Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Daft Punk, "Alive 2007". Daft Punk decided to release "Live 2007" on its own as an audio recording, sans DVD. They claim that hours and hours of "in the moment" youtube clips capture the craziness, excitement, and overload of the visual cortex better than any DVD ever could. I suppose there's something honourable about being satisfied by the DIY approach to concert archiving, and of course, the finest DVD can't recreate the feeling of "actually being there" for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has ever attended a concert. I'm not saying that standing in a crush of human flesh at a concert and trying to peer over the shoulders of the stoned assholes who just butted in front of you and trying to avoid any and all contact with a sweaty dancing guy whose flailing arms are coming precipitously close to your face is always a better experience than sitting at home with a DVD in front of an inferior set of speakers. They are *different* experiences.

If any band's tour deserves preservation on a DVD, I would think it would be Daft Punk's. A DVD won't capture everything, but whatever it does contain should appear in brighter colours and more pristine sounds than the average person's memory will allow. For sheer variety, there's always youtube, for the best quality, there's a DVD. This is obvious, right? It should be obvious as long as people continue to pay for their favourite movies instead of taping them off of TV or being content with videotaped versions. As far as visual quality goes, Daft Punk's live show was one of the most astonishing assault on the eyes of any major tour in recent memory.

I became quickly addicted to live Daft Punk youtube clips in the wake of their massively successful coming-out party at Coachella 2006, and worked hard to track down a good-sounding audio recording of the complete show. But in hearing the audio alone, I found much of the magic had vanished. The breathless "Close Encounters"/"Robot Rock" anticipation in the intro, the roar of physical energy from the crowd as "One More Time" kicked in, the seizure-inducing light-show beatdown during "Human After All" -- all of it, gone. The audio by itself is a bit of a bore. It explains why the same people who found "Human After All" (the album) boring and monotonous started lining up to praise those same songs when they were presented as part of the live show. Hearing "Live 2007" only makes me want to head to youtube to check out the *real* show. And if the real show -- even by the band's own admittance -- is best enjoyed as a series of one-to-four minute clips as recorded on somebody's cell phone, then why does "Live 2007" even exist?

Jah Cure, "True Reflections ... A New Beginning". I suppose one can claim that R. Kelly is the American Jah Cure. A presumably career-ending child pornography charge did virtually nothing to derail R. Kelly's career either creatively or commercially. If anything, his notoriety combined with the increased quality (and quantity!) of his musical output has made him more successful than ever, even with his constant and ongoing legal troubles. Jah Cure's folk hero status in Jamaica increased while he served eight years in prison for rape, robbery, and gun possession, partly thanks to three well-received albums that were all released while he was behind bars.

In complete opposition to the thug persona that casual observers might apply to them, both men are softies on record. R. Kelly croons about the pleasures of sex, love, sex, and sex. Jah Cure pleads for peace and justice with an aching, soulful, fragile voice that weakens the knees. Both have always claimed innocence from the legal charges leveled against them.

The music on "True Reflections ...", which was released mere days after his release from prison this summer, brings Jah Cure closer to R. Kelly both in style and spirit. It's "Jah Cure -- the Love Album", and it's gentility showcases his voice more prominently than anything he's done previously. For a man who usually has weighty issues on his mind (the struggles in his personal life and the social justice issues that have always troubled him) Jah Cure, to me, always seems like a man who is very much at peace with himself and with the world. He doesn't spit vinegar and black ink, rather, he uses his soul-bearing honesty to plead for improvement in the world around him, not unlike a preacher. That said, "True Reflections" certainly sounds like the work of a person who has had a burden lifted from his shoulders, at least in comparison to his earlier work. However, it's not always for the best. Much of the album comes off as flaccid and mushy compared to the edgier beats and sharper vocals of his previous album, "Freedom Blues". He's aiming for a smoother style that edges closer to American R&B than Jamaican reggae, and it's not hard to imagine a handful of "True Reflections" tracks sounding at home on American urban radio playlists. Jah Cure is an enormously gifted vocalist, to the extent that there's really no such thing as a bad Jah Cure record, but I was hoping for something with a bit more bite.

