Thursday, February 14, 2019

Kokhav HaBa L'Eurovision 2019

I didn't watch this season of "Kokhav HaBa L'Eurovision" until the finals.  Whereas Netta Barzelai's win last year was a foregone conclusion for much of the season (but was still very entertaining to watch), this year's competition was very much up for grabs and was filled with twists and turns right up until the finish.  It also featured arguably the most unique collection of talent ever in the final of a music-themed reality show.

Maya Buskila was one of the most popular singers in Israel about fifteen years ago.  In a reality show landscape usually populated by amateur hopefuls with dreams of stardom, this was something entirely different: a former star and gossip column regular looking for her last shot at international superstardom.  Imagine a Jessica Simpson auditioning for The Voice in the US and somehow advancing all the way to the end. 

Buskila made a horrible song choice in the final -- she chose Loreen's "Euphoria", which was the winning song for Eurovision 2012 and subsequently a massive hit all over Europe.  It's a variation of the Whitney-Mariah reality show rule that I always used to talk about in my posts on American Idol.  That is, never sing something that puts you up against an impossible standard.   She finished in fourth place.

Shefita was a subject of controversy all season long.  She had spent years carefully honing her act in Tel Aviv clubs, and had something of a cult following through her Youtube videos.  You see, Shefita isn't a real person, she's a character played by the classically trained musician Rotem Shefi.  She plays a comically exaggerated, yet endearing version of an Arab diva, complete with audacious outfits and a personalized sparkly microphone.  Much like Sasha Baron Cohen took impersonations to another level by completely dedicating himself to the role, Shefi has completely immersed herself in all things Shefita and NEVER BREAKS CHARACTER.   She finished in third place, after being on the bubble multiple times throughout the season and finding a way to survive every time (i.e. the producers couldn't stand to see her go home). 

Katria Pouch is a Sudanese immigrant who cruised to the finals (save a small blip in the semifinals) on the strength of her dynamic, almost Tina Turner-like performances.  She also courted some controversy by finding a way to get accepted onto two reality shows at the same time, which she chalked up to "gathering experiences".  She is unquestionably great, but there is something missing in her act that's hard to put a finger on.  Many seasons of American Idol had an R&B diva type who would reach the top four and then hit a brick wall.  They were brilliant singers, and therefore good enough to avoid getting voted off, but once it was down to the last few competitors, they didn't seem special because they rarely strayed from the standard diva template of the time.

The winner was Kobi Marimi, who was actually voted off before the semi-finals and brought back as a wild card re-entrant.  He has a special on-stage charisma and is a hybrid of Freddie Mercury and Andrea Bocelli.  They'll stick him with a patented Eurovision-style power ballad for the competition.  It's a smart marketing move because nobody's going to out-Netta Netta, so it's better to do a stylistic 180 away from dance pop and choose a singer and song that's completely different from last year in every way.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The rate of change

Most of this post will be a series of unanswered questions.  

Is the rate of change of music slowing down?  Are new innovations and the emergence of new genres happening less frequently?  Or do I just perceive the evolution of music differently?  After all, time passes faster and faster the older you get.  

Let's pick a couple of representative years.   When I think about how much the landscape of music changed between 1984 and 1994, it's astonishing.  Techno changed insurmountably during that time.  Hip hop matured greatly.  Commercial rock was dominated by glossy reverb-laden synth music with a backbeat, whereas ten years later it was all about grunge and indie genres bubbling into the mainstream.   

How much did music change between 2008 and 2018?  I'm talking once again about the sound and style of music, not the business side that is always rapidly evolving. My own albums of the year lists hardly suggest a sea change in tastes.  Disappointingly perhaps, I still listen to mostly the same genres now that I did ten years ago, although those genres themselves certainly have evolved.

Have my own tastes stagnated, thereby warping my outside view?  That must be part of it.  However, with streaming and downloading being easier and cheaper than ever, there are fewer barriers to discovering and generally getting lost in older music.  If it's "new" to you, isn't that enough to satisfy your need for hearing something you've never heard before.  And obviously the ratio of catalogued music to newly released music will only continue to grow.  

The collapse and merger of the major record companies has led to more homogeneity in the charts, and far fewer long term investment artists getting their shot at reaching a wider audience.  Artists don't hang around on major labels anymore for ten years unless they have a massive hit record, so either you're in the millionaires club with 100M+ hits on youtube whenever you drop a single, or you're a niche artist.  

