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.