Friday, December 30, 2011

Pazz and Jop 2011

My "tracks" ballot was a near-last minute composition, and in fact the main reason I submitted one at all is because I'm rather ideologically opposed to being one of those kinds of writers who only submits an albums ballot. I love how chart pop trends are moving away from R&B and toward club/rave music, and yet there weren't many hit pop singles that I found truly memorable this year. IOW, I liked the songs I heard on the radio, but I very rarely felt the need to listen to any of those songs on their own. So I had to make some unconventional choices. And yes, there are only nine tracks on the list.

I didn't follow music news as closely as I did in past years, so I didn't feel I had much to say about the state of music in 2011. Sure, I have plenty to say about the new music I like, but a snappy wordbite that the VV would see fit to publish in a year-in-review article? This year I'm not that guy. On that note, please excuse my fairly brief comments.

Seeing as M83 have fared amazing well in the year-end roundups thus far, I threw a few more points toward "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming", with hopes of giving it a little more help toward a high finish in the standings. I've always preferred a top-heavy ballot anyhow. I definitely didn't see this critical breakout coming for M83, I will have more to say about that in a future post.

My ballots:


M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming", Naive, 25 points
PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake", Island Records, 17 points
Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestial Lineage", Southern Lord, 13 points
The Caretaker, "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World", History Always Favours the Winners, 10 points
Death In Vegas, "Trans-Love Energies", Portobello Records, 7 points
Modeselektor, "Monkeytown", Monkeytown Records, 7 points
I Break Horses, "Hearts", Bella Union, 6 points
Tim Hecker, "Ravedeath, 1972", Kranky, 5 points
Surgeon, "Breaking the Frame", Dynamic Tension Records, 5 points
Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will", Rock Action Records, 5 points


Britney Spears, "Till the World Ends", Jive
Lady Gaga, "Edge of Glory", Interscope
Low, "Try To Sleep", Sub Pop
Mogwai, "George Square Thatcher Death Party", Rock Action Records
Nicki Minaj, "Super Bass", Young Money
Patrice Baumel and Nuno Dos Santos, "360-may-2011-podcast-for-trouw", no label
Paul Woolford & Psychatron, "Stolen", Hotflush Recordings
Raveonettes, "Recharge and Revolt", Vice Records
William Basinski, "Disintegration Loops dlp 1.1 (orchestrated by Maxim Moston), no label

* note that these are listed alphabetically ... tracks ballots for P&J are unranked anyhow.


Twenty years have passed since the end of the 1980's, and the threat of communism dominating the world now seems more quaint and distant than people making records with huge gated drums and cornball synths. M83 want things to stay that way. If you can set up a mental block in front of all the unlikable things about the 80's while still longing for the days when everything on the radio sounded like "Midnight City", then you'll probably love "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming".

I used to be able to remember all the song titles from every album I bought. Now, something will be on the radio for six months, but one day I'll finally hear the song I.D. and say to myself "oh, this one is by Britney Spears"? This happens far more often than I'd like to admit. Maybe technology has made certain types of memory redundant (e.g. who remembers phone numbers anymore?) or maybe too many brain cells have decayed over the years. The second possibility is a scary thought. It means that one day I'll end up bedridden and won't remember anything about my past life other than the chorus to "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

Have we reached the point where podcasts tell us more about what's going through an artist's mind than singles or albums do? Is this why I look forward more to hearing podcasts (especially techno/club music) than albums a lot of the time?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2011

This year I kept up with mixes and podcasts mainly by following the same mix/podcast series and news sites that I'd followed in past years. The volume of quality mixes out there continues to boggle the mind, but I have to say that I regret not investing the time to discover podcasts from a wider variety of ssources.

The Electric Deluxe podcast is still the best when it comes to consistency, creativity, variety, and trainspotting/track selection. I may not have been as diligent in keeping track of new podcasts as I was last year, but I still think they are the most effective way to sample the year's best music and keep track of the latest trends. In chronological order:

(Honourable mention) Midland, FACT 185, September 17, 2010 (link)

This one doesn't count because it was released in 2010, but it deserved a mention because I probably listened to it more than any other mix this year. The mix takes ages to properly develop, running through odd abstract and downtempo music, gradually upping the tempos before finally hitting its house stride about forty minutes in. It took a few listens to grasp where Midland was going with all this, i.e. to understand the story being told with the mix. This is why it didn't make my 2010 list, and didn't really register with me until the start of 2011.

(Honourable mention II) Dino Sabatini, Prologue Portefeuille Podcast 02, December 27, 2010 (link)

This was released in the final days of 2010 so it effectively counts toward this year. The concept here is fairly simple: one hour of atmospheric, deep, moody techno.

ASC, Deep Space Mix 19, January 20 (link)

This is my favourite type of ambient set -- warm, shimmery, angelic ambient music that just sort of floats by. I'm a bit envious because sometimes I try to make mixes like these and I always fail because I can't help but turn it into a horror/noise fest. For some reason I have the attention span to listen, but not to create a mix like this.

Animal Collective, ATP Animal Collective Mixtape, March 22 (link)

Animal Collective curated ATP this year and put together a promotional podcast featuring a number of the artists that were booked for the festival. This is two plus hours of weirdo science pop oddities, most of which I'd never heard of. I may be completely burned out on Animal Collective's music, but their taste in music still seems fresh and unpredictable.

Martyn, Impulsief mix for oki-ni, April 9 (link)

This is one of those mixes that proves you don't need to be a beatmatching wizard to be a great DJ (Martyn is a great technical DJ too, but that's not the main reason why this particular podcast is great). The mix flows from funk to classic house to synth pop and 90's techno (LA Synthesis!!), sometimes its beatmatched and sometimes not, and the flow couldn't be any more natural.

Patrice Baumel and Nuno dos Santos, Trouw Podcast May 2011 (link)

According to the description, the mix was made by extracting sound elements and beats from dozens of tracks and assembling them into a entirely new whole. This concept isn't new, Richie Hawtin's "Beats EFX and 909" and "DE9 Diversions" albums are probably the most well known mixes of this type. But the key part of the description here: "spacious soundscapes, track fragments, voices, echoes and reverberating pads float in and out." This might seem a bit OTT -- dozens of beats AND various elements appearing and disappearing? -- like a techno version of "Revolution 9". But it's not like that at all. It feels less like a mix than a long, slowly shape-changing track (which is why I listed it as a track on my P&J Ballot) where familiar sounding melodies float by like in an extended daydream. This mix is way more than the sum of its parts, and really must be heard to be believed. This was easily my favourite mix of 2011.

Psychatron, Electric Deluxe Episode 047 (David Holmes – Johnny Favourite – Exploding Plastic Ambience Mix), July 4 (link)

Filled with extended dub remixes (remember what "dub remix" used to mean when applied to 80's/90's dance music?) and classic 70's/80's style synth pop, this is the kind of alternative 80's dance party that I'd like to hear more of.

Prurient, FACT Mix 266, July 18 (link)

As far as truth in advertising goes, this is a spot-on preview of what you'd expect from the newer, less abrasive and extreme sound of Prurient. "Bermuda Drain" turned out to be pretty good too.

Diego, Electric Deluxe Episode 049 (Diego Hostettler presents his Shapes & Forms mix), July 31 (link)

Dub techno never seems to get old, but putting together a mix of mostly 90's Chain Reaction material is really tough without churning out a mix that sounds like something that we've heard a million times already. The mixing and sequencing is fantastic, perfect for getting effortlessly engulfed in the swampy dub goodness.

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 3 (The Sun In Eclipse Gathers Together More Mixes), August 17 (link)

If FACT can publish a end of year list with the 20 best FACT mixes of 2011, then I can promote myself a bit too. Only in my dreams do all my mixes turn out as good as this one.

Alva Noto, Resident Advisor Podcast 276, September 12 (link)

I love hearing mixes where they pack about 25 tracks into 50 minutes. But most of them don't criss-cross between left field experimental genres and dance music like this one does.

Giorgio Gigli and Obtane, Resident Advisor Podcast 282, October 24 (link)

I think my jaw hit the floor when I heard this podcast for the first time. It's like the Berghain sound drowned under a sea of heavy blankets. This is the kind of techno that appears in my dreams, something that virtually nobody ever tries to actually make, with shuddering, hazy beats and other assorted odd noises howling outside my window and getting swept aside by rivers of bass. Is this the kind of positive fallout that happened when the Gas boxset got released and everybody was reminded of how amazing those albums are?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Low, "C'Mon"

This just missed my top ten this year, actually, it would have been my #11 album of the year. There were four albums but only three spots (#8, 9, 10) and it was the odd one out after a fairly agonizing elimination process.