On one hand, we live in an era dominated by superproducers who dictate the stylistic norms of the pop charts moreso than at any time since the 1960's.  Creatively, they are more of a force in pop music than the artists they ostensibly work for.  They import sounds from the underground and mold them into major pop hits, giving us combinations like Katy Perry + trap and Drake + bounce that would have been nearly unthinkable not long before they actually recorded them.  But on the other hand, with so few major pop artists, and therefore relatively few leading producers, once somebody has a breakthrough hit it gets copied a million times over and rapidly falls out of fashion again.   

I'm actually willing to bet I'm wrong about this.  I'm probably too immersed in catching up with my own back catalog these days. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Top 10 albums of 2018

This was a sneaky great year for music, in that I didn't truly appreciate the amount of great stuff that was released this year until I sat down to process it as a whole.  And that's why I continue to make lists (and read year-end pieces) despite all the changes in how I discover, acquire, and listen to new music.  December really is the best month of the year to be a music fan.

I've become so disconnected from the mainstream music press that perhaps it's not a surprise that this list contains so many acts that I've been familiar with for years.  But most of them released their best work in eons, even though I'd assumed that their prime years were long since over. 

Honourable mentions:

Not necessarily #12 and #11 on my list, but in the spirit of old faves making new music, I wanted to write something about these two albums:

Woob, 新 プログラム, Time Limited

After a quiet couple of decades, Woob returned out of the blue and became a prolific artist, with upwards of ten albums released over the past several years.  Most of what I've heard is standard Buddha lounge fare that can't touch his still classic 90's albums.  But this one comes closest to capturing the old Woob formula of bizarre field recordings, blunted beats, and icy cold extended ambient passages.   

Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt, Bella Union

Despite what Jason has alluded to in interviews, I don't believe this is the final SPZ album, but it does come off like a long slow goodbye.  The transformation from space rock outfit to full fledged gospel wannabes is complete.  Everything here is solidly hummable, but it's the lack of a truly classic song to rank along the best of their 28-year career that keeps the album from reaching another level.

10.  Animal Collective, Tangerine Reef, Domino

The reviews for this album were mostly negative, in part because AC have steadfastly refused to make "MPP II" for nearly a decade.  Is there really such a demand for more bouncy, reverb-filled pop with intelligible vocals from AC?  Be careful what you wish for -- listening to "FloriDada" on a loop for one hour might sober you up.  I loved how "Tangerine Reef" brought the mystery back to Animal Collective, recalling the days when they'd appear on stage wearing masks playing weirded out improvisations.

9. The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 5, History Always Favours the Winners

Less abrasive than Stage 4, but arguably more terrifying.  Once all traces of the original music become completely smoothed out by noise, the inevitably frigid end of this series starts coming into view for the first time. 

 8.  Abul Mogard, Above All Dreams, Ecstatic

This year I suddenly became overwhelmed by the amount of great ambient music out there, largely due to sites like Mixcloud.  Abul Mogard relies largely on elements from analog masters (Tangerine Dream, Steve Roach) to create maximalist, yet billowy atmospheres that can leave you in a daze for hours.

7.  Gas, Rausch, Kompakt

Last year's comeback album "Narkopop" has some awe-inspiring textures but ultimately wasn't epic enough.  A great Gas album is more than lo-fi minimal isolationist disco with photos of dense forests.  The music should be smoky, blunt, and entirely overwhelming, with recurring themes a must.  "Rausch" delivers all that in spades.  The bass!

6.  No Age, Snares Like a Haircut, Drag City

Taking a step back from the more experimental, less rock "An Object", No Age returned after a five year absence with another great album.  It finds a balance between their more boisterous albums of a decade ago, and the abstract anti-rock of "An Object" (which has grown on me a lot over the past couple of years). 

5.  Autechre, NTS Sessions, Warp Records

There is plenty both wrong and right about Autechre's latest gargantuan filedump.  With so much material, there are bound to be some misses, and even the best stuff on "NTS Sessions" can be difficult to digest for durations longer than one hour.  Autechre started their career at a time when every IDM album had roughly the same format -- a double album of roughly 70-75 minutes running times, with most tracks falling neatly into the six to seven minute range.  None of their contemporaries have done more to take advantage of digital formats and destroy that antiquated album formula.  Seven hours of material?  Nobody buys CDs anymore, so who cares how long the album is?  Almost no tracks under ten minutes?  Without LP side/CD length to worry about, every track can be as minimalist or as maximalist as they want it to be, with no self-filtering, and editing only optional. 

