Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Spector is dead

Spector was a brilliant record producer, perhaps the best ever. His influence is immeasurable.  He was also a spectacular failure as a human being -- and that was before he murdered Lana Clarkson.  

For me personally, Spector indirectly inspired me to start writing about music.  I had thoughts about comparing his productions with the dense, layered guitar music I loved in the 90's.  I picked up a pen (literally, there were no blogs at the time) and the rest is history.   

Rather than size up his complicated legacy (which I've already looked at in other posts over the years), I think I'll shine a light upon CNN's horrible excuse for an obit.  

Starting with the headline: "Grammy-winning producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector dies."  His Grammy win was inconsequential to his career, Phil Spector was not famous for winning Grammys.  It's a small footnote in any proper bio.

"Spector, who was originally from Bronx, New York, produced recordings by stars including The Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Cher and the Ramones".  When George Martin died in 2016, did the obits read "he produced records by Elton John, Neil Sedaka, and Gerry and the Pacemakers"?  

"Creator of a production style that became known as the "Wall of Sound," the influential producer formed the Teddy Bears and recorded the group's only hit, "To Know Him is to Love Him," while he was still in high school."  These are two unrelated factoids linked in the same sentence, not to mention that the implied timeline is reversed.  

"Spector's approach to record production -- the layering of instrumental tracks and percussion that underpinned a string of hits on his Philles label -- was a major influence on popular music in the 1960s."  This is easily the most benign and meaningless description of the Wall of Sound ever written.  There is nothing of substance in this obit, not even the slightest attempt to produce an informative piece of writing, it is clickbait, content for the sake of having content, and nothing more.   

Monday, December 28, 2020

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 45

 New era mix #3, 98 minutes

Originally this mix had a slightly different tracklist and ordering (and was called "new era mix #2"), but I was unhappy with it.  After mapping out the mix a second time I re-recorded it completely.  The style is very similar to the previous podcast, and uses songs from some of the same older-school compilations.  It's a bit longer and more ambitious, I think. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

David Hurwitz

I have never been into video reviews or reviewers, it's a trend that I never became attached to.  It's the end of 2020, the most impossible and backwards year of our lifetimes, and my favourite music channel of the moment is David Hurwitz's on Youtube, it's an absolute treat.

I'm sure there are plenty of classical music reviewers who can communicate in this style, I am surely decades behind whatever the vanguard of classical criticism is these days.  I just love watching a guy who talks about classical music the way my favourite pop and rock critics always did, with pithy and cynical putdowns of conductors and orchestras, cheeky enthusiasm for his faves, and delightful overuse of the word "cosmic" to describe powerful performances.  He mixes a deep knowledge of the music with charismatic humour throughout, and effortlessly succeeds at the single most important task of a critic in any genre -- he makes me want to drop everything and listen to the music he's talking about.

And again I'm no expert, but I strongly disagree with him on the subject of a particular recording I have thought about quite a bit -- Furtwaengler's singular 1942 recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Berlin with many top Nazis in attendance.  Nearly everything Hurwitz says is true -- the recording is poor, and the performance has many noticeable flaws.  Despite this, I still love it, as do many of the people who posted in the comments box.  Hurwitz isn't a perfectionist and is happy to judge a piece more by "feel" if appropriate. He believes that if you strip away the context, it's not a recording that you would ever listen to more than once.  But stripping away the context is impossible.  The Nazis were there and nothing could be more important.  I believe, as many do, that Furtwangler decided to make an emphatic point by presenting the blitzkrieg version of Beethoven's 9th, spitting in the face of the Nazis in attendance, and telling them to shove their war in a manner that very few in Germany could have hoped to get away with while living to tell about it.     

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 44

New Controller, New Era Mix #1, 76 minutes

It hardly needs to be said that 2020 was not a typical year.  I was so out of touch with contemporary music that I won't be publishing a top ten albums of the year lists for the first time since the early 90's.  I simply couldn't follow along with new releases with any enthusiasm this year.  I was continuously updating a list of new albums that caught my interest, but never got around to listening to most of them.  Having said that, Resident Advisor's best albums list overlaps quite well with many of my tastes (KMRU, DJ Python) and provided me with even more album recommendations that I really must listen to.  

Two themes dominated the year for me.  The first was the rekindling of my love for classical music, thanks to Alex Ross' "The Rest Is Noise".  The second was buying my first piece of DJ hardware in nearly twenty years, a Roland DJ-505 Serato controller.  Suddenly I feel like I've been transported out of the DJ'ing stone age and placed in front of a modern hardware/software combo that is indescribably better for translating my ideas into results.  After three months, I still feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of what this equipment can do. 

It's taken longer than I expected to start posting mixes made with the controller, in part due to an ear problem that put me out of action so to speak for a few weeks.  But finally I'm thrilled to post the first mix.  It feels a bit like a work in progress where I'm still finding my way around the controller, but the new era has to start somewhere.   

