Monday, September 18, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 38

"A spontaneous techno mix to celebrate the fall leaves", 39 minutes

No quote-inspired title this time, the title simply means what it says.  I selected the tracks and mixed them surprisingly quickly, with virtually no testing to see how they'd flow together.  Sometimes you just get lucky and things pan out.  These bite-sized mixed are a hell of a lot easier than the longer ones to compile and mix, and easier to listen to as well.  On days like these, I feel like there should almost never be a need to make a mix longer than an hour.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Slowdive, Vaadat Charigim live at Barby, Tel Aviv

It's appropriate that this is likely my last non-(cool) Dad gig.  Shoegaze was the genre that should have been a passing fad like so many other 80's and 90's rock-based microgenres.  Yet it somehow stuck around thanks to a small number of passionately devoted fans (half of which formed their shoegazing bands, or so it might seem).  Much like the West Coast psychedelia scene of the late 60's, the bands were relative footnotes in the grand scheme of rock at the time and flamed out quickly, but became counterculture, forever cool touchstones -- especially once their fans grew up to be music critics and couldn't stop writing about them.  Now we're the crusty stoners in our 40's who can't get enough of the music we grew up with.  Are there any new shoegaze fans jumping on ship during the past few years.  Based on the look of the crowd in the Barby, it seems not.

But at the very least, Vaadat Charigim won themselves at least one new fan (me).  They may be the best rock band in Israel.  These guys just get it.  Formed only five years, they look like grizzled fans who finally said fuck it and decided to go for it and form the shoegaze band they'd always dreamed of forming after letting life get in the way for far too many years.  Their music is like the Spirit of '88 MBV with the tempos slowed down by 25%, full of searing transitions and loaded with pop hooks.

The first wave of shoegaze largely passed me by at the time.  I knew about the bands but wasn't a big fan and hardly owned any records until years later.  I didn't see any of them live either -- until now.  Yes, this was my (depending on how you'd classify bands like Catherine Wheel) *first* "first wave" shoegazing gig.  

Two things about Slowdive, who are still magnificent after all these years.  First, the new songs are great and fit it seamlessly with the old ones.  Someone new to their music who dropped in on this show would be hard pressed, I think, to tell the old and new songs apart based on style and even based on crowd reactions.  Second, the gig was mellow.  Really mellow.  So mellow that after 20 years, the overlap between Slowdive and Mojave 3 was finally revealed to me in perfect clarity.  Slowdive on this night were Mojave 3 with mountains of reverb (which to be fair, is exactly what I always wanted out of Mojave 3 ... I even saw them live once in the blind hope that they might become that live).  Everything from the smooth, laid back tempos to the twangy guitars (encased in feedback and reverb) to Neil Halstead's trucker hat was dedicated to providing listeners with the alt-country experience at a much higher volume.    

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 37

"Mistakes and misbehaving - the Harvey mix" (87 minutes)

This mix was inspired by the likes of DJ Harvey's RA300 mix -- eclectic, unpredictable, and unafraid to break all the "conventional" rules of DJ'ing.  At least that's how I'd describe DJ Harvey's mix, mine in comparison is obviously a poor imitation.  After editing this mix a bit and filing it away for months I finally decided to ignore any lingering mistakes.  It was never meant to sound perfect anyhow.

 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Waiting for the next Spiritualized album

In this new interview for The Quietus, Jason Pierce reveals that:

-- The new Spiritualized album is taking longer than expected to record (just like all the others)
-- It could be the last Spiritualized record (another comment he's made before, it's his set reaction to being stuck in recording and mixing hell)
-- He's not nostalgic about the 20th anniversary of "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" (can't fault him here, the rash of anniversary shows and re-releases from every pre-millenial band are transparent marketing ploys)
-- Playing live gave him a different feel for the new songs so he went back in the studio to sing them all again (once more, the endless cycle of re-recording/re-arranging songs live and in the studio that has been characteristic of Pierce's post-S3 career.  He never settles on a definitive version of anything which is why live and recorded versions of many of his songs sound so different.  This is also one of the things that makes him a genius).
-- He didn't take the money for a S3 reunion because "I don't see the point of playing through the things I played when I was 19 or 20" (you couldn't possibly make this up ... he's been playing S3 songs live with Spiritualized since the earliest incarnations of the band and has never stopped.  Not to mention the rerecorded versions of S3 songs that have appeared on his albums.