I didn't hear this album until the start of December, which makes no sense because Low have been one of the most reliable bands for me over the past ten years. I'm on their mailing list and was getting all the email reminders to watch the new video here, stream the new songs until the end of the week there, but somehow never got around to hearing anything. But no problem, I figured I'd hear the best parts of "C'mon" if I checked out a few live bootlegs. Other than the slow enveloping epic "Nothing But Heart", nothing really stood out.

December rolled around and I finally decided I couldn't let 2011 expire without hearing a new Low album that had already been out for nearly eight months. And that's when it hit me. About a week later, I became perhaps the last Low fan to know that they'd released a video where John Stamos sings a swimsuit model to sleep and then gets run over by a train. It's been that kind of year.

Low have been alternating "traditional" and "experimental" albums for the past decade. "Things We Lost In the Fire" is perhaps the apex of their slowcore period, afterward, their philosophy moved away from squeezing all they could out of their one trick. "Trust" upped the volume levels and its gritty intensity seemed to be drawn more from blues and metal than anything connected to indie rock at the time. "The Great Destroyer" was their polarizing masterpiece, to those who can't get enough of it (like me), it was refreshing to hear them get revved up and angry, to others it was a near sacrilege that played away from their established strengths. "Drums and Guns" tinkered heavily with electronics, changing up the formula yet again. "C'mon" is like "The Great Destroyer Lite", dominated by the guitar-heavy sound of that album but without the sense of frustration, anger and fury that made it special, as opposed to slowcore with a few screechy guitar solos. That sounds like a criticism, and in a way it is, because "The Great Destroyer" will be difficult to top. But "C'mon" isn't meant to be a carbon copy of it, it's a different kind of album. It's also lacking in "Drums and Guns"'s somnambulism, and that's a good thing.

The highs on "C'mon" aren't consistently high enough, there are a lot of very good songs on this album but not a lot of great ones. "Nothing But Heart" stands out because it's the eight minute epic, "Witches" is the crunchy, sort of sexy one, and $20$ is the one with a fractional BPM. But the all time classic is "Try to Sleep", which is a Low-ified version of Radiohead's "No Surprises", complete with glockenspiel, feather-light melody, and the lyrical sense of melancholy, resignation and giving up on this earthly world.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2011

And here we are again. For the past few years, I've been saying that when it comes to hearing new music, my habits have been getting more and more random. I'm so out of sync with music news cycles that I sometimes find myself discovering that someone's highly anticipated new release was released months earlier. Case in point, I had a leaked copy of my #1 album but didn't listen to it for about two months, partly because I was a bit underwhelmed (at the time) by the lead single. I listened to a decent amount of pop music this year, but I have no idea what my top singles of the year are because I can't remember the titles of anything.

Fortunately, I didn't have to look too hard to hear great music this year. This list contains a couple of great comeback records, entries from bands I'd never heard of one year ago, a fairly international flavour (seven nations represented), and you can even dance to some of it.


10. Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will"

In the past few years, Mogwai envisioned themselves as a post-rock Sabbath and worked overtime to make the label stick. In 2011, they seem to have given up that dream, but whereas most directionless bands get stuck in a downward spiral toward eternal mediocrity, Mogwai were able to fall back into the myriad of styles they used to do so well. The result was a record that sounded like a career-in-review retrospective (not unlike Orbital's "Blue Album" in that respect), and an album that nearly deserved to make this list on the basis of its title and "George Square Thatcher Death Party" alone.

9. Surgeon, "Breaking the Frame"

Surgeon's tracks made up the best parts of Mike Huckaby's somewhat disappointing 20th Anniversary Mix for Tresor. Maurizio and Robert Hood best represent Tresor's past, but Surgeon captures their present and future better than anyone -- cavernous, grim, and punishing techno music.

8. Tim Hecker, "Ravedeath, 1972"

Tim Hecker's records might all sound the same, but he's one of the few artists who can turn his predictability into a badge of quality and reliability. And remember, Hecker is always at his best when he's at his harshest. This music was never meant to be too relaxed or too pretty.

7. I Break Horses, "Hearts"

I Break Horses aren't afraid of a few loud guitars and effects that resemble melting the tape as you're playing it back, which is what makes them a much better band than your average twee faux-shoegazers. This album would have finished higher if it wasn't for its Verve-like inconsistency in the second half.

6. Modeselektor, "Monkeytown"

There's no genre of electronic music that these guys won't touch, and they don't seem to be getting bored of trying out as many as possible. And it bears repeating that more artists should be making albums in the spirit of Orbital's bleepy genre-melting classic "Snivilisation".

5. Death In Vegas, "Trans-Love Energies"

Death In Vegas appear to be getting better as their music gets less and less commercial-sounding. They even took seven years off to really make people forget about them, helping to ensure that their newest album wouldn't sell. The big loser is Richard Fearless' bank account. The winners are fans of: obscure krautrock, scuzz rock, Martin Hannett's productions, and Cabaret Voltaire c. 1989-1990.

4. The Caretaker, "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World"

See, the simplest ideas really are the best ideas. How hard can it be to loop a few melodies from old ballroom 78's, add some hiss and static, pitch them down a bit, and call it an album?

3. Wolves In the Throne Room, "Celestial Lineage"

I don't even know how to describe this one, but who knew that psychedelic West Coast operatic black metal could be so good? The gloriously fuzzy guitars may only be the icing on the cake.

2. PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake"

It's probably safe to say that this is the best WWI concept album ever made, and should remain so for the forseeable future. PJ Harvey took her talent for writing "character" songs to a new level in a wholly unexpected direction, and her voice has never sounded this good.

1. M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"

Let's review how M83 and Spiritualized have followed the same career path over their first four albums. We'll need to ignore that M83's eponymous album was their debut, although I suppose we could still include it if we took the second half of S3's "Recurring" to be Spiritualized's debut album. But not right now.

"Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts", "Lazer Guided Melodies". Still hailed as their best album by those who still see this as being the embodiment of a "signature" style that they never bettered. Contains some of their most beloved songs that remained live staples for years even though the original recordings didn't fit with the evolving style of the band ("Run Into Flowers", "0078h"/"Shine a Light", "Take Your Time"). The last album where they could really be considered a band, rather than a group of musicians backing up a visionary frontman.

"Before the Dawn Heals Us"/"Pure Phase". The transition album. Not quite what they once were (when their former bandmates were around), not yet what they would become, but somewhere at the midway point in the redefinition process. Mostly instrumental, but with a few standout vocal tracks.

"Saturdays = Youth"/"Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space". A merging of dormant genres (shameless 80's fanboyism, free jazz and psychedelic skronk) with the music they were already known for, finally, the vision is complete and only their respective frontmen could have seen it coming. The vocals are emerging from the background and becoming more front and centre. Yet another album-of-the-year quality release, their combination of consistency and excellence can no longer be ignored.

"Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"/"Let It Come Down". The vocals, which used to be shyly emoted from somewhere deep in the mix, have taken on the role of a lead instrument. You could always sing along to their music, but never like this. Just when you thought they couldn't get more maximal, they did it.

Where do M83 go from here? Maybe they'll continue on like Spiritualized, scale back their music as a reaction to the dense and heavy sound of "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming", and begin their slow retreat from the head of the pack. Nobody can keep releasing albums this good forever, can they? In my pantheon, Orbital released three straight classics, as did Spiritualized, but nobody has ever released four in a row, not at this level.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tony Bennett, "Tony Sings the Hits of Today!"

This album is supposed to be the absolute pits of Tony Bennett's career. His popularity had plummeted by the end of the 60's and someone (coughCliveDaviscough) thought he needed to sing contemporary material in order to revive his career. As the story goes, the results were the horrifically bad stuff of legend. Bennett hated making the album so much that he became physically ill while recording it. And unlike other legendarily bad albums (e.g. Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music"), this one never experienced a critical or popular renaissance of any sort. Bennett's fans still disown it, critics still hate it, it might as well have never existed.

I've never heard this album, in fact until a few weeks ago I didn't know a thing about it. But looking at the tracklist forty years after its release, I have to wonder where all the hate is coming from. Tony Bennett threw up because he had to cover songs by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder? "Here There and Everywhere" didn't move him in the slightest? And he might not have lived in the era of the "official" Great American Songbook, but who's more of a classic American songwriter than Burt Bacharach?

