man-band became known for its wild array of electronic instrumentation, which was still a novelty in those days — a small truckload of synthesizers and early rhythm boxes accompanied Don’s richly-vocoded tenor to make a sound no one had heard but everyone liked.
Don had been hired by the Hammond organ company to demo its products on the show floor. He was using an Ace Tone rhythm box (which was distributed by Hammond at the time) as his percussion section. "I had modified my Ace Tone to death, changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing. I also wired it through the expression pedal of the Hammond, so I could get [percussion] accents, which no one was doing then. After the show this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’" It was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the president of Ace Tone.Kakehashi went on to found Roland Corporation, capitalising on Lewis' suggestion for a rhythm box with modifiable rhythms (or, what later became known as a drum machine), and hiring Lewis as an engineer, to work on projects including the CR-68 and, eventually, the TR-808.
On a visit to Roland’s Tokyo offices in the late ‘70s, Don was working with chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto. "That day he had a bread board of an 808 and was showing me what was going on inside — he sort of bumped up against the breadboard and spilled some tea in there and all of a sudden he turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it, but that ended up being the crash cymbal in the 808. There was nothing else like it. Nobody could touch it."The article also describes Lewis' homemade Live Electronic Orchestra, the complex of ancient synthesizers and other circuits which Lewis played live back in the 1960s, and which has been restored for a special performance at the NAMM music trade fair:
It’s a one-off work of art, a kind of who’s who of vintage synthesizers networked to one another through connection standards the industry has long forgotten but Don is still fluent in. A series of hand-built buffer boards and timing modules allow an Arp Pro Soloist to talk to a Promars Computronic and a Roland Jupiter-4. The Hammond expression pedal can control a variety of parameters for any of the sounds coming through the Boss KM-6A mixer, whose channels Don built a remote control panel for right into the body of the three-stage organ. It’s basically a 1977 copy of Ableton Live that weighs two tons, doesn’t have a EULA, and does a heart-melting rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Dr. Amelia Fletcher, Chief Economist at the Office of Fair Trade and possibly the world's most high-achieving active indiepop musician, has just been appointed Professor of Competition Policy at the University of East Anglia. This is about three months after her former Talulah Gosh bandmate Elizabeth Price won the Turner Prize.
As America discovers rave culture, restyled into the contours of a synth-driven nu-metal, with the drug elements toned way down, and renamed as “Electronic Dance Music” or EDM, VICE UK has an open letter to America's EDM enthusiasts:
For the last 25 years, while you guys were buying Learjets and listening to Creed, Europe has been double dropping, reaching for the lasers and constantly asking strangers if they are "having a good night". You thought this made all of us homosexual, existentialist drug addicts (which may be partly true) and for years you resisted the charms of Mitsis, Ministry Of Sound and the music of Paul Oakenfold. Your party scene was content with smashing "brewskis", smoking "doobs" and blasting the music of Kid Rock and 2 Live Crew.The letter goes on to gently offer advice, from the Americans “doing it wrong” (by insisting on having live drums and saxophones on stage and favouring hard-rock-style stage spectacle over the subtle progressions of UK club music to being in denial about the drugs thing) to the whole term “EDM”:
When I first heard the term "EDM", I wasn't sure what it stood for... What I did not expect, however, was something as blitheringly obvious as "electronic dance music". It seemed like calling a genre "guitar rock" or "trumpet ska". All dance/house/bass music is electronic. Just say it to yourself; Electronic. Dance. Music. It sounds like somebody's great aunt attempting to talk about Moby's new album, or a clueless country police chief answering questions about a rave he's trying to shut down. It makes you sound like novices, and stupid novices at that. So go think of something else to call Afrojack.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this isn't nu-metal, guys. Bush is out of the White House, you're on the way to getting all sorts of European liberties, you don't need another Woodstock '99 and no one wants to see a bunch of gurning people getting trampled to death in a circle pit. I know getting pilled up and licking each other's ears doesn't fit in with that whole "rugged induvidualism" thing, but give it a try. The kinship you'll feel with your fellow man will come in handy when you're enjoying that socialist future you're all looking forward to so much.To be fair, the article's assumption (that EDM is essentially British/European house/garage/dubstep/club culture repackaged for a new audience without significant changes) may be incorrect. There were rave scenes in the US (in the San Francisco Bay, for example) for decades, with blue hair, fluffy leggings, glow sticks and tonnes of MDMA pills washed down with energy drinks, though those didn't spread any further than groups of Anglophilic/Europhilic enthusiasts; partly because of the cultural difference and explicit exoticism (much like the way that Britpop, UK indie and swinging-60s Mod revivalism all tend to get mashed together into one sartorially immaculate Anglophilic scene when outside of Britain), and partly because of the War On Drugs, and the fact that doing anything that may construe probable cause of drug possession in the age of Instagram could be what they call a bad life choice. What made EDM ready for crossover to the mainstream was the fact that it is not your older siblings' rave culture: its presentation and format owe more to the live rock show than the communal rave, more the high-tech adrenaline-pumping spectacle than the pharmaceutically mediated collective experience in a darkened club or a field. And it took hard-rock veterans like Skrillex, the inventor of the American form of dubstep known as “brostep”, to successfully demonstrate that softsynths on a MacBook can rock harder and kick more ass than guitars through a stack of amps.
The latest refugee in Australia's archipelago of detention centres: an Iranian heavy metal drummer, fleeing persecution by the theocratic regime:
The man wrote that he abandoned his beloved drums after authorities began to increasingly target music fans.''In an underground concert more than 60 fans were arrested, charged and locked up. Players were taken to Intelligence. Two teachers of mine were arrested also.''
He panicked. He sold his drums, moved to a new location and changed his phone number, cut ties with everyone but family and sank into depression. ''I deleted every history of my music from my life because of my fear of being arrested by the government who were intent on stopping this music. During this time six musicians that I knew were arrested in their training place. After that no one contacted each other, even on Facebook.''The Iranian regime's war on popular music is old news: a documentary from 2009, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, recounts the travails of an underground twee pop band in Tehran. If anything, heavy metal musicians would be singled out for particularly harsh prosecution, possibly even executed for religious crimes, as the unnamed drummer suggests. (Metal bands in neighbouring Iraq haven't fared well either recently; the country's one and only well-known band, Acrassicauda, fled via Turkey and sought asylum in the US.)
(It's interesting that Facebook is (a) not blocked inside Iran, and (b) avoided by those fearing persecution; which suggests that the regime has the means to monitor it, possibly using those forged SSL root certificates it is speculated to have, enabling it to carry out man-in-the-middle attacks on any SSL connections.)
And now, as usual, here is my annual list of records of the year:
- Aleks & the Ramps - Facts
Melbourne's Aleks and the Ramps have made a career just on the music side of the border between music and comedy, being a bit like a Doug Anthony Allstars with a stronger focus on musical composition and arrangement. Facts, their first record in three years (and their first since the departure of Janita Foley) follows in this. It sounds slightly smoother and more polished, with layers of shimmering keyboards, guitars (ranging from languid slide to funky African grooves and the odd crunchy power chord), the odd banjo and ooh-aah backing vocals forming pop melodies that reach an almost loungey smoothness at times, serving as a bed for Aleks' laconic, deadpan croon, delivering a continuous stream of zingers like “it's hard to breathe in the back of a horse costume, or pay attention to the tension in the room”, “now he never leaves the house looking less than presidential, as he studies all the bridges for their suicide potential”, and “meanwhile back on the Serengeti, my shirt's still smelling all cigarettey". I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Tigercats.
- Beach House - Bloom
With Bloom, Beach House have transitioned to being the closest thing to a Cocteau Twins for the 2010s; they're different, of course (the guitar work doesn't sound quite like Robin Guthrie's, and the vocals are in comprehensible English), but subjectively, the experience of listening to Bloom is like that of hearing the Cocteaus' Victorialand was; the way that the songs come together, build up and envelop the listener. Beach House's previous albums didn't quite gel for me, but this is the one where it all comes together.
- Crocodiles - Endless Flowers
The latest from the San Diego garage-rock classicists, Endless Flowers; it's somewhat more light-hearted than the Dionysiac/Baudelarian darkness of their previous works, perhaps due to happy romantic circumstances in the frontman and songwriter Brandon Welchez' life; No Black Clouds For Dee Dee certainly appears to be dedicated to his new wife, Dee Dee from NYC86ists the Dum Dum Girls. Nonetheless, the Crocodiles do a certain kind of studied yet louche underground rock'n'roll really well, and got quite a few spins where I am. Highlights would include Electric Death Song, Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9) and Hung Up On A Flower, a paean to narcotic languor which ends with the drummer reciting poetry in German through a Space Echo.
- Eccentronic Research Council - 1612 Overture and Purity Ring - Shrines
Two quite different records with a few common themes running through them. Both are predominantly electronic, albeit in different fashions; the warm analogue radiophonica of the ERC contrasting with the icy autotuned crispness of Purity Ring. Both have a connection to the eldritch; 1612 Overture is a concept album about the Pendle witch trials, juxtaposing those with the inequities of Cameron/Clegg Austerity Britain, while Purity Ring's vocals juxtapose a Cronenbergian body-horror imagery with a sheen of airbrushed eroticised glamour associated with commercial pop music. And finally, both albums lift their forms from underground trends; The Eccentronic Research Council (who consist of two musicians–one of whom was in early-2000s Mancunian chilled-beat mongers I Monster, best known for the German lounge orchestra-sampling Daydream In Blue—along with solidly Northern actress Maxine Peake providing the monologues) borrow wholesale from the hauntology milieu pioneered by the Ghost Box label, with their faded retro-modernist cover art featuring geometric forms and Helvetica, and their name, like The Advisory Circle and the Moon Wiring Club, evoking a fantasy pre-Thatcherite Britain of ghost-haunted analogue circuits and a vaguely socialistic yet faintly ominous technological optimism. (And then there's the opening track being titled Autobahn 666, and starting with synthesizer arpeggios and sampled car sounds; I'm fairly sure I've heard something like that before somewhere.) Purity Ring, meanwhile, take the Witch House/goth-crunk trend that all the cool kids in Brooklyn were into a few years ago and run with it for a good distance.
- Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
The Swedish crooner and sometime Melbourne resident's first full album in five years, and a welcome return. It's less upbeat than his previous album, 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, with Jens having gone through a breakup before writing it, though this is welcome; as a songwriter, he does melancholy better than contentment. (I thought Kortedala was a bit too cheerful, and generally skipped the romcom-in-a-pop-song that was Your Arms Around Me when it came on). And while it is tinged with melancholy, Jens' pop sensibility manages to keep it from being a downer; there is a lushness to its arrangements, and, of course, to Jens' voice. Highlights include The World Moves On (a story of romantic (mis)adventure in Melbourne's inner north on the hottest day on record), I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots, and the bare, elegiac Every Little Hair Knows Your Name, which, along with its reprise, bookends the album.
- The Rosie Taylor Project - Twin Beds
Leeds' The Rosie Taylor Project made their appearance in 2008 with This City Draws Maps, an 8-track album of understated folk-pop songs for overcast days, all finger-picked guitars, breathy vocals and the odd trumpet and glockenspiel, somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne bands like Gersey or Sodastream. On their 2012 follow-up on London's Odd Box label, the sun breaks through the clouds as the band finds more of a groove. The first track is a two-minute quasi-instrumental, starting with synth pad, with a dubby bass guitar and drums joining in; the second track, For Esme, gets things moving, with an almost mariachi-esque trumpet. The rest of the album manages to combine the introspective lyricism of its predecessor with a more elaborate production and some catchy grooves, the height of which is probably Sleep, which almost reinvents disco from first principles. Keep an eye on these guys.
- Still Flyin' - On A Bedroom Wall
Not quite the full album of polyester-smooth yacht rock I was expecting after Victory Walker, though these guys sure know how to rock a party. On A Bedroom Wall sees Still Flyin' take a more electro/new-wave direction, almost meeting Cut Copy in the middle. If all the hipsters in your town were wearing cleats for some portion of 2012, this album could be the reason.
- Tender Trap - Ten Songs About Girls
It's fair to say that Amelia Fletcher is no underachiever; having co-founded the groundbreaking Sarah Records indiepop bands Talulah Gosh (whose other alumni include 2012 Turner laureate Elizabeth Price) and Heavenly a quarter of a century ago, she has maintained a presence in the genre all the while becoming the senior economist overseeing mergers and acquisitions in the UK, possibly making her the most senior civil servant with an active recording career. The latest album by her current band, Tender Trap, stands solidly alongside her earlier bands' classic output. Ten Songs About Girls is a record firmly in the Talulah Gosh/Heavenly style, honing and perfecting it and even in one song (Step One) laying down a template-cum-manifesto for it. Highlights include the opening track, Train From King's Cross Station (is that a nod to Betty and the Werewolves' Euston Station?), with its spiky punk guitars and bass and cupcake-sweet girl-group harmony vocals, Leaving Christmas Day (a song about breaking up with someone over his creationist beliefs, which will have a place on indiepop-for-atheists mix tapes next to McCarthy's Should The Bible Be Banned?) and the lovely, poignant Memorabilia, an account of a long-lost relationship in the past through a box of badges, mix tapes and letters. Unlike the works of other veteran indie acts (like, say, Tracey Thorn, The Would-Be-Goods and Saint Etienne), Tender Trap have eschewed writing songs set in later adulthood, staying in the boyfriends-and-girlfriends milieu of an extended adolescence set sometime between the heyday of C86 and now; this works well for them.
- Tigercats - Isle of Dogs
Tigercats have become one of my favourite London bands recently, and their début album captures the energy of their gigs as well as can be done. Their sound is a tightly angular, ecstatically rhythmic, Afrobeat-tinged post-punk party pop, in some cases shading into Architecture In Helsinki territory (such as Limehouse Nights). Highlights include the opening track, a manifesto for the gentrification-besieged Isle of Dogs, The Vapours, which gets its name from a dream of 1980s new-wave one-hit wonders, and the epic roof-raiser Banned At The Troxy. I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Aleks & The Ramps.
- The Wake - A Light Far Out
Glaswegian indie veterans The Wake's previous record was 1994's Tidal Wave of Hype, released by Sarah Records in the wake of Madchester and as Britain's indie underground was exploding into the marketing phenomenon known as Britpop. 17 years later, they return, opening the third chapter of their recording career. A Light Far Out does not sound like either The Wake's starkly monochromatic Factory material nor the almost baggy grooves of their Sarah material, though there are echoes of their material; their melodic basslines, synth pads and an air of wistfulness, augmented with subtle and skilful use of electronic music elements such as granular delays and glitchy loops. The opening track, Stockport, starts with a familiar jangly guitar and melodic bass sound, accompanied by subtle electronics, and soon builds up into something lusher, yet with a yearning quality not unlike The Field Mice, a combination which recurs on If The Ravens Leave, the contemplative Methodist and the layered instrumental Faintness. Carolyn takes over vocal duties on the gentle and yet almost sinister Starry Day, a song with a hint of the Wicker Man about it. A highlight is the 9-minute title track, which is given time to evolve, through gentle guitar arpeggios, vocals and then languid seascapes of synths, subtle electronic beats and, eventually, violins. All in all, a welcome return, and a very strong record in its own right.
Had I to choose an album of the year, it would be either Tigercats' Isle Of Dogs or The Wake's A Light Far Out; two very different records it would be very hard to choose between.
The rerelease of the year would have to be Clag - Pasted Youth, which is more of a retrospective compilation of the Australian twee-punk band's releases and live gigs, long unavailable except on badly digitised MP3s, now remastered and accompanied with liner notes. Were there to be a track of 2012, it would be Peaking Lights' Lo Hi.
For your listening pleasure, there is a mix here.
Merry Indie Xmas; some guys in New York performing various Christmas carols in the style of well-known “indie” bands (Interpol, Beach House, The XX) as well as, for some reason, Mumford & Sons. (I suppose they're there by way of the same American hipster Anglophilia that resulted in Coldplay being regarded as a credible indie band for a while.) Anyway:
In Sweden, the generous welfare state offers benefits for various conditions, such as being really into heavy metal, to the point of not being able to show up for job interviews not dressed in full metalhead regalia or to work without loud music playing:
"I signed a form saying: 'Roger feels compelled to show his heavy metal style. This puts him in a difficult situation on the labour market. Therefore he needs extra financial help'. So now I can turn up at a job interview dressed in my normal clothes and just hand the interviewers this piece of paper," he said.
The manager at his new workplace allows him to go to concerts as long as he makes up for lost time at a later point. He is also allowed to dress as he likes and listen to heavy metal while washing up. "But not too loud when there are guests," he said.
This is awesome for more than one reason: The BBC's R&D department has posted a web page recreating various vintage Radiophonic Workshop effects using the Web Audio API, complete with source code and descriptions, both of the historical equipment used and the modern recreation.
Néojaponisme has a detailed five-part series on Cornelius' Fantasma, one of the defining albums of the 1990s Shibuya-kei genre of polychromatic, postmodern Japanese club-pop, looking at Oyamada Keigo's earlier work (with Pastels-referencing indiepop combo Flipper's Guitar) and subsequent work (which rejected the whole ethos of reference that Fantasma was about in favour of minimalism and introspection).
The piece starts off by placing Shibuya-kei, the movement Cornelius epitomised and helped define, in a specific historical context: the brief age of the music nerd, which arose after commodity rock'n'roll and ended when the internet made obscure knowledge instantly available, when knowledge of the obscure corners of popular music was a form of cultural capital:
The music nerd’s mission often boiled down to listening to what others did not, thus upsetting one of the art’s fundamental tenets. From ancient bone flutes to West African drum circles to jazz cafés to dancing the Charleston in front of blaring Big Bands, music had been a group activity for most of its existence. Music had always been social, yet the music nerd now mostly enjoyed it as a solitary pursuit. Hearing a song in the privacy of one’s own room was not even possible until the early 20th century, and not particularly common until the advent of the small transistor radio, the personal stereo, automobile speakers, and the Walkman. So between this technological change and a corresponding social one wherein pop music rolled over elite musical art forms like opera or ballet, the ingredients were there for the spontaneous genesis of thousands of music nerds. And as music fragmented to an unbelievable degree in the 1980s and 1990s, music nerds became even more intense and even less social.The 1990s were the golden indian summer of music nerddom; the internet was already starting to chip away at the cultural capital of the obscurantists (there had been USENET newsgroups discussing genres and microgenres and meticulously detailed discographies in ASCII text files, though they hadn't made it out to the as yet non-computerised outside world), and within a few years, information hyperinflation would wipe out vast amounts of cultural capital; but in the late 1990s, the musical obscurantism bubble was at its peak. In the West, this manifested itself through the sampling, quoting and citing of artists like Beck, the Beastie Boys and Stereolab; in Japan, it found even more fertile ground:
There may be traditional aspects of national philosophy and educational theory that influenced Japanese pop culture’s particularly obsessive mode of learning and understanding, but the artistic practice of detailed study and imitation of form certainly reached its peak with consumer society’s insatiable interest in the West after the War. Youth wanted to do completely alien things like dress like Americans and listen to American music, and magazines had to take up the key role of explaining detail by detail exactly how and why to do such a thing. Holistic sub-cultures like Hippies and Punks got analyzed down to their respective quarks so that Japanese teens could build them back up again from a bunch of imported scraps. These days the otaku nerd gets all the credit for originating Japanese information obsession but this was just a structural outcome of the Japanese model of cultural importation. In the act of bringing one culture over to another, bit by bit, every single possible cultural category becomes a series of consumable lists, and as a logical extension, mastery and memorization of those lists ends up as the most worthy test of true fans, believers, and adherents.The piece then continues with an overview of Oyamada's career, before and after Fantasma, a track-by-track examination of Fantasma and the influences it references, and a history of its release in Japan and the west.