All in all, it's an interview filled with fluff where Jason talks but says nothing of consequence. Don't bother looking for cryptic clues about the new album, there aren't any, we've been down this road countless times over the past 25 years.  This has been the longest time gap between Spiritualized albums, and patience is a requirement for long time fans.  This eye popping setlist from Australia last week makes that easier said than done though (AFAIK they haven't played "If I Were With Her Now" since 1992!!).


Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Negative reviews

There's a lot to unpack in Luke Turner's short essay about the decline of the negative review.  I see exactly where he's coming from, because I've been complaining about perfunctory 7/10 reviews in print and online media for ages.  When a veteran band with an established sound and a loyal following release a new album, I can visualize the review and the rating from many publications before even reading it.  All of "us" (= people who love music criticism) have an interest in reading genuine criticism that breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the music in a fair, not belittling way, like Jeremy Larson just did in his review of the new Arcade Fire album for Pitchfork.  In principle, that is what "we" want. 

But who is served by these negative reviews?  In the mid '00's, when everyone and their brother started a music blog, everybody fought to establish their tiny niche in a competitive field.  The large print publications and websites dominated the coverage of the most popular, enduring bands -- at the end of the day, this is what attracted eyeballs to their product and made them money.  Small websites and blogs couldn't compete with their coverage, so they worked on becoming tastemakers.  Who could be the first to write about an up and coming band?  The first to post their mp3's?  Writing about the most newsworthy bands and keeping up with the evolving canon wasn't as important as becoming a "trusted source" for music and opinion.  However that largely meant writing about and promoting the bands you liked.  The glory was in being the first to hop on to an emerging bandwagon, not in being the one to spoil the party by burning it down. 

These days, print magazines, blogs and online music crit websites are dead or dying and the casual fans' exposure to music criticism begins and ends with auto-recommendations via Google or Facebook.  Purists might be put off the advertising money being funneled through megacorporations rather than the small, struggling publications, but it's been all about positive reinforcement for a long time anyway.  Mp3 blogs were predicated on the idea of building a brand and earning the readers' trust.  If you liked that song, then maybe you'll like this, etc.  Google has algorithms for that now.  The selection churned out by Youtube's autoplay has more overlap with my tastes than any single publication online or otherwise.

Plenty of people might be in favour of the concept of reading more negative reviews, but nobody has been interested in writing them for some time, and that was true long before the tech giants took over. This is where Turner and I disagree, and it gets me back to the question I asked earlier -- who is served by the negative reviews?  Writers don't want to write them because it's better for their careers to discover and build up bands, rather than breaking them down.  Is there a serious demand for taking popular whipping posts like U2 to the woodshed one more time?  Who is willing to pay money to read snarky comments about a band they don't even like, besides Melody Maker readers of the 80's and 90's? In the 00's and '10 we can troll and be trolled on message boards for free, and the jokes about Bono's pomposity have worn thin over the years and decades (and I'm a U2 fan).  

The democratization of music criticism via the internet means has crushed the influence of the individual writer.  Consumers don't follow writers, they follow brands.  In sports, ESPN is a brand that can (and has) easily weathered the loss of many a flagship individual writer or TV personality.  So it goes with music journalism as well.  People are trained to consume music via a particular outlet, which makes the individual writers, unfortunately, expendable.  In that sense, why would a publisher or editor side with a writer who pitches or writes a negative review?  Striking the wrong tone in a review might cost them -- a loss in ad revenue or access to artists.  Losing a writer who stands up for his or her principles costs them nearly nothing because it won't damage their brand.  So why not play along and write positive reviews all the time?  It's by far the most risk averse choice.   

Friday, July 28, 2017

New Order Presents Be Music

After reading Peter Hook's New Order bio, hearing this collection of tracks produced by members of the band is like uncovering a time capsule from the early 80's, and one can almost revisualize the atmosphere in the studio at the time thanks to Hook's painstakingly constructed timelines throughout his book.

