Sunday, July 29, 2018

Peter Hook, "Unknown Pleasures"

I did finally read Hook's JD bio, and it's a more than worthy addition to the wealth of first-person JD literature out there.  He wrote it knowing that most readers would be long-time fans who had already read Deborah Curtis' "Touching From a Distance", seen the "Closer" and "24 Hour Party People" films, knew the Factory Records story inside and out, and so on.  Hook in fact references those works a number of times.  As such, there are few surprises to be found in "Unknown Pleasures", but it's not meant to be an expose or refutation to what others have written.  Hook's book about New Order, "Substance", is an entirely different style of memoir about a band that we knew surprisingly little about considering their volume of output and the length of their career.  It's much more about setting the record straight.   "Unknown Pleasures" is a mostly lighthearted, often funny read about a band that started from nothing and tried to make it big, and very nearly did. 

There are several pauses in the narrative where Hook weighs on heavier issues and provides commentary with the benefit of more than thirty years of perspective.  This book may finally put an end to the Tony Wilson romanticized version of events, where JD might have become bigger than U2 if not for their doomed prophet Ian Curtis.  In Hook's account, they were all having too good a time and too focused on their music to stop and think about what Curtis was going through.  They were young and hungry and driven and finally tasting success when he died.  If anyone comes out of it looking like the bad guy, it was the doctor(s) (unnamed) who prescribed Curtis' epilepsy medications, which were clearly messing with his body and mind to little medical benefit.  Hook states over and over than what Curtis really needed was to take a long break and rest, but nobody -- including Curtis -- could see that (or admit it to themselves).  According to Hook, nobody wanted to see the band succeed more than Curtis, who habitually insisted he was fine no matter much his health worsened.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Music Sounds Better With You" at 20

Ryan Alexander Diduck examines Stardust's one-off hit for FACT.

It's funny to see which songs from a fairly lackluster year (1998) stand out twenty years later. 

As Diduck notes, it was completely out of step with the electronic music trends of the time.  Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were bridging the gap between rock and techno, making club music palatable for alternative nation fans who wouldn't have gone near the stuff otherwise.  Against that backdrop, Stardust released their unapologetically retro disco track. 

At the time, I didn't really understand if there were artistic undertones I was missing.  Why release something so simple and repetitive?  Why recycle old ideas when the talent involved clearly had the ability to push the boundaries of the music further?  IDM sort of poisoned us into thinking that techno and house had to be complex, thought provoking, worthy of dissection and careful analysis.  But sometimes a fun disco song is meant to be a fun disco song, best heard in a club.  In that sense, "Music Sounds Better With You" had more cultural impact than entire scenes did later on (e.g. electroclash).     

Diduck loses me toward the end of his piece.  Ronald Reagan was a simpleton and was therefore amorphous -- he was whatever voters wanted him to be, which is why he was so popular.  Similarly, the masks and "screens" worn by Stardust in the video allowed you to project your feelings on to them.  Who made the music and appeared in the video?  There were whoever you wanted them to be.  And yet he seems to claim that Reagan's popularity was nothing but cheap hucksterism, whereas Stardust boldly cultivated a sense of community.   Stardust united dance music fans from several otherwise separate spheres (because their song was so damned catchy), whereas Reagan tricked the masses and blurred the lines between parody and reality? 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The McCartney jukebox

The Toronto Star gave a scathing review to Paul McCartney's December 7, 1989 concert at Skydome, part of his 1989-1990 world tour.  The closing line was something along the lines of "McCartney has turned himself into a jukebox, and nobody wants to see that".  It specifically referred to McCartney relying so heavily on Beatles songs to fill out the setlist, something he'd been hesitant to do while leading Wings and in his solo career to that point.

Peter Howell was the Star's rock critic, and he was only expressing what would have been common critical sentiment at the time.  McCartney had been a chart fixture through the mid-80's, but his 1989 album "Flowers in the Dirt" didn't yield any top ten hits.  In terms of pop success, it was the biggest failure of his career, and in fact he'd go thirty years between appearances in the top ten (from "Spies Like Us" in 1985 to "FourFiveSeconds" in 2015, an incredible achievement really and an even better bit of music trivia).  To bounce back from that failure, he turned to a different kind of populism and started trading on past glories more than he ever had before.  To the general critical establishment of the day, it meant he was clearly washed up.  Suddenly the co-lead of the greatest and most influential band of all time was no different that any other oldies act, "reuniting" without most of the original members to make a few bucks off of the wealthy boomers who would pay a premium to hear the same hits from twenty years played over and over.