Additionally, there's an older piece on the history, cultural context and legacy of Shibuya-kei here:
Shibuya-kei was ultimately an attempt to create a Japanese analog to the indie music cultures that had developed in the U.S. and U.K., but the Japanese artists ended up succeeding far beyond their international peers in impacting the entire Japanese music market. Shibuya-kei was not just the emergence of a new genre. The appearance of Flipper’s Guitar in 1989 was a pivotal event in the surfacing of “independent” culture into the Japanese mainstream consumer market during the 1990s, setting the stage for a wider cultural movement in media, fashion, art, and interior/graphic design.
An original IBM PC, simulated in the browser. It has a CGA adapter and two simulated floppy drives, into which one can load a number of pre-supplied images, including several versions of
MS-DOS PC-DOS, as well as VisiCalc and Microsoft Adventure. Not only that, but, if left to its own devices, it will run an order of magnitude faster than an original IBM-PC.
Anyway, the simulation is fully functional on all modern browsers (that I've tested). It's booting the original IBM PC Model 5150 ROM BIOS (no modifications), and it's loading the original MDA/CGA fonts. This configuration gives you more control, allowing you to toggle any of the SW1/SW2 settings to change the memory configuration, the installed video card (MDA or CGA), and the number of diskette drives. There's also a built-in debugger with lots of DEBUG-like commands, only better. And you can create your own configuration by tweaking the underlying XML file. I'll eventually do a write-up explaining how to embed it on your own web page and what options are available. The process is very similar to embedding the C1Pjs simulation that I wrote earlier this year--the XML is just a little different.The author, a chap named @jeffpar, is now looking to add more features to his emulator, bumping up the display to EGA graphics, upgrading the CPU to a 286 and adding a serial mouse.
Possible proof that we have passed Peak Retro: Japanese Collectors Face a Record Shortage of Obscure Music:
Consider the prize item in Japanese collector Takeshi "Ima-T" Imaizumi's cache: a promotional copy of the 1986 Rolling Stones record "Dirty Work," considered by guitarist Keith Richards the band's low point. The collector says he paid only $8 for it. "This is very hard to find," he says.There are historical reasons why the Japanese in particular could be counted on to seek out obscurities ignored in the West:
The Japanese fascination with America's musical flotsam is a legacy of Japan's music business, which for years promoted U.S. and European rock bands that never took off or were declining in their own countries—a strategy aimed at avoiding competition with the U.S. music industry. That prompted fan cultures to sprout up around maligned American genres like 1980s pop-metal.
(via David Gerard)
William Gibson talks about how the internet changed the idea of “bohemia” by eliminating the scarcity and locality of subcultures and scenes, instead replacing it with everything, everywhere, all the time:
(If punk emerged today:) You’d pull it up on YouTube, as soon as it was played. It would go up on YouTube among the kazillion other things that went up on YouTube that day. And then how would you find it? How would it become a thing, as we used to say? I think that’s one of the ways in which things are really different today. How can you distinguish your communal new thing — how can that happen? Bohemia used to be self-imposed backwaters of a sort. They were other countries within the landscape of Western industrial civilization. They were countries that most people would never see — mysterious places. You’d pay a price, potentially, for going there. That’s always cool and exciting. Now, where are they? Where can you do that? How are people transacting that today? I am pretty sure that they are, but I don’t have that much firsthand experience of it. But they have to do it in a different way.Meanwhile, Justin Moyer of the band El Guapo writes about the Brooklynisation of indie music, and how a vaguely Williamsburg-flavoured global hipsterism has displaced the myriad different, wildly divergent local scenes that used to exist, literally or metaphorically “over the mountains”:
Regional music scenes differentiate Hill Country blues from Delta blues and New York hardcore from Orange County hardcore from harDCore. RMSes draw lines between KRS-One and MC Shan, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Merseybeat and The Kinks, Satie and Wagner. RMSes are why I would almost never play a show that wasn’t all ages in D.C., but would only play Joe’s Bar in Marfa, Texas. RMSes make you think differently.
Like accents, RMSes are disappearing. Sure, record stores and record labels are dead or living on borrowed time. Sure, smart clubowners can’t afford to book a show for an unknown, out-of-town band instead of an ’80s dance party. But money’s not the problem—or, at least, not the only problem. RMSes are disappearing because everyone is starting to sound like everyone else.The opposite of the regional music scenes is the globalised Brooklyn, based loosely though not entirely on the real Brooklyn, a place where the sheer concentration of hip, creative young people and potential collaborators absorbs talent from other areas, absorbing it into a melting-pot monoculture where everything is linked to everything else and there are no secrets:
Do not confuse Brooklyn with, well, Brooklyn—the New York borough that sits about 230 miles from Washington on the southwest end of Long Island over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge off of I-278. There are many Brooklyns. Los Angeles is Brooklyn. Chicago is Brooklyn. Berlin and London are Brooklyn. Babylon was the Brooklyn of the ancient world. In the 1990s, Seattle was Brooklyn. Young Chinese punks challenging Communism risk prison to make Beijing the Brooklyn of tomorrow. Some Brooklyns aren’t even places. MySpace is Brooklyn. YouTube is Brooklyn. Facebook is Brooklyn. Spotify and iTunes are perversely, horribly, unapologetically, maddeningly Brooklyn.
What this essay is saying: In Brooklyn, there is too much input.
What this essay is saying: If music wasn’t better before Brooklyn, it was, at least, weirder.
What this essay is saying: In Brooklyn, music comes too cheap. (Please note: “too cheap” doesn’t refer to price.)
What this essay is saying: A melting pot is not an aesthetic. Neither is a salad bar.
What this essay is saying: There is a tidal wave of generic, mushy, apolitical, featureless, Brooklynish music infiltrating the world’s stereos.
What this essay is saying: Beware what you put on your iPod. It might not be dangerous.
(via The Secret History)
Recent empirical examinations of the past half-century of pop music have suggested yielded some interesting conclusions. On the one hand, according to a Spanish study of music from 1955 to 2010, the diversity of note combinations in pop music has consistently diminished over the past 50 years, presumably as commercially-inclined producers discover the ones that sell, and the range of timbres has also narrowed (which sounds odd; given the potential of electronic instruments, you'd think that there'd be more timbres than back when sounds had to be made with physical vibrations).
The researchers used a dataset of 464,411 music recordings to analyse what has changed – and what has stayed the same – over the past half-century of song. "Many of [music's] patterns and metrics have been consistently stable for [this] period," they wrote. "However, we prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenisation of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels."The research team also confirmed the existence of the “Loudness War”, the trend to crush dynamic range out of recordings in favour of music that sounds ass-kickingly loud enough to compete with the other ass-kickingly loud tracks on the market, and whose sonogram looks less like a waveform and more like an angry, ragged-edged rectangle.
Meanwhile, another study of recorded music over the same period has found that pop music has been becoming less jauntily upbeat and more sombre or emotionally ambiguous:
Schellenberg and von Scheve found that the proportion of songs recorded in minor-mode has increased, doubling over the last fifty years. The proportion of slow tempo hits has also increased linearly, reaching a peak in the 90s. There's also been a decrease in unambiguously happy-sounding songs and an increase in emotionally ambiguous songs.
Unambiguously happy songs like Abba's Waterloo sound, to today's ears, "naive and slightly juvenile", the researchers noted. And whilst modern songs in a similar style, such as Aqua's Barbie Girl, can still enjoy huge commercial success, they're usually seen as a guilty pleasure and savaged by critics.(Or, to quote the Pet Shop Boys, “make sure you're always frowning; it shows the world that you've got substance and depth”.)
The Grauniad has an A-Z of today's music genres, for the old codgers who stopped paying attention years ago at emo, twee pop or grime and started lumping everything into whatever superannuated genre it sounds most like:
Afrobeats: Not to be confused with the 1970s Afrobeat of Fela Kuti – although admittedly it is quite confusing – the addition of an extra "s" denotes a frisky, contemporary fusion of hip-hop, house and west African pop, as championed by London DJs such as Choice FM's Abrantee and 1Xtra's DJ Edu. Nigerian Afrobeats star D'Banj, recently signed to Kanye West's GOOD Music label.
Lazer funk: A convenient appellation for the thrillingly maximal brand of glitchy neon rave favoured by Rustie (pictured, above), Hudson Mohawke, Krystal Klear and their LuckyMe/Numbers pals. May sound daft but it's only slightly less ridiculous than some of the names they came up with themselves. See also: Aquacrunk, wonky house, glitch-hop, post-Dilla
Nightbus: A charmingly apt name for all of the sensitive poshboy quasi-dubstep pleasantness that's followed in Burial and James Blake's wake: too fey for the rave but ideal for when you're riding home – alone – on London's N68.
Voodoo house: A sturdier British response to the witch house fad, as practised by shadowy outfits Demdike Stare, Raime and the Blackest Ever Black clique. Combines eerie found sounds with faceless Detroit techno and Throbbing Gristle-style industrial mischief, plus a working knowledge of the occult, and a penchant for visuals borrowed from sinister instructional films of the 1950s and 60s.
In honour of this being the Diamond Jubilee long weekend, here is an evaluation of a piece of critique from an earlier Jubilee, namely the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen:
God save the queenWe're not off to a good start. Even if one relaxes the definition of “fascist” (as some on the left of political debate are sometimes wont to), calling Elizabeth II's figurehead reign, floating above the governments of the day, mouthing their words and cutting ribbons, a “fascist regime” would stretch it beyond recognition. One could argue that the song referred to the government of the day, except that it was written in the days of a flounderingly ineffectual Labour government, long before Maggie sent her riot police to smash the unions and said nice things about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The fascist regime
She ain't no human beingIf one's talking about the office of Queen, that could be considered to be true. Whoever sits on the throne occupies a peculiar role; wearing the title of an ancient absolute monarch, but serving as a mascot of sorts, and being on duty at all times, until she dies or abdicates (and the latter is not possible without scandal). Whereas an ancient monarch's freedom of opinion was limited only by their own power, the Queen has effectively given up the right to express opinions on anything consequential, lest they interfere with her official “opinions”, which change with the composition of Parliament and the will of Rupert Murdoch. (Her son, alas, has not received this memo, and is happy to give his loyal subjects the benefit of his expertise on fields as diverse as homeopathy and architecture.) So, half a point here; the office of the Queen is not human, though the occupant of it, biologically, is, unless you're David Icke.
There is no futureWhen there lines were written in 1977, Britain was in a political, economic and cultural malaise—there was the three-day week, uncollected rubbish was piling up; the Empire was gone, but its memory was still fresh enough that some people believed it wasn't. Ironically enough, one other person who would have agreed with Lydon that there was no future in England's dreaming would have been the aforementioned more-plausibly-fascist-than-the-Queen Tory MP, Margaret Thatcher.
In England's dreaming
God Save The Queen,This sudden lapse into a Californian surfer-dude voice is puzzling. Does Lydon believe that, as a rock'n'roll practitioner, he must adopt an American voice? How does he reconcile the showbiz fakery of rock'n'roll with the professed authenticity of punk as a voice of the people/youth? Or is he suggesting that a US-style Presidency would be preferable to a constitutional monarchy? (Which, a few years after Watergate, sounds implausible.)
I mean it, man
God save the queenFull points for this one; when motherhood statements about “timeless national symbols” and “bringing the country together” aren't enough, monarchists often follow up with “besides, they bring the tourists in”. Though, by some accounts, royal palaces aren't among the most popular of Britain's tourist destinations. Whether this was the case in 1977 is another question.
'Cause tourists are money
And our figureheadAnother one for the conspiracy theorists, it would seem; does the Queen sit at the apex of international organised crime (as US third-party political candidate Lyndon LaRouche claims), or are she and the entire house of
Is not what she seems
It was pretty formulaic; I’d pretty much write a song and then take it to Jen, and then we’d write her guitar part and harmony together. We’d never collaborate lyrically. One person would write, and so it was never super collaborative, but that extra guitar brought so much. Sometimes we’d actually write Jen’s part note by note by note. Like, I would point to the fret board and say, “That one!” because there was one specific note that I wanted to hear right at that time. Sometimes it took a while, because the parts were quite complicated and weird, seeing as they were just a series of notes. But I love her sense of humor about it. I know how difficult it must have been for her to deal with me trying to get these specific notes, so I appreciate that she can laugh about it now.
During the beginning of the Softies, our rule was that if we couldn’t recreate it live, we didn’t do it on the record. I hate the production end of songs, and a lot of what I do is more accidental. On the last Softies record [Holiday in Rhode Island (KLP119)], we made a conscious decision to add more things, but it was really just for fun. That continued with my solo stuff, but still I really just want the songs to be recorded.Rose mentions that, while she has been playing instruments in other people's bands recently, she is still writing songs, and hints at new Softies material. She and Jen recently played the first Softies gigs in 12 years at the Chickfactor 20th anniversary shows in the US (subtitle: “Doing It In Spite Of The Kids”), and said that they enjoyed playing together again so much that they are thinking of writing and recording more songs together.
The record collection of another legendary British DJ been made available for fans to peruse online; this time, it's that of effervescent radio and TV personality Fearne Cotton, a collection with over seven records:
‘There’ll be information about all the records, including whether or not Fearne rated the album,’ explained a spokesman. ‘Cotton famously employed a meticulous 5-star rating system for her music, and every item in the collection was awarded the full 5 stars. Albums are accompanied by Fearne’s additional superlatives such as ‘mega’, ‘massive’, ‘most awesomest ever’, ‘cool’ and ‘really, really cool’.’
The virtual museum includes such rare curiosities as a first pressing of Mis-Teeq’s 2004 hit ‘Scandalous’, a Foo Fighters greatest hits compilation, and some stuff by The Kooks. It’s not all obscurities though, as the trend-setting DJ also found room for plenty of U2 and Coldplay.
The Quietus has an essay by Swedish writer Johan Kugelberg about the psychology and psychogeography of record fairs, and that peculiar combination of nostalgia that causes a subculture of men of a certain age and decrepitude (the “British psychedelic fatsos”, in his words) to seize on a moment from one of various golden ages of the rockist canon (typically the psychedelic moment of the late 1960s, though these days, often also punk rock and its immediate aftermath) and strip-mine it for its elusive magic:
When it comes to original copies of popular 60’s rock records, it seems as if the importance of the condition of the vinyl is contradicted by the physical well-being of the people who are safe-guarding their sixties memories through the collecting of artefacts. The records, posters and Beatles autographs are doubtlessly relics of the time of their lives, infused with such a potent voodoo of nostalgia that the psychotic amounts of emotional projection that is fixed on them is starting to be reflected by the stars themselves. One needs only to go to the grotesque Who documentary DVD Amazing Journey to hear a bunch of propped-up geriatric rockers inflict godlike self-importance upon the viewer, comparing their stage ass-wriggling and studio knob-twiddling with the people who actually did something actually important during the same era. That the sixties survivors believe steadfastly that what they did was for the better good of the world, instead the commodified expression of the spectacle that it was, is very sad. Autographs, posters, vinyl records in mint condition, saleable things infused with nostalgia, are not necessarily a bad thing. We drink a vodka drink and sing songs that remind us of our good times, but where the problem lies is where a period of time in your life is pin-pointed as the only one directly lived, and the remainder of your days being devoted to a representation of said times.
Our emotional projection on the artifacts that remain of our youth’s cartoon rebellion is supposed to necessitate our belief system of extended adolescent self-worth. The hedge-fund lower- upper- management aging hardcore kid spending upper four figures on Misfits test-pressings is battling the same laws of gravity that middle-aged women struggle against at the plastic surgeon or the cosmetics counter. This battle, masking as against grave and ageing process, and against gravity itself, constitutes one of the most necrotic abrasions into the body-fabric of our very existence: this perpetuated falsity that only certain years in our life-span really truly matter. That life in our youth is worth so much more as a commodity, that once youth passes us by, we are obliged to forfeit what we directly lived and recede into a representation of said years for the remainder of our actual duration. Our choice of appearance, our choice of the most meaningful artifacts we surround ourselves with, our choice of the record we place in double plastic bags in alphabetical order, all representing time we address as lived in qualitative actuality.
Q: Do we collect records awake or dreaming?
A: We collect them awake, but we hope that the records will make us dream.
Q: What does a record fair mean?
A: It means that alienated consumption isn’t that great.
Q: What happens at the record fair?
A: A lot of men venture further from their goal of having plentiful sex by looking for records that quite often sing about plentiful sex.
Q: Where does its powerful allure come from?
A: The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.
A 1992 essay by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys about the positive value of hatred:
That’s the thing about negative energy, about hatred. It can be positive. It throws into relief all the things you know you like. It tells you, by elimination, what you’re about. Sometimes you can only define yourself by what you hate. Hatred becomes an inspiration; it makes you think, “What I’m doing now I totally believe in, and I don’t care what other people say.” Guided by hatred, you don’t have to follow the herd.
Of course, these days it’s more fashionable to be positive. I hate positivity. The problem with positivity is that it’s an attitude that’s decidedly about lying back, getting screwed, and accepting it. Happily. It’s totally apolitical. It’s very, very personal and one-on-one. It’s not about changing society, it’s about caring about yourself. In fact, it’s totally about ignoring one’s economic role in society, and so it works in favor of the system. Just look at work years of personal consciousness theories have given us: those icons of the status quo, George Bush and John Major.While this essay was written in 1992, when the World-Wide Web was confined to a particle physics institute in Switzerland, it is arguably more relevant than ever in today's relentlessly (and profitably) boosteristic online culture of Like buttons, Tumblr blogs, Pinterest and an online culture of comment whose language is lopsidedly positive, and much poorer in expressing hate, dislike or even a neutral interest without approval.
Positivity is fundamentally middle-class. It’s about having the time, the space and the money to sort out where your head is at. Therapy is just another side of positivity. It’s a leisure activity, a luxury for people who don’t have any real cares. It’s new age selfishness, the new way of saying that charity begins at home. And positivity makes the world stay the same. Hatred is the force that moves society along, for better or for worse. People aren’t driven by saying, “Oh wow, I’m at peace with myself.” They’re driven by their hatred of injustice, hatred of unfairness, of how power is used.Tennant doesn't spare the pop music of his peers at the time:
Another thing I hate, and another inspiration for what the Pet Shop Boys do, is the way people misunderstand pop culture. It annoys me that after more than twenty-five years, Top of the Pops, Britain’s most important pop-music TV program, changed the rules so that you have to sing live. Why? Because the people in control are the kind of conservatives who think that in the ‘60s, everything was much more talented than they are now. It’s all about Rolling Stone rock culture, which is essentially a fear of the new. Rolling Stone’s idea of a musician is Jerry Garcia, from the 60s. Look at all the ‘new’ artists – Curtis Stigers, Michael Bolton, Lenny Kravitz – all of them living in the past. I think you have to live in the future. Or at least in the present.One could argue that some progress has been made; that, while today's popular-music practitioners are expected to have at least the equivalent of a Master's degree in pop-music history, and to be able to produce an extensively footnoted mix CD of influences to lend support to their works, they are freer to mix and match influences from the past half-century or so of the pop canon, rather than slavishly retreading one particular epoch of rockist purity. Though that's possibly due to the rise of YouTube and Wikipedia, something that the backward-looking rockers of the early 1990s didn't have.
Something to read: Momus speaks to The Quietus, on topics ranging from his past career and future projects to the role of the artist and the value of art in the digital age, and the question of Scottish independence:
I think a common theme is "aggression against normality", from the left wing terrorists in The Happy Family album through the Maoist intellectuals and fake homosexuals of Tender Pervert, the baby-hating, doppelganger-haunted narrators of Ping Pong, right up to the eccentric 'Thunderclown' on the new album, my characters don't accept the world as it is. The corollary is that they respect otherness, and try to model other ways of living: parallel worlds. I think of this as basically a (post-Christian) Calvinist mindset.
While I'm happy to see the Postcard era recognised - it was genuinely a very exciting and magical time - I think the whole problem for pop music now is that it's become paralysed with respect for its past. We're crushed by the archive, and every edition of Mojo magazine (a sad catalogue of the achievements of the geriatric and the dead) makes it harder for the young to break away and create genuinely new forms of popular music. I don't have strong feelings about The Happy Family archive. We weren't as good as Josef K.