Lord only knows how the people at Factory Benelux managed to secure the cooperation of the original New Order lineup in order to make this three disc set happen.  Factory Benelux did license and release many of these tracks in their original run, but maybe this was their way of paying tribute to label founder Annik Honore after her death in 2014.

The liner notes (which are worth the price by themselves -- painstakingly detailed and filled with entertaining stories) imply that they took on these jobs to allow for experimentation outside of the boundaries of New Order.  Experimentation here not only meant taking sounds that worked so well on New Order records and bringing them to other people's records.  It also meant messing around in the studio and making mistakes on their friend's records that they'd be reluctant to do with their own music.

The collection is a microcosm of New Order itself -- together but separate.  Disc 1 is dominated by Bernard Sumner's work.  It's mostly him trying to land a big New York club hit via various takes on the hard electro sound of "Confusion".  The cool, club-ready sounds are there, and the slick production couldn't have been better for the time.  That extra spark of inspiration that made New Order songs into classics are missing through.  Sometimes it's because the attempt to copy a specific song's aura is too blatant.  Paul Haig's "The Only Truth" is a perfectly serviceable dance rock tune, but it's not "Love Vigilantes", and it's trying too hard to be "Love Vigilantes" to not suffer by the comparison.

Disc 2 is dominated by Steve Morris' work, which turns out to be the most timeless stuff on here.  52nd Street's "Can't Afford (To Let You Go) is the electro funk stomper with a strong whiff of "Let The Music Play" that basically trumps all of Barney's attempts to produce the same.  In more recent productions such as his remix of Section 25's "Another Hilltop", and original productions and remixes for Factory Floor and Ladytron's Helen Marnie, he settles into a streamlined club pop formula that could fill floors equally well in the 90's, 00's and 10's.

Disc 3 is the most heterogeneous of the bunch, with Peter Hook's experiments in rhythm, the lone Ian Curtis/Rob Gretton production pairing (!), and the amazing "Video 5-8-6" that I'm thrilled to finally own on CD instead of in bootleg form (yes, I know it received its first official release a few years ago).

The full collection, spanning over thirty years of Be Music productions, offers a cutting room floor version of New Order as they evolved over the same time period, that is, if New Order had retreated from big rock star tours and singles entirely and decided to focus solely on their favourite club scene of the moment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Radiohead in Israel

Radiohead played a gig in Park HaYarkon last night in front of 50 000 people.  It was the second shockingly huge crowd to pack the park in a week, following the GnR show that drew over 60 000.  Both of them outdrew the Rolling Stones' obsessively promoted gig from a couple of years ago.  The suffocating heat and humidity by all accounts couldn't put a damper on the spirits or endurance of the band or the audience.

For whatever reason, this particular gig drew more bile and insults from the haters.  Nobody bothered to stop the Britney Spears concert on July 3 from happening, presumably because they felt that she and her fans were too stupid and vacuous to appreciate the issues involved.

The lesson, as always: don't acknowledge the haters, don't feed the trolls.  Over the years I've read interviews with plenty of bands, big and small, declare that they're playing the gig and everyone who doesn't like it can fuck off.  The haters love dragging everything down to their level -- a pseudo academic grandstanding debate, where they can spout their bigotry and lies to an easily duped and misled public.  When they don't get the chance to launch the debate, they get pissed off and complain to their small cache of hardcore followers.  Thom Yorke's interview in Rolling Stone could have defused the situation in a perfect world.  His words were too well thought out, too well considered, too eloquently stated.  It kicked off the "he said, she said" portion of the debate that had now been given the green light to truly get underway.  Less talk, more telling your opponents to eat their own shit is the best defense.  It's not the most mature defense, but when hypocrites accuses you of moral failure despite being perfectly happy to make money anywhere HE can, the time for feigning politeness is over.  In short, the haters and bigots bully artists like Radiohead and piggyback on their fame to inflict their ignorance and bile on a much larger audience.  They rely on the cultural cache of others to broadcast their audience that they're not capable of reaching otherwise.