Animal Collective, "Chores". Not their mis-step, but mine. I finally "get" this song after two years of scratching my head whenever I heard it during live recordings and on "Strawberry Jam". The turning point came courtesy of the versions Panda Bear played during his solo shows this year, where he skips Part One: Crazy Yelling and Part Three: Ambient Noodling/Segue Into Next Track on the Set List and churns out the entire song in the style of Part Two: Gauze-y Haze Held In Endlessly Suspended Fog. It's easy to get distracted by all the yelping and cymbal smashing that Animal Collective are so fond of, and miss out on the blissful moments like these. That's probably why I kept overlooking "Flesh Canoe" from "Feels", until finally coming around thanks, again, to some fantastic live versions.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pitchfork brings the snark

Just reporting the news isn't enough anymore, you have to be sure to crack jokes as well.

Since Idolator came on the scene one year ago, it feels as though sites like Pitchfork have stepped up their efforts to deliver more News With Attitude to you, the venerable indie consumer. This may very well be an inaccurate characterization of both Idolator and Pitchfork, because I will readily admit that I haven't always checked them too faithfully (this has recently changed now that I have entered the 21st century and discovered the magic of RSS readers). This "trend" certainly didn't start with those two sites, and maybe it isn't linked to the rise of the Gawker/Deadspin/BoingBoing-type sites (i.e. we're not reporting the news, we're just organizing links to the people who do all the actual work in gathering and reporting the news. Then we're gonna tell you why those people suck, or why the stuff they're reporting sucks) although I certainly feel that it is. Pitchfork overhauled their news section a couple of years ago, putting news, features, and interview coverage on equal footing with their review section, which involved drastically increasing their volume of stories and the word count contained in each item. More content equals more choice, sez I, thereby giving me a new reason to keep up with the site. That doesn't mean that the overall product is any better though. Pitchfork is a utility rather than a source of entertainment. I read and watch CNN but I don't particularly enjoy anything they do, but it is a convenient outlet for news and is better than a lot of alternatives (damning through faint praise, etc.). I don't like most of the writing on Pitchfork, but it's a nice place to stop for keeping up with news and new releases. Sometimes I even want to know what they think about an album, or whether they can keep up their 5-year streak of always giving 7.1/10 to any indie band releasing their fourth album or beyond (regardless of what they once thought of said band).

Idolator is clearly a cut above Pitchfork in the news department, and the reasons why are absurdly simple. 1. They have excellent writers. 2. Their writers are funny. Pitchfork news writers rarely pass up an opportunity to act like assholes if the situation presents itself. Rather than putting the news over, they're trying to get themselves over. Jess Harvell might scoff at the "publicity" over the fake Fergie sex tape, but when I walk away from the computer I'm more likely to think about Fergie than I would have just five minutes earlier. I'm not thinking "wow, Jess really showed them by getting in that awesome zing".

Pitchfork recently showed their mettle in this interview with Jonsi from Sigur Ros. Excerpt:

Pitchfork: Certainly you've seen many beautiful locations all over the world, but you chose to shoot all of Heima in Iceland. Other than the fact that you're from there, is there something about Iceland that ties in with the music that you make?

Birgisson: We have got this question so many times-- it's just one of the questions on the hate list [laughs].Maybe it is. Maybe, I don't know. Of course, like you said, you are from there, you grow up there, you are raised there, so definitely I think in some ways. Maybe it's just more unconsciously than something planned. It's kind of hard to say, but I think definitely we'd make different music probably if we grew up in Jamaica or something [laughs].

Paul Thompson, who conducted the interview, makes sure to intro his piece by painting Jonsi as a snob who dared scoff at some of his questions. Let's see ... the album is called "Home", the music is featured on a DVD that was filmed in intimate locations all over Iceland, hmmm ... could their native land be tied in with the music that the band makes? REALLY, COULD IT BE??? Naturally, the "Jamaica" line was used as the byline, because gay white dudes from Iceland talking about Jamaica is supposed to be funny, I guess. "The interview you thought you'd never hear -- Jonsi namedrops Jamaica, today on Pitchfork!" Plus, newsflash: build a time machine, take band X out of country A and have them grow up in country B instead. Voila, the music sounds different, what a shock. Jonsi had to morph into Captain Obvious to tell Thompson some basic axioms about music that he is apparently too dumb to know about, only for Thompson to turn his line against him in an attempt to pull off a high-larious tagline zing. At least he can take solace in knowing that plenty of other music hacks were stupid enough to ask the same question, leading to that question's one-way trip to Sigur Ros' shitlist.

