Saturday, December 29, 2012

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2012

Like in 2011, there was more of the usual podcast greatness in 2012.  Next year I'm resolving to hear a wider range of mixes that crisscross genres I wouldn't normally listen to.  More stuff like Ryan Hemsworth's FACT mix, for example, and less techno.  Inventive mixes with inspired track selections spanning different genres are what keeps the Electric Deluxe Podcast comfortably at the top of the podcast heap, with no end in sight to their run of excellence.

Nochexxx, LWE Podcast 111, February 6 (link)

A soothing and often perplexing mix of ambient and experimental music, he crams 32 tracks into 70 minutes but it doesn't come off as hurried in the least.  No matter how many times I hear this mix, I'm still shocked when I check the tracklist about twenty minutes and realize that it's already up to track fifteen or so.  It's an especially amazing effort considering he was sick with the flu when he made this.

DJ Harvey, Resident Advisor Podcast 300, February 27 (link)

Harvey described this mix as "an Afro, Gothic disco-fusion with dark undertones", and you won't catch me coming up with a better description than that.  A truly unique mix by a truly unique DJ.

JD Twitch (Optimo), White Light 54, March 6 (link)

Similar in style, and possibly even better than the famous Schwarz/Dixon/Ame "Grandfather Paradox" mix.

Matthew Dear, Resident Advisor 306, April 9 (link)

If I had to pick one mix from 2012 to play at a party for non-clubgoers that would hopefully keep them all dancing the whole night, it would be this one.

Fred P aka Black Jazz Consortium, TAL080, April 12 (link)

This was the best "DJ takes you on a journey" mix of the year, beginning with house and gradually getting deeper and darker into dub techno.  The transitions are so seamless and subtle that I often find myself zoning out while listening and having to skip back ten or fifteen minutes to remind myself how Fred P got from A to B.

Tommy Four Seven, BALANS020, July 2 (link)

The best mix of deep, dark, cavernous techno I heard this year.  It hits its peak and quickly reaches a point where it feels like he's dialing it down and the mix feels like its very nearly over ... only to keep going for another thirty minutes, getting progressively darker as it goes.  

Tim Sweeney, Groove Podcast 009, June 29 (link)

Tim Sweeney mixes house and techno in combination as well as anyone in the world right now.

Submerge, Electric Deluxe Episode 074, July 16 (link).

I could probably do a separate list of the top ten EDLX podcasts, that's how consistently great they've been.  It's impossible to pick just one favourite, but if I must, I'll go with this huge (2 h 40 m) mix of classic (mostly 80's) techno, house and industrial that perfectly represents the Electric Deluxe M.O.

Karizma, Strategik Rework Mix, July 26 (link).  An entrancing set of house music from Baltimore's Karizma that floats effortlessly from peak to peak.  

Slow To Speak, FACT 351, October 15 (link).  This is one of those times where you read "tracklist not provided" and can't accuse the DJ of being lazy, because this completely bonkers mix defies reduction to a simple tracklist.  Seeing how they've chopped and layered a ton of things all at once everywhere in the mix, you'd need to be an expert trainspotter to identify anything even with the trackist sitting in front of you.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

I've long since given up trying to regularly follow scenes, trends, or even labels.  It seems that every year I write about how my listening habits -- and therefore my end-of-year lists as well -- are increasingly subject to luck and randomness, and about how I've more or less come to accept (or even embrace) that notion as the years go by.  In that sense, I can feel secure that I've "done my job" if I can say that parts of my top ten list would have looked totally alien and unbelievable to me one year earlier.  In other words, if you could travel back in time and show me this list one year ago, my reaction should be "huh?? In a year's time I'm going to go nuts over [Indie/Techno Act I've Never Heard Of]?"

This list has a few surprises of that sort, but there are even more albums that hit the other extreme where you might need to check your calendar to confirm for yourself that it's 2012 and not 2001.  Yes, it was a good year for big names making great comeback albums.

So ...


10.  Voices from the Lake feat. Donato Dozzy & Neel, "Voices From the Lake" (Prologue)

Seeing how it's a techno album best not heard outside of your bedroom anytime before 2 AM, this effort by Voices From the Lake isn't for everyone.  It reminds me of the albums released by Starfish Pool in the latter part of the 90's (more specifically, everything after 1996's "Interference") -- woozy, minimal techno tracks that go on forever and dial down the temperature in the room while still being eminently danceable. 

9.  Matt Elliot, "The Broken Man" (Ici D'Ailleurs)

Matt Elliot's journey into folk rock enters its second decade and finds him stretching his sparse balladry to even more epic lengths, with three tracks at or exceeding the ten minute mark.  The Drinking/Failing/Howling Songs trilogy saw him gradually move toward beer-soaked Tom Waits territory, but with "The Broken Man", he ditched the alcohol for solemn tales of loneliness and lost love.  Plus, the expressiveness of his guitar and piano playing continues to grow with every album. 

