Tuesday, April 3

A Bit of Art On the Walls

Here's a few of my favorite recent album covers. Starting from the top, we have:

Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)
Pantha Du Prince - This Bliss (Dial)
Senking - List (Raster-Noton)
Moskitoo - Drape (12k)
Patrick Wolf - The Magic Position (Loog)

Monday, April 2

Follow-Up: Digital Album Art & Liner Notes

Following on from my post last week, Wired has published this new story today:

Designers Work to Rescue a Dying Art Form

I'm not sure about "a theme park ride through the album," but at least it appears they're moving in the right general direction.

Thursday, March 29

Bridging the Media Gap

Here's what happens with new CDs that arrive at my house. I retrieve the package from the mailbox and take it over to the kitchen counter, where I rip/cut/slice it open. Then I take the disc to the living room and place it on a shelf where I store soon-to-be-listened-to music. When I finally get around to playing the disc, the case sits on the top shelf of my media cart, just above my DVD/CD player. Once I'm done with the disc downstairs, I take it upstairs and place it on a to-be-filed pile I have on a small stepladder. At some point the disc makes its way onto my CD storage shelving. I never really planned this system, it just emerged organically from the intersection of my listening habits and my physical space.

In sharp contrast to the above parade of atoms, I've been trying out my new AppleTV. Besides its video features, I'm using the device to stream music to my stereo. Already I can tell you that my MP3s sound much better than they did streaming through the Airport Express. And being able to control the experience directly from my A/V setup is a big plus.

Until recently, I've never felt anxious about my music collecting. But with all the stories these days about closing record stores and The Death of the Album, I sometimes feel like a luddite fool when I purchase an old dusty CD. The media is slowly marginalizing me, turning me into that weird old guy down the street who collects music on those round plastic things. How quaint I will seem in the future. Surely one day I'll feature in a quirky documentary titled CD Junkies. The truth is that I do occasionally purchase MP3s; I am not afraid. No doubt the AppleTV will nudge me more and more in the direction of digital downloads.

The album's demise doesn't concern me. I'll be glad to see albums become an aesthetic choice, instead of a marketing and distribution necessity. As for MP3s, I'm not even worried about sound quality, format obsolesence, or DRM. I think those issues will work themselves out eventually. No, it's the loss of a visual and tactile experience to accompany my music. I love album art, liner notes, lyric sheets, and nicely printed digipaks. I like holding those things in my hands while I listen. I have always argued that experiencing music involves more than just the sound. In a previous online life, I hypothesized that the iPod's success may, in part, be related to this desire for a physical manifestation of our music. I'm not all convinced that my theory is correct. Recently I've been wondering if physical media has somehow been artificially enhancing our connection with music. We perceive "value" in "things." Will people ever be able to truly value art that exists only as ephemeral data, a format intentionally designed with a built-in deletion imperative? Maybe that's a tiny evolutionary leap for the next generation.

Recently, design-conscious labels like Raster-Noton and Ghostly have tried to bridge the digital/physical divide by offering albums on memory sticks and SD cards. It feels like a stop-gap measure. I have little doubt that eventually digitally downloaded music will dominate the market. When CDs came along artists complained about the reduced canvas size, but eventually they found ways to leverage the five inch square format and turn out unique designs. My questions is: How is this going to work with downloaded music? We may lose the physical object, but can we replace it with something equally compelling in the digital realm? Sure, iTunes has been offering some digital booklets, but that's really just pasting old formats onto new systems. In a blog essay last year, David Byrne recognized the vast potential of what I'll call digital liner notes. Watching giant album art spin around on my 42" plasma screen, I'm catching a glimpse of the future.

Friday, March 23

The Electronic Score

You're working your way through a maze, eating pellets. You turn a corner and come face to face with a ghost. You turn around to escape, but another ghost blocks your way. You have nowhere to go. The ghosts move in for the kill and you collapse, cursing, "Damn, they killed me again!" Now you're running through a jungle, trying to avoid obstacles and dangerous animals. You grab hold of a hanging vine, trying to swing over a swamp, but your timing is off and you fall into the snapping jaws of an alligator. "I just got eaten," you moan.

I've never put too much thought into exactly how I came to enjoy electronic music. I've always assumed my interest simply grew out of exposure to a few records I enjoyed in my teens, including Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode. Once I heard "Blue Monday" and "People Are People" I just started following the trail, and somehow I ended up here today listening to Autechre and Taylor Deupree.

Earlier this week I watched 8 BIT, a documentary about visual artists and musicians who utilize Gameboys, NES machines, and Commodore 64s as their primary tools. The film could use some serious editing and focus, but overall it contained lots of interesting tidbits. One of the taking heads talked about how interesting it was that even though these old video game characters were very low-res, abstract collections of blocky pixels, gamers were able to engage with them emotionally. Pac-Man and Pitfall Harry are hardly photorealistic humans, yet players are able to immerse themselves in the game. In the case of Atari's Adventure, the main character is literally a single block, and still player's preface descriptions of their actions with "I." Interestingly, this ties in with something Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics, his classic book on the workings and visual grammar of sequential art. Essentially, McCloud explains that the more basic and abstracted a character design, the more readers will be able to identify with that character.

In a sense, the character in a comic book stands in for the reader. That character is your avatar, pulling you through the narrative. In Pitfall!, you are not simply controlling some disconnected second party. Pitfall Harry is your avatar. He is you. I've always had the feeling that music taste is at least partly vicarious; people are drawn towards types of music they can imagine themselves creating. The performer becomes your artistic avatar, and if you're a computer geek or a video gamer, it's much easier to envision yourself as Kraftwerk than as, say, some rock guitarist.