So let's listen and find out if Tony Bennett's "Tony Sings the Hits of Today!" is really as bad as advertised ... while reviewing the album in real time. (songwriters names appear in brackets)

1. "MacArthur Park" (Jimmy Webb). This song has been covered innumerable times, and yet you'd be hard pressed to find someone who likes it. In a 1993 survey, it was even crowned as the worst song ever. In short, "Macarthur Park" is the kryptonite that destroys even the best artists (e.g. Donna Summer). But Bennett's version isn't bad at all! It's a sweet and simple arrangement that does away with all of the lyrical silliness in the song about cakes melting in the rain, and leaves us with lines like "after all the loves of my life / I'll be thinking of you and wondering why". Cole Porter couldn't have written that? We're off to a decent start here.

2. "Something" (George Harrison). A serious misstep. Everything from the odd changes in tempo to Bennett's half-hearted attempt to emote during the refrain just don't mesh.

3. "The Look of Love" (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Bacharach was the master of sweetness and light in pop. So who thought it was a good idea to get a Hal Blaine clone to play drums and rock the joint up a bit? It should have been a no-nonsense arrangement carried completely by the singer, instead, they tried to merge big band with a touch of pyschedelia. Someone spent too much time listening to "Good Vibrations" before entering the mixing studio.

4. "Here There and Everywhere" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney). And this ... why is this a midtempo swing tune? Did anyone bother to listen to the lyrics before recording it, or were they going for the ironic cover a couple of decades before that became a fad?

5. "Live for Life" (Norman Gimbel, Francis Lai). Perfectly acceptable pop balladry here, I think Bennett was actually trying with this one.

6. "Little Green Apples" (Bobby Russell). I'd never heard of this song, but "G-d didn't make little green apples and it doesn't rain in Indianapolis" is an awful lyric, so no wonder Bennett sings it like he's singing the weather report. There's no joy, humour, or pizzazz in his delivery at all. The only way to overcome the "qualities" of a song so charmingly dumb with lyrics this bad is with an overdose of all three. The big note at the end is haphazardly screamed, as if he just wanted it to be finally over. I concur, let's move on.

7. "Eleanor Rigby" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney). A quick check confirms that William Shatner's "The Transformed Man" predates this by two years. Shatner's attempt to act instead of sing his lyrics was at least authentic (i.e. it was all he was capable of doing, he put his heart into it, and the effort was genuine) and some of the arrangements were quirky and unpredictable (e.g. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). But Tony Bennett lowering himself to this kind of silly dramatic reading almost gave me sympathy vomit cramps, forty years after the fact.

8. "My Cherie Amour" (Henry Cosby, Sylvia Moy, Stevie Wonder). Another no-brainer -- just play it as a string-drenched ballad. And they do. This is rather lovely, it's a winner.

9. "Is That All There Is?" (Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller). This song was very much in vogue in '69-'70, and had already been covered a few times by other adult contemporary artists in the two years previous. So it makes sense that Bennett's label would want him to record this. There's nothing technically wrong here, but maudlin black humour and Tony Bennett don't mix, although I think he could have communicated the dejected feelings of the song's narrator if he liked the song even a little bit.

10. "Here" (Gene Lees). The line "here I am all alone with a few faded pictures of you" is a heartbreaker, and this song slinks along, wallowing in its selfish misery not unlike Lou Reed's "The Bed". This is jaw droppingly great, no joke.

11. "Sunrise Sunset" (Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick). This would makes sense as an epic dramatic finishing song to an adult contemporary pop album ... but not on a Tony Bennett album. The man is many things, Broadway diva isn't one of them.

It goes without saying that any interpretive singer needs the right song with the right arrangement to succeed. Song choice is really everything for someone like Tony Bennett, especially with an experiment like this where he strays outside his comfort zone. In that respect, the album is obviously a failure. Sometimes a great singer can overcome an imperfect arrangement, but that doesn't happen even once here. I would expect that Bennett could have overcome sub-par arrangements at least once or twice on an eleven track album if he were motivated, which he obviously wasn't. It's also odd to think that there was a time when producers and bandleaders didn't "get" the Beatles and had no clue how to perform or interpret their work, look no further than this album for proof of that.

But is it the worst album ever, or even an abominable insult to human hearing, as it has been portrayed? There are at least three really good songs here, although the embarrassments do outnumber the winners. It definitely doesn't deserve to be unearthed as any kind of lost gem, but it's also not quite the disaster that I'd been led to believe it was. And I know I'll be in the minority on this, but I don't even mind the cover!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Sandro Perri, "Impossible Spaces"; Modeselektor, "Monkeytown"

These two artists are more similar than you think. They emerged as outsiders in their respective, widely hyped local underground scenes in the late 90's. They've been very active since, despite not having a large discography to show for it, largely thanks to a steady stream of live performances, remixes and collaborations. And both artists have been wizards when it comes to criss-crossing genre boundaries, often within the same track. Despite their oddly similar career paths, on their latest releases, they're heading in opposite directions creatively.

I can understand what Sandro Perri has been trying to do over the past few years, after all, wanting to shift from making mysterious, atmospheric techno while seated on a stage floor behind a mess of wires to being the singer/songwriter/frontman of your own band under your own name doesn't need much justification. After years spent paying my dues opening for other, bigger name artists, I probably wouldn't want to keep settling for being one of Toronto's best kept secrets either.

Even when his work as Polmo Polpo was derivative (i.e. Gas with twangy guitars), he was still miles ahead of all the other copycats, and with "Like Hearts Swelling" and "Kiss Me Again and Again" he came into his own with some of the most unique music of the 00's. But solo artist Sandro Perri has always strayed too close to generic alt-country artist territory, and "Impossible Spaces" doesn't do much to change that impression.

I've never cared much for Perri as a vocalist, he's capable but not commanding on the mic, and while he might sound more confident on "Impossible Spaces" than ever before, his vocals don't amount to much more than a forgettable backdrop to the music. As I would have expected, he's at his best when he goes epic and lets his songs breathe for seven minutes or more (e.g. "How Will I?", "Wolfman"). Songs have a way of starting out as stripped down indie ballads and wandering their way into a 70's prog record complete with bodacious synth solo, while featuring bits of electronic trickery along the way. Come to think of it, Super Furry Animals used to do this a lot. "Impossible Spaces" is sort of like a SFA album circa 2000, minus the mad hattery and OTT sonic bonkerism that made their albums so great. But the way these songs take their unexpected twists and turns still form the bulk of the highlights from the album.

There are still plenty of things I don't like about Modeselektor, like 90% of their songs when they try to channel Jamaica. The fact that they were genre whores, unafraid to try anything and everything with any big or small name vocalist, used to be their most interesting trait and their Achilles heel. They were simply too hit-and-miss, their records always had some gems on them but were too inconsistent to be great as a whole.

That changed with 2009's "Moderat" album (with Apparat). That's where they perfected the art of siphoning the best traits of their collaborators and adapting their style to mesh with that of the people they worked with. "Monkeytown" still can't shake some of the old bad habits -- their dips into ragga and hip hop on "Pretentious Friends" and "Humanized" are the weakest parts of the album. But "Evil Twin" and "German Clap" are top notch club techno, up there with the best they've done in that style, and they've produced a couple of absolute gems out of their two Thom Yorke collabs, especially "This". It's like a sequel to "Idioteque", something you could conceivably hear on a Radiohead album if they had a fraction of Modeselektor's talent*. They slice up Thom Yorke's voice into nearly indecipherable loops, smother it with brooding bass lines and snippets of late 90's Autechre-style skittery beats, resulting in a haunting track that's not quite of any genre they've attempted before.

All in all, "Monkeytown" is an impressive, varied listen where even the slight misses (like on "Moderat") work well in context.

* slight clarification: this seems like a weaselly comment so I should explain a bit more ... to Radiohead, going "electronic" in the faux-Autechre sense has always meant getting weird and abstract. The real Autechre were never just about that, the magic was always in the atmospheres they created and the odd sounds they came up with. When they were weird and abstract for the sake of being weird and abstract, they sucked too. For Modeselektor, specifically in the case of "This", channeling Autechre means trying to make them sound more like Orbital circa "Snivilisation". Huge difference.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Music In Bordeaux

I wish I could say that I spent most of my time digging through the culture of the city, but the reality is that work occupied all but a small fraction of the two weeks I was there. And yet there's always something to take note of, however small, because music is everywhere ...