A NY Post article detailed Radiohead's connection to their Israeli fans going back nearly a quarter of a century.  Why hasn't the band tried to make that point themselves?  I hate to pick on Radiohead here because they are clearly the good guys in this story .  But why not say "we've been there, we like playing there, we have loyal fans there", end of debate? 

Thom Yorke inadvertently (I think) spoke to the essence of the entire phenomenon of anti-factual Israel-related reporting when he said, in his RS interview, "there are people I admire … who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think" and "they talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It's extraordinary."

If you respect a person then you respect their judgement and their opinions, even if you disagree.  Celebrities who work toward social justice issues are usually afforded a lot of leeway on this, i.e. "if you respect my work as an artist and agree with my stance on these political issues, then I want to introduce you to this other cause that you may not have thought about but that is very important to me personally".  Here we have a list of artists/bullies who are happy to enlist in a mutual admiration society with Radiohead when it benefits them.  Radiohead then announce a gig in Tel Aviv and suddenly the same people are yelling "don't listen to Radiohead, they're uninformed and ignorant!"  If this ever happens to you, then they never respected your opinions to begin with.  Israel is one of the few political issues that creates this type of ugly, self-interested arrogance in people.  "We were happy to agree with you about these ten other things, but on *that* particular thing, you're wrong, and it makes you a terrible human being."   

Jonny Greenwood is married to an Israeli artist (I have never known any Mizrahi Jews to self identify as an "Arab Jew", which is how the media have consistently reported it.  But  I'd bet that 95% of the people reading these articles in Western liberal media have never heard of a Mizrachi Jew.  Baby steps toward properly educating the public, I suppose).  Can you imagine any of these so-called "enlightened" artists lecturing a colleague about making a visit to their spouse's birthplace?  It's almost impossible to contemplate.  Would they talk down to a Westerner with a Chinese-born wife in this way?  "Are you aware that there are human rights abuses in China -- how dare you and your wife travel to China and engage with people there?  Are you aware that you are enabling the oppressors?"  How much of a prick do you have do be to belittle a man and his family in that way?  

I would estimate that Radiohead sold at least 20K more tickets than they would have if the "controversy" had not existed.  Their fans were disproportionally exposed to the entire sordid affair and it created additional interest in their show that might not have existed otherwise.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Peter Hook, "Substance" (book)

Peter Hook's lengthy recollection of his twenty seven years in New Order is far from a traditional biography.  It's more of a "conversations with Peter Hook" serial than a thorough retelling of the New Order story.  The closest comparison in my library would be Chris Heath's "Feel".  It's the only other bio I can think of that contains so many bizarre road stories and random minutiae, and almost completely ignores the usual meat and potatoes explanations of the creative process and the how's and why's of the band's popularity growth.  In both cases, the book isn't really about the man, but about the man and his entourage of colourful characters.  Everyone and everything seems real and tangible, as if the laughter and debauchery is happening right in front of your face.  Often you're left wondering how this bunch of misfits ever got around to making such brilliant music.  

Hook wanders off script a lot, but in a good way.  He'll flash back to an older story to provide context, and offer a preview of events to come (sometimes years later).  Stories about time spent in the studio are punctuated by "geek alerts" with detailed yet accessible descriptions of the recording process and the then state of the art equipment New Order were using.  He'll provide an overview of a tour, mostly filled with tales of excess you're used to hearing from hair metal bands rather than the famously reclusive New Order.  After covering one calendar year of their goings on (or longer once you reach the 90's and the band's activities become less structured and more volatile), there's a timeline that includes nearly every setlist from every gig they played, and additional commentary from Hook for many entries, peeling back additional layers "behind the music".  

Eventually I'll likely buy his Hacienda and Joy Division books as well, but for now I need a break from the world of Peter Hook.  Did I mention how long this book is?  Then again, twenty seven years should cover a lot of ground, and you the fan probably want the journey to feel long.  Hook even says so in the book, and trashes Barney Sumner for ripping off his fans by devoting only 100 pages to New Order in his book (among the many, many, MANY shots taken at Sumner liberally from the start of the book until the end).  