So, back to 8 BIT. One of the musicians in the film theorizes that this group of artists grew up with video games and video game music, so naturally they have an emotional connection with these electronic sounds. There's more than simple nostalgia at work here. For my generation, the first to grow up with video games, these games provided our first opportunity to control and guide a system towards achievement and reward. These feelings of empowerment and success were always set to electronic melodies. The connection was made.

Monday, March 19

We Play the Songs and You Do the Talking

Really, I'm not dead. I just didn't have anything to say for a while, then I had a serious work deadline to deal with, then I was sick, then SXSW came along. I'm not planning on posting a detailed description of my SXSW experience. If you're really interested, you can check out the daily recaps over at my wife's blog.

One thing on my mind throughout this SXSW was how difficult these gigs are for the bands, and how well most of them deal with the madness. For starters, many bands travel far out of their way to get to Austin. Obscure Japanese bands fly here to play one or two shows. Bang Gang flew from Iceland to Baltimore, then drove to Austin. Au Revoir Simone finished up their short set at about 1AM; they were scheduled to play in California the next day. And then we have the shows themselves: horrible sound mixes, tiny cramped stages, people walking out to get to another show, tons of people ignoring the band while texting on their phones, drunk people screaming at the bar. You must always remember that SXSW is primarily an industry event, so the audiences are not necessarily stocked with fans of the band. All of this for the hope of a bit of media coverage, maybe a distribution deal, or a mention on a blog. I'm impressed with the professionalism of most of the bands, carrying on through all the annoyances and indifference. Most of them do try hard to put on a good show, and many appear to really enjoy themselves. I think it has mostly to do with the exciting carnival atmosphere of the festival itself and the excitement of mingling with other musicians from all over the world. I suspect many of the bands couldn't care less about the industry people and are just there for the party.

During the four days, I am also reminded how much I hate people. I don't mean specific people, just "people" in general. I lost count of the number of times I was shoved, elbowed, and stepped on, all so that somebody could get three feet closer to the band and then spend two minutes staring at their phone before forcing their way back to the bar. Why would someone go through the effort of shoving their way to the front, only to spend the entire gig talking to their friend? I even saw one person right up against the stage with his back to the singer. By day four, you're just happy when someone says "excuse me" before pushing you out of their way.

What else? I suffered seemingly endless boring sound checks. I tried not to touch anything in any of the venue restrooms. I searched for food in a district full of shot bars. I paid double and triple parking fees. I got food poisoning. I saw a guy literally pissing in the street.

So you might ask why I do this every year. It may sound trite, but it really is all about the music. It's always the music. I complain about these exact same things every year, but I come back again for the bands. When I think back on past SXSWs, I don't remember any of the obnoxious people. I do remember the great shows. In a few weeks, I will stop ranting about the 53rd person to bonk my head with their digital camera, but I will still be ranting about the excellent sets from Nellie McKay, Fujiya and Miyagi, Vashti Bunyan, Asakusa Jinta, and Blonde Redhead.

Monday, March 5


While chatting online with a friend today about recording strategies, I was reminded of another Eno-ism: "An arrangement is when someone stops playing." This idea of reduction crops up more than once. Describing a Bowie concert, Eno writes that the best bits were when fewer people were playing. And in the liner notes for the extended reissue of All This Useless Beauty, Elvis Costello praises Eno for his ruthless application of the Erase button.

A few days ago I needed to test something in iTunes by ripping a CD. It wasn't already on my iPod, so I grabbed my copy of the Spoonfed Hybrid CD released by the long-gone 4AD sub-label, Guernica. Since I already had the CD out, I thought I'd give it a listen. Each time I hear this album I'm reminded again how it's one of my very favorites. I'm not sure I can say exactly why, but I suspect it's something to do with the arrangements. Each track is deliberately assembled from a few simple bits, glued together by plenty of empty space. You might imagine someone starting with fuller arrangements and then carving away all the extraneous material until this resulting album remains. What's left is a slightly futuristic sounding kind of chamber music, existing just outside the boundaries of proper pop music. The music sounds controlled and disciplined.

Speaking of discipline: I was also reminded today of the FFWD album, a project Robert Fripp recorded with members of the Orb back in 1994. Imagine the beatless, more experimental Orb material, augmented by Frippertronics, and you're there. Fripp has always been one of my musical heroes, which is interesting considering I'm not very familiar with King Crimson. I came to his work through his collaborations with Eno and David Sylvian. I was fortunate enough to see Fripp and Sylvian play a show in Chicago many years ago and the image of Robert Fripp playing guitar was etched into my memory. He walks out, sits on a stool next to an impressive rack of gear, and spends the entire concert totally focused on his guitar playing. This may sound boring, but I found it fascinating. Here was a kind of virtuoso musician I hadn't accounted for--not a wasted gesture or note.

Wednesday, February 28

What's Intelligent?