8.  Silent Servant, "Negative Fascination" (Hospital Productions)

I listen to a lot of mixes and podcasts but that music almost never crosses over into my album listening habits, and I've never been sure why.  I knew Silent Servant very well from his mixes, where he was equally at home playing deep, heavy techno as he was with 80's techno pop and industrial.  His debut full length album was a perfect melding of those two sides of his personality.  "Negative Fascination" felt familiar from the very first listen, I felt like I'd heard it a million times before, and in some sense I had because Silent Servant's podcasts had already prepared me perfectly for his vision of what a techno album should be. 

It's also really refreshing to hear a techno album that's shorter than forty minutes in length. 

7.  Swans, "The Seer" (Young God Records)

Swans deserve all the praise they're getting for their monumental comeback.  I'm a bit surprised that "The Seer" has had this kind of impact, because is certainly not an easy listen. It's long, it's devastatingly heavy, and it's not something you put on unless you're in exactly the right mood for hearing it.  In many ways, it's an album that you admire rather than enjoy, like a classic book that sits on your shelf for years and is rarely read.  Like all two-hour albums, "The Seer" has its flaws, but every one of those ups and downs is essential to the fabric of the album.  You can't just skip to the best parts, you need to be patient and wait them out to properly absorb the album's power.

6.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah!  Don't Bend!  Descend!" (Constellation)

I have to admit that the twenty minute compositions with the predictably monster endings might not age well over years of listening.  I think I learned my lesson there with "Yanqui U.X.O.".  Instead, it's the long droning interludes that hold the album together.  "Levez vos Skinny Fists ..." is their best album because of the combination of long dramatic pieces with the field recordings and other assorted oddites.

5.  Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (Double Six Recordings)

Despite its inconsistency, this was the best album from Spiritualized in over ten years, and a surprisingly uplifting, hope-filled effort considering a) most Spiritualized songs are about broken hearts and drug spirals, and b) the (literally) painful circumstances surrounding the recording.

4.  Actress, "R.I.P." (Honest Jon's Records)

Electronic music fans sometimes pine for those days in 1998 when Boards of Canada and Autechre were in their bleepy, moody phases and were releasing music that sounded much like this.  But "R.I.P." is much more than a nostalgia trip.  It not only meets, but easily exceeds the quality of those 90's benchmark albums, twisting those antiquated tones into fascinating new shapes, leaving nearly all the IDM copyists in the dust while still managing to sound almost nothing like them.  "R.I.P." feels like a partial redefinition of the boundaries of techno, and for me, this is the album where Actress finally started living up to all of the hype and then some.

3.  Raveonettes, "Observator" (Vice Records)

One could argue that a band whose music is as derivative as that of the Raveonettes isn't capable of making a great album, virtually by definition.  For instance, you could say it's ridiculous to claim that their 2008 album "Lust Lust Lust" is better than Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" because if it's such a transparent attempt to duplicate the original, then it can't have anything new to say.  In trying to be too much like "Psychocandy", it can't make us think about that album in a way we haven't thought about it before.  

First of all, "Lust Lust Lust" is much better than "Psychocandy" because it's executed better -- with better tunes, better vocals, and better harmonies.  You can call the feedback and murky production a tie.

And "Observator" is much better than "Lust Lust Lust" because whereas the latter does one or two things well (because that's all it needs), the former does a bunch of things well, or more specifically, each song excels at something different from all the others.  

2.  Sigur Ros, "Valtari" (Parlophone) 

I still can't figure these guys out, just when I thought they might be going pop (on their last album), they went the opposite way and became the Icelandic Stars of the Lid.

1.  Beach House, "Bloom" (Bella Union)

I'm a bit tired of reading about other people's favourite albums of the year, not least because I feel bad about not having time to listen to them all.  Sometimes its better just to avoid tasks that seem too overwhelming.  And I can't stand critics lists where they try to justify their pick with some kind of higher cultural significance, i.e. "in a year where [signficant political event] dominated the landscape, [album] encapsulated the times perfectly."

As great as 2012 was for music, Beach House's "Bloom" was my album of the year by miles, and this was never in doubt almost from the first listen.  Even so, if you haven't heard it already then you probably don't have the time or energy to listen to it because just like everybody else (including me), you've got a backlog of other albums that you hope you catch up with one of these years.  I get that.  

So rather than sit in front of the computer for hours, hopelessly trying to write the perfect blurb about how incredibly great "Bloom" is, for people who will likely never get around to listening to it no matter what I say, I've picked out the best bits of the album -- the very best part each of its ten songs -- and edited them together for your listening convenience.  Now you only have to spend a breezy 1:45 to hear the very best that "Bloom" has to offer.  Well, perhaps not the absolute very best, because I could have picked out a few dozen fantastic moments just from the opening song, "Myth".  But I wanted to have the entire album represented.  