I identify as a Scot, very much. When I'm in Japan and they ask where I'm from, I always say "Scotland", not "Britain". I'd like to see Scotland independent, because we have different politics and a different culture from the English. I wouldn't like to see it become twee, navel-gazing and trivial, though. I hope an independent Scotland would really respect its artists. I'd like to see a cosmopolitanism, an orientation towards Europe and Asia rather than the States, and a kind of new Scottish Enlightenment like the one we had in the 18th Century. Adopt the euro, become a republic, dump the royals, embrace socialism fearlessly!In other news, Momus is tutoring an online course in songwriting, starting in April. At £55, it looks like a steal.
At the turn of the 1930s, recorded music was seen as an existential threat. Films with sound started appearing, and their prerecorded musical soundtracks started threatening the livelihoods of the musicians who, until then, had played accompaniments to silent films in cinemas. To wit, the American Federation of Musicians launched a campaign against the tyranny of “canned music”, which their advertisements depicted as a malevolent robot:
The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, though recorded music was seen as a threat to live musicians for decades after that. In the 1950s, for example, when the BBC was establishing a studio for experimental electronic music, it dubbed the studio with the decidedly unmusical name of the Radiophonic Workshop, perpetuating the fiction that its function only peripherally touched on the kingdom of music, as to avoid antagonising the unions of the musicians who worked on other BBC broadcasts.
The BBC interviews Gerald Casale of US new-wave band DEVO on the Scottish independence referendum, and in particular, of the suggested middle option of maximum devolution within the UK, popularly known as "Devo Max". Casale appears to have been following the debate, and even suggests a rewrite of one of DEVO's songs for the campaign.
Avant-garde electronic musician Matthew Herbert does an interview for Pitchfork's 5-10-15-20, a series in which they ask the artist what records they were listening to at 5-year intervals in their life so far, in the hope of distilling an artistic bildungsroman of sorts.
I was five in 1977. It seems like another world now. I grew up without a TV, so I was listening to an awful lot of radio, recording things with cassettes and putting the songs in some kind of order. It's going to sound like I'm a wanker, but I was listening to "The Model" by Kraftwerk at five-- I know that sounds like the coolest answer possible, but it was a big hit record over here. It was getting heavy rotation on the radio. In my own defense, I didn't know the song was by Kraftwerk until four years ago.His entries for subsequent years show a not unusual progression: Tom Waits' satire of consumerism at 10 (in the springtime of Thatcherism and the rise of the age of fast, loud money), De La Soul at 15 ("Our local policeman was a sweet, nice man, and the idea of shouting, "Fuck the police!" at him seemed so totally absurd."), then into the stratosphere via acid house, techno and jazz, and then, at age 35:
I still feel that there is too much music in the world. I'm not convinced that we need to make any more music. I read this statistic that said 75% of music on iTunes has never been downloaded once. It's depressing, but it also makes you think that we should stop making music until we listen to it all, and then we should start again. We're in a bit of a muddle about the function of music, and why we're making it, and what we expect from our music. I mean, surely, everything has been said about love already by now. Presumably everything has been said about war already. It feels like people think they have a right to make music or express themselves in a certain way. I think you have a right to express yourself, but I don't necessarily think that there's automatically a right that people should be expected to listen.Further reinforcing the idea that music has gone from something scarce whose value is as a consumable, to something abundant that is a byproduct of the valuable activity of its production.
Data wonks at the social music-streaming site last.fm have been taking advantage of their vast repository of recorded music to correlate analyses of the music (made using cold, hard signal-processing algorithms, not anything more subjective or fuzzy) with data from sales charts, determining how the characteristics of popular music have changed in response to cultural trends. The results make for fascinating reading.
Among findings: by looking at how percussive tracks in the charts were (i.e., how strong and regular a rhythm they had, according to spectral analyses) they pretty much pinpoint the rise of disco in the mid-1970s, a change towards more strongly rhythmic tracks which has never been reversed:
The rise in percussivity was followed by a rise in rhythmic regularity in the early 1980s, when drum machines and MIDI came into existence. Unlike the increase in percussivity, though, this was a temporary hump, which waned in the 1990s, as people got sick of drum machines, grunge/alternative did to overproduced 1980s studio-pop what punk had done to prog, and/or simple 16-step drum machines were replaced by Atari STs running Steinberg Cubase, and equipped with more humanlike quantisation algorithms. Interestingly enough, the same study found that the hump in rhythmic regularity was accompanied by a rise in tracks with a tempo of 120 beats per minute, either out of laziness or from some folk wisdom about 120bpm being the optimum tempo:
Our first thought was that songwriters in the 80s must have turned on their drum machines, loved what they heard and wrote a song to that beat - without changing the default tempo setting of 120 bpm. I would love this to be correct, but I have a hunch that it's not, especially after having found this highly interesting manual for writing a hit single written by The KLF in 1988. They say that "the different styles in modern club records are usually clustered around certain BPM’s: 120 is the classic BPM for House music and its various variants, although it is beginning to creep up", and also, "no song with a BPM over 135 will ever have a chance of getting to Number One" because "the vast majority of regular club goers will not be able to dance to it and still look cool".Time, as the KLF said, may be eternal, but time signatures aren't; dance music (which remained strongly clustered around 120bpm at the time of acid house and the Second Summer of Love) soon started creeping upward past 130bpm, while tempos of charting music in general moved down.
last.fm's DSP algorithms also pick out the rise of punk, with its simplistic rock'n'roll arrangements and emphasis on DIY enthusiasm over polished virtuosity, and the vanquishment of prog rock, glam and other more experimental genres; this manifested itself in a steep rise in the proportion of the charts occupied by records of low harmonic and timbre complexity (i.e., both simple melodic/chord structures and unostentatious selections of instruments) between 1976 and 1979, and map the Loudness Wars of the past few decades, as the rise of the CD and a competition for sounding louder and more kick-ass than all the music that came before conspired to annihilate dynamic range:
Finally, another cultural trend that shows up in the data is the steady decline of the Truck Driver's Gear Shift (i.e., the tendency of songs to shift their key up one or two semitones before the final chorus, for some extra heartstring-tugging oomph) from the 1950s to the present day; presumably because that shit got old. When the incidence of gear shifts is plotted by month, however, few will be surprised to find that December has 2-3 times as many as the rest of the year; after all, 'tis the season to be cheesy.
The percentage of loud tracks has increased from 10% in 1964 (by definition) to over 40% in recent years. So music has got louder. Well, isn't that in the spirit of Rock'n'Roll? Sadly, it isn't, because the increase in loudness has led to worse sound quality. Granted, it's louder, but boy is it flat!
And now, here is my list of notable records of 2011:
- Architecture In Helsinki Moment Bends
With their previous album, released way back in 2007, AIH shook off the "twee" label and let rip with some nitro-charged machismo; now, four years later, they turn to the daggy side of the force. Moment Bends celebrates all the elements of mainstream pop that filled the airwaves in the 1980s by building them into a neon edifice to vintage electro-pop kitsch. It's all here: synth licks you swear you've heard before in a mid-80s movie soundtrack or album (is that Glenn Frey? And over there, you can just about hear Control-era Janet Jackson), shimmering arpeggios, a plastic reggae riddim here (in the opening cut Desert Island), some synth brass there, even the odd gear change and Clearmountain break for the sake of completeness. The word "chillwave" may come to mind, though AIH differ from the chillwave aesthetic in their eschewal of the gauzy haze afforded by shoegaze-style reverb and delay; everything here is clear and upfront, with the possible exception of the lyrics, which, in AIH fashion, would be a little too oblique for the 1980s-vintage Top 40. File alongside the new M83 double album.
- Constant Light, Mag - Amplitude
Released as a download on Constant Light's Bandcamp page, the Melbourne duo's debut, Mag - Amplitude consists of a mere six tracks, varying in length between 2 and 10 minutes, and falls somewhere in the post-rock/instrumental spectrum, driven by bass guitars, synthesiser patterns, processed guitar and layered textures. The influences range from the kosmische musik of 1970s West Germany to the monochromatic drone of 1980s New Wave (Factory Floor captures the mood of a certain Manchester label and takes it for a ride down the Autobahn). Half of the album is taken up with a three-piece composition,
Dreams of Dreams Denied, which opens with languid acoustic guitar and harmonica figures, like Morricone meeting Mogwai, drifts through layers of shifting texture, motors on into a driving rhythm propelled by guitars and drums, before coming to rest in a glorious finale of coruscating synths.
- Geoffrey O'Connor, Vanity Is Forever
The capsule summary sounds almost like the punchline to a hipster joke: "Inner-Melbourne coolsie makes yacht rock album". On the surface, this is what Vanity Is Forever is: Geoffrey O'Connor, the fey, long-haired frontman of twee-pop combo Crayon Fields has come back with a radical image change. Gated drums, syrupy synth keyboards, and the kind of production that sounds like a million dollars in 1980s money; only the label (Guy Blackman's credible Melbourne indie Chapter Music) and year of release hint that this wasn't recorded in an bleedingly expensive studio in Aruba. As for Geoffrey, he has, well, "grown up" is perhaps not the right cliché, though as he himself puts it, embraced the artifice of it all; his previous sound of 1960s-vintage pastoral innocence, naïve almost to the point of childlikeness (itself arguably an artifice) has been buried beneath a sheen akin to Bryan Ferry in his imperial phase, with touches of Italianate chintz worthy of the San Remo Ballroom. Geoffrey's old façade of elfin faux-naïveté reappears in places (particularly in Like They Say It Does, where he pushes it almost to the point of self-mockery), though the album is in a much more adult mode, hinting copiously at the exhilarating heights of erotic passion with a new lover (voiced, in one song, by Melbourne's own Jessica Says), and mentioning offhandly that it's going on her indolent soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend's credit card. An intriguing change of direction, and a stylishly crafted album that picks its references well.
- Hong Kong In The 60s, My Fantoms
Their first full-length non-instrumental album (before they had an EP and an instrumental album), and it's as subtle as you'd expect, starting off with the dreamy Casiotone-driven ballad of When You Were Dreaming, and proceeding to the bossa-tinged, synth-accented You Can Take A Heart But You Can't Make It Beat, before foraying into a Les Petits Chasseurs Du Son, an instrumental interlude which sounds like Wendy Carlos scoring a Dario Argento film. The rest of the album is in a similar vein, mixing subtle pop with the odd cinematic pretension (such as Theme From King Of Chinatown), before drifting off with the ethereal Shadow Of The Bear.
- I Break Horses, Hearts, and Korallreven, An Album By Korallreven
Two albums, both from Sweden and exploring the spaces between electronica, shoegaze and what, for lack of a better word, may be termed "indie rock". Korallreven are the latest practitioners of the improbably-named Swedish Balearic Pop subgenre, and, for the most part, don't veer wildly from the footsteps of predecessors like Air France and Boat Club. (Swedish Balearic, for what it's worth, is somewhere between chillwave and the Café Del Mar chillout compilations that were big about a decade ago; think pulsing synthesizers punctuated with acoustic guitars, bongos and reverb-drenched vocal fragments; tropical-holiday-island imagery and a production sensibility informed by shoegaze.) Having said that, Korallreven (a duo, one of whom plays in Stockholm shoegaze-pop combo The Radio Dept.) are pros at it and do it well, doing for the subgenre what pop veterans Empire Of The Sun did for indie-dance in Australia. I Break Horses, meanwhile, started off as a duo and grew into a band; they're not part of the Balearic scene, though explore their own space a similar space; their album consists of layers of electronics, guitars and live drums, with songs evoking the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Suicide and New Order, as well as more recent bands like M83 and The Radio Dept.
- The Leaf Library, Different Activities, Similar Diversions
The long-awaited full-length début from the London motorik pop combo (available from their BandCamp page) alternates between driving rhythms backed with choppy guitars and washes of Casiotone keyboards and more languid moments of hushed vocals backed by layers of subtle instruments; equal parts Yo La Tengo and Stereolab with perhaps a hint of Aphex Twin in places. This album is understatedly lovely, and gets its beauty from artful arrangements of texture and repetition. It sits well alongside both Constant Light and Hong Kong In The 60s.
- My Sad Captains, Fight Less, Win More
Their début album made my list of 2009, and I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up; I'm glad to say that it does indeed live up to my expectations. It doesn't depart far from their sound. Fight Less, Win More is an appropriate title; its laconic pop sound could scarcely be less combative, and its catchy melodies and literate lyrics are hard to resist. It stays mostly in an understated, vaguely pastoral indiepop vein, driven by clean guitars, drums, low-key vocals and the odd Mellotron, though toys with krautrock dynamics in places (the motorik crescendo of The Homefront Pt. II, and the rhythm that propels Heavy Lifting forward). Other highlights include the anthemic Little Joanne, the opening cut Orienteers, which evokes a number of pastoral pop groups from Melbourne, and Resolutions, which ends with fuzzy guitar.
- Still Corners, Creatures Of An Hour
One of the more intriguing bands to come out of London in recent years; Still Corners are equal parts Broadcast, early Paradise Motel and the Twin Peaks soundtrack; their debut album, released on Sub Pop, keeps true to the dreamlike quality of their 7"s and shows, with Tessa's lovely vocals floating spectrally over swirling organs, keening guitar feedback, clunking bass guitars and the odd drum machine. The whole album has a subtle, somewhat unreal quality; it doesn't sound like something belonging to any specific place or time. Highlights include the opening track Cuckoo, the previously released Endless Summer, with its Be My Baby-quoting opening, and the unseasonably summery The White Season.
- Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
The latest in a decades-long game of transatlantic stylistic ping-pong: in 1980s Britain, the movement that became known as C86 reacted against expensive overproduction and/or the yuppie excesses of the Thatcher era by returning to the basics of guitar-and-drums pop music circa the 1960s updated for the post-punk era. (This was the 1980s, when synthesisers and studio effects cost real money.) A few decades later, hip bands from Brooklyn like The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts dusted off C86 and made it their own. Now, Veronica Falls (a band formed from veterans of several London and Glasgow bands) takes the New York sound and brings it back. The result is a slab of tight garage rock with choppy guitars, boy-girl harmonies and classic themes of love and death like something out of a pulp paperback from the 1950s. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does what it does well.
- various artists, The Endless House Project
Ostensibly a rerelease of the brief recorded works of an art collective, as short-lived as it was improbable, that flourished in a futuristic studio-discotheque behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, prefiguring kosmische krautrock and Detroit techno; in reality, almost certainly a more recent work of counterfactual history, presenting a fantasy view of a glamorous European avant-garde, with an almost Wes Andersonian unreality that could only be imagined from the splendid isolation of the English-speaking world. The Endless House Project works both as an exercise in hauntology (as long as one suspends one's disbelief about its geopolitical impossibility; which is where being British, and taking a vaguely orientalist view of the European continent as an exotic whole, might help) and as a collection of retrofuturistic analogue electronica. The opening track, Ostend (Invisible Cities) by one "Johannus Arpensium", starts with mighty, swelling synthesiser chords that soon break into driving, proto-Kraftwerkian arpeggios zooming down luminous highways with vocoded vocals. From there, we are led on a tour of retrofuturistic utopias and dystopias, expressed in analogue electronic music: ominous chords play over rhythm tracks of electronic clicks, as European-accented voices intone obliquely. Other tracks, meanwhile, (like Ernest Kantor's Jealousie (Escape To Outer Space) and Rasmus Folk's luxurious yet melancholic Coupe) are almost weightlessly breezy. the whole thing ends with the last work ostensibly played at the doomed Endless House, in which mastermind Jiri Kantor asks why it all happened so quickly and then leaves the stage, leaving the synthesisers to run by themselves and foreshadowing New Order's stage shows circa 1983. The album (sold only directly, in physical format, by an outfit named Dramatic Records) comes in an envelope with postcards giving capsule biographies of the ostensible composers of the pieces, a motley crew of European playboys and avant-gardists with names like Felix Uran, Klaus Pinter and Earnesto Rogers.
Were I to anoint one title as my record of the year, the accolade would probably go to My Sad Captains.
An interview with underground comic author Daniel Clowes, in which he talks about a number of things, such as the pitfalls of hipster parents trying wrongheadedly to introduce their kids to interesting culture (and, in the process, making it deeply uncool):
I think about that a lot with my son. I don’t want to inflict the stuff I like onto him. He’s only eight, so right now I could get him to like anything, pretty much, but when he’s a few years older I really don’t want him to respond to anything because I like it too much or not enough. I want him to sort of find his way into his own stuff, so it’s something I have to constantly modulate. I don’t want him to associate this music with me, I want him to discover it on his own and then I’ll go like, “Well, I happen to have all their records!”In short, you may be hip and credible, but once you have kids, your position as a parent will, in the eyes of your kids, be like antimatter to all the cred you have carried forth from your bourgeois-bohemian extended adolescence. And so, a generation is produced to whom Black Flag and Pavement will be as naff as, say, Engelbert Humperdinck or something. Or, in the post-loungecore, post-Yacht Rock age after irony has folded in upon itself, perhaps it's the act of having opinions about music that will carry a patina of daddish uncool, with record collections and discographies being inherently cringeworthy; perhaps, to the hip kids, music will be, as Jarvis Cocker put it, like a scented candle, a ubiquitous low-value commodity beneath caring about.
And now is the era of the Cool Dad. I know lots of parents who I just think, like, “God, if my parents had been like that I would’ve been into all this cool stuff.” Luckily they weren’t, so I discovered all that stuff on my own and they sort of disdainfully shook their heads at the stupid stuff I was interested in. But there are a lot of things that I don’t respond to. I’m not into video games, so I can just see my son becoming, like, a video-game tester as his job or something. Developing video games.Clowes touches on the mainstreaming of comic-book/nerd culture:
When I was in high school, if I’d gone up to a girl and said, “Would you like to go read some of my Thor comics with me?” they would’ve just thought I was the lowest form of human life. That would’ve been so unimaginable. I was actually on the subway in New York and saw this, like, Attractive Teenage Couple, and the guy was like, “Hey, wanna go see Thor tonight?” and the girl was like, “Yeah, yeah.” And I just thought, that is just blowing my mind that that is happening right in front of me.And touches on the way that, by reducing the amount of friction required to discover something, the internet has reduced the value of merely knowing about cultural products as badges of belonging:
I could tell you right now about some obscure filmmaker and you could know more about him by midnight than I would’ve been able to find out in 10 years when I was your age. But I don’t know that it would mean much to you unless you really connected to the guy and kept following it and doing more and more research. It’d just be like, “Yeah, I know about that guy,” and then you’d move on to the next thing. There’s something about having it be like a mystery that you have to solve and figure out that really connected you to this weird culture back then.
It also used to be like, you’d buy an album by a recording artist and there’d be one or two good songs on it, and there’d be all the rest that were just kind of to fill up the album, and you’d work your way through that and learn to like the other songs after a while, and then you’d wait till the next album came out. And now it sort of feels like everything is all the greatest hits. You learn about a musician and you immediately can figure out what their 10 greatest songs are, and you just listen to those and you don’t experience the full breadth of their failures and mishaps and all that stuff. I feel like that’s how all culture is. And I’m as guilty as anybody else now—if I hear about an author or something I go straight for their most well-known book and read that first, and, you know, I don’t have that experience of kind of building up to that. You don’t wanna read the rest of their books after that because you figure, “Well, I’ve already read the best one. It’s not gonna be much better than that.”The interview also touches on the settings of Clowes' works, the aura of alienation in his characters, and his aesthetic formative experiences having been a reaction to the cultural upheavals of The Sixties:
As a kid I loved the look of the early ’60s, kind of the pre-hippie era, just the haircuts and clothes and the way women dressed, it was really appealing. And then all of a sudden people started wearing, like, filthy clothes and messy hair and stuff. That seemed really hideous and horrible to me. It definitely relates to what was going on in my life at the time because, as with many kids who grew up then, my family was just disintegrating while all that stuff came in, so it represented this chaos that was entering my life. But I still have an affection for that pre-1968 look, that kind of saturated Technicolor look. That seems like the real world to me, or like the way things should be.