Saturday, November 28, 2020

V/A, "In a Field of Their Own - Highlights of Glastonbury 1992"

This past week I noticed that I have never written a thing about my #16 album of the 90's .

It's a two plus hours survey of British indie music in 1992 and as expected, there's a mixed bag of gems, nostalgia, and iffy detritus that hasn't stood the test of time.  But with any festival, the ups and downs are part of the experience.  You can't expect to like everything, and the fun is in soaking up the atmosphere, discovering new bands, and confirming why your favourite artists are in fact your favourites.  That was all true when I first heard this album back in the 90's.  As a snapshot of they way things really were in 1992, this album is a priceless artifact that I never get tired of returning to.  

The running order is completely disconnected from the billing, this democratic presentation is a credit to the bands.  To anyone hearing these bands for the first time, as I was in 1992, there is no bias as to which bands you're "supposed" to like, the 2 PM openers who played to a mostly empty field are presented equal to the bands who appeared at night in front of thousands waving flags. For example, you would have no clue, from looking at the track listing, that Carter USM headlined one night and were the biggest act in British indie music that year.  In a strange coincidence, the final track -- an energized Blur playing "Sunday Sunday" to a nonplussed crowd -- is a window into the future, previewing was to come in the mid 90's.  But listening here gives no indication that Blur would become more famous and successful than any five other bands on the album put together, and within two years would banish nearly all them into irrelevance. 

There are two tiers of bands on the album, and the separation between them has become only more pronounced with time.  One minute you're listening to shouty, ramshackle indie punk-rap (Senser) and the next minute Curve descends from the heavens like a bolt of lightning and you wonder why 85% of these bands even bothered showing up.  Later on, it's guitar pop of the most forgettable kind (The Real People) followed by Spiritualized exploding my expectations with a mind-melting 11-minute performance of "Shine A Light/Electric Mainline" and kickstarting my decades long obsession with them.  And yet, nostalgia for this era runs deeper than I thought.  In writing this piece, I discovered that Senseless Things (arguably the most inoffensively mediocre act on the album) reformed in 2016, and  Thousand Yard Stare somehow released an album this year.  

A few more random thoughts:

James' "Mother Gold" is either an unlikely feminist anthem or one of the most inappropriate songs of all time.  Right now I'm betting on the latter.  This song encapsulates exactly why so many journalists found them embarrassing back in the day.

Kitchens of Distinction -- a terrible name for a great band.  

The Orb -- great band, so-so recording of "A Huge Ever Growing ...".  I guess you had to be there.

Flowered Up, "Weekender" -- the 14-minute epic that nobody remembers, playing this song in its entirely at Glastonbury has to be the most 1992 thing on here, with the possible exception of Ned's Atomic Dustbin still being popular.  

Th' Faith Healers, "Reptile Smile".  This recording was my introduction to the band if I'm not mistaken.  A hugely underrated band.  

Midway Still, "Better Than Before".  A killer tune, but the band was swept away by Britpop along with countless other semi-grunge acts.  The landscape was clear for their return by the end of the decade and they've released five (!) albums over the past ten years.    

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Lost in Translation Soundtrack

 I bought this when it came out and it only gets better over time.  I can't remember the last time I watched the movie but can still recall many of the scenes that featured these songs in the movie.  Admittedly I don't watch many movies, but I believe that kind of synergy between (for lack of a better phrase) "pop music" and a major motion picture picture is rare.  Many times I have seen a mega-list of forty songs listed in the movie credits but can't recall hearing most of them.  Songs get played in the background for five seconds during a scene in a club and don't make any impression on me.  "Lost In Translation" rolls out like a dream pop mixtape, perfectly sequenced, capturing a distinct mood and levitating it with perfect stillness for nearly an hour.

But now I'm reading that some people credit the soundtrack for the shoegaze revival.  About five years after its release, MBV got back together and several other first gen shoegaze bands followed.  I would say that shoegaze never really went away.  In fact, 2003-2004 may have been the peak of the "Loveless" cult, where its huge popularity among the new generation of critics finally started to pay off in terms of long overdue recognition in the more mainstream 90's canon.  I wasn't shocked to hear "Sometimes" on a movie soundtrack in 2003, my general reaction was more like "it was only a matter of time".     

Monday, October 26, 2020

Diary of Musical Thoughts Episode 43

"Munich Mix June 2019" -- 61 minutes

I recorded this mix sixteen months ago because I wanted something new to listen to during a trip to Munich.  After returning home, I intended to fix and improve on some parts of the mix, but never did.  I finally revisited the mix after all this time and decided -- after all that waiting -- to simply post it as-is.  