I have no idea if this will excite anyone enough to go out and hear the entire album for themselves.  The truth is that I was more worried about ruining the album for myself.  If you keep rewinding and rewatching a scene from a movie or TV show, you run the risk of ruining that scene by oversaturation, and losing your enthusiasm for the rest of the movie because you only want to fast forward to get to the best scenes.  Fortunately, I've heard the 1:45 version of "Bloom" a number of times already and it only makes me want to put the album on repeat and never take it off.  

Now that's a great album.  

"Myth", 1:12 - 1:20.  Probably the best Cocteau Twins impression ever ("Heaven or Las Vegas" era), which includes about 70% of the music recorded by the Cocteaus.  

"Wild" :59 - 1:08.   Out of all the "Saint Etienne goes shoegaze" moments on the album, this might be the best.  

"Lazuli", 1:59 - 2:13.   This short bridge might be the finest moment on the album.   

"Other People", 2:19 - 2:27.  Another brief bridge/interlude.

"The Hours", 1:16 -1:31.  Of course the best part of this song had to be the chorus, because it's the best chorus on the album.  It actually pained me to cut this clip down to less than fifteen seconds.  

"Troublemaker", 1:49 - 1:56.  It's the weakest song on the album, but the chorus still delivers.

"New Year", 1:54 - 2:05.  This is during the mid-song break where there's a "Loveless"-lite passage with wailing guitars and other noises that sound like seal cries.  

"Wishes", 2:20 - 2:27.  Yet another great instrumental passage.

"On the Sea", 4:40-4:51.  I had no choice but to go with the big finish.

"Irene", 4:02 - 4:09.  The repeated refrain in the song's last three minutes can't be topped, but it also can't be easily excerpted.  So I chose the moment when the guitar revs up again and starts re-entering the song in full force, because that's the exact moment when the "Hey Jude" repeat until forever ending becomes an inevitability.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two techno links

In XLR8R's "The Art of the Mix CD" feature, Derek Opperman wonders if the mix CD still means anything in the age of free mixes available in every corner of the internet.  His panel of interviewees (all of whom recently released a commercial mix CD) say yes, although would you expect them to say no?  It would be like saying "don't buy my CD, there's no point to it".  The consensus seems to be that the CD is a more carefully curated mix of songs compared to the typical free online mix.  Plus the CD can offer other perks, like exclusive unreleased tracks and special packaging, that you won't get in an online mix.   

But you have to read all the way to the end to hear the punchline, courtesy of Jack Dunning aka Untold -- "I'm kind of glad that we got [this mix CD] out this year, because in one, two years' time, I don't know if it'll be viable from a distribution point of view".  One thousand words reporting on the supposed magic and relevance of the mix CD, but by the end, they basically admit that the mix CD won't exist in a few years time!  I also think that the music world will lose something forever when the mix CD goes the way of the homemade mixtape, and I'm also fairly sure that Dunning is right.  

Mario Kolonić Pytzek interviews journalist Philip Sherburne for Burek, and Sherburne is on point as usual.  I was surprised to read that he's grown out of clubbing somewhat and finds the time to spend 10-12 hours a day listening to and reviewing music.  I would have liked to hear more about how records generate "buzz" these days.  People have been discussing consensus building and the hivemind mentality (online or otherwise) since forever, but music discovery, purchase/download, and consumption habits are constantly in flux and I would have liked to hear more from Sherburne on the topic.  Plus, his comment that "writers and editors gravitate toward what is already getting 'buzz'" is a bit of a dodge -- after all, where does that buzz originate?  Don't those same writers and editors look to generate it from their own writings, at least some of the time?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Woob, "Have Landed"

The first Woob album, "Woob 1194" remains a masterpiece of ambient music and one of my ten favourite albums of the 1990's.  After countless listens, I can still be shocked and surprised by its endless twists and mood changes.  Woob's "comeback" album, "Repurpose", contained a mixture of new and reworked older material, and although the new recordings didn't reach the high standards set by his best 90's output, they were plenty good enough to satisfy curiosity seekers that Woob still had "it" after all this time.  After seventeen dormant years, coming back and sounding like a perfectly acceptable version of yourself is a victory for fans and the artist.

That's why Woob's newest album is so disappointing.  I've listened to this album a bunch of times, trying to figure out who or what this version of Woob is supposed to be, or for whom this music was written for, and I'm no closer to figuring it out than I was after my first listen.  Most of "Have Landed" comes across as an audition reel for future soundtrack work.   Parts of "Space Therapy" and "Thieves" could be a the beginnings of a new ballet production, or perhaps his attempt at rewriting a "Lion King" musical.  "Finale" is a slice of ambient jazz for those who wished the Em:t label releases would have sounded more like Ninja Tune.  As to whether any such people existed in the 90's (or today), I have my doubts.