My morning alarm was set to a soft rock radio station, it just happened to be the first non-talk station that turned up when I was scanning through the dial, and I never bothered to change it. Once they played a song from Gainsbourg's rather excellent "Percussions", and on a different day they played Alan Parsons Project's "Eye in the Sky" and I couldn't get it out of my head for days (I knew the song, but hadn't heard it in years, and never knew what the title was and didn't know it was by the Alan Parsons Project). Is it just me or does it sound a lot like Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now"?

Total Heaven is a music store in the St. Michel area of Bordeaux, and it's well worth visiting if you're a jazz, metal, or noise/experimental fan. It's even more worth the time to visit if you buy vinyl. The ongoing downward spiral of record stores is depressing, but it's balanced by vinyl's outright refusal to die. There are few things in life that make me feel happier than knowing that vinyl will outlive every format that came after it for (at least) the hundred or so years after its invention.

Do Make Say Think's "Other Truths" is really good, and now I feel bad for ignoring it when it came out two years ago. It's the most chilled thing they've ever done -- including their early dub-influenced stuff -- and thankfully they've done away with the vocal experiments. Funny how I had to travel to France to hear the music I used to regularly hear back home.*

Dub reggae bands at the Saturday protest of the week in Victoire, and rock bands playing in the store windows at Lafayette Homme.

In the taxi on the way to the Bordeaux airport at 5:30 AM, Bryan Adams "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" came on the radio. Like everyone else over the age of 30, I've probably heard that song one billion times, or approximately 999 999 997 times more than I would have liked. However this was the first time I really listened closely to the production, probably because it was dark and quiet in the taxi and my mind was too weary to concentrate on anything else. My mind did wander to the subject of "Bryan Adams: Can-Con Y/N?" that was all the rage in 1991, so maybe that's why I focused on the production of the track, I don't know. Anyway, it bears repeating that Mutt Lange is a genius. It's a spectacular sounding track, the guitars layering but not smothering the vocals, the gated drums, etc. Swap out Bryan Adams for Joe Elliott and it's a Def Leppard song, it could have been on "Hysteria", or at least it could have been the natural sequel to "Love Bites" instead of the execrable and equally treacle-filled "Two Steps Behind". And I have no idea how I never realized any of this until that moment.

* my French host used to work in Ottawa, so maybe I'm exaggerating the oddity of this a little bit.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 6

"Sat aft mix" - 98 minutes

In the absence of new writing from me (too much traveling lately), here is a mix that I've been sitting on for the past couple of months.

I originally titled it "the lazy saturday afternoon mix", full of downtempo stuff for wasting away the afternoon on a warm summer day. Except that I never got around to posting it. The seasons have changed, but it probably works even better as a cool autumn day mix. This mix was (months) ahead of its time, if you will.

I've been enjoying making mixes as a way of revisiting a bunch of old CDs that I haven't listened to in a while. I'm rediscovering my own music collection and recording what I found.

Most of these songs were ripped from CD's that I bought over 7-8 years ago. The mix was totally improvised, I didn't even re-listen to anything to refresh my memory before throwing it into the mix. Everything went according to my pre-existing impressions of the music, based on what I remembered about the music from the last time I heard it (which was years ago in many cases).

For more details, read the comments!

Monday, November 07, 2011

MTV European Music Awards 2011 ... diary!

How long has it been since I've done a running diary of a major music awards show?

Red carpet talk is centred around which artists will dominate the awards. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Coldplay are all namedropped, which means I'm still reasonably up to date on who's who. Then I watched an interview with 30 Seconds to Mars and kept thinking "hmm the lead singer looks just like Jared Leto". One google search later revealed what everybody other than me must have already known -- it is Jared Leto. Looks like I'm not as up to date as I thought.

22:00 Somehow when I was looking the other way, both Coldplay and Maroon 5 became dance bands. For Coldplay it makes sense as they naturally progress along U2's career path and are currently finding their comfort zone midway between "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby". As for Maroon 5, I have no idea what they're aiming for. Scissor Sisters? I can make jokes, but the results are quite good in both cases.

22:08 Katy Perry accepts the award for Best Live. Even she is twice the size of Snooki.

22:11 LMFAO ride around in a giant zebra and bring the chaos with their hit "Party Rock Anthem". Some people apparently call this electro pop or "party rock" but those of us who remember the early 90's know our reheated Eurodance when we see and hear it. I mean, they've got the anonymous rappers and everything. Sure, it sounds awesome now, but bet your bottom dollar that people will find this stuff embarassing in ten years time. I'm out of it Part II: LMFAO are Berry Gordy's son and grandson.

22:25 David Hasselhoff (!!) presents the award for best female, desperately trying to sound suave and cool in front of the kiddies. He says he drilled a wall from his dressing room to the best female dressing room so they can watch him change. How did he get this gig? It's so creepy, yet so hilarious. Lady Gaga accepts the award wearing a dress that ressembles the giant white cones they strap to the necks of dogs when they don't want them to scratch themselves, with a hat that that looks like a plastic black phonograph speaker, and comments on seeing the 'Hoff's package through the hole he drilled in the wall. This segment will be difficult to top tonight.

22:30 Bruno Mars and his band, all dressed in matching light blue suits, channel the Big Bopper (Mars rocks the pompadour to really nail the part) with a rollicking 50's version of "Marry You". Fabulous performance, easily the best of the night so far.

22:36 Queen receive an icon award, and Brian May let his hair go gray? Amazingly, Queen have been at it for forty years, HALF OF IT WITHOUT FREDDIE MERCURY. It seem possible.

22:47 We're definitely hitting the dregs of the show, as they're hyping the performances still to come later in the show to keep us interested and bringing out the B-list celebs like Ashley Nicole Rickards and Sheamus (!). Sheamus (a Dubliner) rips on Belfast with some Irish in-jokes that go completely over my head, and Justin Bieber (sans mop!!) wins for Best Male. In just a year's time, he's lost that babyfaced cuteness factor that fueled his entire career to this point, and the haircut is a natural next step. He's approaching a crossroads not unlike that of Michael before he released "Off the Wall", where people sort of resented him for not being small and cute anymore, but before they were ready to accept him as a serious grown up artist. The next couple of years should be interesting.

22:55 RHCP have been doing almost nothing for me, going on 22 years. How time flies. They never change, so why should my opinion change?

23:02 Lady Gaga kicks off the second hour with her newest single "Marry the Night". It's a fairly toned down, understated performance (at least for her), most of it spent singing on top of a cratered half-sphere moon.

23:10 Bruno Mars wins for Best New (not "Best New Artist", just "Best New". It gets to the point with the bare minimum number of words), which makes sense because he's the only one of the nominees to have more than two big hits.

23:16 I've been ignoring almost all of host Selena Gomez's jokes and skits throughout the night because they're too dumb and pointless to be worth mentioning. Same goes for her live performance.

23:25 Snow Patrol went dance too? This show is putting me to sleep now.

23:35 Lady Gaga wins for Best Song with "Born This Way" and bawls her way through her acceptance speech. This time she rotates the large plastic phonograph speaker (bronze coloured now) so we can see a corner of her face. I'm all for making cool fashion statements, but if you're sincere about conveying the emotion of the moment, it makes sense to let people actually see you.

23:48 David Guetta hits the stage to save the second hour of this show with Jessie J, Taio Cruz and Ludacris. I'm not sure exactly what Guetta is doing back there. He's sporting a pair of headphones (which probably aren't plugged in because he never uses them), pretends to tweak dials, and holds his hands in the air. But the laser light show is amazing, the songs are too, and the guest singers nailed their one minute each. Guys like Moby will be the first to tell you that DAT shows can rock too.

23:54 Somebody dragged Malcolm Jamal Warner out of mothballs to hype his new show and present the award for Best Worldwide. I seem to remember that they used to give a separate award for each "region", which makes sense because how can all these bands from totally disparate continents "compete" for the same award? The whole point of awards shows is that you have a bunch of acts, who all appear on the same pop charts and roughly compete for the same chart pop fans, and the awards is given to the best person. But how is Britney Spears in direct competition with the biggest acts in India or Asia? Big Bang (from the Asia-Pacific region), win as apparently they are bigger stars than Britney (representing the North America region). Oddly enough I don't think she was even nominated for anything else tonight, so this comes off like an excuse to have her name mentioned on the show. Meanwhile, Big Bang are like Daft Punk on motorcycles. I should check them out.