So, Simon Reynolds and gang are slowly drifting away from the hauntology discussion and beginning to riff on "hipster metal." I have noticed an increased metal presence on the intertubes lately, but I really don't feel like it's a full-fledged phenomenon at this point. Most of the discourse appears to revolve around the band Sunn O))) and the occurrence of one influential DJ mixing metal with dubstep. What really caught my attention was Reynolds connecting "hipster metal" to something he calls "intelligent drum'n'bass." Now I can't help but think of "hipster metal" as "intelligent metal." I am, of course, influenced by my own too-long immersion in IDM, or "intelligent dance music." The IDM tag stirred up plenty of discussion, with most people ultimately agreeing that it was a bad genre name, but feeling stuck with it anyway. As soon as you stick "intelligent" in front of something, aren't you implying that the genre is inherently "stupid," yet you are going to be enlightened and fix it? In the case of IDM, the fixing arrived in the form of an increasingly nerdy prog approach (some felt that IDM was the new prog), until the genre collapsed in on itself and the component bits scattered to the wind. So if there is such a thing as intelligent metal (can we call it intelligent black metal, or IBM?), maybe we can look forward to the same artistic trajectory. Autechre have already worked with Hafler Trio. Can an Autechre/Sunn O))) collaboration be far behind?

To be honest, I have almost no knowledge of metal. When I hear Sunn O))), although I can sense the metal references, the first thing that comes to my mind is dark ambient and goth--something more akin to Lustmord maybe. Of course, Sunn O))) use guitars, so they're more likely to get a free pass from indie hipsters. And yet, hasn't there always been a close connection between goth and metal? Look at a band like Sisters of Mercy, who sounded very metal in their early days, and whose last album was chock full of metal riffs. Are Sunn O))) intelligent goth rock (IGR)? How about intelligent dark ambient (IDA)?

Thursday, February 22

The Ups and Downs of Volume

I've been on a somewhat of an ambient music bender lately. I honestly don't know how exactly how it happens, but sometimes I just end up focused on a particular type of music for some indeterminate length of time. In this case I think it's related to my sudden decision to follow up on some particular artists and labels. I always find it difficult to explain just what draws me to specific ambient works; it's not easy discussing music composed without melody, harmony, rhythm, or words. That leaves you with timbre and texture--not the easiest aspects to write about without resorting to extended metaphors or purple prose. If someone were to ask me what I think makes good ambient music, I'd most likely just say I know it when I hear it.

I have been thinking about another aspect of ambient music, although one imposed by the listener, not the composer. I doubt most people give much thought to playback volume. You turn the volume up or down depending upon your immediate circumstances. Make it louder so it can be heard over the car's engine. Make it quieter so it doesn't disturb your dinner conversation. That volume knob (slider?) is purely functional. But stop for a moment and think about how you're actively altering the artist's work. You are completing the final step in the compositional process.

I've been listening to Harold Budd for about twenty years now. I first discovered him not through some interest in ambient or avant garde music, but through his collaboration with Cocteau Twins. I was caught totally by surprise recently when Samadhi Sound sent me an email announcing a new download-only live Harold Budd recording. Perhaps captures Budd sitting at a piano and improvising for 70 minutes. Call it ambient jazz, if you like. Each piano note is like a Go stone carefully placed onto the game board seemingly at random, loosely defining a territory, and yet part of a greater strategy known only to the musician. Taken one way, the sparse sound particles and tone clusters create a lattice full of open spaces through which your imagination can wander. With Budd, the sounds and the silences are equally important. I found the album most effective with the volume turned down low. Without any concrete structure demanding attention, the music disappears into the ether. But then you briefly stop focusing on your task, or the room around you goes suddenly quite, and there's Budd's piano floating in to fill the emptiness. It's as if the music somehow knows when it's needed.

Far away from the intimacy of Budd there's As Lonely As Dave Bowman, the new Sam Rosenthal ambient project I mentioned a few days ago. Pod is massive, humming, continuous sound. This music doesn't want to hang around and fill in your empty spaces, it wants to become your entire space--a huge sphere of sound. But for that to work properly, you're going to need to turn up the volume. This album does not function properly at low or moderate sound levels. Play it loud, though, and the machine expands and expands until it pushes everything else aside and becomes your reality. It's not a quiet, meditative ambience, but it's still a place where you can hide for a while.

Tuesday, February 20

Of Hoaxes and Context

As I write this, the Joyce Hatto scandal is rocking the classical music world. In case you haven't heard, this is the story of a late British pianist, whose CD recordings released by her husband's label, have been unmasked as a hoax. It seems that someone loaded one of the discs into iTunes and the Gracenote (CDDB) database identified it as someone else's disc. This would at first appear to be a simple database error, if not for the interesting fact that Gracenote identifies CDs using a unique "fingerprint" derived from the durations of the tracks on the disc. You can read more about the story over at Gramophone and track the extent of the hoax on Hatto's Wikipedia entry.

But I am most intrigued by something New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote on his blog. He wrote, "You have here the beginnings of an excellent case study in how reputations and mythologies affect musical perception."

I think it's fairly obvious how Ross's point extends to all genres, not only classical music. And I'm not at all certain that it's a bad thing. Yes, reputations and mythologies affect how we perceive music. So do physical appearances, costumes, makeup, music videos, CD packaging, and a dozen other things I'm probably forgetting. Are we really so naive as to think music comes to us in some pure form, as if it materialized from a parallel dimension in an unmarked box? We should never lose sight of how much context informs our perception of music (or any art). Doing so not only denies present reality, but also, I think, sells short the complex way we engage with music.

The music is not just the music. It's the the dialog the music has with the sleeve art. It's the way the songs lyrics interact with the band's back-story. It's how the band playing this music looks when they play it. And it's how their music bounces off our own experiences and feelings. The best artists realize all this and leverage it to their advantage. This is how we experience music, and it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. I don't like the idea of being played for a fool, but I sure don't want to live in a world where music comes in a plain brown wrapper.