It emerges that the "Mahna Mahna" song, that (in)famous earworm from the Muppet Show, was originally from an Italian soft-porn exploitation film titled Sweden: Heaven and Hell:
In the tradition of the shocking, factually questionable Mondo Cane, Heaven and Hell was styled as a documentary about Scandinavian sexuality, which provided a thin veneer of respectability for its leering exploration of lesbian nightclubs and meter maids who moonlight as nude models.The song, composed by Piero Umiliani, was released as a novelty single under the title “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, and made it to number 55 on the US charts, which presumably led to a bohemian hepcat and puppeteer named Jim Henson discovering it; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mah Nà Mah Nà was by no means the only piece of worthwhile music to emerge from the seamy European cinematic underworld. Before video came along, a lot of pornographic and exploitation productions were seen as canvases for experimentation and artistic exploration in everything from cinematography to music, which has led to highly prized soundtrack recordings from films such as Vampyros Lesbos and Die Schulmädchen Report. (After the VCR commodified porn and cut into its margins, such exploration seems to have moved to the rising genre of music videos.)
An interview with Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, in which they talk about, among other things, their reactions to Ian Curtis' suicide, Joy Division's metamorphosis into New Order, the (legendary though financially disastrous) Hacienda, and the origin and meaning of Blue Monday (capsule summary: it was inspired musically by an Italo-disco record and the famously enigmatic lyrics are rooted in the band's annoyance with the press, though is also about whatever the listener wishes to read into it):
James: Like retrospectively, you don’t even remember what they were about?
Bernard: I think I do. They weren’t literally about this but we were getting a lot of shit in the press at the time. The press has turned on us after Joy Division who could do no wrong. They were all against us and I felt a bit beleaguered and it was a kind of fuck you to the press really. That’s kind of what was in my head when I wrote it, it was a kind of a fuck you we can do it without you and we did, with that song.
James: When I was on the NME Len Brown wrote a great piece that is presumably wrong. He read it to be about the Falklands, he wrote a great piece about his brother committing suicide or was it about Blue Monday.
Bernard: Well we also have an attitude that we never explain what a song is about because people have their own interpretations, that’s equally valid. So I wouldn’t say that’s not wrong, it’s how you interpret a song and what it means to you and that’s why we never. Whenever I write lyrics it’s never a literal thing it’s just what’s on my mind at the time.
This article looks at the malaise in indie/hipster culture, and places the blame squarely at the feet of 1990s proto-hipster Beck:
The two most common characteristics of the “indie” persona these days, at least in North America, are an aversion to overt seriousness and the ability to find everything “awesome”. These characteristics often intermingle and feed off one another, creating the voracious indie devourer who is able to simultaneously enjoy every kind of music while at the same time not particularly caring about anything. They are the ultimate consumer, willing to embrace and discard bands at a moment’s notice while never questioning what led them to lose interest in one band and embrace another. Awkward inquiries about almost any subject can be dealt with in a detached and deliberately ironic manner — following trends is awesome, selling out is awesome, being shallow is awesome, sweatshops are awesome. When it comes to fashion, trashiness battles against both vintage store retro and American Apparel chic as the dominant form, and everyone thinks that everybody but themselves is a hipster. How this persona was birthed is a relatively straightforward tale, as suburban America fell in the love with the vulgar commercial product of its youth. An ironic approach was already somewhat popular but something, or in this case someone, happened in the ‘90s to turn what was a mere aspect of American culture into the dominant personality trait of American teenagers, twenty-somethings and, at this point, thirty-somethings. That someone was Beck.
Cinema in the 90s reflected this shift in taste, with the ultra-violence of Quentin Tarantino’s movies creating a detached, cartoonish reality that allowed the viewer to feel unconcerned as to the repercussions of the savagery on screen. The character’s brutal transgressions are played out for entertainment and amusement rather than illustrating any kind of painful struggle. Tarantino’s movies were also filled with pop culture references that allowed the viewer to feel like they were part of the director’s insular self-congratulatory world. If America in the 70s wrestled with moral dilemmas and a diminished sense of individuality and reach, then pop culture mavens in the 90s merely wanted to be in on the joke. To music fans who imagined themselves to be more alternative in their approach, Beck fulfilled this need. His music basked in the mindset of trash culture and knowing irony, of sneering at seriousness, of adopting hip-hop beats to play up the now utterly commonplace “look at me I’m a nerdy white guy rapping about ridiculous things” persona that has managed to all but reduce hip-hop to a comedy sideshow for those who need an occasional break from their Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend albums.The ironic stance, the article argues, was a false victory, delivering the counterculture straight into the arms of the consumerist mainstream. After all, you can buy more crap if you're doing so ironically:
Consumerism thrives on people getting excited about, and buying, things that they ultimately don’t care about. In this sense the ironic persona is the ultimate gift to consumerism. Mainstream music revels in easy sentiment and soul-crushing banality and can only truly be enjoyed by not paying attention to the lyrics. Beck’s meaningless babble trained a generation of young ears to seek out amusing sound-bites over articulate content and in doing so helped break down the last vestiges of ‘alternative’ music by making it as equally meaningless as, and therefore all but identical to, mainstream drivel.I'm wondering whether the rise to dominance of the stance of ironic detachment and the tendency of musicians and bands to define themselves publically by catalogues of their influences ("we're kraut-punk meets Afrobeat meets New Jack Swing") could not both be symptoms of a more abstract shift from directness and immediacy towards mediation and referentiality, an addition of levels of abstraction to the processes of culture, a tendency to see and do things from one step removed.
Not many people defend authoritarianism for its own sake; those who don't abhor it generally regard it as a means to a specific end. Not so Prince:
"I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant. You can't be both. I had to learn what authority was. That's what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction."
Sometimes he seems a little too fond of boundaries. "It's fun being in Islamic countries, to know there's only one religion. There's order. You wear a burqa. There's no choice. People are happy with that." But what about women who are unhappy about having to wearing burqas? "There are people who are unhappy with everything," he says shruggingly. "There's a dark side to everything."
A few interesting links I've seen recently:
- BBC Four recently aired a fascinating documentary titled The Joy Of Easy Listening, charting the history of easy-listening/light music from the 1950s onward. It's viewable on YouTube here.
- Digital artist Joshua Nimoy worked on some of the visuals for Disney's Tron Legacy film, and describes how they were done, from the physics of fireworks simulations and the algorithms behind various clusters of digital-looking lines to authentic-looking UNIX command-line shots for a hacking scene. (The fact that we've gone from "UPLOAD VIRUS Y/N" screens and random equations/6502 machine code/cyber-Japanese glyphs to nmap(1) being seen as too much of a hacking-scene cliché suggests that computer literacy in the movie-viewing public has increased dramatically over the past few years.)
- IBM's Executive Briefing Center in Rome looks like something out of a scifi film:
- Quite possibly the most awesomel wedding invitation in the history of wedding invitations would have to be Karen Sandler and Mike Tarantino's, a card which unfolds into a paper record player that plays a song recorded by the happy (and creative) couple. There are more details here.
Simon Reynolds writes about popular culture's increasingly revivalist tendencies:
Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".
Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".(I'm not sure I'd lump NME and Pitchfork in together; while each does convey a formula for what "indie" is, there's an order of magnitude of difference in how cynically formulaic it is. Pitchfork, whilst being a musical equivalent of Stuff White People Like, at least aspires to a demographic which purports to be somewhat more thoughtful about its aesthetic preferences. NME, meanwhile, has long ago abandoned any ideal of "indie" being driven by any sort of independence of tastes; its oeuvre is marketing-driven Indie® reduced to a cartoonish lowest-common-denominator of facile lad-rock in skinny jeans and striped deep-V T-shirts, the messages of the original source material reduced to a series of cool stances, with ads in the back for where to buy the uniform.)
Reynolds' contention is that popular music (and other aspects of popular culture; witness retro fashion, for example, or pixel art, or the prevalence of apps that make your smartphone simulate a stylishly crappy old camera) has increasingly become focussed on the past. The mainstream has all but stripmined the obvious things (garage rock, Motown, synthpop), turning them into pattern-books of conventions (I'm not sure if anyone has described 1980s synthpop as "timeless" yet, though it's bound to happen). Meanwhile, once bounteous treasure troves of leftfield cool and edgy weirdness such as krautrock and tropicalia now look as despoiled as Nauru's phosphate quarries, leading retro cool hunters to look further afield, from exploring foreign tributaries of the collective past recently opened by the advent of YouTube (apparently the next big thing among hipsters is Soviet new-wave post-punk known as stilyagi) to the cultural equivalent of tar sands oil extraction, digging up and reviving what was considered terminally cheesy (the yacht-rock revival could be considered in this regard), to the point where one considers whether we may, indeed, run out of past. And now, as the 1980s revival is exceeding the duration of the decade it revived, the revivalists are moving into the 1990s, with indie bands doing grunge and R&B/pop artists detuning their polyphonic synths and riffing off cheesy Eurodance.
The question is: does popular music really look backwards a lot more than it used to? Is it because, as recorded music (which, a few decades ago, was relatively new) has accumulated more past, it is increasingly difficult to do anything totally novel without referencing the past, or because recorded music is becoming an elderly pursuit, with the more forward-looking diverting their attention to newer endeavours?
Anyway, Reynolds (who has a new book titled Retromania out) is chairing a talk on the subject tonight at the ICA in London.
The Guardian speaks to Charanjit Singh, a Bollywood session musician from Mumbai who, in 1982, bought a Roland TB-303 and TR-808 and decided to have a go at applying these sequencer-driven electronic instruments to traditional Indian music, creating something that sounded uncannily like acid house music that came out some five years later:
With some more gentle probing he explains that he was intrigued by the way he could use the 808 and 303 in synch with the Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard. He explains that he didn't know much about the machines when he bought them and that he had to spend time learning how to use them properly. "At home I practised with the combination and I thought 'It sounds good – why not record it'".
Having explained that much of the music that Ten Ragas is compared to comes from Chicago, we settle down to listen to the record that arguably started it all – Acid Trax by Phuture. Singh listens intently but seems unmoved by the pulsing, stripped down music – and the signature squelch of the 303. "It's quite simple" he concludes after around three minutes, gently chuckling at the idea that there are similarities between Acid Trax and Ten Ragas. "It's very simple this music," he says. "What I played are ragas – there's a lot of variation."Singh's record, 10 Ragas To A Disco Beat, sank more or less without a trace when it was released, before being rediscovered a few years ago, and reissued on vinyl and MP3.
London folk singer Emmy The Great has written a song in back-handed tribute to the Royal Wedding. Titled Mistress England, it is dedicated to the mothers of the young women whom Prince William didn't end up choosing as his future queen, and it positively drips with a very British, very measured wit:
The subject has inspired a touching, tender song. "Fold up your clean white invitations/ There is no need to keep them now," run the lyrics. "He found a Queen/ He chose another." The middle eight conjures distant churchbells, but in the Union Jack-decked garden, "no celebration here". "I'm two years younger than Kate Middleton," says Moss. "I honestly knew girls who applied to St Andrews to meet him. Presumably they're a bit miffed now."
"I keep trying to put myself in Kate Middleton's place," says Moss. "She did a degree, right, that's how she met him? I have never, ever heard it said what she studied there. But I do know what boots she likes to wear. That's a bit depressing, isn't it?"
Science blogger Ben Goldacre points us to an interesting psychology paper (unfortunately paywalled), analysing changes over the past few decades in the subject matter of popular song lyrics:
The current research fills this gap by testing the hypothesis that one cultural product—word use in popular song lyrics—changes over time in harmony with cultural changes in individualistic traits. Linguistic analyses of the most popular songs from 1980–2007 demonstrated changes in word use that mirror psychological change. Over time, use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased. These findings offer novel evidence regarding the need to investigate how changes in the tangible artifacts of the sociocultural environment can provide a window into understanding cultural changes in psychological processes.Compare and contrast: Hypebot's analysis of 2010 commercial pop lyrics, coming up with an example of perfectly generic pop lyrics, circa 2010:
Oh baby, yeah, Imma rock your body hard—like damnI wonder how much of this is actually emblematic of a deeper cultural shift towards short-term values. A world in which everything is a dynamic market of novelty and possibility, and "love" just means a temporary arrangement for mutually negotiated gratification.
Chick I wanna know, cause I get around now—like bad
Love gonna stop, Imma rock your body hard—like damn
Had enough tonight, I wanna break the love—like bad
The first two in a series of articles about the history of rock'n'roll-influenced pop music in Japan, through the 1960s and 1970s: Part 1, about the rise and decline of Beatles/Stones-influenced, tightly controlled "Group Sounds" bands and the rise of the psychedelic rock that followed, and part 2, about the rise of the Kansai underground protest-folk scene and its influence on Japanese rock:
In 1966, The Beatles came to Japan, playing a series of five concerts at Tokyo’s Budokan. In doing so, they transformed rock and roll into a phenomenon among Japanese youth. Within months, an unprecedented number of Japanese rock bands, each with their own take on the sounds of The Beatles or The Stones, were debuting. The Japanese press started writing articles about the new, controversial band boom, which they had termed “Group Sounds” (or GS). The Japanese music industry, however, was slow to adapt to Japan’s changing musical climate. Labels assumed a high degree of musical control, often forcing bands to record compositions by in-house songwriters instead of their own material. Only in live performances were the GS groups granted creative control. Many groups refused to preform their singles at all, instead playing from a repertoire of covers and original songs.
Okabayashi quickly became one of the most prominent members of the Kansai Folk movement. His 1969 URC debut demonstrates the level of freedom Takaishi’s label granted its artists. Watashi wo Danzai Seyo contained songs criticizing the Vietnam War (“Sensou no Oyadama”), Japanese labor conditions (“Sanya Blues”), and the perils of Japan’s capitalist aspirations (“Sore de Jiyuu Natta no Kai”). Okabayashi also wrote songs that explored taboo topics like the discrimination against descendants of Edo Japan’s pariah caste, the burakumin (“Tegami”). Although Okabayashi was often critical and sardonic, he expressed a great deal of hope for a brighter future in songs like “Tomo yo” and “Kyou wo Koete.” Okabayashi’s blunt lyrics about sensitive topics caused the JRIA’s standards committee to ban many of his songs from being broadcast on Japanese radio. The most infamous of these songs is “Kusokurae Bushi,” or in English, “Eat Shit Song.” Even after removing a verse concerning the Japanese Emperor, which centered around a pun between “God” and “[toilet] paper,” “Kusokurae Bushi” was banned from radio and recalled from record shops.In the second article, an interesting point is raised about authenticity, with many in Japan's rock scene regarding rock-style music sung in Japanese, rather than English, to be inauthentic, thus framing rock as a specifically ethnic genre (much in the way that one might argue that, say, Balkan folk songs in English would be inauthentic, or possibly in the way that rap not performed in an American accent was regarded as "wack" for a decade or two).
The New York Times has an article on Clyde Stubblefield, one of the most influential drummers of the recorded-music age, largely by virtue of him having drummed for James Brown, and particularly on a B-side titled Funky Drummer, whose drum break became one of the most sampled loops ever:
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Stubblefield was first inspired by the industrial rhythms of the factories and trains around him, and he got his start playing with regional bands. One day in 1965 Brown saw him at a club in Macon, Ga., and hired him on the spot. Through 1971 Mr. Stubblefield was one of Brown’s principal drummers, and on songs like “Cold Sweat” and “Mother Popcorn” he perfected a light-touch style filled with the off-kilter syncopations sometimes called ghost notes.
The technology and conventions of sampling — isolating a musical snippet from one recording and reusing it for another — also kept him from greater recognition. “Funky Drummer” didn’t appear on an album until 1986, when it was on “In the Jungle Groove,” a Brown collection that was heavily picked over by the new generation of sampler-producers....and the rest was history, with the entire hip-hop world, and then everybody from Madonna to Kenny G who wanted to grab some of that streetwise cool for themselves, sampling the Funky Drummer break to ubiquity. Soon the record labels and collection agencies got wind of this and started making demands for royalties (at one time, PolyGram apparently had four people working full-time, listening to new releases for uncleared James Brown samples). Unfortunately for Stubblefield, musical copyright law puts little weight on rhythm in ascribing authorship, and consequently he has received little in the way of royalties.
Stubblefield didn't stop with the Funky Drummer; a lifelong career musician, he has been playing in bands and on records ever since (fellow Madison, Wisconsin resident Butch Vig got him in on 1990s alternative band Garbage's first record, on the grounds that it'd be nuts to use a sample when the actual drummer lives nearby). Unfortunately, now his health is declining and, like many American musicians, he has no health insurance (in the US, unless you're either wealthy or a full-time employee, health insurance is generally unaffordable). To make money, Stubblefield has recorded a set of sampled drum loops, which may be licensed for 15% of any commercial sales, and also has a special edition of the sampling documentary Copyright Criminals. Or, if you want to throw him a few bucks, you can do so here.
There's some promising news from the world of music: US big-indie label Sub Pop have just signed Memoryhouse and Still Corners. Both bands are in an ambient vein, and could possibly be referred to as "dreampop". Memoryhouse are a Canadian ambient-pop duo who studied composition and photography, and, strangely enough, this comes through in their musical approach; one could imagine them signed to an earlier incarnation of 4AD. Meanwhile, Still Corners are a London three-piece with an understated sound, somewhere between early Paradise Motel and the Twin Peaks soundtrack, with a bit of surf-rock and Cocteau Twins for good measure; they have a few singles and an older album out, and have recorded a new album. Both bands' albums come out later this year, and should be ones to eagerly await.
A sublabel of Sub Pop has also signed Seattle C86-esque combo Seapony, who should appeal to anyone who likes Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls (the Brooklyn one, not the Melbourne band from 2000).
The Quietus has an interview with The Human League, (who have a new album coming out, apparently skipping the whole 80s synthpop nostalgia circuit and focussing on making dancefloor-oriented electronic music). Anyway, the interview includes an interesting assertion that boring places (like Sheffield, allegedly) produce more interesting music than exciting places (like London):
(Joanne:) But Sheffield isn’t just about that; obviously you’ve got the Arctic Monkeys as well. It’s a very, very arty town. It’s a bit dull...
(Susan:) I think it is because it’s a bit boring. There isn’t much going on. You only have to go across the Pennines to Manchester and suddenly you're in a different world; it’s very cosmopolitan. You come back to Sheffield and it’s a bit... boring! And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because it creates creativity.
But that’s why good bands don’t come from London. Ambitious bands move to London to become famous but that’s not the same thing... even during punk and post-punk when you had a lot of people coming through, a lot of these bands were more associated with places like Bromley, which are satellite towns or else they came from squatted communities where people couldn’t afford any of the entertainment options that London offered.
Andy Votel has written a tribute to Trish Keenan, and it's as splendidly illuminating as one might expect from him:
While transcending pop whims Trish's growing passions had recently found her moving into creative writing, fiction and sound poetry. Any single piece of Broadcast's 15 year legacy is omni-relevant and as a constantly evolving and challenging voice. It's devastating to think that she had barely even begun her creative journey. She was one of the only people to persuade me to release a financially doomed spoken word record, she emailed me her own personal review of the record when it came out which made it totally worthwhile.
This is why Broadcast in many ways act as a clearly annotated instruction manual to my own otherwise nonsensical record collection. Losing Trish Keenan is potentially like losing the bag of Swedish screws. But her legacy represents the glue in my misinformed musical penchants. Her varied sonic mood board of Czech cinema, random Indian and Malaysian charity shop finds, Italian library music and French sound poetry - when added to her inimitable kitchen sink optimism - proved how an open mind goes hand-in-hand with super-creative communication. Again Trish, unknowingly, wrote the rule book. For selfish reasons alone I'm absolutely heartbroken to have lost her.
News of the untimely death of Trish Keenan, frontwoman of experimental library-pop band Broadcast, has sent shockwaves through the music community. The Line Of Best Fit has a thoughtful tribute:
If it was Stereolab who coined the term “space age bachelor pad music”, Broadcast were rewiring the room’s electrics to match the lush mood. The sumptuous elegance of Keenan’s coolly delivered vocals were key to installing the mood, sometimes gentle and wistful, fragile without being slight, at other times somnambulent, haunting and bold. Her lyrics could be cryptic, partly due to her occasional utilisation of automatic writing, but often bore weight as snapshots of love and society.