In McCartney's appearance on the Late Late Show with James Corden, he figuratively becomes the jukebox in a Liverpool pub.  Patrons make requests in the jukebox, and he plays them as part of a cleverly staged "surprise" gig.  The twenty minute "Carpool Karaoke" clip has gone viral with good reason.  In 2018, only the most sour and cynical souls could fail to be moved by Corden talking about his father and grandfather playing "Let It Be" when he was a boy, or Paul playing "When I'm Sixty Four" on the piano in the home he lived in as a teenager, or three generations of fans losing their minds seeing him play down at the local Liverpool pub.

How did this happen?  When did the "authenticity" requirement die off?  As music gradually loses its cultural impact and becomes just another form of streamable entertainment, more of a premium is placed on the undownloadable live experience.  Concert ticket prices have skyrocketed in the last fifteen years, at least in part to make up for lost income from record sales.  More and more people don't want to feel challenged by live music anymore, they simply want to have a good time singing along to the songs they know.  The hugely successful Pixies reunion may have been the official nail in the coffin (even with new post-reunion albums) that made profiteering palatable even to indie fans who grew up on bands who prided themselves on prioritizing their vision over their courting of a mass audience. 

This is much more fun that the older way of doing things.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Joy Division: Old and new

I was watching a live performance of "Unknown Pleasures" played by Deerhoof with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu on vocals and it struck me -- when exactly did interpretations of Joy Division's by newer artists become more interesting than listening to Joy Division themselves?  Don't get me wrong, the original recordings are still unassailable and essential.  But somewhere along the way, the fallout from Joy Division's immense influence on at least two generations of musicians became more exciting than listening to "Closer" for the 10000th time.

Having a small back catalogue has a lot to do with it.  JD only recorded two official albums and about 50 songs in total, and that's including the early Warsaw era songs and demos from the scrapped 1978 debut.  There are only so many times you can comb over the same small pool of recordings before allowing them to breathe and live on via other artists.  Listening to JD lacks new surprises, which happens with plenty of artists whose music I can imagine without needing to play the recordings.  This doesn't always happen with legendary bands who had short careers, for instance, I don't feel the need to hear anyone attempt a Velvet Underground cover ever again.  The Velvets explored more ground creatively, featured a few vocalists with very different styles, and they were further ahead of their time than just about any band ever was.   There's a lot more to chew on.  JD evolved quickly during the short time they had and the future directions were obviously there (e.g. "Heart and Soul", not to mention everything New Order did).  It's past time to hear more bands' take on their material -- aren't JD a bit "under-covered" for a band of their stature anyway?   
Something changed post-Factory when New Order moved to London Records and received the full re-release/re-packaging treatment, finally getting their careers and discographies on a solid financial (and archival) footing.  Fans who grew up idolizing them became music writers, and they went from being indie cult darlings on the level of the Jam to appearing on the shortlists of the best all-time British groups.  Is "Love Will Tear Us Apart" the greatest single ever, as this list from NME from 2002 attests?  Regardless, it would have been inconceivable to see this in a major music publication even ten years earlier.  

That idolization eventually played itself out.  JD worship in 2018 is like Beatles worship in 2008.  It's amazing to think that the Beatles and JD played their last notes together only ten years apart because their music seems like separated by one or two generations.  Even in 2000, when the Beatles' "1" was the top selling album, it felt like everything that needed to be said about them had been said.  We're nearly a decade on from that in the JD timeline, and it's been 23 years since the release of the retrospective compilation, "Permanent".  Is it any wonder that we're all so burned out?

