Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kanye West, "Stronger"

It's been a while since I had one of those "awestruck by pop music" moments, but a couple of days ago my jaw dropped open when I saw Kanye West's "Stronger" video for the first time. Goth clubs probably wouldn't have the guts to play this song even though the glistening keyboards and industrial-strength backbeat likely smoke just about anything else they'd normally play. I could claim that Kanye has made good on Derrick May's 20-year old futuristic utopian vision of black music (even though he had to sample Daft Punk in order to do it), but that would be going a little bit overboard (and willfully ignoring a bunch of old Wu Tang videos). Let's simplify things: the electrode-plugging, body-scanning stuff just reeks of stale pre-millenial paranoia, but screw it, Daft Punk are IN THE VIDEO, looking like cool as fuck alien svengalis, and are about to make a billion zillion dollars off this song's can't-miss success.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Big Sellers

Articles like this don't appear nearly often enough. With catalog sales accounting for 40% of all physical music sales and 64% of download sales (according to the article), you'd think that there would be a lot more ink devoted to the hows and whys behind this aspect of the music business.

The sizable, year-in and year-out sales of many twenty and thirty year-old albums lends support to my "discount theory" of music sales, that is, the notion that people will gladly pay money for albums if the price is right (as opposed to downloading them for free from file-sharing networks). Classic albums routinely go on the sale racks at large retailers like HMV as part of a "buy three discs for forty bucks" display or some numbers to that effect. It's easy to be cavalier with one's money when you're buying an twenty-year old album that you know will be great, particularly when it costs far less that a new release that you may or may not like now (or twenty years from now!). We're long past the point of baby boomers re-purchasing their old vinyl collections. People making these catalog purchases are 1) buying music that they know very well but never got around to buying, 2) finally checking out an album that they always heard was great but somehow never heard, 3) younger fans who are starting to build their collections or simply want to check out what all the fuss is about with an album that's older than they are, 4) any of the above groups of people who know that twelve or so bucks isn't a lot of money so what the hell, why not spend a bit of cash on some older music, 5) ...

It's a bit bizarre that normally bankable artists like REM and Mariah Carey don't sell many copies of their debut albums. I chalk this up to turnover of their style and fanbases. Most of REM's catalogue sounds a lot different than the music they were making in 1982. The new fans they picked up over the next ten years stuck with their newer sound, and many never looked back to investigate the older one. "Everybody Hurts" and "Losing My Religion" probably get 100 times more plays that "Radio Free Europe" on radio and VH1, so it's not too shocking that the albums containing those songs are the ones that still sell.

Mariah's career pulled an about-face when she split from Tommy Mottola and began making music for kids instead of music for adults. It's little wonder that not many of her fans care to return to the outdated style of her shlocky debut, even if it was a huge seller at the time. This notion is enforced by Mariah's bumpy career path: becoming the biggest-selling female artist ever, followed by the Glitter/psych ward/label-dropping debacle, only to stage a remarkable comeback and become bigger than ever thanks to the top-selling album of 2005. Fans seem eager to forget her past in favour of whatever she's doing at the moment, and in doing so they further distance themselves from the music she made at the beginning of her career.

Although it's worthwhile to wonder why some recent classics sell ("OK Computer", "The Soft Bulletin", Pavement re-releases) while others don't ("Loveless"), there's a much larger elephant in the room: why are AC/DC still shifting so many units? "Back In Black" might be widely known, but it's not the type of album that fans and critics (even those who are strong devotees of classic rock) would regularly rank high on "best ever" lists. And yet somehow, "Back In Black" now finds itself among the top ten best selling albums ever, and much like the similarly eye-popping sales figures for "Eagles Greatest Hits", these numbers really sneaked up on people.

Neither band ever had the Beatles/Stones/Zeppelin honour/stigma of being the "anointed band", and therefore never reached a level of overexposure and oversaturation that those bands did. When I was in high school, those were three bands that were passed down to us from our parents and were anecdotally acknowledged to be part of the musical canon that you simply had to be familiar with. AC/DC didn't have to be the greatest ever, they were simply a very good band that played balls-out rock and roll, which for 99% of the populace is far more important than who was the most influential or most innovative.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Newish albums: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly II

The Bad II: Apparat, "Walls". I don't understand why more producers these days seem to be influenced by Orbital's poppier, later phase (in particular "The Altogether", but perhaps to a greater extent the bright, optimistic bleepiness of "Middle of Nowhere") instead of their mellower, brooding, prog house peak phase ("In Sides", "Snivilisation"'s epic, paranoid world view ... even the Brown Album, although it was banging dancefloor stuff, is half euphoric, half something of a darker mood entirely). Apparat's "Walls" has followed me around for weeks -- on my iPod, various times of the day, as background music for a dinner party -- but for the most part it has failed to make a lasting impression. Its best function was the last of these -- it's a bridesmaid album, always in the background but rarely stands out in the foreground. Once in a while I was caught humming a tune or two, but it was always the grimier, Death In Vegas-y stuff like "Hailin From the Edge" or "Hold On". The more abstract tracks like "Fractales" are engaging and offer new twists with every listen, but for the most part I'm simply not amused by the album's relentless bouncy cheer. Ellen Allien brought some thump to this kind of material on last year's terrific "Orchestra of Bubbles" collab, but once most of the dancefloor elements are removed, my attention span vanishes along with them.