Even though it appears that the interview ended abruptly due to tight scheduling, I'd like to think that Jonsi had become fed up with the ridiculousness of the interview and finally hung up. "Do you feel much pressure as a band to sort of continue to evolve or change?" Is there anything other than a "yes" answer to that question? Seriously, is anyone going to answer "no, we prefer to do the exact same shit year in and year out" except for possibly KISS? How hard is it to do a tiny bit of research about a band and to think up some non-trivial questions with non-trivial answers? This is the same website that meticulously pieced together sections of the new Radiohead album entirely from youtube links, so we know that they are capable of putting in a couple hours of work on occasion.

They don't deserve Philip Sherburne's columns, they really don't.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless", by Mike McGonigal

How wonderfully bizarre it was to start reading Mike McGonigal's contribution to the 33 1/3 book series and only a couple of days later, to be greeted with news of a long-awaited follow-up to "Loveless". More on that later on, but first, the book. McGonigal doesn't try to write a sensational expose or to uncover the untold "real story" behind the album. His opinion of the album sticks rigidly to the orthodox fanboy template -- he makes no attempt at criticism or to goad the reader into thinking about "Loveless" in a unique way. But all of this is made perfectly clear from the very beginning, as McGonigal bluntly states that the album has already been praised and dissected in so many different ways, while acknowledging that he doesn't feel that there's much left for him to write about in that regard. Instead, he digs into what has been a fairly untapped resource for information about "Loveless" -- the memories of the band members themselves. Kevin, Belinda, and Debbie are quoted at length from a series of exclusive interviews done specifically for this book during 2005 and 2006 (Colm declined to be interviewed). As far as I am aware, compared to any other piece that has been written about post-1992 MBV, this amount of access to the band members is unparalleled. McGonigal relies on them for fresh perspectives and to fill in previously unrevealed details, while for the most part he simply writes what he hears and resists the urge to play rock critic. Between the interviews, the few exercises in myth-busting, and McGonigal's easy-going style, it's plenty good enough to make this book an engaging read.*

[*aside: I found a bunch of typos and factual errors, but only one of them annoyed me: the continuing American habit of writing "You Made Me Realize" (American spelling). I can't think of another example in music in which two spellings of the title of a piece of music float around and people feel free to use whichever one is more convenient to them. McGonigal even makes light of it, getting all "well, that's the way we spell it here" on us, but this type of error is unforgiveable. The title of the EP is "You Made Me Realise". There is no editorial direction on titles. Does anyone in America have issues with the title of Talk Talk's "The Colour of Spring"? Should we be correcting the grammatical error in Oasis' "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants"? Is anyone insisting that the text of "Hamlet" should be translated to take into account modern American spellings? The whole realise/realize thing is so stupid.]

I was giddy to learn that Shields consciously borrowed from Phil Spector's production style, even as far as recording entire songs in mono (e.g. "To Here Knows When"!). The MBV-Spector similarities always seemed natural and obvious to me, and I am happy to finally find out that the connection was genuine and intentional. The most controversial chapter deals with the cost of the album and the relationship with their former label Creation. The book was pulled from printing, at the band's request, because Shields was displeased with how McGonigal told this portion of the story (granted, it's only fitting that the release of a book about "Loveless" would be subject to a series of delays). Shields felt that McGonigal was sourcing too heavily from David Cavanaugh's "The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For the Prize", saying that it read like an accountant's take on things and that 80% of that book was made up. He goes on to claim, with ever greater and more ridiculous hyperbole, that Cavanaugh's book has dropped out of sight and practically vanished from the realm of publishing history, because everyone knows how ridiculous it truly is.