00:00 The 'Hoff is back! Sucking on a balloon! How DID he get this gig?

00:02 Does anyone really think that Beastie Boys or Justice have a chance in hell of beating Lady Gaga for Best Video? Note to EMA organizers: if you want to build suspense for the Best Video award presentation, you should nominate bands whose names get mentioned more than once during the show.

00:03 Gaga can't be beaten tonight.

00:05 Queen and Adam Lambert perform a medley of songs that I never need to hear again in my life ("The Show Must Go On"/"We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions"). I've never really liked Lambert, but this is pretty much his dream gig and it's undoubtedly his calling to be singing songs like these.

Congratulations to Gaga and Justin Bieber for being the most popular stars in the world, although we didn't really need an awards show to tell us that. There were some good performances but nothing all that memorable, and it didn't help that the show almost died in the second hour. But of course the EMA's are never a bad way to waste two hours.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The death of CD shops, the death of the CD

This story about the major labels plan to abandon the CD by the end of 2012 made the rounds this week, prompting some good discussion about whether the story is true or not (it's not) and what the eventual death of the CD means in the musical big picture.

I don't think anybody doubts that the CD is on its last legs, but when the axe finally falls, it'll be major news and not something quietly leaked (allegedly) to a music site and reported on as fact without any sourcing whatsoever.

Remember when the major labels wanted to force you to pay $20 for an entire CD of music that they could manufacture for $1? And if you only wanted only one song then you were SOL, because there was no option to buy singles anymore? That was just ten years ago. Remember when they were willing to SUE YOU to keep that business model intact? That happened even more recently. And now, nobody wants the CD anymore. The music industry has been dragged into the future, kicking and screaming, just like it was with every other major change of listening format in the past 100 years.

Whenever this subject comes up, I wonder whether I made a mistake in not selling off my CD collection while I had the chance. I own enough obscurities that could probably fetch decent money for the foreseeable future, and most of my purchases over the past few years were bargain (and in many cases, rare) CD's that didn't set me back too much money anyhow. But for me it was never about the money anyhow, it was always about the collection itself, something I'd show off proudly as if it were a collection of books or old photos. I could never bring myself to part with a disc I loved, trading the physical object for a few files on a computer. The odd thing is, these days I have piles of music in the form of files on my computer -- and rarely find myself wanting to replace them with a physical object. Irrespective of price, genre, era, and sometimes even musical quality, I get attached to a CD in a way that rarely happens with any mp3.

And isn't it amazing -- and appropriate -- that vinyl will outlive the CD?

Monday, October 31, 2011

I Break Horses, "Hearts"; The Raveonettes, "Raven In the Grave"

More often than not, shoegaze bands seem to emerge fully formed, at least compared to bands in other genres. For every rock band that releases an iconic, generation-defining debut (e.g. Sex Pistols, Strokes, Smiths), there are a million other bands who need a few albums to find their proper footing. But shoegaze bands have a knack for appearing perfectly crystallized right out of the gate.

In the first wave of shoegaze you had bands like Ride and Slowdive who were never able to top their pre-debut album singles according to some of their most diehard fans. I'm still blown away by the quality of tracks like "Morningrise" and "Avalyn", and how such a young band (in terms of how long they'd been together as a band and in terms of the ages of the individual members) were able to master their craft so quickly and definitively. It took a few years, but eventually both bands started to stray from their initial template and to search for a post-shoegaze identity. The results were more mixed, which is usually the case when you're dealing with a band that's looking to redefine itself.

I'm not sure why shoegaze bands are such fast learners, but I suspect it's because their list of influences is fairly short -- in other words, all shoegazers are stealing ideas from the same few bands. It's redundant to even list those influences because everyone knows who they are, and the bands on the shortlist haven't changed much in the past twenty years. Rock bands have immeasurably more influences to chose from, so it takes longer for a young band to find a combination that works for them.

I Break Horses fit the pattern of shoegaze bands that emerge from nothing and arrive fully formed with a great debut album. After listening to "Hearts" just once, you know exactly what they're all about, which is the nice thing (or most boring aspect, depending on how much you like this kind of music) about bands like these -- when everyone takes cues from the same small set of influences, you don't need to waste time trying to dissect hidden levels of detail or to work out what confluence of styles went into the making of album. After the first listen, you've pretty much heard it all, how much replayability the album will have is a matter of personal taste.

I Break Horses combine electronica and shoegaze, but not in an annoying twee way like most other bands who do similar things, they channel a bit of the warped sampledelic abrasiveness of Disco Inferno, they love "Run Into Flowers"-era M83 but bring the rock much better than M83 did back then, and they wrote a song called "I Kill Your Love, Baby!" (with barely any lyrics besides those in the title). If any of this sounds a little bit enticing then you can safely assume that you'll like this album.


Once upon a time, The Raveonettes emerged fully fomed with their debut album, "Chain Gang of Love". I've been a fan of them for a while but I bought and heard this album for the first time only a few weeks ago. Just the album title and the fact that it was produced by Richard Gottehrer tells you most of what you need to know. It's thirteen blistering tracks of exhilarating motorcycle feedback doo wop JAMC-drenched fun. They continued in the same vein on their sophomore album, on their third album they cranked the feedback as high as it would go and succeeded in out-Psychocandying "Psychocandy, but by their fourth album they were searching for something new and didn't know where to look for it (I almost never feel the need to hear this album).

Now, on their fifth album "Raven In the Grave", they're still in the midst of an identity crisis but the results have gotten a lot better. It's their mellowest album to date, leaning more toward the doo-wop side of the classic rock and roll they love so much. The most interesting tracks are the loop-based "Recharge and Revolt" and "Forget That You're Young", which is a style they've dabbled with in the past (e.g. "Aly Walk With Me") but have never pulled off this successfully. "Aly Walk With Me" is all about holding back until going for the volume kill during the bridge, but "Recharge and Revolt" nails the vocal melody and doesn't rely on sheer volume to eventually hammer home its point. It's like nothing they've done before and therefore makes for the perfect album opener. It's also one of the best "(slightly) less is more" songs in the Raveonettes' catalogue that still manages to unimpeachably rock. The idea of marrying hip-hop and shoegaze seemed preposterous when Bowery Electric tried to pull it off in 1998, but I think I'm ready for the Raveonettes to give it an album-length try.

Friday, October 28, 2011

M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"

M83's newest effort sounds even more like an album recorded and released in the 80's than "Saturdays = Youth" did, and I bet you didn't think that was possible. Any hint of an experimental bent to the album has been swept away by the even more audaciously gated drums, layers of vocals drenched in echo, and cheap, cheerful sounding synths. Where are the noisy tracks that recall the band's twee/shoegaze roots, like "Highway of Endless Dreams" or "Fields, Shorelines, and Hunters". Where's the epic closing track in all its 10+ minute technicolour glory, like on all their other albums? Instead, it's a steady stream of three to four minute pop tunes and short, mellow interludes. The interludes beautifully tie together sections of the album, allowing the band to segue between different styles. They're like quick, fleeting snapshots of how their music used to feel and sound, as if these short snippets are all that remains of M83's pre-2005 past.

The fact that they shamelessly rip off all of their favourite 80's bands is a huge part of the album's appeal, I know. For instance, if "Coulours" was their attempt to rewrite New Order's "The Perfect Kiss", "Claudia Lewis" strays so close to "Thieves Like Us" that you can practically sing the latter's lyrics on top of the former. But they've also gone the extra mile to steal from themselves, and I can't be sure whether this is intentional or not. I simply can't get around the notion that "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" is the first M83 album that comes across as nothing but reassembled pieces of old M83 albums, rather than a new piece of music in and of itself. The starblinded, proggy, cigarette lighter waving "Intro" is a dead ringer for "Moonchild" -- both tracks open their respective albums too. The wailing, rapid-fire synth rushes and rhythmic cadences of "New Map" are lifted straight from "Don't Save Us From the Flames". "Splendour" is the piano and choir weepy ballad that recent M83 albums have been contractually obligated to have (e.g. "Safe", "Too Late"). "Echoes of Mine" and "Raconte-Moi une Histoire" revisit the energetic instrumental + fake TV/movie samples combination (i.e. vocal snippets that were made to sound like samples from some obscure, long lost movie but were actually kitsch-y bits recorded for the album) that M83 have done a few times already.

