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 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.