Woob isn't afraid to experiment on "Have Landed", and there are plenty of odd sounds and dramatic shifts in mood that one would expect from a Woob album.  It's a breezy listen and seventy minutes tend to just fly by, but soundtracks usually aren't the main event, they're the background music that enhance the real action on the screen.  But there's no movie, and no action, which means that on its own, "Have Landed" is mostly forgettable once its over.  

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Grammy nominees 2013

Here's a list of the nominees in the major categories on Grantland, and Grady Smith wrote some good commentary about the nominees for EW.

Quick thoughts:

My first, cynical reaction to the spate of Frank Ocean nominees is that the Grammy voters won't take to the narrative like most critics are.

Fun will win Record of the Year.  Is this as obvious as it seems?  Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" was a huge hit too, but might be too unconventional for Grammy voters.  Although I'm still shocked that it was such a megahit precisely because of its oddball nature, even nine months after the fact. So I guess it wouldn't be a shock if it were to win.  I suppose Taylor Swift could eke out a surprise win too.  But I'll still put my money on Fun.

Grantland's Amos Barshad thinks that Mumford and Sons have Album of the Year wrapped up, but never underestimate the potential for a surprise win by an old fart act (see: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Steely Dan, U2 in '06, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles winning posthumously, etc.).  However, young acts have won  in each of the past three years, so is this a trend or does it mean an old fart win is overdue?  This year, the well established granddaddy rock act would be Jack White, and that's my pick.

No Canadian has ever won for Song of the Year, so I'm happy to root for Carly Rae Jespen and her songwriting partners here.  Other than that, I still don't understand how Song of the Year and Record of the Year are supposed to work, i.e. how they can only have two nominated songs in common between them.  It's not 1960, all eleven nominees (nine songs in total) are original songs!

Best Dance Recording ... yeah, let's just move on ... Best Dance Album ... moving on once again ...

Best Rock Performance.  Just engrave Sprinsteen's name on the trophy now.  He's won eleven Grammys with "rock" in the title in the last decade (Best Rock Songs, Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance, and some others with even more ridiculous titles), in other words, he wins this Grammy every time he releases a new album.  Jack White might grab a win in one of the other Rock categories, but otherwise this is Springsteen all the way.  

Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance nominees include Anthrax, Marilyn Manson, Iron Maiden, and Megadeth.  What year is it again?  Somehow this is the oldest of old fogey categories in the Grammys this year.

Best Alternative Music Album.  Grady Smith notes that these nominees have nothing in common, which goes to show that the Grammys have no idea what alternative music is or how to define it.  But that's what makes this group of nominees so interesting!  It's an interesting grouping of well regarded albums, and there's no  obvious cliched narrative that gives you a clue as to who might win.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Microscopic royalties and the golden age of CDs

Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi caused a bit of controversy last week by writing an article about the meager royalties fees paid out to artists by streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify.  Some people got worked up over it, told him to stop whining and go on tour if he wants to make money, and writers like Maura Johnston penned rebuttals to the rebuttals.

Like with most mini-controversies, this one is less of a big deal than it's been made out to be.  First of all, Krukowski wasn't really railing against the current state of things.  Obviously he wouldn't object to pocketing more money each time someone streams one of his songs, but he wasn't using his article to say "pay me" either.  He didn't say that he was against the streaming sites -- I'm sure he gets his time and money's worth from his Spotify subscription.  His concluding point, after having run through the math to justify his position, was that he'd accepted the fact that he wasn't ever going to earn significant money from streaming his songs.  That's why he's offering his own streams completely free of charge.  He's never going to be able to buy much more than a six pack of beer from his streaming royalties, so why not just give the music away for free through his own site, increasing his web traffic and giving fans easier access to his music all in one shot?

Artists are earning a pittance but the streaming sites are losing a small fortune every year and aren't looking like they'll turn a profit anytime soon.  Krukowski says they "exist to attract speculative capital", i.e. like an overinflated stock, their services/products aren't worth much but the company is.  So if they're not really in the business of music, and are in fact undermining the recording, pressing, and selling of music as Krukowski claims, then how are they worth anything at all?  He doesn't say, but the answer is obvious.  Spotify is worth something for the same reasons that Facebook is -- they're in the business of building databases of information about their users.  The site's actual services are worth very little, but information about their millions of users' listening, purchasing, and social habits are worth a fortune.  It's even quoted right there in Krukowski's article, when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says that "our focus is all on growth", he's not talking about diversifying the selection of music they offer, it's about growing and diversifying their user base.

