Friday, November 17, 2017

There are always amazing things out there you can learn about music: two examples

I had no idea that Phil Collins basically invented the gated drum sound, and with it, the entire damned 1980's.  I can't count the number of times that I heard "In the Air Tonight" but in all those listens, I never once thought of whether I could name an earlier song that used the same drum sounds.  Maybe it's because I never liked the song very much, and never bothered to enter into deep thinking about a song I've long been sick of. But the drums quite obviously are the star of the song.  There aren't any flashy solo parts or even a vocal melody that works outside of the context of the recording.  It's all about paranoia of the first half, and the drums crashing in for the second half.  This was never really the case for any of the countless 80's hits that followed, where the huge, gated drums were buried under maximalist keyboards and FX-laden guitars.

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There's been no more sobering realization of the speed that time flies (musically speaking) than the spate of 10th anniversary tributes to Burial's "Untrue".  Has it really been ten years?  Typing it out does nothing to make it seem less impossible. 

I can't argue with those who have called it the most influential electronic music record of the past decade either.  Nothing sounded like it when it was released, and nothing sounds like it today.  Much like the Caretaker, or the early Aphex Twin records, Burial's style is a lo-fi, reclusive personal studio production that seems like it'd be very easy to copy, and yet nobody has ever managed to do it.

Resident Advisor's digital essay on "Untrue" (a first for them!) dives into the origin of some of ghostly, alien samples on the album, and it turns out that some of them are Beyonce and Usher samples that have been staring me in the face all this time.  I suppose I would have known this if I had listened to a complete Beyonce or Usher album or ever browsed an online thread dedicated to sniffing out Burial's samples.  But I never did, and learning how the sausage got made only makes me appreciate his work even more.  Anyone can be a hero by sampling something that nobody else can find, but a genius takes what's in plain sight and makes art that nobody else thought about doing.   

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gord Downie RIP

Between the "Man Machine Poem" album and tour, his political activism, various public honours, and new solo albums, Downie had been so active over the past 18 months that one could almost forget that his death was going to happen sooner rather than later. 

The Tragically Hip story has been told countless times, and it's always the same: huge in Canada, but never broke through anywhere else.  In Canada, just to be clear, they were as big as a band can possibly be in the music industry.  They sold out arenas and headlined festivals for over two decades.  Almost every one of their albums were certified platinum, and three were certified diamond (the equivalent of selling ten million copies in the US).  Yes, they sang about uniquely Canadian places, people, and events, which may have limited their appear for international audiences.  But for a diverse array of major artists, from British classic rock bands to LA-based rappers, such introspection wasn't a hindrance in their rise to prominence. 

Downie was Michael Stipe's everyman poet mixed with the manic unpredictability of an Iggy Pop.  He was a unique visionary fronting a band of ordinary looking dudes who were content to let him hog the spotlight.  It was not unlike the role that Jarvis Cocker played as the frontman and main creative and lyrical force behind Pulp. 

Tragically Hip were hugely popular but not necessarily influential.  They didn't spawn a slate of copycat bands.  They were a hard working bar band that struck gold, which was improbable even while it was happening.  How do you copy a formula that had already been copied in hundreds of dives across multiple countries?  There's little doubt that Downie was the spark that made them different from all the other bands who never got out of playing a twice weekly residence at a small bar in their hometown.  But now that he's gone, the remaining members can take the Grateful Dead route if they want it, and play "Tragically Hip and Friends" gigs all across Canada for the rest of their working lives.   

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 39

"whatintheworldisthisnoisemix" -- 68 minutes

This mix is totally unlike any of the others I've done.

The backstory: a few months ago, I set about ripping some of my hundreds of CD's that are stored at my parents' house.  These are kept in several large, album cases with the discs and liner notes.

But some discs don't have liner notes.  Perhaps there was a printed back cover of the jewel case that has since been lost.  And some discs have little or no information printed on them, and aren't recognized by CD naming software.  In the years 2003-2006, I bought a lot of noise and experimental music CDs on my many visits to Berlin, but haven't heard some of them since that time, and can't remember anything about them (e.g. artist name, album title, etc.)

That brings us back to the mix ... I don't have a clue what any of this music is.  I have a vague recollection of buying this album (a two CD set with 34 total tracks) but can't remember a things about it besides that.  I haven't the slightest idea who the artist(s) could be.  Perhaps a time track search could turn something up?

I probably never listened to the entire two plus hour collection even when I bought it.  So after quickly skipping through all 34 tracks to categorize them roughly in order of noisiness, I recorded this mix.  One take, no redos, no edits, just instinct. 

Even after distilling this music from 130 minutes down to a little less than 70, it's still a rough, chaotic, disorienting listen.  But I think it's something you can get lost in -- provided you like noise. 