4.  Anna von Hauswolff, Dead Magic, City Slang

This feels like the first fully realized Anna von Hauswolff album.  It goes far beyond the gimmicky marketing points of previous albums ("she plays a really huge church organ!") and combines her distinctive vocals and playing with the epic grandeur of black metal.

3.  Beach House, 7, Sub Pop

There are countless Sonic Boom-styled details imprinted on this album that I can't unhear now that I've become completely attuned to them.  On one hand, "Dive" is one of the best two or three songs on "7", but on the other hand, you could slot it midway through side one of the worst Spacemen 3 album (i.e."Recurring").  Can this really be an upgrade in studio composition and technique for Beach House if they're churning out content for the contractually obligated final album of a past their prime, unmotivated Spacemen 3? 

2.  Ancient Methods, The Jericho Sessions, Ancient Methods

It's no secret that Ancient Methods have been one of my favourite techno acts for years. AM's Michael Wollenhaupt might claim that it took ten years to make his debut album because he simply didn't get around to it, but after more than a dozen stellar EP's, he must know that it's still the ideal format for his work.  Crush the listener with heavy beats for twenty minutes or so, go hard, and get out.  However, when I think about my hopes and expectations for a full Ancient Methods album, "The Jericho Methods" delivers exactly what I'd envisioned.  The album format allows him to explore some ambient and experimental textures, but the focus is squarely on AM's signature hard techno style.  It features a number of tasty collaborations (Orphx, Regis, Prurient), which are the calls you make when you need to pull out all the stops on your debut album.

1.  Low, Double Negative, Sub Pop

If there was any band that could be fully at peace with themselves despite falling into a comfortable creative rut, it was Low.  That's not to say that they never deviate from their signature style, their catalogue is scattered with many examples where they dabbled in electronica or cranked up the noise.  But twelve albums into their career, I expected that Low would be content to tour forever on the back of pleasant yet benign new records.  The kinds of records that get middling grades from music publications because they're always solid enough to keep up the legacy of the band, but never good enough to be memorable except among hardcore fans.

"Double Negative" took a sledgehammer to all these expectations.  Even after reading the online reactions of many fans, most of whom were struggling to pick their jaws up off the floor and properly describe what they were hearing, I was unprepared for the total deconstruction all my associations with Low and their music.  Andy Stott wandering through a depressed, harmony-laden haze?  Bursts of static pulsing along to pitched down vocals filtered through one of William Basinski's tape-eating machines?   No description could properly do it justice.  But to borrow from the most common online sentiments -- who does this twelve albums into their career?  Who has the guts, the ambition, and the vision to pull this off?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Pete Shelley RIP

For years, the sum total of my knowledge of Pete Shelley was the video for his 1981 non-hit "Homosapien".  I still love everything about that song.  Years before the likes of New Order perfected their formula, Shelley fused rock, electro, and disco into a coherent whole that still sounds ahead of its time.  The video had a hazy, artsy "Ashes to Ashes" type of feel but Shelley was this relatable geeky character as opposed to Bowie's air of impegnability. 

Years later, I learned that the Buzzcocks were the punk icons who gave Joy Division a big break by inviting them on tour.  But I didn't start listening to their music until years after that.  Welcome to the filesharing era, and my dl'ed copy of "Singles Going Steady". 

The story of punk that I knew had always drawn a line from reggae as the music of rebellion straight through to Sex Pistols and the Clash working to smash the system.  Even though the Ramones were in plain view as punk (and alternative) heroes, the idea of punk as fun, bouncy rock and roll was overlooked, and to some extent still is.  Punk could be an outlet for teen angst, a safe haven for complaining about boredom or bad habits or getting dumped.  Buzzcocks helped teach me that. 

I was lucky enough to see them live twice, post-reunion in 2006 and 2011.  And more recently, I learned even more about what a generous soul Pete Shelley was from reading Peter Hook's Joy Division bio.  Buzzcocks were elder statesmen (despite being in their early 20's themselves) to virtually every young, hungry band in Manchester at the time, and went out of their way to mentor young musicians and help grow the scene.  