Anyway, some people misinterpreted Krukowski's acquiescence as complaining and commented that he should tour more rather than trying to make a living off selling records and CDs.  That's easier said than done, no question about it.   Organizing a tour is a lot of work, there are plenty financial risks involved, and I can't disagree with anything Maura wrote.  But these aren't the real issues here.  The core of the debate is no different from the David Lowery/Emily White spat from several months ago, and my opinions on that haven't changed.  Music is a high risk, high reward business, and not everyone living in every city in the world will be able to make a living off it.  That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it always will be.  Trying to reconfigure the industry so that bands can see an increase in revenue for doing the same work isn't financially viable.

I agree that it's not a fair industry in that artists have always had to accept the short end of the stick in their battles with record company management.   But the digital/streaming genie isn't going back in the battle, and I've never understood what musicians' long term plan is supposed to be to combat that.  Of course musicians want to be better compensated for their work, so what's their proposed solution?  Should albums cost $20-25 again, like in the early days of CDs?  Do artists need to pursue more liscencing agreements with TV shows and advertisers in order to subsidize their music careers?  What about more government support for musicians, possibly in the form of arts grants?  Lowery chatted to The Awl a free months ago, complained about the state of things, said that musicians should be able to support themselves, and suggested no solutions for doing anything about it.  When the Amanda Palmer/Kickstarter experiment was brought up he basically ridiculed it.  I'm not going to get into the Amanda Palmer thing here, but at least she tried doing something a bit different, something that circumvented the usual revenue streams.  

If this post hasn't depressed or frustrated you too much, now it's time to take a break and relive the glory days of the CD by celebrating it's 30th birthday with Pitchfork. Enjoy the nostalgia, and try not to dwell on all the money you invested on overpriced CDs! 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"; Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Meat and Bone"

Check your calendars ... yes, it's 2012, not 1999.

You'd think that as time drags on, music would be less likely to truly surprise us.  The more you see, the more the unexpected becomes expected, or even common.  Bands make comebacks all the time, sometimes they're successful, sometimes they embarrass themselves, but both paths are already well traveled.

I hadn't heard that JSBX had reunited.  Proper bluesmen either never seem to age, or if they do age, they get cooler and more badass as they get older.  Either way, they play forever, or until they physically can't anymore.  But JSBX were never proper bluesmen.  They were punks who loved the blues whose gigs were sweat and beer soaked medleys of songs that often weren't much more than repetitively shouted slogans.  They were fantastic both on record and on stage for several years in the 90's, whose cred was partly fueled by whatever they could siphoned off sometime collaborators like Beck and Beastie Boys.  Anyhow, it was a safe assumption that the indie blues revival, like nu-metal or swing or other brief 90's trend, would have a short shelf life.  JSBX knew it too, which is why they experimented with proper songs and real producers starting with 1998's "Acme".  But the magic was destined to fade away and they finally went on hiatus several years later.  Many formerly devoted fans probably couldn't have told you exactly what year that was.

They returned to the stage in 2010 for some one off shows, which must have been well received because they started playing live more and more frequently thereafter.  You might have thought that these 40-somethings were too old to still pull off all their old shit, I mean sure, bands reunite all the time but this isn't Culture Club playing MOR pop with an occasional harmonica solo, this was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion who were supposed to be ripping it up on stage and throwing their bodies all over the place.  Based on some of the evidence it seems they've toned things down a bit but you used to feel tired just thinking about one of their gigs, so can you blame them for mellowing a little?

But the new album couldn't possibly be any good.  Maybe there'd have a chance if it was hip-hop tinged funky blues made for driving around on Sundays, but if you told me that they there attempting to record a throwback to the savagery and trashiness of "Now I Got Worry", I would have dismissed it as an idea that was clearly dead on arrival.

And yet, they did it, they made that album and it's good.  It might not have hooks and catchy slogans that compare with their best work of a decade and a half ago, but it's brimming with energy, packed with cool riffs and crazy mid-song rhythmic changes, plenty of theremin solos, and is generally a fantastically fun 40-minute rollercoaster ride of Blues Explosion goodness without a boring moment.  It wouldn't be fair to trot out the clichéd comment that longtime fans won't be disappointed.  This album will exceed your expectations.  By a lot.


GY!BE reunited a couple of years ago and have been touring steadily since their comeback at All Tomorrow's Parties (which they also curated).  At some point earlier this year, they found the time to record a new album basically in secret.  Somehow the very existence of  "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" was virtually unknown until days before its release.   Suddenly, GY!BE had come all the way back, with tours, a new album, and the best reviews of their career.