Thursday, February 15

Wanted: More Failure

During lunch at a local sushi bar yesterday I was treated to some of Queen's greatest hits. Once that disc finished, KLF's The White Room started playing. After a couple of minutes, one of the young assistants behind the bar asked to nobody in particular, "What is this we're listening to?" And then a few moments later, "Is this the KLFA?" I should probably just be grateful that he recognized the music at all. Listening to "What Time Is Love?" I was struck, as I am each time I hear this music, how utterly banal this record can sound when heard in the context of background music. Of course if you're at all aware of the KLF's wacky situationist antics, their Illuminati fixation, or their satirical (or is it?) guidebook, The Manual, then The White Room isn't simply banal, it's gloriously, amazingly, brilliantly banal. The pop genius of the KLF was the way they assembled an audacious postmodern stew of (pop)cultural references, context, images, samples, and pranks, until the music itself could contain as much or as little meaning as you desired to find, depending on how close or how far away you want to get to it. Was there really a time when postmodernism was actually fun like this? It feels like a million years ago.

Last night on my way to see Eat Drink Man Woman I listened to The Divine Comedy's 1998 album, Fin de Siecle. I've been catching up with the band lately, working my way backwards from his newest album. Last week I finally got to hear Casanova. Here's what I've decided: Neil Hannon is one crazy, cheeky bastard. I'm predisposed towards orchestrated pop, but I had no idea how dramatic and over the top his records really are. He's included everything necessary to annoy the hell out of anyone looking for authenticity or sincerity: huge orchestral crescendos, showtunes, literary references, spoken word, pop-sociology, and approximately forty-two other ideas. How many times while listening to this music have I found myself asking, often aloud, "Is he out of his mind? Did he just do that?" Is he serious? Well, he's serious about being ironic, irreverent, and in your face. He's taking the piss and not taking the piss at exactly the same time. Which is to say he's seriously ambitious.

Lately, I've found myself thinking a lot about ambition as it relates to music. Or rather the lack of ambition. And the cynical how-dare-they appraisal (or at least confused head scratching) of any band that dares to color too far outside the lines. Don't you have to take the big risks if you want the big rewards? I'm sure there's some wildly inventive music going on out there somewhere, but mostly what I'm hearing are meager rewards from people playing it safe. When was the last time you heard an album that was absolutely horrible because the band tried something daring and failed? I wonder how this happened. Could it be related to the increased scrutiny allowed by the internet? Maybe artists were more willing to take risks when they could work on music in relative seclusion, without people tracking their every move and spewing instant opinion pollution. Maybe it was better when we couldn't preview every piece of music before making a purchase decision. What we need are more glorious failures.

Monday, February 12

Dreams Made Flesh

Sam Rosenthal, founder of Projekt records and leader of goth/darkwave group Black Tape For A Blue Girl, has a new ambient solo album out under the name As Lonely As Dave Bowman. The music was inspired by his son's love of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, nobody ever went wrong exploiting my love for that film. In a recent interview, Rosenthal described the music as sounding "like what you would here if you were a stowaway in the nuclear reactor of the Discovery’s motor."

Mike McGonigal, author of the new 33 1/3 book on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, becomes not the first person to liken the band's extended guitar drone during the live rendition of "You Made Me Realise" to the sound of sticking your head inside a jet engine. In this case I can honestly say I was there, and he's right.

I remember reading a review several years ago that described Microstoria, the collaboration between Oval and Mouse On Mars's Jan St. Werner, as sounding like being inside a computer's hard drive. Another review described it as the sound your computer makes when it's switched off and dreaming. I might conflate and enhance the two descriptions and say Microstoria sounds like what you would hear if you were a stowaway inside a dreaming HAL 9000.

I'm sure you've heard this "It sounds like being inside a..." metaphor used plenty of times before. It seems like the more amorphous and less structured a piece of music becomes, the more people reach for structural metaphors to pin it down. No doubt plenty of ambient musicians would describe their works as attempts to create a sort of space. On one end of the spectrum, this might mean a mental space. At the other extreme the metaphor becomes more concrete and sometimes specifically architectural. The relationship between ambient soundscapes and architecture was perfectly clear several years ago with Caipirinha's Architettura series, in which Deupree/Ysatis, Tetsu Inoue, and David Toop took on the buildings of Toyo Ito, Nicholas Grimshaw, and Itsuko Hasegawa. (Has anyone heard these albums? I haven't.)

Last night, I finally got around to pulling down a couple of Microstoria CDs and giving them a listen on my new-ish headphones. I'd been wanting to do this for a while, thinking that the headphones would do serious justice to the detail and texture of the music. While listening, I was thinking not about how it sounded like I was inside a computer, but that it sounded like a tiny computer was inside my head. Headphones will do that--make sounds feel like they're coming from the center of your head. This places the music into a completely different context. Instead of transforming my immediate surroundings into an imaginary space, my body became the vessel for the music.

Thursday, February 8

Bloc Party: Marketing 2.0

The new Bloc Party album has been bending my brain for the past couple of days. I was planning to write some thoughts about it, but then I found myself in the position of almost totally agreeing (he's a little overly harsh towards the end) with Nitsuh Abebe's Pitchfork review. Reading other reviews and comments, I get the feeling people don't know quite how to take the album. And it is indeed a strange album. I know it's not what I was expecting, and I can only imagine it's not what many fans wanted. Right now, I'm more fascinated by the album's existence than by the music itself. What could have been going through their head when they wrote and recorded this album? If the lyrics are anything to go by, there's nothing calculated, pretentious, or cynical here. They are just a band that's, you know, actually trying very hard. It's a little disarming.