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 40

"November 2018 techno comeback", 59 minutes

My first mix in over a year.  A comeback of sorts for the long dormant podcast.  And dare I say it, this mix is a banger.  Simple but effective, featuring many of my techno favourites of 2018.

"A Star Is Born", dir. Bradley Cooper

There are plenty of things to appreciate about this movie (the always great Cooper, riveting stage scenes, at least two thirds of the music) and plenty of negatives (the horrible miscasting of Dave Chappelle, the completely one dimensional sleazy manager albeit played to maximum effect by Rafi Gavron).  But the movie ultimately fails due to two, huge reasons that completely blocked me from suspending my disbelief:

1) Bradley Cooper is completely convincing as a broken down, insecure, drunk and drug addict.  However, I couldn't buy him for one minute as one of the world's most famous rock stars, not when his act amounts to (at best) a cowboy-fied version of Dave Matthews. 

2) Lady Gaga had zero "it factor" as a genre-transcending pop star.  Think about that for a second.  They cast Lady Gaga in a film as a working class songwriter who turned to the pop side and became a huge star but stripped away all the intangibles that mirrored her real life rise to superstardom.  I could practically hear Simon Cowell saying "I've always said that it's not just about the voice" as a voiceover during half  of her scenes.  

Her character could have fully embraced pop music and foresaken the rootsy blues and country style of her husband, which would have led to friction between them and all the necessary plot points.  But I can understand the decision to feature Lady Gaga unplugged and nearly free of makeup, in which case her character could have gone full blown Adele.  That's who she is by the end of the movie anyhow, singing eye-rolling sub-Diane Warren love songs at Kennedy Center style galas.  Instead, the movie tried to split the difference and I found myself constantly asking myself "why is she a Grammy-winning singer"?     

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 5"

The fifth installment in the series assumes the same basic format as the fourth, with four long (20+ minutes) tracks of blended noise posing as garbled memories.  Stage 5 is less abrasive than Stage 4 and at times makes for a pleasant, even blissful listen.  Stage 4 was more "noisy" because stabs of melody would constantly pop in and out for fractions of a second, as the brain ceaselessly tried to jumpstart the re-formation of coherent memories.  In Stage 5, at this point in the deterioration into an increasingly formless dementia, the mind is too weak to fight the condition.  The songs that formed the basis of Stages 1-3 are only discernible if a person of sound and astute mind makes the point of trying to listen for them. 

However, once the brain admits that the fight is lost, there are extended periods of peaceful contentedness.  By the end of Stage 5, it would appear that the next step could only be a formless swirl of dark, isolationist noise.  But I have a strong feeling that I'm going to be surprised.   

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Kim Gordon, "Girl In a Band"

Kim Gordon is a private person by her own admission, often shy and introverted, a reluctant star for an industry that sought a marketable personality for her band Sonic Youth.  Reading about her LA upbringing, as the child of academics, brutally teased by her schizophrenic brother, was the most engrossing part of her memoir.

Those looking for blow by blow accounts of Sonic Youth's rise to the top of the 80's and 90's alternative pile, or even for wistful philosophizing about how and why they made such an impact, will be sorely disappointed.  It seems that a major motivation for writing the book is to show that her life has been far more than just being one half of the power couple behind Sonic Youth.  However, this leads to the book becoming a bit too insider-y into goings on in the arts world.  It may not be an exaggeration to state that fans of fine art will get more out of reading the book than music fans will.

I've thought a lot about Sonic Youth's near-breakthrough.  "Kool Thing" is one of the most perfect songs ever written. For a band debuting on a major label and looking to make a splash, courting new fans while maintaining all the elements that made them legends to existing hardcore fans, "Kool Thing" could not have achieved their goals any better.  It had all the elements for getting played on the radio and MTV -- a slick, yet lo-fi video that maintained all their underground cred, a brilliant guest spot from Chuck D, an air of dissonance and danger that absolutely screams "soundtrack to the counterculture", and a brilliant, endlessly repeatable chorus.