Sure, compared to Oprah's Book Club, Cavanaugh's book wasn't a big seller. Inasmuch as a book about UK indie rock can be termed "successful", "The Creation Records Story" has done quite well for itself and is fairly well-respected. It breaks down the lives of the people who ran the label in impeccably well-researched detail, but was far weaker in providing intimate detail about the bands, some of whom did not cooperate with Cavanaugh while he was writing the book. McGonigal, as you might expect, remains neutral on the subject, inasmuch as he doesn't try to take sides and declare who he'd rather believe. He quite plainly rewrote the chapter to give more space to Shields' side of the story, but continues to reference Cavanaugh throughout this book. This has to be viewed as a smart decision in the interest of having his book see the light of day.

I have no idea if Shields still has an axe to grind with McGee. Maybe he overreacted to being reminded of McGee's reminiscences, as they were told via Cavanaugh. His comments carried a strong whiff of sour grapes from where I sit (AKA the truth hurts"?), but that's something that we will never know for certain. Fifteen years on, McGee has managed to let bygones be bygones and has gone out of his way in interviews to praise MBV. He even called them the best band he ever had on Creation. Granted, these are feelings that he can afford to have after earning zillions from Oasis and shutting down his label on (more or less) his own terms, as opposed to being forced into bankruptcy by MBV's spending habits. From Shields' side, "Loveless" ended up sounding exactly how he wanted it to, and it continues to sell and to provide him with a steady income. So what gives? McGonigal's new interviews demonstrate that McGee and Shields' memories of 1989-1991 are so divergent that there is absolutely no middle ground with which to reconcile their stories. McGee tells of numerous near-breakdowns from various Creation employees and and having to borrow cash from his parents to release master tapes of "Loveless" in exchange for unpaid studio bills. Shields tells of the entire band being literally homeless during that time, squatting at friends' flats because Creation claimed they didn't have the money to pay them regular salaries. What's more, he says "Loveless" didn't cost Creation anything because it was recorded using MBV's own money that they had earned through sales of their other records.

For the rest of us, it's an individual choice as to whose persons' version of the truth is more trustworthy. My take is that Shields was far too immersed in his own problems at the time (finishing the album plus his deteriorating relationship with Belinda, both of which are discussed quite candidly in the book) and was not seeing the big picture. By secluding himself in an all-out effort to craft the album as he wanted it, he probably took no notice of how many livelihoods were dependent on the decisions he was making. In a fair bit of high comedy, he confidently claims that he added up those studio bills himself (um, from memory, and long after the fact) and the total couldn't possibly be any more than 160K pounds. You know, nowhere close to the 250K that other people have claimed, end of story, why the complaints?, no sirree, get off my back jack, etc. Yes, a measly 160K -- a mere pittance for an indie label run by drug-inhaling hooligans who, collectively, didn't even have a sixth grader's grasp of accounting.

Last week saw MBV retake the lead in their sixteen year race versus Guns N Roses to be the first to release the long-awaited, prohibitively expensive, endlessly delayed follow-up to their highly acclaimed November 1991 album. Axl and his hired guns looked to have built an insurmountable lead once they started touring again, but talk of a release date for "Chinese Democracy" has died down considerably in the past couple of years. Little did we know that MBV were lulling us all into a false sense of security while they retooled and readied their Myspace page for worldwide release!

We all tend to get misty-eyed even at the vaguest details about any remote possibility of perhaps maybe hearing some new MBV material, and although this kind of news still tugs at my heartstrings, in my head I know better than to get excited because we've heard all this before. Many many many times, in fact. McGonigal cops out a bit at the end of his book, alluding that "Loveless" is so good that he has no burning need to ever hear another MBV record and that we should all stop bugging Kevin about it, because the guy really has been busy all these years. I call bullshit. People only make these kinds of excuses for bands once they've been lying dormant for near-geologic periods, at which point mythologizing takes the place of instinctual anticipation. Nobody would have claimed, in 1993 (or 1994 or 1995 or 1996) that "Loveless" was just too damn good, so don't bother with the follow-up. There hasn't been another MBV record because Shields hasn't gotten around to making one, not because of the distractions of broken mixing desks, interpersonal band relations, and other side projects.