In the last few years Broadcast have been increasingly cited as an influence by pop-minded sonic adventurers. Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox recorded and toured with them in his Atlas Sound guise, of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes listed Haha Sound as his favourite album of the 00s when asked by Ragged Words, and Animal Collective booked them for their curation of All Tomorrow’s Parties this coming May after they played a stand-out set at the Matt Groening curated weekend last year.And here is a roundup of some illustrious indie musicians' responses to the news.
Meanwhile, someone has posted a music mix in tribute here, consisting of 17 tracks in a sympathetic direction. Alas, there is no track listing, but it's largely in a psychedelic direction.
The world will be a poorer place without her.
It is now looking increasingly likely that the age of rock music is over:
The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a sickly 13% in 2009 to a terminal 3% – far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%, according to figures from MusicWeek.("Pop", here, meaning not light guitar-based ditties, nor any niche genre (the "twee pop"/"p!o!p!" in the Orange Juice/Field Mice/Lucksmiths mould favoured by indie kids (many of them well north of 30), or the "futurepop" favoured by Goths who code) but specifically music without guitars or live drums, assembled in a studio to a commercial template.)
The news that the best performing rock song of 2010 was Don't Stop Believin', a 30-year-old track from the veteran rock act Journey made popular by US television show Glee, added a further nail to the coffin. "It is the end of the rock era. It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over," declared the veteran DJ and "professor of pop" Paul Gambaccini. "That doesn't mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history."The death of rock, or at least its death as the dominant musical genre, has been predicted for a while, and demographically makes sense. Rock was a product of the post-WW2 boom, and the rise, in America and the West, of large numbers of middle-class teenagers with disposable income and freedom from adult responsibility, which conveniently happened when recorded music was the most promising entertainment technology of its sort. (Television was still too expensive for teens to have their own sets, and cinema is a more rarefied pleasure; you can listen to a record over and over again in a way you couldn't watch a movie.) When the same demographic phenomenon happened in South Korea and China, the teens jumped right over recorded music and got into multiplayer video gaming; instead of youth tribes, they got gamer clans.
Anyway, the warning signs have been around for ages. Rock first started lumbering towards middle age in the 1970s, the age of prog, being revitalised by the rise of punk, which was, essentially, just 1950s-style garage rock with more focus on urgency and rage than on musicianship (in fact, being too good a player would have been a liability, as punk led in the cult of lofi-as-authenticity that stayed with us until it was dispatched by cheap computer-based production tools on one hand and commodified pseudo-alternative music on the other). Throughout the 1980s, the commercial end of rock was showing definite middle-aged bloat, no longer being the anthems of teenage hooligans but rather of working stiffs and mortgage holders. The last major strands of underground rock to emerge into the sunlight and promptly get picked over by the forces of commodification were the alternative music genres that entered the mainstream in the 1990s, leading to shitty nu-metal in America, three-chord JJJ grunge in Australia and dire lad-indie in the UK. Meanwhile, hip-hop (and R&B, i.e., electronically produced soul infused with some hip-hop street attitude) and electronic dance music were growing, and a generation was growing up whose early memories of pop music were not of guitar-based beat combos but of Michael Jackson and Madonna. And when they started making music, it was often easier to pick up a laptop than a guitar. Where once it was given that a group of kids with music to make would rock out, now doing so is a deliberate retro affectation.
Another factor in the decline of rock has been the aging of its cohort, both the audience and the makers of the music:
There are rock acts still doing well, but it is the old guard: there is now, it seems, little new in rock. Bon Jovi was the highest grossing live act of 2010, bringing in $201.1m (£130.7m) in world ticket sales. However, its frontman is 48, and according to a report by Deloitte, 40% of the frontmen of the top 20 highest-grossing live acts in the US will be 60 or over next year; almost one in five acts will be over 50.The first generation of rockers, those who made the music in the 1950s, is long gone; the second generation is moving towards retirement age, as are their original fans. (Does Pete Townshend still sing "hope I die before I get old"? Does he do so with a straight face?) As such, it's quite likely that rock's time as the dominant form of popular music is in its twilight. Of course, rock won't go away, in the way that jazz or blues (or, say, calypso or rhumba) didn't. Elements of it will occasionally reappear in whatever follows, but rock itself it will become a distinctly antiquarian pursuit.
And as another year comes to an end, here is the obligatory list of records of 2010. Note that this time, the word "record" has been interpreted somewhat more liberally; as well as the usual CDs and occasional 7", some of the entries here are digital-only releases, and some were (and are) free to download. (The Null Device is not a rockist institution; we do not privilege traditional media or models of recorded music distribution for their own sake.) In any case, all of them were worthy of notice in 2010. And the records are, in alphabetical order:
- Betty And The Werewolves, Teatime Favourites
Arguably this generation's heirs to Tallulah Gosh and/or Lush, Betty And The Werewolves are a four-piece London band, who combine a punky garage-pop sound, sweet-but-not-too-sweet vocal harmonies and inspirations from classic romantic literature. They have had a number of singles out, and finally have released their début album; it's all pretty solid, and contains some standout tracks (Good As Gold, a slice of classic indiepop driven by a Be-My-Baby drumbeat, vocal harmonies, skronky guitars and almost psychedelic Casiotone filigree, and the hauntingly lovely closing track Hyacinth Girl are two which come to mind).
- Crocodiles, Sleep Forever
A new American band who channel Neu!, Suicide, the Stone Roses and the Jesus and Mary Chain in equal parts (along with a lot of 60s garage rock, I'm told), and do so well. The album hits the spots that The Horrors didn't; from the opening track (with its motorik beat and bassline, explosions of guitar noise and Roses-ish vocal melody soaring nonchalantly above it), through garage fuzz and reverb-drenched pop (Girl In Black sounds somewhere between a 1960s love ballad and the Mary Chain's Some Candy Talking), until the triumphantly defiant closer (All My Hate And My Hexes Are For You, which sounds like South Ambulance's Die 5times Times5 would have had the Stone Roses written it first). If you like London-based Brazilian psych-rock combo The Tamborines, you'll like Crocodiles.
- The Electric Pop Group, Seconds, and The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
Two Swedish indie-pop who bands who graced us with followup albums this year. Gothenburg's The Electric Pop Group's second album is, much as their self-titled first album and intervening EP, a janglepopfest that wouldn't have been out of place on Sarah Records. Don't expect radical experimentalism from these guys, but they do what they do very well. Stockholm's Radio Dept., however, depart a bit more from the mildly shoegazey indiepop of their first two albums, straying a little into the Balearic territory that the Swedes have recently made their own; there are more loops, house pianos and pulsing synths here, though the band's wistful, slightly melancholic voice still comes through.
- Heligoland, All Your Ships Are White
Produced by Robin Guthrie, and his trademark style fits nicely with Heligoland's sound, gilding its edges in a fine filigree of shimmering guitar ambience. Heligoland's records have been getting less languid as the band got more comfortable with the idea of rocking; if you imagine Heligoland's previous albums combined with Guthrie's solo output (such as Carousel or the Mysterious Skin soundtrack), you'll probably have a good idea of what to expect.
- Hong Kong In The 60s, Places
Hong Kong In The 60s are going places; earlier this year, they had a split single on Ghost Box's Study Series. They followed this up with an instrumental mini-album, Places, which they made available as a free download from their BandCamp page. Places is an intricately arranged and evocative piece of contemporary hauntological library pop, evoking old instructional films and unreliable travelogues, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, giallo soundtracks and early OMD/Human League. Download this, listen to it on repeat and line up to buy their (non-instrumental) début album which comes out some time in 2011.
- Memoryhouse, The Years EP, and Tamaryn, The Waves
I chose to write these two releases up as one entry because, despite the acts being unconnected, they can be seen as two sides of a coin. Both bands are within the realm of shoegaze/dreampop as it stands today, though cover different aspects of it. Memoryhouse is a Canadian duo consisting of a classically-trained instrumentalist and a singer who also takes moody-looking photographs (they also have a photo book/CD-R titled Choir of Empty Rooms out); they cover the more floaty, æthereal end, somewhere between early Piano Magic, Slowdive's Five EP, This Mortal Coil's first album and a more shoegazey Azure Ray. Their first EP, The Years, is available as a free download, and may be downloaded from here, and consists of four tracks, combining reverb-drenched shoegazey ambience, hints of alt-country, and layered electronic loops and samples. There are other Memoryhouse MP3s floating around the blogs, which are well worth tracking around; I particularly recommend Lately (Troisième), an even more æthereal alternate version of a track from The Years.
Tamaryn, meanwhile, is a duo from San Francisco, fronted by the eponymous singer from New Zealand, and cover the grittier, fuzzier end of the shoegaze spectrum, sounding somewhere between early Lush and MBV, with hints of Kiss Me-period Cure and the Cocteau Twins (the latter particularly on Sandstone, a track which did the rounds of the MP3 blogs earlier this year). There are walls of fuzzy guitars and layers of reverbed texture, but they're underpinned by drums and driving baselines that keep it from floating away into the æther.
- Ninetynine, Bande Magnétique
The name suggests a homage to PIL's Metal Box, only this isn't the case, as this record is not actually available on magnetic tape; you can buy it on CD, or download the MP3s for free from the band's BandCamp page. In any case, it's a fine return to form; the songwriting is strong, and Ninetynine's characteristic angular-yet-melodic sound (Casiotone keyboards, chromatic percussion and skronky guitars all feature here, as you'd expect) is complemented with string arrangements, which work quite well. This is probably the last Ninetynine album for a while, though Laura is pursuing other musical projects.
- The Paradise Motel, Australian Ghost Story
The Paradise Motel were one of my favourite bands some 13 years earlier, with their sparse, haunting sound and Tasmanian Gothic (not to be confused with Goth) aesthetic; their songs were like faded postcards from lost people, the handwriting on the back hinting at tragic fates. Now, a decade after breaking up in London, the Motel reunited for a comeback (with a few new members; bassist Matt Bailey parted ways with the band a long time ago, drumming duties are now fulfilled by fellow Hobartian expat Andy Hazel, while frontwoman Merida remains based in London, collaborating with the rest of the band remotely). Their comeback album is a concept album about the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, a subject that's not far out of character for the band. Musically, it's not as sparse as the early EPs, and there's less distortion than in Still Life, but the elements are there: the Hammond, the twin guitars and Matt Aulich's string arrangements.
- Zola Jesus Stridulum EP
Zola Jesus is Nika Roza Danilova, a young woman from Wisconsin via L.A., with a remarkably powerful voice; and in her musical guise, she channels the electronic end of 1980s Goth (think Lene Lovich), and does it well. Stridulum is a six-track EP. It's very much in a minor-key gothic synthpop vein, and very listenable.
If I had to choose a record of the year, it'd probably be Betty And The Werewolves.
As a counterpoint to Everett True's today's-white-beardy-guy-music-is-just-noise-for-wasters argument, an insightful Pitchfork article placing noisy music on a spectrum between dreamy and alert, and speculating from there:
Popular indie rock has long had its own variety of noises to zone out to, and they're mostly washes of sound, not deep grooves or wailing solos. Feedback, reverb, echoes, repetitive loops, tape hiss, different textures of noise flowing over you. They split across a wide spectrum of feelings, too: there's a "bliss" end and a "confusion" one. Both feel stoned and hazy and encourage you to space out. But the bliss end is like a happy dream-- it wants to be gorgeous, angelic, ethereal-- and the confusion end is closer to a nightmare, cathartic and ugly.
An observation I recently had about the way the various classes of "indie" music fall across the spectrum of class in Britain:
David Cameron, Britain's Tory Prime Minister, has on occasion professed his love of 1980s indie band The Smiths, known for their staunchly left-wing politics and anti-Thatcherite proclamations. And now, Johnny Marr has replied, forbidding David Cameron from liking The Smiths:
David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.And here is a piece from the Daily Torygraph, er, Telegraph's music critic, in defense of Cameron's uncharacteristically left-wing musical tastes, writing before the election, pointing out Morrissey's recently small-c-conservative views and claiming that at least Cameron was more genuinely into the music he professes a liking for than the New Labour politicians whose tastes are blandly focus-grouped:
less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone
Personally, I am tremendously heartened when a political leader actually demonstrates genuine and quite sophisticated cultural tastes, instead of getting spin doctors to compile their iPod playlists for them (with every song a political message). Or, like Gordon Brown, dropping clunking references to contemporary popular favourites such as the Arctic Monkeys and Harry Potter when we all know he is really ensconced in his study reading economic history and perhaps listening to a ‘Best Of’ classical compilation that his wife bought him for Christmas.
When I ran into David Cameron at the BBC once, I asked him what was the last CD he bought. Without a moment’s hesitation, he named a new album from an obscure American band called Modest Mouse, who had been working with Morrissey’s old Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr (who played every date on Red Wedge’s original tour). I am not sure what credibility it gives him to tackle global economic meltdown, but he is certainly the hippest party leader.(Modest Mouse are obscure?)
The Hummingbirds, arguably the greatest Australian indiepop band of the 1990s, are reforming for a one-off set at Sydney's Big Day Out on the 27th of January. Well, so far it's a one-off set; perhaps they'll do some other Australian shows. I imagine that them playing Indie Tracks or the Gothenburg Popfest would be a bit of a stretch, though.
Meanwhile, Mess+Noise also has a two-part retrospective on the Punter's Club, the legendary Fitzroy music venue which closed its doors in 2002 (1, 2), interviewing many of the people involved, who went on to work in other Melbourne live music institutions.
The Punters Club closing was so final, though. We knew it was going to happen and that another business was going to move into the building, so it couldn’t be saved. It might have indirectly inspired the SLAM rally and all the outrage about The Tote, because it proved that people actually give a shit about music venues closing. I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.
In hindsight it’s sad, and we miss that venue, but Brunswick Street really sucks these days anyway. I’m pleased that I don’t have to go and see gigs in that area anymore. Johnston Street and The Old Bar is about as close as I want to get. I don’t want to be with all the hipsters there. It’s like the gentrification of St Kilda. I remember when Brunswick Street only had three or four cafes: Bakers, Rhumbarella’s, Mario’s and The Fitz. That said, Melbourne has an extremely strong live music scene, so for every venue that closes, a new one opens somewhere.This weekend, for those in Melbourne, there is a series of Punter's Club reunion shows at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.
The spectre of closure, usually driven by gentrification and the increased rents coming from it, is seldom far away from live music venues; recently, Melbourne's favoured ex-neo-Nazi haunt turned band venue, Birmingham Hotel ceased putting on gigs, due to it losing money. Meanwhile, in London, increasing costs have forced the Luminaire to close at the end of the year. The Luminaire was one of London's better medium-sized venues; it will be fondly remembered, particularly the hand-painted signs on the walls informing punters in no uncertain terms that it is a music venue not a pub, and instructing those who wish to talk to their mates to leave.
Today's big question: does country music increase suicide rates? The authors of this paper think that it does, and that country music fans are at significantly higher risk of suicide than nonfans, for reasons involving gun ownership, marital discord and the inherent job and financial stresses affecting America's working poor (which are often referred to in country song lyrics). The authors of this paper, however, dispute this, claiming methodological errors and that there is no evidence of country music making people more likely to off themselves than any other genre. (Whether music in general, or music with lyrics more specifically, correlates to depression or suicide risk, of course, is another question.)
When popular music (in the loosest sense of the word) is discussed, the axis of authenticity often comes up, in the context of determining where on it an act fits. Its usual construction is something like this: at the inauthentic end, one will find the usual suspects: manufactured pop groups, middle-class gangsta rappers and anyone using AutoTune. Moving towards authenticity, things get less polished, grittier and rawer (though that, again, is no guarantee; it's easy enough for a producer to make a group of models or reality-TV contestants sound "grungy"). The gold standard of authenticity, if there is one, would probably be old blues recordings from the 1920s and 1930s: made before both modern recording techniques and the rise of an entertainment-industrial complex geared to parting teenagers from their pocket money in large numbers, before postmodern irony, they're as real as recorded sound gets. The rawest, most basic rock'n'roll from the mythological Golden Age sacred to rockists can only reflect, imperfectly, the authenticity of the blues.
Except that now, it may be that even the old cornerstones of the blues may not be entirely pure of sophistry and trickery: new claims have emerged that the recordings of Robert Johnson (the legendary bluesman, best known for allegedly having sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in return for an unbeatable playing technique) may have been sped up by as much as 20%, either to fit them on 78RPM records or—horror of horrors—to make them sound more commercially marketable:
he theory, which may have started in Japanese collector circles (it goes back at least to 2002; I'm still hunting for the original source) and has been taken up by several people in the UK, most notably John Gibbens, a poet and musician who has researched the matter and produced alternate versions of the recordings in which he slows down the existing recordings roughly 20 percent. We still hear those amazing words and that tough, doomed voice, but we hear a dramatically different Robert Johnson: his voice sounds more like the masters who preceded him (Charlie Patton, Son House) and his guitar playing, while still intricate (Johnny Shines, another outstanding bluesman who travelled with Johnson for a time, once claimed Johnson used a bizarre seven-string guitar), is more deliberate and dour. He sounds older, nastier, as if the hellhound on his trail that he sang about had caught up to him already. He sounds, in essence, like a different man. Speeding up the recordings, if it happened, changes how we hear blues and rock history. If Gibbens is right, this would change the way we hear and understand the blues. Johnson's raw, on-the-edge voice? Fake. The wild guitar runs that made thousands of aspiring guitarists' fingers bleed? Ditto.
Economist Robin Hanson presents a sustainability-based argument for derivative music:
Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs. As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs. Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.So when you next see another ploddingly dull lad-rock band rehashing the Beatles or Joy Division once more, without feeling, or hear another cringeworthily trite song about being or not being in love, or roll your eyes at a hack lyricist rhyming "girl" with "world", perhaps consider for a moment that, rather than polluting the world with mediocre pap, they're wisely rationing the finite supply of original musical ideas by not using any. Meanwhile, if the space of original musical ideas is in danger of depletion, the musical snobs who turn up their noses at Robbie Williams or Oasis and listen exclusively to post-tropicalia glitch-hop mashups and avant-garde experimentalism are not so much laudably adventurous spirits as the cultural equivalent of the conspicuously consuming douchebags who drive Hummers and buy endangered animal products.
That is assuming that the space of new musical ideas is finite, of course, and that once it is depleted, there will be nowhere left to go; once every possible verse-chorus-verse song in a blues scale has been written, for example, that humanity will be doomed to listen to songs they've all heard before, rather than, for example, changing the rules of what constitutes (popular) music.
(via David Gerard)
10 pivotal moments in band/brand relationships, from the crude commercial tie-ups of the old days (the Beatles' disastrously naïve merchandise licensing deal and the Pepsi/Michael Jackson tie-up), through various milestones (Moby licensing every track on his album Play to advertisers, whilst saying no to firms he found ethically dubious, such as McDonalds; Of Montreal turning the sell-out into performance art by rerecording a song as an Outback Steakhouse jingle and pocketing lots of money for it (though, to be honest, they probably they probably stole the idea from New Order), and onto the current day, when traditional record labels are waning and savvy sponsors are acting more like the art patrons of the pre-capitalist era than the traditional merchandisers of yore, setting up free MP3 labels and free recording studios, letting bands do their own thing for a reflection of some of the cool; raising questions about the nature of authenticity and the idea of "selling out" (a concept by now as unfashionably anachronistic as boycotting Nike products). Is selling a song to an advertiser, and spending the money on projects one has creative control over, more damning than signing one's rights away in perpetuity to a major label owned by a hedge fund for a pittance? And if there's no such thing as purity, which ways of compromising are more acceptable?