Here's what I want to make clear: Bloc Party went and made a contemporary prog album. Okay, maybe I'm using the p-word for shock value--let's at least agree to call it art rock. It's a concept album with a narrative arc. The songs have rhythmic change-ups and hyper drumming. There's all manner of vocal effects, choirs, and cut-ups. With the exception of "I Still Remember," there's really no hooky pop songs. And there's zappy laser sounds!

The only way they could have made the album more prog would have been to release a double album. Oh, wait, they actually did. You see, the most interesting thing about A Weekend In The City for me right now isn't the music, it's the marketing and release strategy. If you do a little hunting, you will discover no less than eleven(!) non-album tracks floating around the internet. These extras are comprised of b-sides and various retailer and download shop exclusives. There's nothing unusual about a band recording a bunch of extra tracks to eventually use as single b-sides. What is unusual is for all those tracks to appear at once. And these are not throwaway demos or noodly instrumentals, but completed songs that essentially make up an entire second album.

Think about this for a minute. This isn't a case of a record label being forced to deal with the internet and so-called leaked tracks. This is total marketing genius, and the first time I've seen anyone truly leverage (manipulate?) the contemporary reality of downloading, and MP3 blogs in particular. Certainly the people involved are aware of both Hype Machine and the fact that no matter how "exclusive" these extra tracks supposedly are, they will all end up online within a couple of days. I truly believe this entire scheme is intentional; they have purposefully released two albums. Right now bloggers are tripping over themselves to be the first to collect and post all the extra songs. It's like an internet scavenger hunt. Gotta catch 'em all! And it's far better promotion than the predictability of bloggers posting tracks from the regular album. This second album has already been unofficially named Another Weekend In The City, and someone has made cover art for it. But of course the best part is that people are already claiming to like this virtual album more than the proper album. That's not hard to understand, considering most of the extra tracks are much closer in sound to Silent Alarm. All that's left to do now is sit back and wait for the inevitable CD release of this bonus album. I wonder if it'll have any bonus tracks.

Tuesday, February 6

A Genuine Fake

After a friend posted the video for "Life In a Northern Town" on his blog, I decided to track down a copy of The Dream Academy's debut album; I haven't heard it in about twenty years. Along with Propaganda's A Secret Wish and ABC's The Lexicon Of Love, the Dream Academy album made a huge impact on me when I first heard it back in the mid-80s. Some people have The Velvet Underground, or Bowie, or The Beatles. I have Trevor Horn and Nick Laird-Clowes.

It's a little ironic being nostalgic for an album that itself is wrapped in a blanket of faux '60s nostalgia. I can't recall, but when I was sixteen I probably took the album's sound at face value. Later, when I became too serious, I probably rejected it for being overproduced or some such nonsense. Now when I listen to it I hear the production as Laird-Clowes's attempt to create a sonic setting for his stories, much like a writer creates a world for her characters to inhabit. Sure, you can call it fake. But it's a real fake. Am I being too postmodern here? In an entertainment landscape where we're often presented with what seems like a copy of a copy of a copy (nothing inherently wrong with that), a first-generation simulation starts to feel almost genuine. Or maybe I'm just being generous because this is my nostalgia.

I'll tell you one thing: this Dream Academy album is practically it's own trivia game. It's produced by David Gilmore. Band member Kate St. John was in a band called The Ravishing Beauties with none other than Virginia Astley, and she's since recorded with Roger Eno. Gary Langan, of Art of Noise/ZTT, engineered parts of the album. Peter Buck (!) plays guitar on a track. Peter Saville designed the sleeve. And I had no idea that Nick Laird-Clowes himself lead such an interesting life.

But the thing that's interesting me most right now is the psychoacoustic memory trick the album's played on me. I believe that people don't really remember things, so much as they remember things the way they want to. What I mean is, your memories aren't some collection of objective facts, but rather a collection of those facts somehow blended and layered with your emotions and subjective impressions of the various events. Over time that mix becomes what you think of as your memories. In my mind, I held a memory of this album being lushly arranged with full orchestrations. Looking over the liner notes I was a bit shocked to find that no orchestra played on the album; it's just Kate St. John on woodwinds, a cellist, and some timpani. The rest of the "orchestra" is filled in by synthesizers and spacious recording techniques. By using just a few recognizable acoustic sounds, they tricked me. Not that I mind at all.

Monday, February 5

Language Is a Virus

A few days ago my wife and I were having discussion about comics. I was claiming that while both traditional superhero comics and Fantagraphics-style hipster comics both appear to have their own fandom communities, there doesn't seem to be a similar community for the rapidly growing sector of comics in the middle, by which I mean titles like Y, DMZ, and Desolation Jones. My argument is that while there's some chance you might be introduced to superhero comics through movies or cartoons, and you might find about hipster comics from your indie music or graphic design friends, there's no equivalent way for non-comics fans to get introduced to the those titles I mentioned. So I suggested that someone simply needs to group those types of comics under some catchy genre name. That's the thing about language, right? You can't have an idea or a discussion about an idea until that idea is manifested in a word. It helps if the word is catchy. It needs to, as they say, "resonate" with people.

This language strategy works pretty well for music. I started thinking about it again yesterday in relation to the recent-ish buzz around hauntology, a sort of virtual genre tagged by Simon Reynolds and picked up by several other bloggers to describe Burial, The Focus Group, The Caretaker, and several other artists past and present. It felt like just by naming the phenomenon, an entire new genre materialized from the ether. I'm not complaining about pigeonholing or chicken/egg issues here; I believe the genre tag has been very helpful in fomenting interesting discussions. Instead, I've been wondering about the effect this hauntology meme has had on my listening. Now that the thought virus has been planted in my brain, am I starting to hear it everywhere?