Even though New Order were famously private in interviews, and almost always left their personal and professional lives shrouded in mystery, in a way there's nothing surprising in Hook's book.  Factory were hellaciously bad with money, most of it earned by New Order.  We knew that.  The band somehow stuck with the label until the bitter end for reasons that were never entirely clear.  And they're still not clear, even to Hook, today!  One theme of the book is how important issues were almost always swept under the rug. Critical decisions were postponed or avoided again and again.  Everyone involved only has themselves to blame.  Even at their peak, the band members kind of hated each other and formed three distinct camps -- Hook, Sumner, and The Other Two.  The best example of this is in the 1993 documentary "Neworderstory", which is sadly almost impossible to find on the usual streaming sites (I can't remember what I did with my old VHS copy).  It is kind of shocking how little is said about Steve Morris and Gillian Gilbert, particularly Gillian, who Hook hardly ever interacted with. 

Hook wears his heart on his sleeve, when the subject matter is inspiring, the writing is inspiring.  He doesn't go through with a track-by-track review of "Republic" (unlike every other New Order album) because the recording process was too frustrating and painful and he finds he just can't go through with it (i.e. the track by track review).  Toward the end of the book, the apathy and frustration comes across in his writing.  In the early 80's recording was a pleasure and Hook found his niche behind the soundboard, hence the frequent "geek alerts" and other cool little details.  By the end of the book, recording is a costly chore that alienated the band members from each other even more.  Hook's alcoholism didn't help (caused by the problems in the band or a symptom of them?) and it's clear that the creative spark is gone.  The fact that "Waiting For the Sirens Call" was so strong looks now like a minor miracle.          

Saturday, June 24, 2017

First thoughts on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"

Like many casual fans of Fleetwood Mac, there was a time when I hadn't the slightest clue what the band had been doing between "Rumours" and "Mirage".   Then I bought the famous "Unknown Pleasures" edition of Melody Maker in 1995 (I still have the book, of course).  In his chapter on "Tusk", Simon Reynolds deviated from the style of the rest of the book and didn't really try to make a strong case for the album as a whole.  He mostly wrote about how blindingly great "Sara" is.  

Since that time, "Tusk" has gone on to become one of the most successfully critically rehabilitated albums of all time (has anyone put together a top ten list of those?).  But I'd never heard any of it, outside of "Sara" and the title track, until I bought the 2004 remastered and expanded edition at Scout Records in Vienna.  

When an album goes from being a curiosity for superfans and completists to minor classic in such a relatively short time (especially for a band as well known as FM), you need to be particularly careful in weighing out the hyperbole surrounding it.  Unfortunately, I haven't tried digging through interviews from the time to find out what Lindsey Buckingham was really striving for with his contributions to this album.  I can believe that he was influenced by punk and new wave, and was determined to challenge himself and not play it safe by writing a "Rumours II". I can't believe, as the liner notes imply, that he was struggling with his own sense of relevance and was worried about being swept aside by the new generation.  As Reynolds wrote in "Unknown Pleasures", "Rumours" was what happened in the US in place of punk.  It had minimal cultural and commercial relevance in 1979, when "Tusk" was released.  It strains the imagination to think that Buckingham was having a crisis of confidence while bathing in cocaine in his LA megamansion, thinking about whether the kids dying their hair pink in far away cities thought he was washed up or not.  

The Buckingham songs don't sound like "Rumours II".  The hallmarks of classic LB are still there -- gossamer guitars, intricate picking, cryptic and impassioned lyrics about dysfunctional relationships -- but have been warped through a Feelies-lite type of rhythmic lens.  But in Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie's, songs, I do hear fairly clear attempts to produce a "Rumours" sequel.  The songs are good, maybe even great, but they're not "Rumours"-level great, which isn't a fair comparison because nothing could be.  Even with LB's production polish, nobody in 1979 would have been even close to satisfied with them as the most expensive follow-up album to the then biggest selling album ever.  So in that sense, Mick Fleetwood's (paraphrased) comment about how "Tusk" saved them as a band may be true.  Without the Buckingham songs and oddities, "Tusk" is a "Waterworld"-sized waste of money and effort.  Maybe the fallout from that failure, piled onto the band breakups and mistrust, makes them go from kings and queens of music to oblivion in record time, like ABBA did. With them, it's at worst the hugely ambitious and slightly misunderstood epic double album.   