   

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Hit Parade Podcast: the war against the single edition

Chris Molanphy's latest edition of the Hit Parade podcast on Slate is a must for anyone who grew up listening to and buying music in the 90's.  Predictably, I ended up getting lost down the rabbit hole of 90's rock playlist on Youtube in the days after I listened to it.  I've heard more Collective Soul in the past week than I had in the previous ten years. 

I've always appreciated the mix of sentiment and hard data that Molanphy brings to his columns.  He always strives to analyze the social reasons behind what makes a hit into a hit, while supporting his ideas with data from the charts.  In any era, the chart narrative can be far different from the memories of the "people who were there".  That was never more true in the mid to late 1990's, and that's precisely what this podcast is about. 

I didn't know that MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was the genesis of the trend, the "experiment" (as Molanphy termed it several times) that turned into a smashing, absurdly profitable success for Hammer and (later in the decade) dozens of other artists.  This podcast is as good an analysis as you'll find on the subject, but I want to turn over a few more stones:

1) By the end of the 90's, the album had largely supplanted the single.  I felt this wasn't emphasized enough.  The marketing of a hit hadn't changed in decades -- push a song to radio (and later MTV) by any means necessary, drive up demand, and make the product available in stores.  The strategy was identical, but the product was different.  Instead of running to the store to buy the single, you bought the album.  It didn't matter if you were a one hit wonder or a career artist.  The default format -- in fact, the only format in most cases -- you could buy in the store was the CD album. 

This is why so many shitty bands with minor hits earned multiplatinum sales that only the top end superstar acts can rack up these days.  The first act that always comes to mind for me in this respect is Smashmouth. 

2) The airplay charts were a better indicator of the "real" number one song in the country.  But they still don't give us anything close to the real story.  In looking at the list of songs that spent the most time at number one on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, there are a few anomalies.  You have the chart topping mega-smash hits from the first half of the decade ("I Will Always Love You", "One Sweet Day", "The Sign"), and the 21st century "iTunes" era smashes ("We Belong Together", "Uptown Funk", "Shape of You").  The first group were undoubtedly huge sellers (singles and albums), and the Airplay chart clearly corroborates what the sales charts already tell you.  The second group come from the current era when airplay, Youtube views, and streaming is king, again, no surprises here.  The anomalies happened in the intervening years.   

"Don't Speak" was #1 in Airplay for 16 weeks.  Yes, the song and video were everywhere.  This translated into huge album sales, about sixteen million worldwide.  That all makes sense.  But the longest running Airplay hit of all time, a record that has incredibly stood for nearly twenty years, is "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls.  Yes, that song was inescapable in 1998.  But their record breaking success in airplay translated to only four million in album sales.  And it's not like Goo Goo Dolls vanished from the radio after their one huge hit like Los Del Rio did.  They were radio staples for years.  Similarly, take Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", which ruled Airplay for 11 weeks.  Her sales were good (seven million worldwide) but not spectacular for the 1990's.  The hit single was a number one Airplay smash, but the album didn't reach number one anywhere other than her native Australia. 

So for some artists, Airplay was a predictor of strong album sales, as you'd expect.  But for others the connection is far from clear.  The confusion applies in the other direction too, for instance, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" is one of the top selling albums ever, but only "You Learn" (hardly the most popular or well remembered song from the album) topped the Airplay chart. 

Those years from about 1995-1998 are easily the haziest, most impossible to interpret years for hit songs in chart history. 

3) When the "experiment" of not releasing singles in the early 90's started, CD sales were still rather modest.  There was a two year period between vinyl sales collapsing (or rather, being killed off intentionally by the industry) and CD sales exploding where cassettes were the top selling format.  Personal note: I loved cassettes.  I was a very late convert to CD's.  Most of my new album length purchases were on cassette up until the fall of 1994.   Whatever I couldn't get on cassette I bought on vinyl, in particular because a lot of the techno I liked wasn't easily available in any other format.  And the "mix tape" is still one of the most perfect creations ever.  The "mix CD" (unless mixed by a professional dance DJ) was never a thing, and the mp3 playlist holds no sentimental value for anyone whatsoever. 

The master plan of the record companies only went into overdrive once the CD has almost completely ground every other format into dust.  Vinyl is more expensive to produce, slower to manufacture, and more difficult to transport.  Cassettes sold for about the same amount as CD, but had higher profit margins.  However everyone knew it was a buggy format.  The sound was inferior to vinyl, and the tapes could tear or wear out.  CD's were looked upon as magic silver disks with perfect sound forever, which justified the much higher sales price.  It was all bullshit.  It was the cheapest medium to produce (this wasn't well understood in the days before CD read/write drives in every computer) and could be sold at an artificially high price point (despite having inferior sound compared to vinyl) with stratospheric profit margins.  The plan was test driven in the days of the cassette.  Only once the CD was the only medium left standing, could the industry proceed full steam ahead with their "one hit song = $18" plan.  This is why so many years elapsed between the primordial days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, and the full flowering of profitmaking evil days where even nothing artists like Chumbawamba and Marcy Playground could sell millions of albums. 