Yesterday, I finally got around to listening to Max Richter's latest album, Songs From Before (yes, I am that far behind). In short, the album is stunning--certainly one of the very best releases from last year. The album features Richter's beautiful neoclassical piano and string arrangements intercut with snippets of crackling ambience and Robert Wyatt reading bits of Haruki Murakami texts. Sounds haunting, no? I've only read Murakami's Kafka On the Shore, but I can hardly imagine fiction more haunted by...something. And the Richter album has a spectral, blurry image on the cover, which is no doubt influencing my impression of the music.

The there's Johann Johansson's IBM 1401, A User's Manual, also released last year. Here we have a sort of concept album about a vintage computer, where sweeping orchestration meets old recordings of someone reading bits of the machine's maintenance guide. I should probably mention that the album was inspired by reel-to-reel sound recordings of the mainframe made by Johansson's father over thirty years ago. Even the album's own website describes Johansson's music as "hauntingly melodic."

So, should these albums be admitted into the ever-expanding hauntology catalogue? I'll leave it to you to decide if I've gone too far. I'm not at all sure this represents a new musical trend or genre, or if we've just come up with a useful way of discussing music--a way particularly suited to our time. I'm starting to think that maybe all music (all art?) is somehow haunted and that we're really just dealing with a matter of degree.

Wednesday, January 31

Cruel Britannia

Jarvis has an excellent solo album out. Damon is going strong with Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, & The Queen. Brett is gearing up for his first solo album. The Gallagher brothers are...well, I have no idea and I don't much care.

And Luke Haines is popping up in comic books. If you read comics and care at all about Britpop, you should check out Phonogram. I still can't suss out the story, but it's definitely a love letter to the scene. Luke figures prominently in the latest issue, and I'll just leave it at that. The upshot of all this (nostalgia) is that I couldn't understand why I never got into The Auteurs. They're just one of those bands that just passed me by, or I passed them by. I do remember the reviews and praise and have always been aware that their albums are well thought of. I also enjoy Black Box Recorder.

Now that I've listened to New Wave a couple of times I can easily understand how Haines ended up marginalized and tagged as a pop underachiever. The album is stunning, both musically and lyrically. I'm not sure if it's really Britpop, outside of being released during that period. It sounds a bit like Suede I guess; the glam is there, but toned way down. I can't imagine this stuff pumping out of radios along with Oasis and Blur. In retrospect, it feels obvious that New Wave lost the Mercury Prize to Suede's debut. This music is bone dry and more than a little caustic. The melodies are subtle and the hooks subdued; it doesn't want to make easy friends with you.

This has got me thinking about what makes a great debut album. Listening to New Wave it's amazing to think it's someone's debut. It's clear that Haines had a very specific vision for the album, and it sounds like he nailed it completely. I don't know how else to explain it other than to say the album fully realises a unique world with its own mood. I think people latch onto debut records when it feels like the band popped into this world fully formed, seemingly out of nowhere. This is the kind of band fans form mini cults around. The music has its own "thing." That thing is probably a "place" where you go when you listen to the music. If a band can't conjure a place like that, you can enjoy their music, but only ever at a distance.

Tuesday, January 30

Armchair Producer

If music critics are frustrated musicians, I must be a frustrated record producer. Ever since I started seriously listening to music I've been interested in how records sound. This probably has something to do with growing up in an audiophile household, but I think it really took hold in the mid-'80s when I started noticing the same producers' names popping up on several of my favorite albums.

Last night I put on my headphones and gave a first listen to the new The Good, The Bad, & The Queen CD. I figured I was going to like it, and so I did. The album works well as a complete mood piece, all dark and slinky. It's not full of catchy pop songs, but the melodies are nice and I suspect my appreciation will deepen after a few more listens. Even though I knew Paul Simonon played bass on the album, I somehow wasn't expecting such a dubby feel throughout. I'd have to say it's his bass that glues the album together. Too bad the album's intentions are almost completely undone by the mixing and mastering, which is so compressed that EVERY SINGLE SOUND IS AT EXACTLY THE SAME VOLUME. Every vocal, keyboard line, percussion ting, string arrangement, and guitar figure has been squashed into flat, lifeless two-dimensional submission. It's actually fatiguing to listen to the album all the way through. Is it possible Damon wanted it to sound this way? It's possible. Given the dark subject matter, maybe he was going for a stark, cold sound. But I doubt it. The sound of the disc totally works against the music.

Do I sound like a crabby old man? I know this issue of digital compression has popped up on the internet in a few places, but do most people really care? Don't get me wrong; I don't like to place absolute value judgments on different sounds. I don't believe there are good sounds and bad sounds. I'm sure the compressed sound has its valid uses. I think it actually worked well on the Arctic Monkeys album, which feels right all loud and brash. It just makes me sad to hear a good album with a great album lurking beneath the production.

I also had a listen to Felt's Ignite The Seven Cannons. Not a bad album at all, but right off the bat I can tell it's not as solid as Forever Breathes The Lonely Word. Deebank's guitar work is lovely across the album, but the songs are not quite as strong. You may know that Robin Guthrie produced this album, which I guess was done around the same time as his production work for Dif Juz (some of the Felt instrumentals actually remind me of Dif Juz). Guthrie producing his Cocteau Twins recordings worked just fine. Guthrie producing other bands is a bit dodgy. Like he would do with Lush several years later, he blurs and smoothes all the edges off Felt. That sound worked to the Cocteau's advantage, but I think it somewhat dulls the instrumental interplay that makes Felt unique. That said, it does make this sound different from other Felt albums. I wonder if Lawrence chose Guthrie, or if it was someone else's idea.