The Graun's Alexis Petridis looks at the one genre of 1970s musical entertainment not yet revived or reappropriated by anyone: cabaret pop, which, by his description, is a lukewarm broth of reactionary light entertainment aired on British television throughout the 70s. Cabaret pop pointedly ignored all the stylistic innovations of the past decade, and was so unabashedly naff that it makes Eurovision look polished by comparison:
These days, we tend to view the years 1965 to 1968 as a high watermark of daring creativity, greeted with untrammelled delight at the time: after all, who wouldn't prefer Jimi Hendrix to Gerry and the Pacemakers? Look at the charts, however, and the answer seems to be: loads of people. The shift from pop to rock, and all the things bound up with it – drugs, dissent, the rise of the counterculture – clearly horrified as many record buyers as it delighted, and they responded by buying music as far from the cutting edge as it's possible to imagine. The incident in which Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me kept Strawberry Fields Forever off the top of the charts wasn't an aberration, it was part of a trend. By late 1969, the predominant style in the UK singles chart is reactionary gloop. The Stones' Honky Tonk Women and the Temptations' Cloud Nine are fighting for space not just with Englebert, but with Clodagh Rodgers, Ken Dodd, Joe Dolan and Karen Young.
You're struck by how utterly cut off all this music seems from anything else happening at the time. There's not the vaguest intimation of glam rock or soul or singer-songwriterisms about the artists' sound or appearance. Children's TV was packed with pop music in the 70s – Lift Off With Ayshea, Supersonic, Get It Together, Shang-A-Lang – but a decade after the Times approved of the Beatles' Aeolian cadences, it's clear that no one working in light entertainment considered rock or pop music suitable mainstream entertainment for adults. When the Three Degrees appear on The Wheeltappers and Shunters, all hotpants and inoffensive Philly soul, the audience look aghast and baffled: you'd have thought Kraftwerk had just come on and played Autobahn in its entirety.
Even more astonishing is the way the musicians have shut themselves off from pop's recent past. You might have thought at least the Beatles' oeuvre had swiftly attained standard status, that Yesterday or Something might be precisely the kind of thing the balladeers with the shag-pile sideburns would gravitate towards, but no: it's still clearly considered too racy. During my light entertainment marathon, I hear two Beatles songs. One is courtesy of Little and Large: Syd Little sings Till There Was You while Eddie Large interrupts him doing impressions of Deputy Dawg. The other is Can't Buy Me Love, performed by the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang: three men huffing away accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig.Cabaret pop's most lasting contribution to pop culture may well have been being an irritant which contributed to the welling up of rage that brought about punk and the explosion of rule-breaking creativity that followed:
From a distance of nearly 40 years, punk can be hard to grasp: not the music, but the spitting and the swastikas and the fuck-everything nihilistic rage. But when you're drowning in light entertainment pop, you start to get an inkling of why so many people were so eager not just to listen to the Sex Pistols – that's obvious – but to indulge in all punk's unsavoury gestures. It's partly because anything, even dressing up like a Nazi and coming home covered in someone else's flob, was more entertaining than staying at home and watching three men play harmonicas accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig, and partly because, judging by what constituted mainstream popular entertainment in the 70s, not one of the previous decade's supposed revolutions had affected wider popular culture at all. The youth culture of the preceding decade seemed to have failed: to anyone watching the TV, Britain still looked trapped in the 1950s.It's not clear whether this will remain cabaret pop's only claim to historical significance, or whether it will end up, eventually, being reappropriated by someone. Perhaps it'll be an adjunct to wickerfolk or hypnagogic pop, the insipid blandness and lack of artistic significance compared to the other things revived (from 1970s folk revivalism to radiophonic library music) merely a red rag to the bull of hipster irony. Perhaps someone will sample it, and the white-gowned ladies and dancing midgets will enjoy a post-ironic new lease of life at festivals. (Stranger things have happened; the Australians reading this will recall Kamahl's transition from ultra-bland crooner to ironic Big Day Out performer.) Or perhaps cabaret pop, without the antediluvian cool of lounge music, the polyester smoothness of yacht rock or the subtle undertones of the outré that shade the folk and radiophonica of that epoch, is truly beyond redemption as a subject of sincere interest going beyond half an hour of cringing at fuzzy YouTube videos; one of those things there isn't enough hipster irony in the observable universe to redeem.
There's a documentary in production titled "My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records", giving an account of the legendary indie-pop label and including interview footage filmed at the Indie Tracks festival this year. Anyway, there's a teaser/trailer for it here:
Mess+Noise has an interesting interview with Bart Cummings, songwriter for classic 1990s indiepop bands such as The Cat's Miaow and The Shapiros, now working as a librarian in Ballarat (a provincial city an hour or two out of Melbourne; think, I don't know, Northampton or somewhere) and recently having released an EP, involving collaborations with the likes of Mark and Louis of the Lucksmiths and Pam Berry (of The Shapiros/Black Tamborine/Chickfactor zine), under the name Bart And Friends.
The last couple of years remind me of the early ’90s a lot, not just in the networking but the music as well.
A lot of that era’s sound has been coming back, thanks to bands like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. And Black Tambourine recently got a reissue.
Yeah, it’s funny. I emailed [Black Tambourine singer] Pam [Berry] about 18 months ago and said, “You know everyone’s dropping your name?” She [had no idea]. She’s in the situation as me: she’s got kids the same age and doesn’t go out that much.
Today's extreme-reductionism funnies: @discographies, or recording artists'/bands' careers summarised in 140 characters:
Kraftwerk: 1-3 beta-testing; 4,6,11 motion simulators; 5,8 communications systems; 7 robots/sex/cities; 9,10 Dance Dance (post-)Revolution.
Interpol: 1 Find an old photo of Joy Division. 2 Xerox the photo. 3 Draw the Xerox. 4 Stare at the drawing: you'll never get Closer.
Radiohead: 1 not a novelty; 2 not "alternative"; 3 not prog; 4-5 not of this earth; 6 not budging; 7 not (conventionally) for sale.
Neu!: 1-3 derderDER. derderDER. derderDER. DER!DER! (Repeat with unchanging precision until the universe dies.)
The Clash: 1 thesis; 2 antithesis; 3 synthesis; 4 elephantiasis; 5 arteriosclerosis; 6 paralysis.
Today, the Guardian's New Band Of The Day is Tamaryn, a San Francisco-based duo very much in a shoegaze/dreampop vein. The article, for some reason, takes the angle of drawing a dichotomy between Jimi Hendrix' guitar sound (said to be influential, though not really) and the MBV/Cocteau Twins sound (which can be heard everywhere these days).
The song titles – Choirs of Winter, Haze Interior, Cascades – are almost shoegaze parodying, but it's not all formless FX pedal fondling. Dawning, in particular, stands out as a fab pop song, like Slowdive doing a Fleetwood Mac cover. Stevie Nicks – now there's someone else who's been more influential than Hendrix lately.I can vouch for the new Tamaryn album, The Waves; if you're into the Cocteau Twins, Curve or Ride, you could do worse than to give them a listen.
Also in the Graun recently: a piece on the 30th anniversary of the 4AD label, the seminal post-punk label whose monochromatic record sleeves and understatedly expressionistic records adorned the homes of the more sophisticated goths of the 1980s, alongside black and white poster prints and VHS tapes of Fritz Lang movies. Now, of course, it's no longer Ivo Watts-Russell's personal label but the Matador group's boutique imprint, though is still home to interesting artists.
This is pretty awesome: The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive music video (to use the term slightly loosely) by anthemic indie combo The Arcade Fire, with technical assistance from Google's Creative Lab. The way it works: put in the address of the house you grew up in, and you will be presented with a music video comprised of prerecorded footage composed with animations generated from Google Earth and Street View imagery of your home. Well, I use the term "music video" loosely; it's an experience comprised of numerous browser windows opening at various times and places, presenting various combinations of imagery. Using Google Chrome is recommended. (Note that some plugins may interfere with its operation; if it doesn't start, try running it in incognito mode.)
Tom Ewing's Poptimist column in Pitchfork has an A to Z of discourse in music criticism, which illuminates the current state of flux in the production and consumption of music quite tellingly:
E is for Excess: Not the rock'n'roll lifestyle, alas, but the sense we live in a time of musical glut-- reissues of old LPs now stretched across three CDs, legal download dumps of hundreds of tracks, even musicians getting in on the act (Wiley just gave 11 CD-Rs worth of tunes away). What's interesting to me isn't the decadence so much as how social listening strategies are evolving to cope-- the task of processing all this stuff is devolved to fans as a group, a sharp break from the single artwork meets single pair of ears model we've been used to for so long.
N is for Novelty: Novelty records-- gimmick dances, comedy songs, et al.-- regularly turn up in "worst song ever"-type polls. Their decline should have been a canary in the record industry coalmine, though: A track like "Macarena" got big by appealing to people who didn't usually buy records, which made them an index of the extent to which buying a record was seen as a normal thing to do. The market for novelties hasn't gone away, of course-- it simply relocated to YouTube.
P is for Pleasure: The "no such thing as a guilty pleasure" line ends up at a kind of naturism of pop, where the happiest state of being is to display one's tastes unaltered to the world. But the barriers to naturism aren't just shame and poor body image, it's also that clothes are awesome and look great. Performing taste-- played-up guilt and all-- is as delightful and meaningful as dressing well and makes the world a more colorful place. (This still isn't the full story, though-- see V for Virtue).
Y is for Year Zero: Grunge killed hair metal. Acid house changed everything. Punk saw off progressive rock. These dividing-line stories are always attractive, always useful for a while-- and then always revised. The grandfather of them all, though, has proved harder to shift-- the idea that something happened in the early-to-mid-fifties to mark a change of era and fix a boundary of relevance. The next 10 or 20 years, as the 60s slip deeper into unlived collective memory, will be crucial and fascinating (for historians, anyway!).
Modern audio processing technology can work wonders, such as, for example, turning a song by manufactured pop star Justin Bieber into a 35-minute glacial ambient soundscape, in an Icelandic touristcore vein. Apparently the trick was slowing the original down by 800% with the right software. (Which makes me wonder whether or not that is, in fact, how artists like Jónsi make their music, or at least the backings.)
Over the past few decades, the market value of recorded music has been declining, as music has gotten easier to make and distribute, to the point where there is a flood of music vying for one's attention, and the challenge is not finding it but sorting the worthwhile stuff from the dross and filler. Of course, this sucks if you're a musician trying to be heard, as you're competing for the limited attention of your audience with millions of others.
The latest outcome of this commodification: a British band calling itself The Reclusive Barclay Brothers has paid 100 people £27 to listen to their song, a jaunty little number titled We Could Be Lonely Together.
Recently, Boing Boing posted a link to a video for an instrumental composition by an Icelandic band named For A Minor Reflection. The music and visuals are much as most people these days would imagine upon hearing the words "Icelandic band"; i.e., it sounds a bit like Sigur Rös. Perhaps more interesting is a comment on the page, by an anonymous Icelander:
Incidentally, in Iceland this style of music is now known as touristcore. That term refers to how it panders to the elves and northern light image promoted by the tourist industry while simultaneously rehashing the twee-drama-romantic music style that broke into the mainstream with Sigur Rós, Múm, Björk a good 12 years ago. People who insist on flogging that horse are forced to make it outside of Iceland as back there they can't be heard over the sound of rolling eyes and despairing moans.
(via Boing Boing)
Your humble correspondent spent the past two weeks in Melbourne, on family business.
Whilst in Melbourne, I learned that long-time blog favourites Ninetynine have recorded a new album, and decided to release it for free. (I was actually contacted by Lachlan, a regular contributor, who was helping to put it online.) Anyway, the new Ninetynine album is now online; it is titled, perhaps ironically, Bande Magnétique, and may be downloaded here.
And Bande Magnétique is Ninetynine in fine form; it starts off with the sort of angular pop they do so well (the opening track, Guest List Girls, featured on a compilation last year), and goes on from there, with echoes of Stereolab and Sonic Youth. Interestingly enough, a few of their tracks feature string arrangements of all things, which work surprisingly well. The effect is somewhat akin to another veteran Melbourne band who recently released a record, The Paradise Motel.
If you want to buy a physical copy of Bande Magnétique, there will be CDs at gigs, and possibly in record shops. Though in either case, you can get it online for free, with the band's blessing. And I'm told that the rest of the back-catalogue will follow in due time.
The Chipophone is an instrument for live chiptune performance (i.e., playing live music on a keyboard in the style of music generated by 8-bit computers and game consoles), made from microcontrollers and housed in the chassis of a 1970s-vintage electronic organ by a Swedish chap named Linus Akesson. There is a video of Akesson demonstrating the unit and its features, and playing some classic chiptunes live, here.
Another reaction to the changing economics of recorded music: American indie band The Fiery Furnaces are protesting the falling monetary value of recorded music by declining to provide it; and so, an indie Atlas shrugs and, instead, releases a "Silent Record":
The Fiery Furnaces’ next album will consist of instruction, conventional music notation, graphic music notation, reports and illustrations of previous hypothetical performances, reports and illustrations of hypothetical performances previous to the formation of their hypotheses, guidelines for the fabrication of semi-automatic machine rock, memoranda to the nonexistent Central Committee of the Fiery-Furnaces-in-Exile concerning the non-creation of situations, Relevant to Progressive Rock Division, conceptual constellations on a so-to-speak black cloth firmament, and other items that have nothing to do with the price of eggs, or milk, or whatever the proverbial expression ceased to be.
Upon release of the record, the band will organize a series of Fan-Band concerts, in which groups of perfectly ordinary Fiery Furnaces’ fans will perform, interpret, contradict, ignore, and so on, the compositions that make up Silent Record. Write to email@example.com to nominate your post office break room, truck stop parking lot, municipal arts center, local tavern, or what-its-name to host one of these ‘happenings’. By ‘happenings’ I mean, what will be in the future, perfectly normal rock shows. And propose yourself for Fan Band participation.
(via Ian W.)
An article in the Graun asks whether the internet and the rise of music blogs has killed the idea of a local music scene, replacing a world of local scenes from Merseybeat to Madchester to the Seattle Sound with something a lot less connected to geography:
The idea of the local scene has always been an attractive prospect, playing on tribal mentalities and a very human desire for order. It has helped define emerging music, and in so doing, endowed places with certain musical characteristics that come to be seen as inalienable (play musical word association, and see what comes after Seattle). But recently, local scenes seem to be dying out. With the advent of the internet, the way we consume and create music has changed. We still turn to genres to help define sound, but these days these scenes are often built on artists who share nothing in terms of geography – disparate bedroom artists such as Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and Memory Tapes find themselves lumped together under the "chillwave" banner by bloggers and internet communities drawing parallels in sound, though their bedrooms are hundreds of miles apart.There have been non-local scenes before the rise of the blogs; the Messthetics DIY cassette scene of the 1980s, with geeky sorts making casiopunk jams in sheds all over the third-tier provincial towns of Britain and mailing them out on cassettes, was one; if you haven't heard of it, that probably says more about the impact the internet has made than anything else. Before the internet, finding like-minded individuals outside of one's own area was prohibitively difficult; a few isolated individuals may have struggled, mailing zines and cassettes (and, for a while, CD-Rs) to each other, but their numbers dropped every time one of them either managed to move to a culturally active area and became too busy going to gigs and jamming in bands to keep up or just stopped bothering and instead decided to watch TV or build model train sets, or else traded in one's studio and music-making time for the responsibilities of parenthood or one's career.
Now, of course, with music blogs at one end, self-publishing services like SoundCloud and Basecamp at the other and sites like Facebook and last.fm tying it together, participating online is not a sign of loserdom, a poor substitute for the real thing for those too far from the action, but is itself part of the action. (A similar destigmatization happened in the area of online dating over the past decade, and one could argue that a similar phenomenon is at work in online gaming; compare the mainstream social acceptability of FarmVille to that of traditional MMORPGs.) Even the cool kids in Williamsburg or Prenzlauerberg post their MP3s and animations online (not to mention Hipstamatic photos of them being ironically drunk-faced at the latest art party); and when it comes to making art, promising voices from outside aren't automatically shut out.
The other side of the coin is, of course, the ongoing process of gentrification. Music scenes become established in places which are geographically compact and cheap, and as they thrive, they attract hipsters, then non-creative but fashion-following trendies, and then purely materialistic yuppies, until finally the original artists are priced out, and the area soon belonging only to those with the means of buying their way in (look at Brooklyn, for example; according to Patti Smith, this renowned hipster mecca has closed itself off to the young and struggling and, if Gavin McInnes is to be believed, today's Williamsburg hipsterati are pretty much exclusively the scions of America's top stratum, doing a sort of combination grand tour/rumspringa of the artistic/bohemian lifestyle before taking their rightful places as captains of industry; Vampire Weekend are unique only in the extent to which they make this explicit in their lyrics and attire). As focussed inner cities become more attractive and expensive, pricing artists out, and technology obviates the need for proximity, is the future of art looking more atomised? Will creativity move out of the physical world and into networks of alienated bedrooms in impoverished dormitory suburbs or small towns, and the distribution of artists (by which I mean active contributors to artistic discourse, not creatively-attired scenesters and poseurs) spread out more uniformly over the landscape, in the way that, say, open-source programmers (also contributors to the creative economy, though not as likely to parlay that into social status or sexual success) are?
One good thing coming from this, though, is that, with the decline of geographically delimited scenes, bedroom musicians are freed of pressure to conform to local norms; when one's scene is a network of blogs, it's easier to move to a different scene (or be discovered by one). Physical scenes, however, tend to impose their values, and often exclude or actively scorn those who don't conform. Take, for example, the blues-rock monoculture in 1970s Australia, or the vaguely homophobic anti-synthesizer backlash of the early 1980s there; one could, indeed, adapt another Australian term to apply to this phenomenon, and call it the Tyranny of Proximity.
Kev Kharas of the influential blog No Pain in Pop believes that new music is purer as a result. "There is no pressure to conform to any kind of scene etiquette," he says. "It frees up people to get closer to something they want to do, rather than making music that's responding to staid ideas." While the music industry has been panicking over lost record sales from file-sharing and free downloads, a quiet creative revolution has been taking place behind the scenes.Of course, not everybody's happy with this. Some grumpy old men don't like it one bit:
"When we were kids, we'd give our eye's teeth for a bootleg of an early Bo Diddley track," says Billy Childish, who has championed localism in north Kent as part of the Medway scene of garage rock bands and the Medway Poets. "Now, you can have everything you want just when you want it. We've got this massive problem where it's Christmas every day. It's difficult to find the edges."
The Guardian's Dorian Lynskey on popular music artists with autoparodically distinctive styles of titling songs:
Ten years ago, my colleague on the soon-to-be-defunct Select magazine, Steve Lowe, had a good line in inventing fake song titles, spoofing the faux-profound contradictions of Oasis (Money Makes You Poor), the twee archaisms of Belle and Sebastian (Take Your Coat Off or You Won't Feel the Benefit) and the parenthesis-loving rock cliches of Richard Ashcroft (Standing Out from Everyone Else (Sure Is Hard)).The article was prompted by a new Richard Ashcroft album with a track listing packed with clunky banalities, but soon explores further afield, mentioning fake track listings for unreleased albums and commercially successful artists' unintentionally comic lapses in self-awareness:
I'd like to think Primal Scream were sending themselves up on 2006's Riot City Blues with titles such as Suicide Sally and Johnny Guitar or We're Gonna Boogie, but I fear not. Equally, Christina Aguilera's Sex for Breakfast was probably conceived in the spirit of Sex and the City 2 rather than Flight of the Conchords. And Oasis's Don't Believe the Truth is every bit as stupid-clever as Money Makes You Poor.And, as one might expect, the discussion turns to Morrissey, whose later material serves as a perfect horrible example:
I once made the mistake of telling Morrissey how much I liked the witty self-parody of How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel and was rewarded with a withering glare. "It's amusing when you say it," he said unsmilingly. "I don't know why. Isn't it something we all feel at some stage?" The shrivelling of Morrissey's spirit since the Smiths can be measured by the fact that Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now is funny and How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel is not.And in the comment, Guardianistas inveigh with their own suggestions, one positing that the entire heavy-metal genre should be disqualified from contention because it has a monumental unfair advantage.