The third single from the album, "Dirty Boots", tries to be "Smells Like Teen Spirit" before "Smells Like Teen Spirit", or at least, its video does.  It features kids moshing to the band in a cramped club, audience crushes on the band, and twee crushes been slackers in the audience.  It might have been appropriate for second gen faux grunge nerds like Weezer, but it couldn't possibly have been less fitting for Sonic Youth.  Eventually SY would have modest commercial success working with Butch Vig, who famously produced "Nevermind".  But it was their least interesting period creatively, and Gordon has very little to say about their music during these years (but has many interesting personal memories of Nirvana).

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Slash: The Autobiography

I bought the e-reader version of this book and it was so cheap that I wasn't expecting much beyond endless tales of mindless debauchery in order to get my money's worth.  This book delivered the excess in spades, but wasn't the superficial read I was expecting.  It's a moderately heavy book (160K words -- hardly a quickie, grade school level read that you'll plow through in a day, like certain other cash grab memoirs are) and contains quite a bit of depth.  For instance, the years in LA leading up to Slash joining GNR are recalled in fascinatingly vivid detail.  The writing (and/or ghostwriting) is superb, Slash's writing persona comes off as affable and highly believable. 

In fact, Slash's life up to the recording of "Appetite for Destruction" takes up well over half the book.  The idea that the journey to become famous is more interesting that actually being famous (and more enjoyable for the protagonist, both at the time it happened and in the present day) is a notion that rings loud and clear.  Once GNR take off, most of the characters practically disappear from the story.  There's a good deal of philosophizing about the Axl Rose that he knew pre-1987 (they even lived together for a short while) but after that, almost nothing.  Like many wildly successful groups do, GNR split into separate camps and Axl become a side plot, a person who turns up on stage (most of the time) but is otherwise a shadow character who only exists via his managers and lawyers who act as his conduit.  This is really a book and Slash and Slash only.  Anyone looking for insight on what the other main players in the GNR story were "really" like at the height of their fame will find almost nothing to chew on.  Thus, the second half of the book is far less interesting than the first half.  Being the biggest band in the world was a succession of gigs and bottomless alcohol and drug binges, but by that point those stories have mostly lost their sordid power. 

After reading this, I'm even more baffled at how GNR became the biggest rock band in the world for a few years.  There was no grand plan to flip the music industry on its head and expel the multitude of wimpy 80's "rockers".  They weren't following existing trends, there was nothing like "Welcome to the Jungle" on the pop charts in 1988, but the public somehow managed to buy into what they were doing.  It may be a cliche, but at its heart, beyond all the drugs and parties, it's a story about never compromising and believing in the artistic merit of what you're doing.  Slash emphasizes it repeatedly as GNR are getting rolling, but the message may be drowned out by all the tabloid-ready stories throughout the book. 

One final note -- this was published in 2008, i.e. years before the GNR reunion tour.  Toward the end of the book, there's no inkling of any reconciliation taking place in just a few short years. Could there be an updated and expanded edition at some point?   

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 4"

The first three installments in the series chronicle a slow descent into the clutches of dementia, with an emphasis on slow and barely discernible.  Melodies, used as a stand-in for memories, were blanketed by the persistent crackle of a scratched record, with gentle shifts in their intonation and overall clarity.  But the fourth installment takes an abrupt turn toward noise and chaos.  "Post Awareness Confusions" is the title shared by three of the four tracks (each running over twenty minutes) and essentially sums up the current diagnosis.  The patient took a sudden turn for the worse since the end of Stage 3 and their personality became unidentifiable seemingly overnight.  Snippets of the old melodies can be picked out here and there, but anything approaching a recognizable tune has vanished completely.  You can't even characterize it as sad, there's simply no trace of the human being who was once there. 

The first half of the album is a trying listen, which is certainly the intention.   The sudden transition between Stage 3 and 4 feels like cheating the concept of the series a bit -- without knowing exactly how to proceed, The Caretaker launched into noise for noise's sake.    The beauty in The Caretaker's music was always in the subtle details, which are now obscured by the change to a more generic noise-based sound.  But the second half of the album is far more alluring.  "Temporary Bliss State" offers nothing in the way of coherent thoughts -- it's not a reprieve where a few memories come back into focus -- but does settle the torment of the previous forty odd minutes. 

As a state of mind, Stage 4 it undoubtedly succeeds, but as an album you'll want to hear regularly, less so.  But like so much experimental and noise music, to enter that state of mind, you'll need to subject yourself to nearly the entire thing.