But bands steal from themselves all the time. All we should really care about is whether or not the old tricks still work. Despite the intimidating running time (75 minutes), the album feels like a sprint, never dragging for a moment as it runs through 22 tracks of treble-drenched 80's pop throwbacks. It's dripping with titanic sounding songs that, on the whole, are more immediate than anything M83 have ever done, and whatever the album might lose by recycling so many old ideas, it makes up for in spades by presenting such a varied palate of instantly addicting tunes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In case you needed reminding, this is why you sometimes still need to go into music shops; Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestial Lineage"

I've been a black metal fan for about fifteen years.

The previous sentence is technically the truth, but it isn't particularly accurate. One might be inclined to assume, based on the claims of a person who claims to have been a fan of a type of music for fifteen years, that he regularly buys albums, goes to concerts, reads interviews and album reviews, and is halfway knowledgeable about said genre of music. None of those things apply to me and black metal. In a good year, I'll hear three or four albums. I'm intimidated by the sheer volume of metal out there (across a sprawl of subgenres) and have always felt too intimidated and too daunted by the task of trying to dig through it all. When it comes to journalism, I don't know where to start, all the reference points are unfamiliar to me, it's like I've fallen way too far behind to ever catch up. Metal is one of those genres that I never listened to growing up -- for instance, I didn't listen to 80's icons like Metallica or Slayer, and couldn't even appreciate Guns N Roses like most of my friends did. Simply put, I have no history with the genre. Trying to catch up on folk or country would be just as difficult and feel just as foreign. It's not like techno, where the mountain of music getting released every year might be gargantuan, but I already know the history and culture of the genre, know what I like and what I don't like, and can therefore disappear for a while and always slip right back in.

So if I hadn't walked into Aquarius Records on Valencia St. in San Francisco a few weeks ago, would I have ever heard about Wolves in the Throne Room? There's no way to know for sure. Sometimes it seems that a little bit of internet research and regular trips to a stock list of blogs and websites is enough to keep a person exposed to enough music to keep him or her scrambling for the time to hear everything that piques their interest. And yet all the Pandoras and blog links and Youtube playlists never seem to replicate the thrill of walking into a cool music shop and having your mind blown by a record you've never heard about getting played over the in-store stereo.

When it comes right down to it, all I'm looking for in metal is a killer Wall of Sound.

Across town, I was convinced that goth and metal should almost never be mixed. Ulver's "Blood Inside" (from 2005) was such a disaster that I never believed that a kitchen sink approach to black metal would ever be advisable.

I would have never believed the awesomeness of the intro to the opening track of "Celestial Lineage" if I hadn't been forced to hear it in Aquarius Records with my own ears. After three tense minutes of soothing chants, wind chimes, and sighing synths, "Thuja Magnus Imperium" smoothly segues into its guitar intro before erupting into a choral blizzard of guitars and drums. It's the most satisfying payoff to the long intro of an opening track on an album I've heard since ... well, is there a better one? I need some time to think about this. And only three minutes later, it's back to a Steve Roach lite interlude before exploding again. Spector made three minute operas for the kids, Wolves in the Throne Room prefer a full eleven minutes. Who's counting? Each track is exhausting, exhilarating, and inexplicably heartbreaking.

Give me an honest answer: how would you expect to feel at the end of a ten minute metal track called "Astral Blood"? I promise that if you listen to the penultimate track on "Celestial Lineage", you won't be disappointed that it doesn't match your preconceptions.

The nearly drums-free "Prayer of Transformation" is an elegiac extended hymn that caps off with a distorted drone of guitars that grows slowly in volume only to disappear abruptly. Shouldn't all metal albums end like this??

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ladytron with Sonoio and VHS or Beta, Phoenix Concert Theatre

This was my first time back at the Phoenix in over five years. Never has a place felt so completely familiar and yet also so oddly foreign. It seems like I know every inch of the place, having stared at these pastel coloured four walls dozens of times over a fifteen year period. But I'm also an outsider now, it no longer feels like *my* place, it feels like *their* place. A venue "belongs" to the people who frequent it, and that's definitely not me, at least not recently. And who are these people, these Ladytron fans? It's a surprisingly male dominated crowd with a few goth types mixed in. What was once a niche electro-pop band who weren't expected to last until the end of the last decade have carved themselves a healthy slice of the local indie scene. The truly surprising thing about the crowd tonight is how boring and generic looking they are.

I only catch the last five minutes of Sonoio's set, which is a shame because it's great stuff, a midpoint between kid-friendly 80's synthpop and the noisy aggression of 00's industrial and rhythmic noise. VHS or Beta seem to have a number of fans in the audience, and to their credit, they come across more as rock stars compared to what you'd expect from bands playing this kind of music. They're kind of like a Depeche Mode-loving version of Linkin Park (or is that just Linkin Park?)

Last year, I wondered aloud whether Ladytron had the endurance to really slay an audience from the gig's start until its finish, and if tonight's set is any indication, it would appear that they knew their limitations too. They've cut the guitars and the noise, loaded up on more synth bells and whistles, slowed the tempos to a more relaxed pace, and settled for going only half throttle. Slow and steady works better for them, even though they sometimes walk a dangerous line between pacing themselves and going through the motions. This style also tends to homogenize their material, cancelling out the highs and lows in favour of a steady stream of middles. But in the end, a juicy selection of oldies mixed in with new tracks from "Gravity the Seducer" show just how many great tunes Ladytron have. The new album might be a mixed bag, but there are enough goodies there to pad their increasingly impressive back catalogue, and once you have enough killer songs in the bag then it's hard to play a sub-par gig.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 5

"The Vainqueur:Elevations mix" (30 minutes)

What's better than baking to the hyper-minimal sloshing of Vainqueur in the summertime? For me, there's almost no better summer jam than Vainqueur's classic 1997 album, "Elevations". If the sun doesn't dehydrate you to the point of deliriousness first, then this stuff will.

The mix came together quickly, I was listening to the album, figured why not make a mix with this material (featuring every track on the album), thought up a track ordering that seemed to be reasonable, recorded one take that didn't really satisfy me, recorded a second take. It's the second take that appears here exactly as is -- no edits or added effects.

Unfortunately I didn't have any of the original vinyl 12"'s with me and had to settle for the CD versions instead. Not only are the CD tracks edited down, often quite severely, but they're also mastered differently and sound completely different (and inferior) -- distorted, muddy bass; less dynamic treble (which is particularly hard on the whooshing atmospherics that are a signature component of this type of music), and beats that could have been recorded in a swamp. Still, it's one of the greatest techno albums ever, re-jigged and "edited" from sixty minutes down to thirty, so what are you waiting for?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episodes 4 & 4a

"Wins and WAR and Ambience" (56 minutes/86 minutes)

I set out to make an ambient mix, and usually that means some quiet bits and a whole load of ear-splitting noise, because that's what passes for chillout music around my house.

But this time I really meant it ... nothing but blissful, daydreaming music. That doesn't mean it's quiet like the tune of birds chirping all the time, but I stayed away from the screeching metallic sounds ...

... for almost a whole hour. The mix should have ended after about 56 minutes, in fact, that version of the mix is what appears above in the Mixcloud link. It makes for a nicely self contained mix with a perfectly logical conclusion. But I couldn't leave well enough alone, and continued on for another half hour, bringing the mix to a painfully loud conclusion. Yeah, I chill to this stuff. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, so the full mix appears here as a separate d/l link. The full tracklist appears in the comments. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten albums that turned 20 in 2011 (Idolator list)

1991 was undoubtedly a transformative year in music, as the "alternative went mainstream" and swept away the music (and the bands) of the 1980's seemingly overnight. A hugely disproportionate amount of my favourite music of the 90's was made in that year, thanks to a number of bands making their wildly creative, genre-defining masterpiece albums -- Nirvana for sure, but the three that stand out the most for me are MBV's "Loveless", the Orb's "Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld", and 808 State's "Ex:El".

But what do the pop music gossip crew at Idolator think about when they think about 1991?

Nirvana, "Nevermind". Not sure where they're getting the "30 million sold" number from, but Nirvana were a phenomenon, no doubt.