It's possible that I reverse my opinion when I get around to Peter Hook's JD autobiography, which I bought some time ago but haven't yet begun reading ... 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Glenn Branca RIP

Branca was a composer who was singularly of his time, and also of no time.  The rage, grit, and restrained chaos of his early no-wave recording could have only been born out of late 70's New York City.  But the template he mapped out with "The Acension" and his early symphonies were the basis for the next thirty plus years of his career.  These extraordinary recordings have never been duplicated by anyone, probably because his admirers knew better than to foolishly fail in the attempt.  His style truly stood alone.  One can classically train their ear and brain to compose melodies, to imagine how they will sound fully formed before they are written down.  How does one train themselves to hear the sounds that Branca envisioned?  How did he envision in advanc e the dissonance that will be produced by a symphony of 100 guitars?  Branca warned his listeners to play his recordings at full volume to bring out the full range of tones and harmonics.  But this in turn depends on the speakers and the room used for listening.  Could he anticipate how his music would be perceived depending on the habits of the listener, and the quality of their equipment?  I like to imagine that he could.  Branca truly composed sound in a way that nobody ever had, or probably ever will. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Netta wins Eurovision 2018!

Six months ago, Netta Barzilai wasn't even a professional singer.   Now, she's the winner of Eurovision.  How did all that happen?

Netta was the winner of Israel's "Cokhav HaBa" (The Next Star), a reality show with real stakes -- the winner represents Israel each year in Eurovision.  This largely solves two of the most glaring problems with music reality shows.  First, it provides a basic template for the type of contestant the show wants to promote.  "Vote for the Worst" and Taylor Hicks-style TV characters who won't translate to real music consumers are out.  The "it's a singing competition" vs "it's never just about the voice" debate is definitively settled -- stars win at Eurovision, not voices.  Second, not everybody can get signed and be a winner in the long run.  Only one person can win and go to Eurovision.

Netta wasn't lucky to win her spot, her wild interpretations of pop songs were mind blowing for reality TV (check out her Massive Attack meets Bjork version of Haddaway's "What Is Love") and she soundly trounced her competition on Cokhav HaBa.  Was she lucky to win at Eurovision?  I don't think there's any clear formula for winning there.  Sometimes there's a specific thing that the public latches on to, like voting for a trans girl with a beard.  Catchy dance songs usually do well, but so do overwrought ballads, and both did well in last night's final.  Netta thanked the fans for voting different, and she's undoubtedly different from the usual parade of models and dancers performing at Eurovision.  Different sometimes pays off, like with Lordi in 2006, but sometimes it doesn't, like with Hungary last night.  I thought it was easily a top five performance and it was the only metal song in the final, but voters and judges thought otherwise. 

I know that the new voting format is designed for maximum suspense, but it's deus ex machina suspense.  The judges and public are attracted to totally different things, so the drawn out reveal of each country's douze points amounts to basically nothing. 

"Toy" is a massive, inescapable hit in Israel, and not in the patriotic "we have to convince ourselves we like it for a couple of months for Eurovision" sense.  It's played on every radio station, at every wedding and big event, people genuinely do love it and love Netta.  I really had no idea if that would translate out of a single country's bubble, so I was on pins and needles up until the very end of the final.  

Friday, May 11, 2018

Prurient, "Rainbow Mirror"; Autechre, "NTS Sessions 1-4"

Is it safe to say that there are more niche markets in music than ever before?  These two releases are great examples of that.  I read the Pitchfork review of "Rainbow Mirror" and was immediately sold on the album, even though it didn't get a very good review.  The author of the review, Louis Pattison, completely understands his role as the informed party who is preaching to the converted.  His review won't attract new fans to Prurient's music.  He's the conduit who transmits information to existing Prurient fans about the album's background and  a general idea of what is sounds like.  The rating attached to the review is irrelevant.   Their fans need to know that they're getting three hours of live, improvisational Prurient in an old(er) school abrasive noise style.  

I agree completely with Pattison's review.  You can go about your business with this music in the background and it won't demand your concentration.   I largely stopped buying this kind of music years ago because I'd go to the live shows where the sound envelops you from all directions as you sit frozen in silence in some darkened room.  Then I'd buy the CD and it would sound so ordinary outside of that environment.  Still, "Rainbow Mirror" is about the concept of the three hour live behemoth, close listening is probably unnecessary.  "Buddha Strangled in Vines" is the clear highlight though, an 80's proto-everything analog industrial epic, like to Depeche Mode's "Pipeline" meets "The Hills Have Eyes".