The Null Device's somewhat cursory impressions of Eurovision 2010 (two days late, due to your humble correspondent's hectic schedule; BBC iPlayer, it must be said, is very useful*):
Some of the strongest songs this year seemed to be coming from the Balkans, with Serbia, Greece and Turkey putting on strong performances and Romania having solid songwriting. (Serbia's use of Balkan brass got them points in my opinion; it's always good when a country's entry references its local musical traditions rather than merely sinking into the mire of generic power-balladry or Eurodance.) Germany's winning entry was OK, though not spectacular; there was an element of cabaret there, which most of the commentators seem to have missed, focussing on the singer's (not entirely convincing, IMHO) attempts at a Lily Allen-esque mockney accent. Norway, Belgium, Ireland and Belarus fulfilled the quota of syrupy kitsch, and Russia's somewhat ungainly performance scored somewhat of an own goal.
Britain, meanwhile, richly deserved its last place; while Britain is the world's second-biggest exporter of recorded music, its Eurovision entries are invariably lowest-common-denominator dross; even if they recruit commercially proven middlebrow hitmakers like Lord Lloyd-Webber and Sir Pete Waterman, the inherent British disdain for Eurovision as an institution seems to shine through. This year, they seem to have dusted off and reheated one of PWL's offcuts from the 1990s and gotten a plastic-faced 19-year-old to front it.
One thing I have noticed was that few songs' writers' names seem to be typical of the song's country; there seem to be a lot of Scandinavian names popping up, and the odd Anglo-Saxon one (though some of those could be pseudonyms chosen for commercial reasons). Cyprus did one better, by hiring an actual Welshman to front their entry.
* notwithstanding the inexplicable lack of an iPhone-formatted MPEG4 of the Eurovision final. In case you were wondering, Flash video playback on the Mac still sucks.
The Guardian reviews the new album by The Drums (the NYC86 band everybody's comparing to The Field Mice), isn't that impressed:
Of course, to spurn the big, bad adult world in 1986 was implicitly political, hence C86's spiritual influence on riot grrrl and the Manic Street Preachers. It came with manifestos and passionate values. The Drums, however, echo only the sound and the wilful naivety. In interviews they champion "melody, sincerity and truthfulness" – a formulation so bland that you might hear from anyone from Noel Gallagher to Nick Clegg – and grumble about bands who are "overly clever", as if music's biggest handicap in 2010 were a surfeit of intellect.
But the Drums' charm is spread rather too thinly. Too many songs kick in with the same brisk, toytown beat and thin, high guitars. Like one C86 influence, the Groove Farm, who knew roughly as much about grooving as they did about farming, the Drums belie their name with a prosaic rhythm section that does little more than keep time. Pierce's little-boy-lost vocals begin to grate as well: just the way he sings "li-i-i-i-i-i-ife" on I Need Fun in My Life is enough to make you fantasise about bringing back conscription. Real teenagers tend to be turbulent, questing, contradictory, but the Drums' prelapsarian ideal seems to be a lovesick simpleton.
For those who missed it the first time around: a Pitchfork piece from a few years ago recapping the history of the various music scenes of Africa over the past few decades. These scenes include the scenes of Anglophone countries like Nigeria and Kenya, in which was born highlife, a fusion of various imported musical styles and local rhythms, which in turn gave rise to the more politically conscious Afrobeat of Fela Kuti. Kuti's home country, Nigeria, had quite a vibrant music scene, with local forms of funk, soul and disco rising and the local subsidiaries of Western record labels pumping money in. Elsewhere, things varied in Ghana, between small shoestring record labels, centrally-planned systems of orchestras in Guinea, and the peculiar situation in Ethiopia where, for a short time between the thaw in of the state monopoly on music distribution around the late 1960s (Haile Selassie doesn't seem to have been a reggae fan; the bands that existed under his imperial imprimatur tended to have names like the Police Band and the Imperial Body Guard Band) and the brutal Soviet-led coup in 1975, the unique "Swinging Addis" scene flourished:
Ethiopian music can probably best be described as dark, psychedelic funk and soul. It's as though a group of highly skilled musicians were told what funk, rock, soul, and jazz sounded like without hearing any examples and then went and played all of those styles at once on whatever instruments were around-- horns, vibes, electric organs, electric guitars, piano, harp; all of it was fair game.The article concludes with a list of labels selling African pop music of this period, and the track listing of a mix of notable tracks (consisting, somewhat uselessly, of links to lala.com, the service Apple bought and are shutting down).
A few quick links to things recently seen:
- A visual study guide to cognitive biases
- Sydney is considering closing George St. to traffic, building a light rail (pronounced "tram") line. Interestingly enough, this plan, like Melbourne's original laneway-driven regeneration and "Copenhagen lanes", was suggested by a Danish urban-planning consultant.
- Google have developed facial recognition technology, capable of identifying individuals in photographs. Given the privacy implications (that plus Google Goggles would be the ultimate stalker tool), they're wisely being very careful about what, if anything, they do with it.
- Spoonflower is a web-based company that will print your designs onto fabric and send it to you. Now if only we could get them talking to Blank Label (a web-based service that lets you design custom shirts, though currently only from a somewhat conservative range of fabrics), then that would be awesome.
- Some music videos: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Higher Than The Stars (warning: features furries), Rainbow Arabia, Holiday In Congo (warning: not actually filmed in Congo but Brazil; features massed Michael Jackson impersonators)
- Nifty trompe l'oeil paste-up on the sides of a fence in Berlin:
Legendary Pacific Northwest indie label K Records are launching a new, download-only singles club. From July, the K Singles Zip-Pak will give you at least two MP3s from established and new artists. The price is US$50 a year, though it's $45 if you sign up before the end of May.
The Graun has an interview with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, in which he talks about, among other things, the mechanisms of "cool" and pretentiousness:
"I actually want to write a treatise in defence of pretension," he says. "I think the word pretension has become like the word ironic – just this catch–all term to distance people from interesting experiences and cultural engagement and possible embarrassment. Pretension can lead to other things. You know, the first time I read Gravity's Rainbow, I did so because I thought it would make me seem cool. That was my original motivation. But now I've read it six times, and I find it hilarious and great and I understand it. You can't be afraid to embarrass yourself sometimes."
The decline of physical media continues, as one of Melbourne's larger and more long-lived independent labels abandons the CD format; from now on, Rubber Records (home to Underground Lovers, among other acts) won't actually sell records but only digital downloads.
“Physical retail distribution is dictated by a business model that no longer works for either the customer, the artist or the label,” Rubber MD David Vodicka said in a statement. “It’s also anti-competitive. We can’t sell-in direct to the biggest national retailer JB Hi Fi, we have to go through a third party distributor with an account. Distributors take a minimum cut of 25 percent, and we have to pass that onto the consumer. There’s no point in engaging in this model as it currently stands. We’ll consider it in the future, but only if it works for us."A final liquidation of stock is planned for 15 May.
This is what your internet access must be sacrificed for: an infographic showing how much money musicians actually earn from each means of selling music, in the form of how many units they'd have to shift to make minimum wage, along with how much the all-important middle man takes. While an artist could live (modestly) on 143 home-burned CD-Rs a month, they'd need to sell almost ten times that many retail CDs (if they have an exceptionally good royalty deal), or on iTunes. The scales get positively Jovian as we approach new streaming services like Spotify:
Details have emerged that suggest that, had America had universal health care, legendary songwriter Alex Chilton might still be alive today:
Times-Picayune writer Keith Spera writes, "At least twice in the week before his fatal heart attack, Chilton experienced shortness of breath and chills while cutting grass. But he did not seek medical attention, [wife Laura] Kersting said, in part because he had no health insurance."
Pitchfork has a piece looking at government support for musicians around the world, in particular the Nordic countries (where governments plough a lot of money into supporting up-and-coming acts as a matter of principle; consequently, Sweden is the third biggest exporter of popular music and Norway, Denmark and Iceland punch well above their weight), Canada and the UK (Canada follows a vaguely Scandinavian line, more out of fear of becoming an American cultural colony than deep social-democratic principles; the UK still has some vestiges of the pre-Thatcherite arcadia—White Town's government grant-funded first single was mentioned—though apparently the golden age has been sacrificed to Blatcherite mercantilism, with art schools being more efficient assembly lines for producing employable human resources than the legendary hothouses of freeform creativity they were when Jarvis was flirting with Greek heiresses), and the US (where musicians struggle to get health care—something Obama's bill won't help much with—though, at least, they can console themselves that they're not in Iran or somewhere).
Conceptual electronic musician Matthew Herbert's most recent project is titled One Pig. In it, he followed a pig, from its birth to its death and butchery, recording the sounds of its life. (Well, mostly; the death part was somewhat hampered by him not having been able to find a slaughterhouse willing to let him record the pig being slaughtered.) The recorded sounds would be turned into an album of electronic music, hopefully to make the listener reflect on the relationship between us and the animals we farm and eat. However, this was not a good enough justification for the animal-rights fundamentalists at PETA, who issued a fatwa, condemning Herbert and his project:
No one with any true talent or creativity hurts animals to attract attention … Pigs are inquisitive, highly intelligent, sentient animals who become frightened when they are sent to slaughterhouses, where they kick and scream and try to escape the knife. They are far more worthy of respect than Matthew Herbert or anyone else who thinks cruelty is entertainment.Herbert's response to the condemnation is here; it reads as thoughtful and measured when contrasted to PETA's Talibanic zeal.
I eat meat. as I get older, I feel less proud of that fact. however, since I do eat meat, I think that I have a responsibility to understand the implications of that decision. as much as I didn't relish the prospect of witnessing the death of a pig I had seen being born and raised, I felt it an important reality to face. it seems utterly absurd to me that PETA's knee jerk reaction is to chastise me in public about the integrity of that process of enquiry without even bothering to ask me about the motivation or history of the project. in an otherwise distant and anonymous food chain, this one pig's life has been clearly and respectfully acknowledged.
I thought art and music was, in part, supposed to endorse the idea of challenge. isn't part of its core purpose to struggle in public with the compromises and frictions of its time? the implication of this statement is that PETA would rather artists and musicians stood quietly to one side whilst such a poisonous and corrupt system cheerfully multiplied, unseen, unchallenged, unheard.
A US company is developing a system that models and replicates the styles of famous musicians. Details of how Zenph Sound Innovations' system works are scant (apparently "complex software" is used, which simulates the musicians' styles, and the resulting high-resolution MIDI files are played on robotic musical instruments; currently pianos, though a double bass and saxophone are in the works).
Currently, it is capable of reconstructing a performer's style of playing a specific work, from a recording of the work, and can be used to rebuild flawed recordings. It cannot yet play a new piece in a performer's style, though the developers are planning to work on that next.
“It introduces a whole bunch of interesting intellectual-property issues, but eventually, you ought to be able to, in essence, cast your own band,” said Frey. “You should be able to write a piece of music and for the drum piece, have Keith Moon, and for the guitar piece, you can have Eric Clapton — that is a derivation of understanding each of those artists’ styles as a digital signature. That’s further down the road, but initially, you’re going to have the ability for artist to create music and have the listener manipulate how they want to hear it — [for example] sadder.”The intellectual-property implications alluded to are interesting; the prospect is raised of a new type of copyright, over an artist's style, being created, with the artist or their estate collecting royalties from replication of their style. While this is perfectly consistent with the copyright-maximalist ideology of the corporate-dominated, post-industrial present day, it ignores the fact that artists emulate other artists all the time. While initially, courts would exercise "common sense" and leave non-software-based copyists alone (i.e., Oasis wouldn't owe licensing fees to the Beatles), sooner or later, once the technology becomes the norm, this original intent would be forgotten and, after a few strategic court cases, a new precedent would be set, declaring styles, and the elements of them, to be licensable, much in the way that patents are, and requiring anyone taking them off to license them, much as anyone sampling even a split-second of a recording has to license it. (In the age of powerful rights-licensing corporations with political clout, intellectual-property law is a ratchet that turns only one way.) Soon, the different elements of musical style would end up aggregated in the hands of a few gigantic rightsholders with well-resourced legal teams, and musicians would be routinely slugged with heavy bills, itemised by stylistic elements.
Weaponizing Mozart, an article on how classical music is being used in Britain's war on its own youth:
The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.
Poptimist Tom Ewing has written a future history of the 2020s CD revival:
But for the fans, the music is still at the core. Unlike today's collaborative, crowdsourced, and automatically generated playlists, a CD's tracklisting is fixed, and the CD-burning scene is an opportunity for music lovers to show their deep individual loves of music, its sequencing and presentation. The 74 Sessions is one of many CD-burning clubs and groups-- some ban members from remixing or mashing up material, others ask people to theme their CD-Rs. Chantal Fielding, who runs the Prismatic Spray trading club out of Rochester, NY, loves the way CD-Rs make her focus her fandom. "You've got all this information, literally everything you look at you can find out everything about it right there, and for music that means there's no mystery anywhere. So saying no, you can't explore endlessly, you have to reduce it down-- it's powerful."The romance of CDs in Ewing's 2020s world isn't just about working within finite physical constraints, like a sort of music-curatorial Lomography; while there is that, and undoubtedly an element of nostalgia as the hipsters and scenesters of the day relive hazy early childhood memories of the CD age (you've probably seen these kids, being wheeled through Stokey or Fitzroy in three-wheeled prams, dressed up in their Ramones onesies), a lot of the physical media revival would be driven by a backlash against the network-centric age of social software, recommendations, playlists and crowdsourcing, and the ever-hungry target-marketing apparatus beneath the surface. (Or, as one of the interviewed CD fetishists says, "when you can't see what the product is and someone's still making money, the product is you.")
While earlier physical-music movements fought to preserve analog formats in the face of digitization, CD revivalists see music's physical existence as a rebuke to a world where people's digital presence has overtaken their physical one. "It's not just about the music," explains Wolfe. "Words like 'social' and 'sharing' became absolutely twisted. It used to mean things people did together, now it's about how well you fit into algorithms. We leave snail trails of data everywhere, and all 'social' means now is that two trails have crossed and somebody's making money off it. Forcing people to collaborate for a fuller experience helps restore some of the real idea of 'social.'"
Wolfe sees CD-R revivalists as part of a 'post-social' wave of digital mischief-makers and situation-builders, in the tradition not of industrial or noise culture but of Fluxus and Neoism. He's sympathetic to "troll artists" like bot-creators and recommendation-scramblers. A friend of his was involved with the 'artificial hipster' Karen Eliot, a digital taste bundle whose infiltration of music friendship networks in 2020 caused scores of trusted playlist generators to start throwing in 00s tracks like "Starstrukk" and "My Humps".Another dimension of CD revivalism would, of course, be the sonic characteristics of the medium; the brittleness of 44kHz 16-bit audio compared to what everybody's listening to in the future. Of course, the revival would take this even further; much as 2000s "electro" ramped up the electronicness of 1980s synthpop by throwing in anachronistically vocoded/robotised vocals, some participants in the CD revival will go beyond the limitations of the CD and start playing around with low-bitrate audio compression, with subsubcultures of hipsters settling upon a right form of crappiness as a cultural touchstone.
The sound on most CDs Wolfe releases is deliberately low-bitrate, with a glossy, uneasy, skinny sheen that's a stark contrast to the lossless warmth of most streamed music. Some fans call lo-bit music "ghostwave", because, as Hall Of Mirrors act Cursor Daly puts it, "you start listening to stuff that isn't there, phantom sound-- your ears are filling in the gaps. Below 128 kbps you're essentially hallucinating sound, no two people hear the same thing. Loads of CD nerds were neuroscience majors."
Veteran Australian pop satirist New Waver has a new album, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, out.
New Waver's usual stock-in-trade in the past has been a relentlessly bleak neo-Darwinian pessimism, extrapolating the principles of neo-Darwinist evolution into a viciously competitive world, seen from the loser's perspective, and resulting in records like The Defeated and Darwin Junior High. Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody veers from this theme into an examination of the modern post-industrial age, casting a jaundiced eye over Richard Florida's concept of the "Creative Class" from the unaffordably gentrified inner north of Melbourne.
In the thesis of Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, several phenomena of the past few decades (the shifting of industrial production to China, the move to a post-industrial economy and the rise of DIY art/music and internet-based user-generated content lowering the barriers to artistic creativity) have created a glut of "artists", with exhibitions and indie bands and bedroom music projects all over the inner suburbs. Artists have, as many have observed, congregated in undesirable suburbs hollowed out by deindustrialisation (at least in Melbourne; in Berlin, the collapse of Communism had the same effect), attracting hipsters, trendies, yuppies and ultimately the wealthy, aesthetically conservative haute-bourgeoisie, by then the artists having been forced out by rising rents. (In the words of a famous graffito in 1990s San Francisco, "artists are the shock troops of gentrification"; though it may make more sense to think of them as a sort of baker's yeast, whose job is to make the bread rise and then perish.) Meanwhile, the ease of creating (and copying) art, and indeed any sort of intellectual products, in the digital age has led to a rise in supply exceeding demand; not only is it harder to survive making art, but it is harder to get people to devote time to looking at your creations.
As with many of his previous recordings, New Waver expresses this thesis through the medium of cover versions of popular songs, assembled using General MIDI files. The opening track, Lugging For Nothing turns Dire Straits' anthem of the rock'n'roll dream on its head; in New Waver's acerbically realistic reworking, the people to be envied are the tradesmen, high-school drop-outs and cashed-up bogans, doing lucratively uncopiable physical work and spending their money on material luxuries. Like neo-Rousseauvian ignoble savages, impervious to the siren song of cultural engagement, they're happy to take the money of those afflicted by it (by renting them rehearsal rooms and such), while aspiring musicians infected by the rock'n'roll dream pack into small rooms and toil doing shitwork to pay off records and tours. The idea of cultural enagement as a parasitic replicator reemerges behind Media, I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life, which recounts the lot of the culturally engaged, struggling to afford to rent enough space to store their record collections and spending their spare hours discussing music and arthouse films on social websites; it is not difficult to square this with author Greg Wadley's well-documented interest in evolutionary psychology and conclude that the culturally engaged are the victims of parasitic memes, deprived of the chance to live a comfortable existence in a McMansion in suburbia, watching junk TV on their plasma screen and listening to whatever's on the radio by the terrible compulsion to impoverish themselves playing in bands, exhibiting art or otherwise trading time, wealth and effort for arbitrary signifiers of status, all the while helping to reproduce these memes.
Other songs touch on different, but related, themes; Party Like It's 1979 (a Prince cover, of course) looks at the resurgence of retro-styled indie music genres, from White Stripes-like garage bands to post-punk ("Fleetwood Mac's probably the most influential band today", "I got some classic rock released six months ago, some psychedelic folk, some white guys playing disco"), and the fetishisation of the vinyl format, reframing it as a cargo-cult commodity fetish, a subconscious belief that imitating one's idols will bring one their fame, wealth and sexual success. Inner City Drug Use, one of New Waver's older songs, is Queen's You're My Best Friend rewritten about the dependence on coffee, and My Memory Stick Weighs A Ton (a cover of a song by Melburnian 1980s post-punk turned suave crooner Dave Graney) about the glut of media produced by those who can be loosely categorised as "white-collar", and the declining likelihood of any of those items finding a willing audience. The closing track, The Cars That Ate Melbourne returns to the uncultured bogan "other", and this time to their habit of cruising around the inner cities in souped-up cars with blaring stereos; it does this by combining a house/commercial-dance beat, car engine noise and a porn dialogue sample; it is somewhat reminiscent of New Waver's 1990s commercial-dance track, "We're Gonna Get You After School".
The standout track, in my opinion, is "Hey Dude"; here, New Waver has taken the famous Beatles song and turned it into a missive from property developers and landlords to artists, hipsters and the creative classes, urging them to take a sad suburb and make it better by putting on exhibitions, opening cafés, organising events and looking hip, and reminding them that they carry investments on their shoulders. As commentary on gentrification, it is perfect. For what it's worth, there is a video here.
Consistent with its thesis, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody is not being manufactured on CD or offered in shops (though there are rumours of a limited-edition memory-stick release), but is available for free downloading from New Waver's website. Which is not at all a bad deal for what will undoubtedly be one of the most apposite pieces of social commentary committed to the format of music this year.