Maybe I could have anticipated all of that in some alternate reality, but I definitely wouldn't have foreseen them becoming culturally relevant. Who saw that coming?  GY!BE used to be one of the most divisive bands around.  You either thought they were one of the most emotionally powerful bands bands ever, a cinematic tour-de-force and the vanguard of the indie anti-establishment; or pompous Glenn Branca ripoffs whose songs dragged on for forever and a half.  But even their biggest fans, and I was certainly one of them, thought their politics were crap.  Even their most devoted fans wouldn't stan for the ideas of a collective of reclusive figures who wouldn't let up about American imperialism and society's endless downward spiral.  They were too heavy-handed even in the immediate post-9/11 age of pessimism and paranoia, which is saying something.  But skip forward ten years, and suddenly, protests and reactionary politics aren't just the stuff of bearded weirdos.  Between the Occupy movement and the massive student protests that dominated the news all year in their native Montreal, protests are a thing again and GY!BE are the role models providing the best soundtrack for the changing times (reviews like the two I just linked didn't exist during the first phase of their career) .  The fact that most of "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" consists of old material that was kicking around in their live sets nine years ago is irrelevant, in fact, it probably only enhances their image as the prophetic band who saw the future coming before anyone else did.

But the best thing about "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" is that GY!BE finally managed to record themselves properly, capturing the brain-melting ferocious power of their live shows on a studio recording for the first time.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Music stores in Milan, plus SPIRITUALIZED (with Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle) live in Milan at Magazzini Generali HELL yeah

After an afternoon of searching (mostly in pouring rain), I finally located the best music store in Milan -- Serendeepity.  They focus mainly on electronic music, particularly house and techno.  I flipped through impressively stocked rows of compliation CD's (both new and classic), new releases, and heavily discounted discs, eventually picking up stuff by Conforce, Tiga, Stefan Goldmann, and a few others.  I barely scratched the surface of their vinyl stock, because what's the point?  I don't have access to my vinyl collection or turntables so why set myself for disappointment by salivating over music I can't buy?  Later on that day, I stumbled upon another cool store, Dischi Volanti, completely by accident when I was searching for a place to hide out from the pouring rain while waiting for the aperitivo bars to open.  It's a second hand vinyl and CD store that mostly stocks jazz and rock, but they also had a few shelves devoted to experimental, ambient, and industrial music, most of it at least 10-15 years old.  I felt transported back in time to a sale at Amoeba or the Record Peddler (RIP) in the 90's.  

But the highight of this trip to Milan, musically speaking, was getting to see Spiritualized live for the ninth time on Sunday the 11th.  There's nothing to make me feel more aware of the incomprehensible passage of time than the realization that it had been over nine years since I last saw SPZ, or put another way, more time since the most recent show than it took me to see them the first eight times.

Before that was a transcendent set by Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle.  First, a couple of quick notes about Italian crowds (or at least about this Italian crowd).  The hour of the concert, i.e. what is written on the ticket or in the newspaper, is the time the concert actually starts.  And by concert, they mean the main act.  If there's one thing I hate about concerts, it's always having to guess at what time to show up based on some combination of band and venue and time that people will decide to show up.  In Italy, the listed time corresponds to a realistic start time, and the opening act hits the stage one hour before that.  But this meant that Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle had to start shortly after 8 PM, with not more than twenty or thirty people in attendance.  In Toronto, nobody would be caught dead within 50 feet of the stage in a mostly empty concert hall.  But in Milan, everybody stood up -- no matter where they'd been sitting anywhere in the room -- and walked to the front as soon as the band appeared on stage.  How about that, respect shown to the artists who came to entertain them ...

Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle certainly earned it.  Their first song was a spot on homage to CCR -- if CCR had been a Krautrock band.  I think that's yet another great musical idea that AFAIK nobody had ever thought of ... the world didn't know it needed a Krautrock CCR and how could a band like that be anything but good.  Then they started rocking out John Lee Hooker style, with a heavy bluesy twang despite the lack of a bass player, with three guitar players hammering out Spacemen 3-like riffs right down to the uncanny ressemblances to S3's "Suicide".

The key turning point in SPZ's career happened between two legs of the tour in support of "Let It Come Down".  Not like anyone realized it at the time.  Fans were used to Jason's constant tinkering with the lineup and with live versions of his songs, so the changes didn't really register.  But the fall 2001 incarnation of SPZ was still a maximalist space rock outfit, committed to creating the most overwhelming blast of sound possible by augmenting the regular band with singers and brass.  It was a pint-sized version of the 100-strong collective that participated in recording "Let It Come Down", if Jason could have taken 100 people on tour with him, he would.  Whereas the SPZ that emerged in spring 2002 was a more stripped down ensemble, now minus the brass and all the other bells and whistles, that played crisp Velvet-y rock with the occasional gospel ballad.  And in the ten years since then, on every subsequent album and tour, they've entrenched themselves deeper into that mold.  It's as if they took ten years to figure out what kind of band they wanted to be, spent the next ten years trying to perfect that sound, and yet judging by Drowned In Sound's recent interview with Jason, he still can't figure out exactly what he wants to do next.  