Michael Jackson, "Dangerous". A lot has been said about how Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off the top spot of the US Albums Chart, signifying a symbolic passing of the torch from the generation of 80's pop (dominated by Michael) to the flannel wearing generation of Gen-X grunge rockers. First of all, "Dangerous" was f***ing huge. The first airing of the videos for each of major singles from the album were events in and of themselves, subject to week-long hype campaigns and Michael Jackson career retrospectives. It remained in the Top 200 for two years. It sold more than "Bad". Secondly, if we go back and look at the #1 albums of 1991 and 1992, you'll see that the chart history was bit more complicated than you probably remember.

"Nevermind" was released on Sept. 24, 1991. During that week, Metallica's "Black Album" had just finished a four-week run as the number one album in the US. Everyone remembers that Metallica broke through that year, but not everyone remembers that they broke through before Nirvana (I didn't). They didn't ride Nirvana's coattails into the mainstream, and neither did REM, whose "Out of Time" went to #1 in the spring of that year.

Metallica were knocked out of the #1 spot by Garth Brooks, therefore setting the stage for Nirvana to slay the dragons and save music forever, or something. Here's what happened:

ArtistTitleWeeks at #1
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind1
Guns N' RosesUse Your Illusion II2
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind7
U2Achtung Baby1
Michael JacksonDangerous4
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind2
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind8

Nirvana knocked both Michael Jackson AND Garth Brooks out of #1 in separate weeks, which is remarkable. On the other hand, Garth Brooks was #1 for a million weeks before Nirvana and a million weeks after Nirvana, on his way to having more multiplatinum albums in the US than anyone in music history other than Elvis and the Beatles. Nirvana only briefly interrupted business as usual at the top of the album charts. The summer of Billy Ray Cyrus (seventeen consecutive weeks at #1 for "Some Gave All") was just around the corner. By the fall, Garth Brooks was #1 again with yet another new album before clearing the way for "The Bodyguard Soundtrack" to hang around #1 for a while and sell a gazillion copies.

What do we learn from this? In 1991-2, the new boss was usually the same as the old boss, and for the most part that wouldn't change in the succeeding years, as you could always mark your calendars for Garth or Mariah's inevitable return to #1. And "Dangerous" marked Michael Jackson's last run as the undisputed biggest pop star in the world. Who knows how much longer he could have continued that way if he hadn't gone completely off the deep end?

U2, "Achtung Baby". Great album. One of the many "Kid A"'s before there was "Kid A" (i.e. top rock band takes risks and "goes electronic"). N.B. All of the "Kid A"'s before "Kid A" are better albums than the actual "Kid A".

Mariah Carey, "Emotions". Even Mariah had a sophomore slump, although any artist would kill to sell eight million albums in their "slump" phase.

Boyz II Men, "Cooleyhighharmony". From my vantage point twenty years ago, this album might as well have been released on Mars. Nothing could have been further from what I was listening to. Eventually, anyone who turned on a radio for more than five minutes in the 90's had to know at least a few Boyz II Men songs.

Erasure, "Chorus". Here's one I wasn't expecting to see. This was an odd phase in Erasure's career because they'd been brilliant in the 80's but it took a couple of albums for that to be reflected in the charts. In the early 90's they achieved their biggest successes as album artists, even though the quality of the material had declined. They could have settled into a slow, Pet Shop Boys-like decline phase, but instead they baffled everyone with the 70-minute self titled album in 1995, produced by Thomas Fehlmann of the Orb and boasting no obvious singles. It was their "Spirit Of Eden", and it effectively killed their star power.

Pearl Jam, "Ten". In the end this had more staying power than "Nevermind", which in retrospect is no surprise because it's just reheated 70's stoner rock with drearier, more depressing lyrics (this was also fairly obvious at the time, although not right away for a lot of people, including me). You could say the same about Nirvana, but there was plenty of the 80's underground in their music (Melvins, Pixies) and they sounded dangerous from time to time, whereas Pearl Jam were your Dad's favourite grunge band from the get go. Once "Ten" had sold enough copies to make the world safe for Billy Corgan to admit that he was a huge fan of bands like Queen, grunge's reputation as the supposed tough guy killer of hair metal wimp rock was irrevocably damaged.

The KLF, "The White Room". Props to Idolator for paying a small bit of tribute to one of the most fascinating and unusual rags to riches to rags stories in the history of pop.

REM, "Out of Time". I've never understood the retroactive attempt to label this album the better and more depressing album compared with its successor, "Automatic for the People". Anything with "Shiny Happy People" on it should be automatically disqualified from winning any "better than ___" argument with any other album. "Automatic" also stands up much better to repeat listens, I never need to hear "Losing My Religion" again like I never have to hear "Stairway To Heaven" ever again. I think I prefer "Monster" (a very underrated album) to "Out of Time", yeah, I said it.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik". This was legitimately huge, although I couldn't stand it at the time and was tempted to pour boiling cooking oil into my ears to prevent myself from hearing "Under the Bridge" ever again. To this day, I've never really liked a RHCP in my life.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Laetitia Sadier, Bela Tar @ Levontin 7

This is my second time seeing Bela Tar this year (the first time was at this show) and it's more of the same but a little bit better, because her music is far better suited for a cramped underground room than an elevated stage in a spacious club.

Laetitia Sadier is at the point in her career when she's stored up so musical capital from her days in Stereolab that can do absolutely anything she wants. Stereolab in the 90's were one of the most essential bands ever, they were gold in the studio and on stage (their 1996 concert in Toronto, with Cornershop opening for them, is one of my top five favourite concerts ever, if not top three) and influenced countless indie rock imitators. By the 00's, their work as indie guiding lights was basically done, but they were still well worth following even though the music ranged from merely good to "yet another kooky science pop rehash". In the 10's, the glory days are long gone but who cares? Sadier is in a comfortable place, where the music will never be so bad that she'll embarrass herself or tarnish her legacy, but will never be good enough to compare to the stuff she did twenty years ago. She's like the indie rock version of the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, where she can release a record every few years to moderate acclaim (even though the music on album will be forgotten not long after) and can always head out on the road because nobody can hate on getting a chance to see the legend live and in colour.

But whereas Macca and the Stones are content to be jukeboxes, recycling the hits year after year, decade after decade, Sadier refuses to do so, determined to forge new paths forward with Monade, and now as a solo artist. She should be commended for it, although Sadier probably wouldn't think of it as anything other than the obvious and natural thing to do. Besides her distinctive voice, there isn't much that separates tonight's performance from a lot of other female artists standing on stages worldwide, singing about The Issues that matter to them (on today's menu: divorce, children, and politicians who don't do the jobs they're supposed to do). But does it matter? Who's complaining?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Blur, "Starshaped", "No Distance Left To Run"; Pulp live in Toulouse 25/08/2011

I remember reading a review of "Starshaped" in one of the UK music weeklies in 1993. It accomplished what a review is supposed to accomplish -- it piqued my interest. I'd followed some of the friendly press they'd been getting, read the "Modern Life Is Rubbish" interviews where Damon Albarn claimed that just like punk killed hippies, they and their introspective British pop songs were on a mission to kill grunge (a short four years later they were writing grunge anthems and trying to sound like Beck and Pavement. The music business is hilarious sometimes). I wasn't biting, and wouldn't bite until the too awesome to ignore "Parklife" came out the next year.

And so, in yet another one of those baffling "my life in music" quirks where time flies and the next thing you know, you're wondering how it took eighteen years to get around to seeing "Starshaped". But now having seen it, I can justify the lack of urgency. If memory serves, the reviews appreciated the "warts and all" approach to capturing the band, showing both highs and lows, and not trying to serve as "oh my, look at our adoring fans cheering us, my what big stars we are" propaganda. Maybe that came across as bold and different in the era before every band was obligated to produce a tour film as a series of bonus chapters on their DVD every time they headed out on the road. It's not as if I was expecting sixty minutes of philosophical musing, but I was hoping for something more than scene after scene drinking and bouncing around on festival stages shown in rapid-fire clips interspersed with more drinking. The only scene that revealed anything personal or even halfway interesting about the band was the one where they're all sitting at a table and Damon brings up the subject of their infamously miserable year touring "Leisure" throughout 1992, followed by ... complete silence and indifference from the rest of the band. Yes, they don't want to talk about it. Have they simply moved on? Are they too focused on the future to dwell any more on the past? Are the wounds too fresh? You won't find the answers here.