The (very, very) Good: Matthew Dear, "Asa Breed". His earlier vocal effort, "Leave Luck To Heaven", was a great idea in theory but not so much in execution. Vocals meandered on top of a Montreal minimal blueprint, and although the combination seemed fresh at the time, there wasn't any need for these two components to be stapled together. These songs didn't need vocals, they were simply there for the sake of being there, and on virtually every track the beat was the star and would have been improved had the singer simply stepped aside.

"Asa Breed", however, might be the first true minimal pop record. Artists like Luomo have received a lot of credit for bringing pop and soul into a largely stoic, mechanical genre (minimal techno) but Dear actually went out and made what is first and foremost a pop record. It so happens to be chock full of weird, warped, minimal elements. With an uncanny resemblance to late-70's Bowie, Dear's voice intones strange, twisted tales over funky minimal numbers like "Don and Sherri" and "Pom Pom" -- both of them being abrupt, three-minute pop gems. Darker corners and bizarre sounds abound in the album's freer, more experimental tracks ("Midnight Lovers", "Give Me More"), and the druggy blues of "Vine To Vine" finely accentuates the record's dark, cagey perspective.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Newish albums: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Bad I: Ulrich Schnauss, "Goodbye". I used to hyperventilate while reading pre-release hype for the latest guitar-IDM-electronic twee-MBV knockoffs. No really, they said, this is the 21st century successor to "Loveless", this is what it would have sounded like if they'd used keyboards instead of guitars, etc. You get the drill. These days, I don't even flinch. M83's "Run Into Flowers" was probably the closest anyone got to making good on those descriptions, and even they left that sound well behind after their second album.

Schnauss' "A Strangely Isolated Place" was an exercise in electronic lush, which is why I was a bit shocked to catch him live a couple of years ago and discover his keyboard-prog tendencies. Great, here comes ear-splitting keyboard solo chorus #25, sounds a lot like #14 and #23, so let's get on with it. With "Goodbye", all the MBV-ish hype turned out to be something far less grandiose -- he simply went goth. There's absolutely nothing wrong with going goth, but if you've heard nearly any release from Projekt Records in the past 15 years, then you've heard "Goodbye".

Selfish Thoughts

I'm oddly fascinated with the recent war of words between Avril Lavigne vs Chantal Kreviazuk. Part of me would love to see a reprise of the 1995-6 Elastica "Name That Tune" game, with Avril subbing for Justine Frischmann, and part of me thinks about what all the non-Canadians are thinking, namely "who the hell is Chantal Kreviazuk"? Chantal could do worse than plying the route of Controversy Creates Cash, maybe then she'll get a bit more publicity for helping to write other people's songs.

The new Die Hard movie is tremendously entertaining, although once it was over I found myself remembering the original movie more fondly, in lieu of any real yen to see the new one ever again. What's more, the computer hacker hero had an awful taste in music, getting off on goth metal like Evanescence and dissing CCR. This put me in a very unfortunate frame of mind -- wanting to see the fucker get blown up for his shitty taste but resigning myself to the need for tolerating him for the two hours that followed. Now compare this to "War Games", and to a lesser extent, "Hackers". The "Hackers" gang made computer nerdiness seem cool, and the movie had a cool soundtrack to boot. Really, that should have been the last word in movies about evil computer geniuses causing mischief. And let's be serious -- the terrorists in "Die Hard" might have caused havoc on a local level (car crashes, power outages, etc.), but Matthew Broderick nearly started a nuclear war in "War Games". Worldwide nuclear war with everybody dying is a tad more serious than a few traffic jams. Also, IIRC, Broderick's character was big into punk and new wave. A true hero! "War Games" really was the template. Now *that* is what these hacker-action movies need -- a slick late 70's/early 80's soundtrack of new wave, geek rock, electronic pop, and krautrock. I guess we need some Television, probably Devo (I'm not a huge fan of either, but nobody will argue if that stuff is included), Feelies, early Human League, maybe some Japan if some dark/atmospheric moments are required, Cluster during the scenes when somebody is downloading a lot of data and numbers are streaming across the movie screen like in the Matrix, and so on.