The Autechre:unfiltered era is turning into quite the highlight reel.  Continuing where "Elseq 1-5" left off, "NTS Sessions 1-4" features eight hours of wild jams and technological oddities.   Fifteen minute tracks fly by in what seems like five, and the mind-bending repetition that made "Elseq" so hypnotic and addictive is found here in spades.  I found Session 2 to be a bit punchless, but Sessions 1 and 3 were fantastic, and Session 4 features the ridiculously great "all end", a 58-minute sprawl of shimmery ambience that many people are comparing to Gas.  It'll take eons to truly absorb all of this content, but Autechre haven't been this interesting in at least a decade and a half.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Moby, "18", "Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt"

We know that Moby recorded "Play" at his professional and personal nadir, as a self-professed has-been who was planning to get out of the music industry.  "Play" was a pop sensation, moving ten million units and landing in inescapably heavy rotation around the world for three years.  The fact that the album was a bit of a downer (singles included) and contained a few decidedly non-pop instrumental mood pieces didn't affect its monstrous sales numbers or cultural cache. 

Following up a melancholy hit album with an even more melancholy did album can happen.  REM did it with "Automatic for the People", but 1992 and the far more poptimistic 2002 were very different eras.  "18" is a very good album that sticks to the same formula as "Play" -- old blues samples laid over dance beats, piano-field dance-lite pop, and moody downtempo pieces -- but the carbon copy never sells as well as the original, and nobody could have expected that Moby would be a long term A-list pop star.  "Play" was a short lived phenomenon that couldn't be repeated, and on "18", Moby sounds none too thrilled at facing up to the task of trying to recreate the magic.  There are some fantastic tracks here ("We Are All Made of Stars" is an all-time classic) but the sense of nothing-to-lose *fun* that imbibed "Play" tracks like "Honey" and "Bodyrock" is gone.  It's loneliness piled on top of loneliness.  As a pop album with sky-high expectations, it's a miss.  Standing on its own, it's a solid listen and an honest portrait of the artist as an insecure pop star, with a handful of career highlights.

Sixteen years later, Moby clearly has nothing to prove to anyone.  His last few albums were written essentially for his own personal satisfaction because very few people are paying attention anyway.  "Everything Was Beautiful ..." borrows heavily from 90's Portishead and there's not a cheery moment to be found, especially not among song titles like "The Sorrow Tree", "A Dark Cloud is Coming", and "Welcome to Hard Times".  Moby's albums have always been pessimistic about the times we live in ever since the rave days.  Nonetheless, it's an easy listen with many serenely beautiful moments and a few dramatic choruses.   If that's where Moby's head is at, then more power to him.   

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Smashing Pumpkins ILM Poll

It caught me by surprise, but this ended up being the most exhilarating of the never-ending ILM poll threads.  The discussion caught fire during the balloting/campaigning thread, enthusiasm was rampant and contagious, and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of lost SP fandom and going on a bender of their music like I hadn't done in years.  It'll take me eons to unpack all the issues raised, especially since I hadn't thought critically about Smashing Pumpkins in forever. 

They had only one perfect, classic album ("Siamese Dream") and a couple of very good ones with wooly mammoth sized flaws ("Adore", "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness") during their mid-90's peak.  They reached their peak when most other grunge originals (although SP were never really a grunge band) had become irrelevant, which undoubtedly increased their profile as the band standing from the scene .  And yet their seeming longevity was an illusion because only seven years passed between the era of curly haired, feathery vocals Billy Corgan and the croaking, controlling, desperately searching for acceptance Billy Corgan.  Of course both sides of Billy were present during the entire run, but the narrative emphasis slowly switched from when they were up and coming superstars in 1993 to near afterthoughts in 2000.  In the Machina years, even their fans (myself included) felt they had nothing left to give to contemporary music, which was confirmed when they broke up soon afterward.  Their many comebacks and incarnations with a revolving door of new and classic lineup members haven't really changed that -- most of what Billy Corgan says in interviews is viewed as a punchline or as the rantings of a washed up star who still takes himself far, far too seriously.