He didn't have a problem getting off his ass to release material under the MBV name for the "Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip" compilation. This album, BTW, kicked off the first bout of "they're back now ... no really!" hysteria as it featured the first new material released under the MBV name since 1993. It happened so long ago that a lot of fans don't even remember that particular "comeback" (McGonigal neglected to mention it in his review of the band's post-"Loveless" activities). The waiting has gone on for so long that it literally dates back to the days when I first discovered the internet and would track down MBV fan sites and message boards to look for info on their new record. One year, I remember reading about how MBV were under pressure to deliver some sort of finished product to Island, but no prob, Shields claimed that he was 100% sure they'd have at least an EP done by the end of the year. I believe that year was 1997. In 2004, Amazon incredibly began taking pre-orders for an MBV box set that featured remastered and live material. There was even a shipping date listed.

To sum it up: I haven't stopped hoping, but I've definitely stopped offering predictions.

[update 15/11/07 ... and the very next day, they announce tour dates. A Coachella appearance is rumoured for 2008, and I am currently entertaining silly dreams of flying to California if that happens.]

Friday, November 02, 2007

Amy Winehouse and the rest of the MTV Europe Awards

The Bad: Ummmm ... the entire show, actually. The whole thing crept by like some never-ending joke that I -- and more importantly, the Munich audience -- weren't getting. There were no show-stealing, kitchen-sink performances like the ones that Kanye West can put on with regularity. The endless string of bar scenes hosted by the Foo Fighters were the very definition of a time filler. Sitting at home, I enjoyed Snoop's mini-monologues, but almost everything he said was met with a flat response, with the exception of the "how you doin' Europe"-type exclamations that prodded the audience to cheer. After a while, I got the feeling that the muted response was because most of the people in attendance didn't understand his accent.

The program directors made a major mis-step with some of the guests and talent, in that they didn't seem to have a clue what the Munich crowd wanted to see. When Paul van Dyk gets zero reaction, and local boy Boris Becker gets 1/3 the reaction of Nelly Furtado, then you've booked the wrong people. Getting the right local or national acts onto the show should be childs play. One of the most intriguing things about the EMA's being held in a different country every year is that you get to see the superstar reactions for national heroes that we (people who don't live in those countries) haven't heard of. A few years ago, Rammstein played the EMA's in Frankfurt and the crowd rewrote the book on "going apeshit". Where was this year's Rammstein?

The Good:
1. Snoop's lederhosen. Everything Snoop wore.

2. The raised awards podium overlooking the entire arena.

3. The magician in the bar (the only redeeming quality of those bar scenes).

4. Amy Winehouse. OMG Amy Winehouse. Between Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse, there was bound to be some kind of drug and alcohol-induced meltdown. Well, Doherty was well-behaved. Amy Winehouse made Britney Spears' appearance at the MTV Awards look like tea and crumpets at the Ritz.

The problem with scoring Amy Winehouse as a last-minute addition to an awards show was made brilliantly clear -- booking her the week before the show doesn't give her handlers enough time to sober her up. First, she accepted an award in front of a crowd that adored her. Obviously zonked on some wild paranoia-inducing stuff, she slowly and deliberatively walked to the mic, eyes peering around her as if preparing herself to be ambushed at any moment. She stood in front of the mic for a few moments, soaking in the cheers inasmuch as anyone so doped up could possibly soak in anything other than the rapidly-chattering voices racing through her head, sputtered a quiet "thank you", and slowly turned around to leave. Boos were clearly audible.

Part of me (0.00001%) still held out hope that it was all simply a case of nerves. The next hour did nothing to improve her condition, and only five seconds into her performance of "Back To Black", her background singers and her band were doing their best to not laugh on stage. Their professionalism stood in obviously contrast to Winehouse's out-of-tune, incomprehensible warbling. Considering that her band knew exactly where they were (performing on the MTV Europe Awards in front of one billion people) and Winehouse didn't have a clue if she was in Munich, Mumbai, or the women's bathroom in the bar where she snorted drugs the previous night, the contrast was hardly surprising.

At times, she tried to dance, or at least perform various motions that were vaguely synchronized to the music. She could barely coordinate herself enough to place her hand on her hip and keep it there. She looked down for nearly the entire performance. When she wasn't doing that, she was blankly staring into space toward nothing in particular, her head slightly cocked to one side, Her hairdo was piled high over her head and almost appeared to be weighing her down. Her caked-on makeup made her look much older than her 24 years.