Two concerts are featured as bonus chapters on the DVD. The first is a four song excerpt from a 1990 show in a tiny club, reportedly recorded just after they'd been signed. Watch it and marvel at the fact that they even got signed at all. They look and sound atrocious, metronomically flopping their hair around in their very best Madchester impression while their musicianship barely meets high school talent show levels of precision. The second show is a near complete gig from London in 1991, and it's like night and day. Their playing is messy in parts, but overall they sound tight and energetic. The gig captures them at a midpoint between the baggy/shoegaze twin ripoffs of their early days and the take no prisoners attitude of the "Modern Life is Rubbish" era, where they progressed as songwriters by leaps and bounds. Their performance of "There's No Other Way" bears little resemblance to more frantic later versions, here, they're still ironing out the last wrinkles of the Charlatans UK with the frivolous organ parts and mid-tempo shuffling. But "Oily Water" and a searing version of "Turn It Up" -- the worst song on MLIR actually rendered enjoyable -- hint at how bright the future would be.


Blur released their second film, "No Distance Left To Run", in 2010 and this is type of career retrospective that every great band wishes it could make. The history of the band, everything from meeting in school through "Think Tank", is told through a series of interviews with the individual band members against the backdrop of their comeback concerts in 2009. It's honest, painful, and hilarious. Nobody pulls any punches, nobody tries to gloss over the bad parts. Time and perspective has put everything in its proper context. The band knows exactly who they are, who they were*, and there are no delusions of grandeur, none of that "we've come back because music isn't what it used to be, the world needs Blur again" pompousness. They don't rant about they'll conquer the world again, but they all seem genuinely thrilled about the success of the reunion and about playing together again -- about the need to play together again to leave things in a better place than they were in 2003. Damon says that they played the best gigs of their career and it's all because of their friendship, and as corny as it sounds, I'll buy it because I can't think of a better reason why these songs should have sounded so good twenty years later.

* Well, in particular I couldn't let this one go from Damon, speaking about "Parklife", he says "there was no such thing as a left field indie band that were that commercial, and I think everyone had accepted that it was never going to be like that." Forgotten about Suede, have we? Come to grips with it Damon, it's been fifteen years! Oasis were nothing in April 1994 when "Parklife" was released, at that time it was viewed as Damon's effort to unseat Suede as the kings of British pop.

Blur haven't really changed at all after all these years. They're more balanced and responsible, but they look the same (but a bit older), Damon is still the arrogant but incredibly talented frontman, Graham is the quiet, troubled guitar genius; Alex is the boisterous cigarette smoking one, and Dave is the quiet one. The film matches your preconceptions about who Blur are, it takes everything you already knew and zooms in on the details, bringing everything into sharper focus. As far as band documentaries/histories go, this is one of the best you'll ever see.

Blur always occupied an odd place in my life, I used to say they were the band I liked as much as you could possibly like a band without ever really loving them. And it's still true. To paraphrase a famous movie line, every time I think I've gotten away from Blur, that I don't care about them anymore, they pull me back in.


As we all know, everybody reunites. Remember when reuniting meant the bands your parents listened to or the bands you used to hear on the radio when you were in grade school. Well, just like your parents' generation, now it's time for YOUR favourite bands to have another go at it. Jane's Addiction reunited. Blur reunited. Pulp reunited.

Blur had their moment in the sun in 2009 with their widely praised Hyde Park and Glastonbury shows, this year it was Pulp's turn to blow away the festival goers. But before they started on the festival circuit, they made their live comeback earlier this year in a small venue in Toulouse, France. After ten years on hiatus, they sound pretty much the same as always. They've always sounded a bit shambolic (Pulp were never exactly a well-oiled machine live) and Jarvis Cocker's voice has worn down some, but the songs are still unstoppable. As you'd expect, they ran through nearly all of "Different Class" in versions that are nearly indistinguishable from how they were played fifteen years ago, and it all helps to clarify why "His 'n' Hers" has always been the better album. Some of the subject matter from "Different Class" seems so dated and quaint -- yes, people really did pontificate on whether the soul of rave culture was more than skin deep or whether it was nothing but a bunch of kids getting high and dancing all night in a field. "His 'n' Hers" is nothing but a bunch of teenage hormones running wild and expressed through song, those memories never grow dated and will forever stay raw and poignant, especially on songs like "Pink Glove" (possibly my favourite Pulp song and sounding as fantastic as ever here).

The best parts of the gig are the songs that band and audience haven't heard/performed a million times (or maybe it's just me, still burned out on "Different Class"-era Pulp). A sensational, caustic eight minute version of "This is Hardcore" leads straight into the mood changing "Sunrise", relieving the tension before "Bar Italia" and "Common People" close the main set. At that point, they'd played everything they "had" to play IMO, and didn't disappoint by digging deeper into the archives for the encore -- "O.U." (first time performed since 1995), "Countdown" (I have this on a 1993 bootleg ... has it been performed since?), "Joyriders", "His 'n' Hers" (!!), "Acrylic Afternoons", and "Misshapes". Not my ideal closing tune, but that's a fascinating six-song encore that shows how they're not content to do this comeback the easy, safe way.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dan Sicko RIP

Journalist Dan Sicko passed away earlier this week from a rare form of eye cancer. His book "Techno Rebels" was arguably the first proper history of techno, tracing the evolution of the scene (and the careers of the principal actors) from high school dance parties in Detroit in the early 80's to the more global rave and electronica of the 90's. Sicko's book was a favourite of mine, and when I wrote for Cave 17, reviewing old techno and dance music compilations, I always used the title "Techno Relics" as a play on his book.

A number of sites have picked up on the news of Sicko's passing, but be warned that Rolling Stone and Matthew Perpetua are full of it when they write that "['Techno Rebels'] legitimized the Detroit techno scene of the Eighties for many readers." Techno wasn't waiting patiently for approval and legitimacy from rock critics in the 90's. Journalists didn't breathe a sigh of relief when "Techno Rebels" was published -- "I guess this means techno is real music now." Why not write similarly stupid things like "the Beatles landing in America legitimized the rock and roll of the Fifties for many readers." And of course, the "Detroit techno scene" wasn't only an eighties phenomenon. If anything helped to "legitimize" it, it was techno's blindingly rapid spread to the clubs and raves of Europe in the late 80's and early 90's. That's the kind of thing you can appreciate once you actually read Sicko's book (I doubt that anyone from RS has).

More of Sicko's writing as well as information about "Techno Rebels" is available at the site of the same name.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How electronica lived and died

Michaelangelo Matos has written a nice overview of the electronica scene in the US in the 1990's for NPR. His retelling of the story, enhanced via interviews with a number of record company execs who were involved at the time, is pretty much how I remember it, and naturally I learned a few factoids that were new to me (Rick Rubin passed on signing the Prodigy!)

As more time passes and the past becomes easier to contextualize, stories like these stand out as perfect examples of how stodgy and conservative the major label music business is. They tried to market electronica just like they'd been marketing every other music fad and trend for the previous thirty years -- find a hot new thing, give it a catchy name, sign everyone even remotely associated with the scene, plug the hell out of it on radio, sit back and sell millions of records. It's no wonder that people got bored of the same old boom/bust music discovery routine and starting discovering and plugging music themselves once the right tools became available for doing so via the internet.

The electronic music scene -- the clubs, the raves, vinyl and remix culture -- was never conducive to being packaged and sold in the same formulaic way just like every other type of pop music. Matos tells the story of five thousand people coming to see a Chemical Brothers concert in Orlando (not exactly a mecca of American dance music culture like Detroit or NYC or LA or Chicago) before their debut album had even been released. The reaction of the record companies? "Damn, we'd better get their album out fast." Somehow they weren't yet seeing the dollar signs when thousands of people were coming to a gig by a supposedly unknown band. In the mid-90's, revenue from touring, concerts, and merchandise all meant nothing unless there was an album to be sold. It wasn't until people stopped handing money to the record companies in the form of overpriced CDs that they realized they needed to diversify and sign artists to more wide ranging deals that included recorded music + concert tours + merch. The record companies needed to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming before they accepted that the era of profiting from $20 CDs that cost pennies to make was over, but not before they threatened (and acted) to sue software companies, ISP providers, and individual customers into little bits for the rights to continue with their outdated business model.

The Prodigy were an exception because their look and their videos were very much of the time. Maxim and Keith Flint looked like maniacal, disturbed individuals and their videos were full of shlocky horror, all slamming dungeon doors and flashing lights all the time. They fit in nicely into a world dominated by Marilyn Manson and nu-metal, which is not to say that they shared a fanbase with those bands, but theirs was a style that made perfect sense in that era.