There are a few blips in the middle third and I'm not sure the old school section at the end really fits but this is what we have.

The pandemic has thrown countless people off of their routine.  That is one reason why my podcasts have fallen by the wayside -- a trivial thing of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, but still something I very much enjoy doing.  

I have always said that this blog is about more than writing.  It can cover the full spectrum of whatever I am doing in music.  I recently invested in a new DJ controller, which is my first major music hardware purchase in well over a decade.  I finally decided to step up my game -- and DJing just became a lot more fun.  

This is the most significant (and time consuming) offline music-related activity that I have been doing lately.  I wish I had more time to work on my mixing skills but I do what I can.  It was time to clear out the backlog before I start posting "new era" mixes.  Stay tuned.    

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Autechre, "SIGN"

Discourse among even the most devoted Autechre fans can be distorted and backwards sometimes.  When Autechre's music turns more experimental, abstract, and unconventional, technology becomes a major motivating factor in shaping the band's outlook.  The technology is there, they are the purported experts, and thus they can't help but follow through with pursuing it.  Stretching the capabilities of their equipment becomes an end unto itself, perhaps even the key purpose of making the music to begin with.  The duo become the conduits for developing a process dictated by the machines, and that's why, save for outliers like "Oversteps", they've not made anything similar to their 90's output.  

"SIGN" strongly suggests that Autechre haven't made another "Tri Repetae" because they simply haven't felt like it.  I really enjoyed the unfiltered jams in their past two albums/filedumps, but this is a refreshing about face, taking me back over twenty years to the days when Autechre albums weren't such a challenge to listen to, in one sitting or not.  They have arguably not come this close to anything on the "Anvil Vapre EP ("au14") or LP5 ("si00") or "Amber" (Metaz form 8") since those times. The Slowdive reunion album was the best of its kind because it pulled off the impossible trick of updating their signature poses to make them contemporary again which simultaneously sounding exactly like they always did.  "SIGN" certainly comes close ... and it's not even a reunion album.        

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Rolling Stone 500

 It's a big improvement on their 2003 list (which was slightly updated in 2012), but won't provoke any fewer arguments.  Lists like these mainly exist as content providers for barroom and chatroom arguments for obsessive music fans.  

The 2003/2012 list was hopelessly stuck in an outdated mindset from two generations previous.  23 out of the top 50 were released between 1965-1971.  Nearly all of them were by white male dominated rock bands.  Such a homogeneous canon isn't defensible in 2020 by any means.  The new list has 15 albums from those years, not all of which were in the previous group of 23, and it's a much more diverse group of artists.  

As for the top ten: 

"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill".  This makes absolutely no sense.  We know that both artists/industry types as well as critics voted in this poll, but the scoring and weighting of votes was not revealed, nor were the individual ballots.  And you can't rule out any "editorial decisions" that would favour the optics of certain albums appearing in certain spots in the list, for example, the optics of having a female POC in the top ten of the poll. Would any serious fan or critic claim this as the greatest hip-hop album of all time?

"Blood on the Tracks".  This has emerged as the definitive Dylan album over the past twenty or so years of polls from any number of outlets.  Albums from the sixties were consistently overrated for decades.  Similarly, the seventies were underrated and the pendulum has now fully swung back the other way.  People prefer the more confessional, softer and personal albums of the seventies to their more bombastic counterparts from the sixties.  

"Purple Rain".  This was probably boosted by Prince's passing a few years ago, but who cares?  He was a genius, and how many eighties albums can claim to be more iconic than this? 

"Rumours".  My favourite album in this top ten.  Definitely deserving of its spot.  It jumped from #26 in the 2003 poll.

"Nevermind".  If any decade is underrated now, it's the nineties.  Hip hop is now well represented, but rock, electronic, and a myriad of other genres have been shunted to the far reaches of the list, if they even appear at all.  Nirvana at #6 is a safe and boring pick to represent this part of the decade, as nonchalant a pick as "Exile on Main Street" used to be on similar lists 25 years ago (or even eight years ago -- it was #7 on the last RS poll).  Of note from the nineties: "Loveless" at #73, "Parklife" and "Screamadelica" going back to back at #438 and #437 has got to be a rib on somebody, and stone cold classics from The Magnetic Fields and Yo La Tengo somehow fail to crack the top 400.   

"Abbey Road".  Everyone knows that "Sgt. Pepper's" isn't the best Beatles album in any conversation taking place after 1973 (although RS somehow still thought so in 2012).  So at least that's been fixed.  But who declared "Abbey Road" the best one?  Its reputation has been on the rise, sure enough.  In 2003/2012, it was at #14 -- behind FOUR other Beatles albums.  For me it's still "Revolver" or the White Album.  