That odd mixture of confidence and uncertainty was clearly evident when they were on stage.  The wibbly improv interludes and noise freakouts used to be the glue that held their sets together.   Now they feel out of place.  This version of the band is too rehearsed, right down to their carefully coordinated choice of stage attire (all the bands members in black at stage left and centre, Jason and the backing singers dressed in white at stage right).  I'm not convinced they enjoy jamming at this point in their careers, but they feel obligated to do it as part of the show.  Most of the time I found myself wishing they'd stop wasting time and skip to the next song.  It was often more interesting for me to hear silence -- silence!! -- between songs, because it was something I'd never experienced at a SPZ concert before.  No guitar noodling or "pure phase" drones, just complete silence between songs, like with most other bands!

For the most part, that summarizes the first half of the concert.  It was dominated by songs from "Sweet Heart Sweet Light", which according to Jason in the DiS interview, is an album he doesn't listen to and isn't even sure if he likes, partly because he was so miserable when he recorded it.  "I Am What I Am", one of my least favourite songs on the album, packs a terrific groove live, which was one of the few surprises from the "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" songs they played.  The bass was unfortunately mixed too high for most of their concert set, but this is one case where this sonic annoyance actually helped a song along.

The second half of the concert was like watching a completely different, more focused band.  Maybe they needed the first hour to get warmed up.  The first new song was a ferociously sludgy one chord blues, something that Jason hasn't played on since S3's "OD Catastrophe".  The second new song was the sweetest, most direct love song Jason has ever written (working title seems to be "Perfect Miracle").  It was also more than a bit corny, which is both the principal fault and the primary appeal of the song, i.e. it's so cloying and awkward that you won't be able to stop humming it.  It could be a minor hit off the back of a Wes Anderson movie.  Anyway, another intriguing surprise.

The final section was a throwback to the SPZ of old, proving that they can flip the switch and turn into the improv-heavy space rock worshippers of years past whenever they want.  Incendiary versions of "Take Your Time" and "Electric Mainline" closed the main set, and for the encore, they returned with "Come Down Easy" (!!) and "Smiles".  I'm almost certain that they haven't played "Come Down Easy" as Spiritualized before (excepting the handful of shows from earlier on the fall leg of their tour).  Looking forward, or looking back, what's next for this band?  Jason says he doesn't know, and based on this concert, I believe him completely.  


Hey Jane
Heading For the Top
I Am What I Am
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
So Long You Pretty Things
Take Your Time
Electric Mainline


Come Down Easy

approx. 2 hrs

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The end of the 80's

Every time I travel to Europe it seems as though I discover a great music video channel completely by accident.  In the breakfast room of my hotel in Milan, the TV is usually tuned to a channel that plays a mix of 80's and 90's videos every morning (and perhaps all day long, if the ads on this channel are any indication).

Every day I eat my breakfast to a mix of Italian pop songs and videos I haven't seen in ages, if at all, even by bands I really like(d).  I'm not sure I'd ever seen the video for Def Leppard's "Women", and I listened to "Hysteria" about a billion times in '88-'89 and thought I'd seen every video made from that album.

One morning I heard these three songs in less than half an hour and could have sworn they were all released in the same year:

Basia - New Day for You
Aretha - A Deeper Love
Enigma - Age of Loneliness

Of course they weren't all released in the same year, and I already knew they weren't, but a first time listener could have been fooled into thinking they were.  I had absolutely no recollection of Aretha having a hit song and video in the 90's, and would have pegged this for no later than '90-'91 based on the music alone.  The video, featuring clips from "Sister Act", was my only giveaway that I was listening to a mid-90's song.  So it had to be at least the second time I'd heard "A Deeper Love" because I did see "Sister Act" in the 90's (unfortunately), but for all intents and purposes I was a first time listener and I know the watered down NYC-house music style from 1990 when I hear it.  Enigma released some great music over the years (I was freakishly into "Sadeness Part 1", I'll still stan for it if prompted) but "Age of Innocence" isn't their finest moment.  And Basia's "New Day For You" is a well crafted 80's dance pop number that has aged surprisingly well.

As a side note, I think people often place most pop music within a narrow British/American frame, or alternatively, originating from countries where English is an official language (i.e. incl. Canada, Australia, Ireland ...).  We think we only see acts from those countries showing up on charts everywhere in the world, whereas every other country's music is relegated to their own national charts, never to be heard or seen elsewhere in the world.  In this musical world view (which may not be as prevelant as I'm assuming) there are few exceptions (e.g. ABBA) outside of the occasional international fad/punchline (e.g. "Macarena").  But 80's and 90's pop had plenty of international acts.  There were the Eurodance acts, obviously, and Ace of Base, Basia (Poland), Enigma (Germany via Romania), and many more.   