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Tom Petty RIP

Perhaps more than anyone with his longevity in the music business, Tom Petty got the most out of his talent.  The Heartbreakers started their career in an era of larger than life arena rock bands.  "Larger than life" couldn't possibly be a less fitting description.  Petty was an average looking rocker dude from Florida, who fronted a band of similarly average looking dudes.  You could say the same about Springsteen and the E Street Band, but come on ... they had the Spectorian glamour from day one. They were always a stadium band stuck playing clubs until they got big enough.  The Heartbreakers where straight ahead, nose to the grind, professional rockers.  In another life (say, if Petty had been born fifteen years later), he might have had a career the likes of Jon Spencer -- essentially that of a pub rocker with a strong cult following, who occasionally sniffs major label success via short-lived collaborations with a hip producer, but always ends up retreating back to the underground.  Most musicians would kill to have Jon Spencer's career, but Jon Spencer never played the Superbowl halftime show. 

Forty years ago, could anyone have predicted how Petty's career would turn out?  As the 70's rolled on, he timed his album releases perfectly with the rise of punk.  Petty was rootsy enough to be liked by the classic rock crowd, and no frills enough to be liked by the new wave crowd.  That dual cred was still sustaining him in the early 90's, when the previous generation of 70's and 80's rockers had been cleared out by the younger, filthier grunge and alternative stars, with the exception of Neil Young and Tom Petty. 

At the end of the 80's, he looked out of place as the youngest Travelling Wilbury by far.  Musically, he blended in just fine, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this would mark the beginning of the Stones/Who never ending nostalgia tour phase of his career.  But the next year he released his most successful album, "Full Moon Fever".  And a few years later, Petty's videos were in heavy rotation in MTV and remained so throughout the early and mid 90's, long after many of his earlier contemporaries were no longer considered relevant to the Gen-X and Y crowd. 

Petty had a lot of great songs, but the most special one for me is "Learning To Fly", which essentially kicked off my mini-obsession with "repetitively strummed acoustic guitar" songs such as Kristin Hersh's "Me and My Charms", James' "Laid", and countless others.  Plus it has one of the best "coming of age" lyrics ever written.

   

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Mogwai, "Every Country's Sun"; The National, "Sleep Well Beast"

This post will be more about the stylistic choices made by these bands, rather than focusing on the qualities of the albums themselves.

Each new Mogwai album over the past ten years makes a solid first impression.  But they never seem to grow on me -- each listen brings diminishing returns, and seldom reveal any new, unexpected levels of detail.  A couple of tracks might stand out, but the rest fades into the background, not to be revisited once the next album cycle begins.

I searched my archives and had another look at what I wrote about "The Hawk Is Howling" nine (!!) years ago.   Nothing has changed!  Their albums still fill a "halfway gray area between loud and soft, between epic and succinct, between melodic and freeform".  The ideas and clever melodies are there, but the payoffs aren't.  Mogwai used to be all about building to the climax.

Creatively, I can't think of another formerly great band that's more in need of a complete reset.  I keep coming back to "Rock Action", where every track seemed to announce it's own new microgenre, particularly the guitar noise/industrial slam opening track "Sine Wave". "Zidane -- A 21st Century Portrait" wasn't a classic but it took their music in a more blissed out direction that they had not fully explored to that point, and applied it to soundtracking the high drama of sport.  That fresh approach is what drew me to the album. 

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In contrast, The National's latest album is a grower.  At first I was disappointed at the lack of a standout powerhouse rock track such as "Graceless" from "Trouble Will Find Me".  It's a quieter, more intimate album than its predecessor, with enough soft electronic embellishments to avoid repeating their earlier work, but not nearly enough to signify any kind of stylistic change.  Previously, they would serve up maudlin with a wink and a style, treading that fine line between sad and humorous in a drunken pub rock package in a way that few bands other than Tindersticks have ever been able to master.  Here, there's something more didactic about the lyrics, although I might soften that stance after additional listens.  But "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" (what a title!) and "Day I Die" are tremendous singles, and the tension and urgency that the music needs is maintained from start to finish.  There's a real buzz about an indie rock album made by forty somethings about relationship problems , which is weird and cool and confusing all at the same time.  

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!!).