"Songs in the Key of Life".  Incredibly, this wasn't even in top 50 in the previous poll (although "Innervisions" was #24.  I think Stevie's AOR run in the eighties undermined his work and made people forget just how edgy and ahead of the times (while being simultaneously of his time) he was in the seventies. It probably goes without saying that race had something to do with that.  White guitarists had their fine reputations frozen from the sixties onwards.  Notbody ever forgot what Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones meant regardless of how much crap they released from 1975-1989.  

"Blue".  This pick might have surprised a lot of people, but in the past decade, it was #2 in RS' 50 greatest albums of all time by women, and #1 in a similar top 150 list by NPR.  I have no issues with this pick.  It's one of the most elegant albums ever made and I find new wondrous things to ponder in its lyrics with every listen.  

"Pet Sounds".  Better than the Beatles -- it's official!  Brian Wilson can finally die happy.  It's now "Pet Sounds" turn to be the sixties album that Everybody Can Agree On.  

"What's Going On".  In much the same way that Springsteen drifts in and out of critical consciousness depending on the politics of the time, we need Marvin Gaye's guidance right now. 

Monday, September 07, 2020

Meat Loaf, "Bat Out of Hell II"

The fifth in a series of albums that I haven't heard in over twenty years ... 

The 90's were unique in that their mythology was often well out of step with the reality, more so I think than any other decade.  Everyone "knows" that the 60's were about Motown, soul, the Beatles and Stones.  And indeed, the charts reflected it.  Prevailing rock mythology hands the end of the decade over to the hippies and psychedelic bands, but the Billboard #1 hits of the time show that novelty songs and one hit wonder bands ("Sugar, Sugar", "In the Year 2525"), as well as jazz and easy listening acts (Hugh Masekela, Herb Alpert, Henry Mancini) were the real winners in those years.  But for the most part, the prevailing rock mythology of the 60's is correct.  

What about the early 90's?  It's true that Nirvana and Pearl Jam sold millions, but Whitney Houston's "The Bodyguard" and Garth Brooks sold millions more.  In 1993, Pearl Jam set a record for first week sales with "Vs", but the biggest rock star in the world was arguably a pudgy forty-something whose hadn't had a hit album since the 70's.  This made no sense even while it was happening, but it did happen.  "Vs" moved more units in the US, but "Bat Out of Hell II" made more of an impact worldwide.  Pearl Jam by that time were refusing to release videos, whereas Meat Loaf had the globe conquering smash hit song and video.  Game, set, and match.   

In a down period for Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf and Jim Steinman strove to out-Boss the Boss and showed there was plenty of life in kitchen sink drama rock even in the cynical, slacker heavy 90's.  "It Just Won't Quit" borrows generously from Bruce's "Atlantic City", a fact that was lost on when this album was released. 

Any discussion of the album's flaws has to start with two things: it's length, and the character of its protagonist.  The original "Bat Out of Hell", released at the peak of the vinyl, FM-rock heavy era, clocks in a standard (for the time) 46 minutes.  "Bat Out of Hell II", released when vinyl was near its lowest ebb and cassettes were rapidly phasing out, took advantage of the added running time of CD and runs for a bloated 76 minutes.  Six of its eleven tracks run for seven minutes or longer.  Listening to it from start to finish is an endurance test, and unlike the original BOOH, these songs aren't multi-part mini-operas like "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" that are constantly shifting and refocusing the listener's attention.  Songs are stretched out via long intros and outros, through multiple repetitions of chantable choruses and inessential fourth and fifth verses.  There are a notable lack of ballads to mix up the tempos, and the rock numbers mostly churn along at the same mid-tempo pace.  It's never boring, it's just overly long and badly in need of a good editor.  

As for the character of Meat Loaf himself, on the first BOOH he was part naive horny teenager, and part motorcycle junkie in a fur lined apartment undergoing sensitivity training.  Who is he supposed to be on BOOH II?  Is "Life Is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back" an attempt to piggyback on 90's slacker culture, or is he an aging rebel revisiting poses from his youth?    Is "Everything Louder Than Everything Else" a rage against the dying embers of rock and roll hedonism, or an anti-war anthem?  Is it trying to be both?  Unfortunately, in trying to modernize the message, many songs come off as cloying and phony.

These are major flaws, and yet in many instances they scarcely matter because of one major ace in the hole:  Meatloaf's impeccable delivery and 100% commitment to his performance.  The full twelve minute version of "I'd Do Anything for Love" might have extraneous bridges and a million forgettable guitar solos, but the intro and outro still give me chills and the quiver in Meatloaf's voice absolutely sells me on the emotion every time.  "Objects in the Rear View Mirror ..." comes closest to the spirit of the original BOOH, a mini-symphony of loss, love, and escape. Next time you're confused about how this stuff managed to co-exist with most of 90's rock, just watch this video back to back with Guns 'N Roses' "November Rain" and you'll understand.