Monday, January 29

Grace and Funk

Look up "grace" and the fist of many definitions listed is, "elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action." Looking up "funk" will give you a bit more trouble. Scroll down and you'll find, "music having a funky quality." So what type of music has a funky quality? Um, funk I guess. That clears it up. Scroll down a little further and you'll find, "An earthy quality appreciated in music such as jazz or soul." and "A type of popular music combining elements of jazz, blues, and soul and characterized by syncopated rhythm and a heavy, repetitive bass line." That last one may be correct, but it sure takes the funk right out of funk.

I've been thinking about these two words in relation to the new Fujiya & Miyagi album, Transparent Things, the U.S. version of which was released last week. I am holding a spot on my 2007 year end list for this album; it'll be an amazing year for music if it somehow gets bumped off. Maybe you read about the album when the import version was being reviewed and hyped last year. Lots of krautrock comparisons have been thrown around, and not unfairly. Not having heard much Can, I can't speak to that connection, but I definitely hear the Neu!/Cluster/Harmonia influence. I've been listening to a lot of that music lately, so this is good timing. Transparent Things is graceful in the same way, say, the best techno is graceful: precise, restrained, elegant. There's a lot of open space in this music, and it occurs to me that funk needs open space. I'm defining funk not just as a funky beat or baseline (the album does have that, for certain), but more loosely as a sort of human, corporeal quality. I should be careful here; I'm not talking about rockist authenticity. Machine music can be funky, as Kraftwerk has proven. It's not about sounding organic, or hand-played. It's just about allowing the music to breath.

This idea of open space is something I've been thinking about a lot since first hearing the Junior Boys. Above anything else, open space defines their music. Other music I enjoy has this quality: OMD's Architecture & Morality, Brian Eno's Another Green World, The Blue Nile's Hats, David Sylvian's Secrets of the Beehive, and the recent Kelley Polar album. Is there a metaphor here? Maybe that space needs to be there so listeners have somewhere to insert themselves into the music, to crawl inside the sound and fill the gaps.

Friday, January 26

Friday Links Note

Just a quick note to let you know that I won't be posting music news links here every Friday like I did back on AngryRobot. However, you can find all that same information via my del.icio.us page.

Slow Music

Over at Pitchfork, Mark Richardson has an interesting piece about difficult albums. I'm not sure I've ever had any "project" records, but I do think it's important to give music more than one listen before making up your mind, and to come back a few years later to music you initially passed on. I despise olives, yet about once a year I'll try one just to see if my taste has changed. One bit of the essay in particular caught my attention:

"I've had many of these "projects" in my life, albums that I didn't enjoy at all the first few times through but kept anyway, hoping that someday they'd eventually click. It's a tough notion to hold on to, especially now. There are so many records competing for attention, and so many are potentially appealing on first listen. But it's important, I think, to not give up on difficult albums."
There's so much of everything, not only records. An internet friend (i-friend, e-friend?) of mine recently wrote, "It's like a never-ending stream of music if your ears are to the ground, you know?." Do people even have time to work at liking an album? How many times should you listen to something before giving up? Hurry, CDs and MP3s are piling up! Perhaps someone needs to start a Slow Music movement similar to Slow Food.

Mark's request to "not give up" stands in direct opposition to the 2006 best-of lists that are still trickling onto the internet. These lists--more this year than ever-- started appearing back towards the end of November, so that means about two full months spent attempting to tie up the previous year's music. It's hard for me to read this as anything but a desperate attempt to get a grip on what stays and what can be forgotten. Music listening becomes reduced to an exercise where your goal is to sort discs into "keep" and "trash" piles.

I think it's about time to take my copy of Autechre's Confield down from the shelf and give at go with my new headphones.

Thursday, January 25

Not Classic Masterpieces

Have you ever had albums you feel sorry for, as if they were children or friends that have been unjustly picked on? For me, these usually take the form of albums that aren't the artist's best work, or considered classics, but just albums that I think have a bum rap for some reason. I thinking about this while listening to Roxy Music's Flesh + Blood the other day. Here's an album that gets little respect, being sandwiched between the group's influential Glam records and the commercial success of Avalon. It's either not as good as the latter, or not as important as the former. But taken on its own terms, I like it. Flesh + Blood makes sense if you believe that New Romantic grew almost directly out of Glam. In that sense, the album sounds like a natural step and maybe more influential than people think, with its disco beats and synthesizers. Hell, I don't even mind the cover songs. I'm not saying the album is perfect; the first half is definitely stronger than the second. But try to love it at least a little.

Then I had these thoughts again yesterday listening to Lush's Lovelife. Did this album piss off a lot of people because it wasn't Shoegaze enough? Or did people feel like they were jumping on the Brit Pop bandwagon? Personally, I love the fact that they changed their sound. I'll admit Lovelife didn't exactly stake out new musical territory, and it's certainly not the best Brit Pop album ever, but it features several fine pop songs and at least they tried something different. Again, I'm not saying this album is some masterpiece, but I think it's better than most people give it credit for.

I feel like there's this thing where if an album isn't a 10 out of 10, then history has no room for it. God forbid you make an album that's merely very good, or even just good. Maybe it's because there's this constant flood of music to deal with, so through some Darwinian process only the strongest survive the flood. Try to give a little extra time to the lonely children floating just out of camera view.