The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the ever-worsening shortage of band names; all the good names are invariably taken, and in this globalised age of MySpace, SoundCloud and MP3 blogs, it is no longer considered acceptable for every other city to have its own The Bumpin' Uglies. That and the increasing power of intellectual-property-owning corporations, keen on smacking down anybody so much as hinting at their trademarks without a licence, goes some way towards explaining the current fashion for impressionistically meaningless word-salad in band names:
Between takes in a recording studio, Mr. Jones brainstormed about names with his new band mates, including former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, then checked them online. Their first choice, Caligula, turned up at least seven acts named after the decadent Roman emperor, including a defunct techno outfit from Australia. Eventually the rockers decided on Them Crooked Vultures. The words held no special meaning. "Every other name is taken," Mr. Jones explains. "Think of a great band name and Google it, and you'll find a French-Canadian jam band with a MySpace page."("Techno"? I thought Caligula were a Curve/Stone Roses knockoff.)
By 2006, they had come up with what they thought was the perfect country-music moniker: Jane Deere. It was simple, blue-collar and a little jokey. But after their lawyer registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the company behind John Deere tractors took exception. Moline, Ill.-based Deere & Co. asserted in filings that the Jane Deere trademark would cause "a likelihood of confusion" among consumers. The musicians backed down and the government officially canceled the Jane Deere trademark in January 2009.Of course, in the US legal system, might often makes right, and you can nab someone else's band name if you're confident that you can afford better lawyers, as Kathleen Cholewka of another Brooklyn band named Discovery found out when the Vampire Weekend side project refused to relinquish her band name:
With the help of a lawyer friend, Ms. Cholewka sent a cease-and-desist letter to her rivals. After some initial communication from the band's lawyer, Ms. Chowleka says, she's gotten no further response. She doesn't have the money to hire a trademark lawyer, but she says she's willing to compromise: "If you want to buy the name from me, great."The other Discovery have refused, saying magnanimously that there is enough room in the world for two bands of the same name. Of course, the fact that, should Ms. Cholewka attempt to exercise her right to ths name, she would find it impossible to promote her own project (even if she keeps the name, the amount of explaining she has to do would be tantamount to a de facto renaming to "Discovery—no, not that Discovery"), is not their problem, and winners are grinners.
Jazari is essentially an automated, electromechanical percussion ensemble, controlled using two Nintendo Wii controllers. It consists of a MacBook, a bunch of Arduino boards and a room full of drums fitted with solenoids and motors, and software written in MAX and Java which parses input from the Wii controls and plays the drums. The software is also capable of improvising with the human operator, by imitating, riffing off and mutating what he plays.
Jazari was developed by a guy named Patrick Flanagan, who had been playing around with algorithmic composition, only to discover that people don't want to hear about algorithms, but do want to see a good live show. Anyway, here there are two videos: one of a Jazari performance (think robot samba float, conducted by a guy waving Wiimotes around; the music has a distinctly Afro-Brazilian feel to it), and one of Flanagan explaining how it works.
From a Guardian piece on Massive Attack's artwork, this interesting fact:
"We can't use any of the Heligoland artwork I've painted for the posters on London Underground. They won't allow anything on the tube that looks like 'street art'. They want us to remove all drips and fuzz from it so it doesn't look like it's been spray-painted, which is fucking ridiculous. It's the most absurd censorship I've ever seen. "
Pitchfork has an interesting roundup of the music scenes in West Africa today; these have little to do with the "Afrobeat" that is a hipster touchstone in the West, which is ancient history over there:
The picture is so selective, actually, that many of my West African acquaintances might not recognize most of the music their country sells on the world stage. To take one example, Ghana's most famous musical export r emains highlife, a calypso- and jazz-influenced concoction birthed in the 50s by big bands like E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. Today, E.T. and his contemporaries are rarely played, performed, or discussed in public in Ghana; highlife tête (old/classic highlife) instead refers to mid-80s drum machine funk stars like Daddy Lumba and Kojo Antwi, artists who crooned like Luther Vandross over ultra-slick productions.Music in West Africa has moved at a rapid pace, fuelled by a baby boom eclipsing that experienced by America and Europe in the 1950s, and the availability of both high-end and low-end music-production technology (apparently Fruity Loops is huge over there). Of course, there's a panoply of scenes there, with different countries having their own scenes, and some scenes owing more to American or Caribbean music than others.
Ivoirian rhythms are so twitchy that crunk would have come like a tranquilizer on this dance-hungry, hyper-rhythmic nation. Some of the planet's best dancehalls and worst roadblocks are here, a testament to two of the country's nighttime priorities: clubbing and government extortion. The capital's CD shops are stocked with charismatic mic-hogs, loudmouths, and humor-mongers belting out tragic stories in the soothing tone of a drill sergeant. Military lockdown no doubt changed the way Ivoirians flow, the way their snare drums patter, the way their dance moves shake like the heebie-jeebies (e.g., the Bird Flu dance of 2006). This is post-traumatic stress rap. The explosive urban strain, the boastful comedy, and the displacement are all familiar. So too is the obsession with wealth and wealthier places that gave the genre its name: "Coupe Decale". In the Ivoirian French, it means to steal and run; to go out and explore the world, swipe a Parisian's pocketbook, then dash back to Abidjan.
And then there's the complex matter of the "Ghana Rap" contingent, the chunk that wants to be accepted as rappers-- members of the Black American experience-- first and Ghanaians second... It's tempting to write these guys off as social misfits-- bright minds in a struggling, post-colonial nation to compete for membership in a contest that doesn't even acknowledge their existence-- when they spend time channeling rap to imagine themselves as part of an American underworld they know little about. But there's plenty in it for their audience, too: There's something invigorating about hearing one's globally devalued local tongue voiced over a hip-hop beat, a real hip-hop beat with unpolished synth squeals, a reverberated handclap.
Perhaps because they don't deal with such a tiny, cash-strapped market, the Nigerian artists tend to be more confident, more refined, and more likely to cross the sea. Although the nation could do without more tired Internet fraud associations, I recommend most heartily Olu Maintain's "Yahooze"-- a single about scamming suckers online and wasting the money on Hennessey. More slick and more serious is Storm Records, whose roster has largely managed the nimble knack of mastering American idioms without being tripped up by the specifics (check out Naeto C, "Kini Big Deal", Ikechukwu, "Shobedobedoo"). These are the sorts of hits that don't demand the same kind of sociological preface that an Asem record calls for, and they could more easily travel.The article includes a lot of embedded audio streams with examples of the songs mentioned.
Swedish indiepop big band I'm From Barcelona have created a new triple album; well, sort of. Titled, simply, 27 Songs from Barcelona, it consists of 27 songs, one written and sung by each of the band's 27 members. From today, the entire album is being made available as a series of daily MP3 downloads on their website; the first track, Daniel Lindlöf's Lower My Head, is a guitar-driven pop song with leanings towards shoegazing, and may be found here. The entire album is available for purchase on triple vinyl from here.
If you want to see where the musical zeitgeist was 18 months ago, look at what Goldfrapp are doing. Pop-cultural cool-hunters par excellence, they mine the rich seams of the underground, find trends with legs and repackage them for mainstream consumption, exploding them into the public consciousness, and have successfully held this niche in the music-industry ecosystem for over a decade. Their début, Felt Mountain, took Morricone-infused trip-hop sounds and moulded them into what became the soundtrack to every upper-middle-class dinner party in the UK. After that, they turned on a dime, discovering electroclash and dragging it into the mainstream in the form of not one but two albums of mildly sexualised glam-electro, before getting wind of the wickerfolk trend and new appreciation of the output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, fishing it out of the underground and presenting it to the world as Seventh Tree (an album even whose title seems to have been a homage to underground freak-folk band Voice Of The Seven Woods).
Which makes one wonder what Goldfrapp were going to do next. I was thinking afrobeat or similar exotica. But no, it looks like their next album is going to be Empire Of The Sun-style glo-fi. The only problem with that is, of course, that Empire Of The Sun were themselves a project (a supergroup comprised of two musicians from successful major-label projects) repackaging trends from the underground (essentially Cut Copy-style indie-house with the somewhat dated New Wave/New Orderisms replaced with the recent "yacht rock" fad) for the mainstream, and to considerable mainstream attention. It remains to be seen whether or not they have scooped Goldfrapp by getting in first, or whether Goldfrapp will pull it off for a fifth time.
Simon Reynolds writes in the Graun about the 1980s revival that lasted an entire decade and is still going; starting off with electroclash and new-wave/post-punk and now having gone up to "yacht rock" and the Hall & Oates revival:
Electroclash went from Next Big Thing to Last Little Fad within a year. But it didn't go away, it just slipped on to the noughties pop-cult backburner, biding its time as a staple sound in hipster clubs. By mid-decade the "clash" was long gone; people just talked about "electro". This was confusing for those of us who'd been around in the actual 1980s and for whom "electro" meant something specific: that Roland 808 bass-bumping sound purveyed by Afrika Bambaataa and Man Parrish, music for bodypopping and the electric boogaloo. In the noughties, electro came to refer to something much more vague: basically, any form of danceable electronic pop that sounded deliberately dated, that avoided the infinite sound-morphing capacities of digital technology (ie the programs and platforms that underpinned most post-rave dance) and opted instead for a restricted palette of thin synth tones and inflexible drum machine beats. "Electro" meant yesterday's futurism today.
As such Discovery anticipated a quite different uptake of 1980s pop that would occur in the second half of the noughties: the ecstatically blurry and irradiated style of indie that's been dubbed "glo-fi". Compare Bangalter's remark with glow-fi godfather Ariel Pink, who says his pop sensibility comes from watching MTV incessantly from the age of five onwards (ie only a couple of years after the channel was launched in 1981). Pink went so far as to describe MTV as "my babysitter". As a result, on the many recordings he's issued under the name Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti – two of which, Worn Copy and The Doldrums, are among my favorites of the decade – his reverb-hazy neo-psychedelic sound is haunted by the friendly ghosts of Hall & Oates, Men Without Hats, It's Immaterial, Blue Oyster Cult, Rick Springfield. It's an approach to songwriting and melody he assimilated as an ears-wide-open child.("Glo-fi" seems to be related to what others have referred to as "hypnagogic pop".)
Reynolds also cites a number of other aspects of the ever-unfolding 1980s revival:
Another 1980s-invoking hallmark of the new sub-underground is its cult of the cassette. Tape has a double association here. On the mass level, it was the 1980s quintessential format: far more than the CD, it was the way most kids would have owned music. But cassettes were also the preferred means of dissemination for underground 1980s scenes like industrial and noise. Tape was the ultimate in do-it-yourself, because they could be dubbed-on-demand at home, whereas vinyl required a heavier financial outlay. Today's post-noise microscenes like glo-fi maintain the tape trade tradition, releasing music in small-run editions as low as 30 copies and wrapping them in surreal photocopy-collage artwork.And sums up with a list of things not yet mined from the 1980s
As someone who lived through the 1980s – it was the first decade I was pop-conscious and alert all the way through, from start to finish – it's enjoyably disorienting to observe all these distortions and retroactive manglings of the period, from the vocoder fetish to the fact that I really don't recall terms like "Italo disco" or "minimal synth" having any currency whatsoever back in the day. But what's also interesting is how much of the era has yet to be rediscovered or recycled: the Membranes/Bogshed style shambling bands, the Redskins-style soulcialists, goth, Waterboys/Big Country-style Big Music, and a half-dozen other scenes and genres. But hey, it's 2010, the first year of the new decade, which means that – according to the 20-year rule of revivals – we really need to get started on the 1990s.It looks like there's a lot left in the 1980s to revive, though time is running out as the inevitability of 1990s retro looms. (Aside: back in the actual 1990s, I wondered what "1990s retro" will be like; I imagined a Hegelian synthesis of cheesy commercial dance (Technotronic and such) and grunge-influenced three-chord alternative-rock. It'll be interesting to see how close I was.) As such, I wonder whether they'll manage to get it all out, or whether parts of it will be left behind to be subsumed into the anxious echo, and forever lost to everyone except for wilful obscurantists. And if the latter, I wonder what the fitness function will be.
Also, while we're on Simon Reynolds' articles, here is an interesting one about the decline of "indie" into the morass of crap guitar bands and the simultaneous rise of interesting music from the awkwardly ineffable we'd-call-it-"indie"-only-that-now-means-lad-rock sector.
Much has been said about the alleged epidemic of random alcohol-fuelled violence outside Melbourne's night spots and its possible causes. Now, The Age's Fiona Scott-Norman suggests that it might be due to the boom in venues playing house music, once confined to Chapel Street, but now part of every venue aiming for the cashed-up-bogan dollar; in particular, to house music being poorly suited for facilitating social interaction:
And then there's house music. It's pretty much the ultimate "anti-romance" music. It's played loud, it's repetitive, it's not fun, it's unremarkable and unmemorable — even if you can make yourself heard over the top, it gives you nothing to talk about, and appears to be the first music ever created by humankind that bypasses the emotions. Again, fine if your aim is to dance like a maniac until 6am, or whenever you start coming down, but truly terrible if you're not on chemicals.
So the clubs are chock-full of young folk who can't talk to each other, can't touch each other, have zero opportunity for intimacy, and can only dance in their own little world and hope someone's looking at their booty. The only tools in their seriously denuded seduction kit are alcohol and shouting. So yet another night ends, they're disconnected and frustrated, back on the streets, and totally hammered. Gee, I wonder why there's so much violence.
Playing almost any other kind of music would reduce street violence. Doesn't matter if it's disco, funk, yacht rock, indie pop, Mongolian throat-singing, gypsy punk, neo-lounge or Latin, so long as it's not joyless, thumping background music.
Another year is drawing to an end, and once again, it's time to look back on the past year in music. So here's my list of the top records of 2009, in alphabetical order.
- Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
Animal Collective's new record, released at the start of the year, took their sound further away from their psych-folk roots and into the realm of dubby electronica, with the help of producer Rusty Santos. Expect washes of delay, percussive polyrhythms and soaring vocals somehow making their way through the electronic haze. They followed it up at the very end of the year with an EP, Fall Be Kind, turning up the layering and sampling the Grateful Dead.
- Arthur & Martha - Navigation
The London-based electropop duo's long-awaited album, combining the synthpop of New Order at their most Kraftwerk-influenced and guitar-led indiepop which (cliché warning!) wouldn't have sounded amiss on Sarah Records circa 1991. Highlights: there's the obvious Kraftwerk homage of Autovia, the vocoder-driven Squarewave To Heaven and the mighty electronic buildup of This City Life. It's all good.
- Ben Frost - By The Throat
This unanimously grabs the title of "best record of 2009 featuring the grim snarling of dire wolves". Adelaide-born, Reykjavík-based Frostí's latest album is an assemblage of frosty, shadowy ambiences, with stark electronic waveforms, minor-key melodies and processed field recordings (breaths, thuds and the aforementioned wolves), rounded off with references to The Cure and Twin Peaks. File under "dark ambient".
- Cold Cave - Love Comes Close / Memory Tapes - Seek Magic / Rainbow Arabia - Kabukimono / The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa
Not so much a record as a clutch of four forming a trend; they're all electronic, a bit to the left of pop though not in the realm of "electronica". Cold Cave are a trio whose sound is a sort of synth-driven new-wave with nods to 1980s gothic rock (highlights: "Life Magazine"). Memory Tapes makes layered tracks, mixing electronic and organic sounds, building up and stripping down and building up again, and turns them into songs (highlights: pretty much any track; let's say Stop Talking). Rainbow Arabia are a US outfit who craft a sort of electronic exotica for the post-(new-)rave generation (let's call them "electroxotica"), celebrating the global other with exotic scales on synths, drum samples and song titles like Holiday In Congo and Kabukimono (highlight: let's say Harlem Sunrise). The Very Best is a collaboration between Malawian musician Esau Mwamwaya and French/Swedish/London-based (delete as applicable) production team Radioclit, and sounds like what 1980s electropop would have sounded like had it been invented in Africa (highlights: let's avoid the obvious bits—the Ezra Koenig and M.I.A. collaborations, the AIH sample—and say Chalo, which starts with an epic synth riff and follows through in appropriate fashion). Together, they
fight crimeform part of the sound of 2009.
- Crayon Fields - All The Pleasures Of The World
The long-awaited record from the Melbourne twee-pop combo; pocket-sized pop symphonies, most of them expressions of love for an unnamed second person (sample lyric: "I'd mess up my collar just to feel you correct it"), with ringing guitars and the occasional string arrangement; in places it sounds like a twee version of The Clientele. Without a doubt the most fey record in this list.
- The Drums - Summertime
Simple, summery guitar pop done well, with good melodies and harmonies. It's not groundbreaking, thematically or stylistically, but it's an old formula, slightly updated and done better than most. Highlights: Saddest Summer, perhaps.
- Hong Kong In The 60s - Willow Pattern Songs
A six-track EP by a band comprised of two librarians and a BBC researcher, playing Casiotone keyboards and guitars and citing Stereolab, Sean O'Hagan, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Dario Argento and 1960s Hong Kong pop as influences, and a brilliant one as well, reminiscent of early Minimum Chips EPs in its understated feel. I've listened to this one a lot this year.
- Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
Iceland's second entry in this year's list, from the frontman of Sigur Rós and his boyfriend. It's wordless soundscapes, though lighter and more blissful than Sigur Rós; one could say that this is the yin to Frostí's yang.
- My Sad Captains - Here & Elsewhere
- The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - self-titled
In a lot of ways, 2009 was the Pains' year. A New York band, though wearing their classic British indiepop influences on their sleeves and given to touring the UK with an almost suspicious regularity, the Pains released their self-titled album early in the year, with songs like This Love Is Fucking Right (see if you can spot the reference there) and Teenager In Love becoming cornerstones in the soundtrack to 2009. Not content to rest on their laurels, they followed this up with an EP, Higher Than The Stars, bringing more immaculate indie-pop, guitar fuzz and stories of young lives and fraught situations; nonetheless, they can only have one entry in this list, and it'll have to be the album.
They're from London, but remind me more of Melbourne bands like The Smallgoods, Gersey and even the (sadly departed) Lucksmiths. Multilayered melodies and harmonies, plays on words and buildups of unassuming lushness, not quite threatening to go into shoegazing territory in places, make for a very listenable record, and a promising band.
Were there a gong for the record of the year, it'd have to go to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
Australian post-punk guitarist Rowland S. Howard passed away today, after a battle with liver cancer. He was 50.
In conjunction with fluoro disco merchants Modular, Tom Ellard (of Severed Heads fame) has put together a mix of underground electronic post-punk music from 1979, from Australia and abroad, with an accompanying online booklet (in Flash, alas). The mix goes for some 40 minutes and contains the likes of The Residents, Telex, SPK and Primitive Calculators, as well as, of course, The Normal and the Human League (pre-girls, of course). File this alongside the recent BBC "Synth Britannia" documentary.
(via New Weird Australia)
The New York Times has an article on the thriving indie music scene in Athens. Athens, Greece, that is:
The artistic director, Konstantinos Dagritzikos, who plays drums in the ’60s-influenced band Love Beverly, says he tries to maintain a balance between booking local independent bands and acts from abroad, like the London-based electro-punk outfit Publicist, which played at the opening, and the English D.J. collective Disco Bloodbath (traces of this group are still visible in the form of splattered fake blood handprints on Six D.O.G.S.’s graffitied facade).
Though musically diverse, the bands currently emerging out of the Athens scene like the Callas, Phoenix Catscratch, the singer-songwriter Monika, and My Wet Calvin, an experimental indie pop act that often performs in animal costumes, all share a commitment to wild, unconventional live shows and a high-concept, do-it-yourself aesthetic.I recall that there was apparently an indiepop scene in Athens in the 1990s, informed by Sarah Records-style pop from the UK and El Records/Shibuya-kei-style bossa-pop, with acts like The Crooner (who, if I recall correctly, had a few songs on compilations from the German label Apricot).