I'm listing this under "the Good" because it was the only truly memorable happening of the night, the only appearance that we'll still remember once next year's show rolls around. I suppose I enjoyed all this in the same sense that I'd enjoy any other celebrity train wreck, but it's too bad that Amy Winehouse has been trying so damned hard to unravel her life in public over the past few months.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Very Rough Guide to Good Albums

I'm always writing about end-of-year lists (my lists, other people's lists, year-end polls ...) but I don't write much about exactly what makes a good album so good, a great album so great, or a Best Album of the Year so different from All the Other Albums of the Year. With a hefty dose of arbitrariness, let's identify a few categories and demonstrate their utility by using some recent albums (including those from 2007) as examples.

Strongly unbalanced albums. These albums contain one or two exceptional songs that basically obliterate everything else on there. Note the contrast with the Verve release, which is 2/3 godlike, 1/3 ordinary; whereas the strongly unbalanced album is more like 1/3 godlike, 2/3 material of unspecified quality (which could actually be quite good, just nowhere close to the quality of the other 1/3). It's been that kind of year for members of Animal Collective. "Strawberry Jam" contains "Reverend Green", "Fireworks", and a bunch of other tracks that are left in their dust. Panda Bear's "Person Pitch" has "Bros", which is not only the best track on the album but is one of the best of the year.

In subcatagorizing these two, the key difference between them is to consider what you're left with once you remove that fantastic leading 1/3. Is the remaining 2/3 still essential listening? If "Yes", then that album is Top Ten of the Year material in most years, if "No", then it's most likely not. Applied to "Strawberry Jam", the answer is "not really", but with "Person Pitch", it's "absolutely". Last year, "Altar" by SunnO))) and Boris fit the "Yes" category, and "The Air Force" by Xiu Xiu came closest to fulfilling the "No" condition, but in a year where the quality of the Top Ten falls off precipitously after #5 or so, albums like that can still rank as high as #8. Compare this to 2005, which was a much stronger year. Here, I'd maybe slot Madonna (#20a) and Six By Seven (#18) into the "No" category, and even then those are borderline calls.

Pleasant albums. Decent enough, but not so good that you would ever listen to it on its own, without either cooking, reading, watching TV, working, or some other very common music-listening mental distraction. Perfect for random play, either by itself or lumped in with a few more albums. Apparat's "Walls" fits the description very well. The major flaw with this type of album, obviously, is that you listen to it without really *listening* to it, so the melodies have a memory half-life that lasts to the end of the day at best. In the long run you never bother getting too attached to this kind of album, and they essentially drop out of one's personal consciousness once the calendar year is out and newer albums start getting A-space placement on one's hard drive or CD rack. In a weak year, these can crack the personal Top Ten due to the force of oft-listened familiarity (i.e. Jan Jellinek's "Tierbeobachtungen" in 2006). Ordinarily, you'd prefer to not have these mini-albatrosses around your neck when reviewing your charts a few years down the line, but in most years, I think you'd be hard-pressed -- be it as a fan or a critic -- to not have one or two of these albums in your Top Ten each year. There's nothing wrong with having a bit of audio junk food lying around, it's just a natural element of everyday musical enjoyment.

Rotating favourite song. This is #1 on my list of ways to separate the Album of the Year Contenders and Personal Classics in the Making from the sizable chaff of more ordinary musical releases. Maybe you don't think it's such a rare thing that one's favourite song would hop around an album during the course of a year. I believe that most of the time, people's favourites get locked in after two or three listens. Sometimes these are the inescapable singles, but not necessarily.

This year, I'm not sure that any albums fit this category for me, which is a bit worrying because even in the weakest years, there tends to be at least one album like this that stands out. Even a weak year like 2006 had "Ticket Crystals", but 2007 has been a much better year for albums overall. 2005 was even stronger and provided two textbook cases in "Takk ..." and "Before the Dawn Heals Us".

Once in a while, there are exceptions, where an album doesn't really come close to being the best of the year, but features rotating favourite songs. I find that The Arcade Fire's "Funeral" is one rare example of this.