Wednesday, January 24

Interface Is Destiny

I've been reading Brian Eno's 1995 diary, A Year (With Swollen Appendices), for over a year now. I keep the book on the corner of my desk at work and dip into it from time to time, usually when I'm taking lunch at my desk, or going out to eat alone. The diary format seems to encourage this style of reading, the result being the book has become a sort of long, slow background text to my daily life. I think Eno would be pleased with that; I feel like I've discovered ambient reading.

An entry midway into the diary on June 30th caught my attention the other day. Eno is working on a slide projection project using a Swedish software application named Dataton Trax, which he describes as having "all the worst aspects of computer culture and Swedish-designed rationalism in one small package." He's having some trouble making the software do what he wants, which is to use overlapping cycles of small sets of slides to produce shifting patterns. His main problem is that the software forces everything to be tied to a single clock. He ends up forced to run several instances of the program at once. In a letter to a friend, he goes on to write the following about software design in general:

"As long as the software is nerdified, and major conceptual limitations are built right into the systems at that level, then it cannot get far. This is a philosophical question: when people program--i.e. decide on which set of possible options they should make available--they express a philosophy about what operations are import in the world. If the philosophy they express is anything like the level of breathtaking stupidity that the games they play and the internet conversations they have are, then we are completely sunk. We are victims of their limitations. It's as though we're using a language that has lots of words like 'cool' and 'surf' but not one for 'organism' or 'evolve' or synergy'. I really am heartily sick of the juvenility of it all."
Eno's little rant reminded me of what I call the "Interface Is Destiny" idea. I think I first started thinking about this after reading something Markus Popp (Oval) said about his work. I can't recall his exact words, but he was explaining how he doesn't consider his work "music," but rather--and I'm paraphrasing--"the sound of the software interface." He considered his recorded output to simply be the natural outcome of the software choices he was given.

Is there a way to escape this trap? Is it even important to try? This is really the history of all music making devices from the log to the piano to the laptop, isn't it? Some people blame Bob Moog for killing the true potential of the synthesizer by adding a standard keyboard. Now that we've moved onto the laptop, we're at the mercy of the software designers. Or are we? David Byrne recently used PowerPoint to create art. Perhaps using tools for purposes other than those intended points to a way out. Defy the interface. Break the software.

Tuesday, January 23

The Road To Awe

I've been listening to some film scores lately. I wonder if my reluctance to engage with film music is the result of some latent rockism. Maybe I have some problem with music that's not performed by the "artist" that wrote it. This new interest probably has something to do with all the great cinematic-style music coming out of labels like Type and Miasmah. One day I just noticed that I've been listening to a lot of music that sounds like soundtracks for nonexistent films. Somehow, this all lead me to thinking about the score for Soderbergh's Solaris and I recalled enjoying it when I saw the movie. Well, the CD is way out of print and only available at high prices via ebay (I expect to see it sitting in a used bin one day, though), so I downloaded it from iTunes.

I really know very little about film music, other than recognizing the names of Hermann and Rota. And I wouldn't exactly say listening to scores by Cliff Martinez (formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Clint Mansell (formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself) is doing much to dispel my rockist tendencies. If you enjoy ambient music, you'll want to check out Martinez's work; he does all the scores for Soderbergh. I think Solaris is the best, but Traffic and Narc are also nice. Mansell has done all three Aronofsky scores. His recent score for The Fountain, arranged and performed by Mogwai and Kronos Quartet is one of the best film scores I've ever heard. Go buy it now. Why the hell it wasn't nominated for an Oscar today is beyond me. The movie itself really is an audio/visual experience and the music is key, yet it also works well for home listening. And that's most likely why these atmospheric scores are working for me. For example, I think the music for Lord of the Rings is excellent and totally appropriate within context, but I can't really listen to it separate from the movie. The melodic themes just can't be separated from the images.

I'm not saying scores need to stand on their own to be worthwhile, just that it's an added bonus for me when they do.

Monday, January 22

Maybe I Should Entertain The Very Fact That I'm Insane

In which I finally get around to purchasing a Felt CD. Forever Breathes The Lonely Word, to be precise. I'm not really sure what took me so long, considering they were one of the seminal Cherry Red/Creation bands. It's totally possible that I heard some Felt (other than "Primitive Painters") ages ago, was put off by the vocals, and just filed them in the drawer labeled "don't need to worry about." It's a handy drawer to have around, that one. And then I noticed that Cherry Red has recently reissued the band's entire catalog, and I started thinking how weird it was that I was almost completely unfamiliar with this band. I can never be quite sure how odd vocals will turn out for me in the end. Sometimes it's too much for me to ever overcome, sometimes I like them right off (CYHSY), and sometimes I'll come back to something years later and it doesn't seem to bother me anymore (Magnetic Fields, Felt).

So after having listened to this album, I have a couple of thoughts. First off, it sounds a lot like Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. I'm sure this has mostly to do with both artists' affinity for Television, but I think the prominent use of organ also plays a part. Speaking of the Television connection, some of this Felt stuff also sounds a bit like early Church. The album also reminds me how much I like John A. Rivers as a producer (maybe more on that later). If I had to complain about anything, it'd be that the album's texture is maybe a little too even; all the song arrangements are similar.

I should mention that this album is about 32 minutes long and there's no filler. I truly think most albums are too damn long these days. 40 minutes is a good maximum, with about 37 minutes being ideal. If you record an album that's an hour or longer, you'd better have something amazing to hold my attention. Is the CD format to blame?

I think I'll order a copy of Ignite The Seven Cannons soon.