I also have to mention the oodles of weirdness to be found on the second disc, including the sprawling nine minute take on "Sara".  Much of this disc reminds me of the sloppy but enthralling takes on the second disc of the expanded Velvet Underground's "Loaded".  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Music in Austria(n vacation 2017)

1.  We alternated between Radio Salzburg and Hitradio O3 (broadcasting out of Vienna) during the multi-day scenic drive from the former to the latter.  O3 features mostly international (i.e. American) top 40 pop hits and German language songs done in the same style, whereas Radio Salzburg has more of a local, Austrian feel.

2.  At one point, David Hasselhoff appeared in a pre-taped segment to recommend a song, urging listeners to pay attention to it's powerful, emotional lyrics.  I am not making this up.  It's hard to believe this was an isolated incident either, i.e. we can conclude that an endorsement from David Hasselhoff is meaningful in the contemporary Austrian music scene. Speaking of stuff I couldn't possibly make up:


This was on display in a downtown Vienna subway station.

3.  It didn't take long for "Rock Me Amadeus" to come on the radio while I was in the car.  Falco is back in a big way, although in reality he probably left really left (much like Tupac Shakur in American culture, his post-death career has probably outshone the career he had while living, and he has the multiple greatest hits/live/rarities collections to prove it).  The latest is the Falco 60 compilation, released earlier this year to commemorate what would have been his 60th birthday.  There's also Falco: The Musical, with posters all over Vienna (even in the hipster neighborhoods) reminding you to buy tickets for 2018.

4.  Speaking of Amadeus, Salzburg is more or less a big Mozart shrine.  You have the Mozarteum (an academy of Mozart studies).  There's the Mozart museum housed in the former Mozart family residence (which we toured).  There's Mozart's birthplace (which we started at from outside).  You can attend Mozart concerts staged several times per week in churches, castles, and concert halls.  However, the displays in the Mozart museum reminded me of how miserable he was living in Salzburg, trying to eke out a living in the Salzburg court before finally bailing and heading to Vienna for considerably greater fame and fortune (the latter of which he squandered of course).  But technically Salzburg is his hometown and these days they're thrilled to claim him as such, even if he wasn't properly appreciated there while he was alive (a narrative that remains true of many young talents who flame out early even today).

5.  While music shopping in Vienna, I managed to keep my "Fennesz streak" alive (I think I've bought a Fennesz CD each time I've been in Vienna, which is all of three times, but I'll still call it a streak) by getting the Ozmotic/Fennesz collab from the always wonderful Substance store.  I also picked up La Dusseldorff's "Viva" at Scout Records, my second favourite music shop in the city.  They're so old school they don't even have a web page, just an unofficial Facebook fan page.  Is "Viva" better than any of the three NEU! albums?  I think it's close.

New to me on this trip was Moses Records, which has a collection of used CD's that would have seemed quaint and esoteric even in the late 90's at the peak of the used (and new) CD industry.  I was repeatedly flabbergasted seeing CD's that I never knew existed or hadn't seen anywhere in years.  For example:


Did you know that you could buy the final (pre-comeback) studio album from Saskatchewan's The Northern Pikes for two euros in Vienna?  Did you know that Senser recorded an album with Arthur Baker in 1998?  (bonus points for even remembering who they are).  Moses records was a fascinating trip back in time.  It's mostly a store for rock and jazz vinyl, but there are plenty of deals to be had on CD as well.  Such as:


This was a Germany-only release.  I haven't  a clue what the connection is to Alf, but before you laugh, check out the tracklist.  I didn't buy this, but that's about as good of a commercial 1990 compilation as you'll find.

5. The best thing happening in Austria while we were there was the Heart of Noise Festival, which we didn't attend but oh man, if it wouldn't have required a complete redesign of our route and significant flight rescheduling, I would have loved to be there for even one day.  Gas. Fennesz. Monolake.  Psychic TV.  Samuel Kerridge.  William Basinski.  

Gas!

How disappointing ...