Even though their albums were generally flawed, the good stuff tended to be really good, which leaves them with a rich and varied discography full of treasures.  "Adore"-era Smashing Pumpkins has always fascinated me.  They ditched the machismo of MCIS for a more tender, mystic version of themselves.  Live shows were eccentric spectacles with multiple drummers that energized the more subdued sounds of the album, and the on stage chemistry between the remaining three band members was never better.  However, said album was at least 40% too long, and the concerts dragged under the weight of the "Adore"-heavy sets, punctuated with epic, meandering medleys and twisted interpretations of their past hits. 

Upon relistening, I developed an appreciation for the Machina albums that I'd never really had.  I've never understood who the audience was supposed to me for these albums.  The hype was all about the Pumpkins becoming a proper rock band again after the interlude that was "Adore", but nu-metal was taking over and it was a terrible time to be releasing a Cure-infused rock album.  They were too soft for the then-typical rock fan, and too esoteric for their lapsed casual 90's fans.  In 2018, the Machina concept with its fusion of goth, glam, and classic alternative rock sounds great.  In 2000, even the Cure were at their lowest point commercially -- caught between their generation defining classic albums and the money printing touring juggernaut they're become since.  There's a lot of proggy nonsense but also plenty of goth-pop gems, particularly on Machina II, and "Stand Inside Your Love" still holds up as one of their very best singles. 

The thread dives deep into countless pressing issues (pinpointing the exact moment when Billy's voice changed from breathy to a strangled gurgle, guitar tabs and piano chord sequences, lyrics about Courtney Love) and it was all great and immensely thought provoking stuff, and I still can't figure out how I really feel about the "Pisces Iscariot" stuff ("Siamese Dream:the fan club outtakes" or a great standalone album that acts as the bulwark before the MCIS excesses set in) and so on and so on ...

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The DAT/pretape show

A few weeks ago, I saw Ivri Lider in concert at a private party held in a club.  Through admittedly limited exposure to his music, he had never made much of an impression on me.  What's more, he comes off as a stuck-in-the-mud blowhard as a judge on X-Factor, with a Simon Cowell-like limited worldview of what can and will sell in the modern world.  It turns out that private party Ivri Lider is nothing like the introspective singer-songwriter Ivri Lider whose songs I'd been hearing up until now.  He transformed all of his songs (even the sensitive ballads like "Zachiti Leehov") into party-starting rave-ups.  Everything got the pseudo-trance remix treatment with Lider as the vocalist/party host, frequently heading into the audience to dance with fans and happily pose for photos and selfies.  It was something I never thought he could pull off, quite frankly.  Even amongst an audience of people from his age bracket (myself included), this type of show could have flopped miserably -- nothing is less cool than a forty-something artist trying to reinvent themselves for a younger audience.  Obviously this was no experiment on Lider's part, for he's clearly polished and perfected his private concert persona, but I personally needed to see it to believe it.  I also could have never believed I'd have so much fun watching it.

All in all, it was either the best or second best DAT/playback concert I've ever seen.  Oh yes, Lider appeared with a guitarist and a DJ/percussionist, and the entire concert save for Lider's vocals, and possibly some sparse bits of guitar and percussion were pre-taped and mimed.  For me, only Moby's set from the See The Lights tour in 1993 comes close.   I don't have a recording of that gig, but here are snippets from New York and Sydney from the same year.  In the New York show, you can see that most of the audience stands around looking puzzled, treating the entire spectacle as a piece of performance art, while the first few rows lose their minds.  When I saw Moby, I was one of those people losing their minds, possibly oblivious to the apathy taking place behind me.  I recall a wild party atmosphere in the entire club, but I was smashed up against the front of the stage, so who knows what I wasn't able to see? 

Those Moby shows don't hold up at all (there are plenty of alternate clips on youtube).  The vocals are terrible, and rave was already out in a big way by 1993.  Moby had been grandfathered in because he had been so instrumental to the scene, but he was swiftly being ushered out.  The speed of his fall was discussed in detail in his autobiography, "Porcelain".  I think that's the lesson of the DAT shows, and the reason why more people don't do them even today -- they're best enjoyed in the moment, with no apologies, and no aspirations for creating a piece of art that will last beyond the moment that the last person files out of the club.  The only thing that's changed in the past quarter century is that now we have the selfies to prove we were there.