Obviously the 80's didn't end, musically speaking, on New Years day 1990.  It took a while for the sound we associate with the 80's to peter out, just like Nirvana didn't complete their takeover of alternative radio  in a day.  So how long did the 80's last anyway?  Those Enigma and Aretha Franklin songs were from 1994. Enigma were a 90's phenomenon if there ever was one, but "Age of Loneliness" feels like something too primitive for the 90's (maybe it's because of the chanting).  

A lot of artists who had hit albums in the late 80's were able to carry their success into the 90's without changing hardly anything about themselves.  Prince, Paula Abdul, and Janet Jackson were still wildly successful, and Duran Duran actually made a comeback in the early 90's!  So what killed the 80's for good?

I really don't know.  Some ideas:

-- Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men releasing one interchangeable ballad after another, driving the electro and dance elements completely out of R&B.

-- MOR "alternative" rock like Semisonic making the leap from alternative to mainstream radio and taking the spots of the legacy rock acts like Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams.  Of course those guys would have the last laugh by staging huge tours in the 00's and earning enough money to buy back every Smashmouth album at full retail price (90's retail price even!) and destroy them forever in a massive CD bonfire, but we're talking about the charts and radio playlists now.

-- Country making a huge comeback in sales and popularity, causing non-grunge rock to be pushed into the background.  New rock bands had to wear flannel or go at least a little bit country, never forget that Hootie and the Blowfish were heard everywhere in the 90's.

-- Major acts with dance music credentials such as Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Annie Lennox switching directions and trying to sound more "adult", leaving behind a vacuum on the charts that was filled by the very different sounding Eurodance acts.        

EDIT:  The morning after posting this, I saw these two videos:

Van Halen -- Right Now
Dire Straits -- On Every Street (live from what appears to be a Roman amphitheatre, most probably was in the Arena of Nîmes since I see they recorded some of the "On The Night" video there)

Another pair of very interesting examples!  Specifically, what happened to Dire Straits in the 90's?  They'd gone from big to huge in the 80's and adapted well to the new reality of MTV by releasing some one of the decade's most iconic videos.  Among rock acts, perhaps only Springsteen was bigger and more successful in the mid-80's thanks to the phenomenal success of "Brothers In Arms".  It's been suggested that they killed their momentum by waiting too long to release the follow up to "Brothers In Arms" (seven years), but I've never bought into that.  It's not unusual for artists to take time off and come back as big as ever.  Maybe we should take the Occam's razor approach ...

-- Running in place.  Give or take a saxophone solo here and there or Mark Knopfler's choice of headgear, that video for "On Every Street" could have been shot at nearly any point between 1978 and 1992.  People get tired of bands that stick to only one thing, no matter how much they excel at it.  U2 and Depeche Mode are two examples of 80's giants who completely changed their look and music entering the 90's, kept fans and curiosity seekers guessing, and became even more successful because of it.  They returned to their more traditional sound in the 00's but after more than twenty years of making music headlines they were practically bulletproof.  Every move they make is a big deal because an entire generation of fans has grown up with them as a Big Deal.  See also: Madonna.  

Ah, but what about Van Halen?  They had a number of hit songs and albums in the 90's, and their sound is as constant as it gets.  But they did change, sort of.  After a rough transition period, Sammy Hagar was firmly entrenched as their new singer by the start of the 90's.  Eddie van Halen's solos might have sounded more or less the same, but Hagar was the right guy in the right place at the right time to help with the shift from the cartoony, testoterone filled David Lee Roth era to the more politically conscious "Right Now" era.  Van Halen might have become a punchline without the slight attitude and personnel changes.  Consider AC/DC, another band whose music was as constant as they come but were spent as a chartmaking force after 1990's "Thunderstruck" (although of course they continued to clean up on the tour circuit).   

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ricardo Villalobos, "Dependent and Happy"

I've spent a few hours with Ricardo Villalobos' newest album.  First I listened to it all the way through while scrolling through news and sports articles on the internet.  It was a bunch of fluffy, light reading that didn't require a lot of concentration, and the music was a perfect backdrop to that because it doesn't require a lot of energy to absorb it.  Villalobos doesn't usually inspire deep listening, if you want to, the music can just be there, as bland and unnoticeable as elevator music in the supermarket if that's the way you want to approach it.

Later on I went back and listened to it more closely.  None of its twelve mostly lengthy tracks jump out at you, they don't suddenly take off like "Ichso" does about three minutes in, for instance.  But that's OK because nobody ever accused "Alcohofa" of "taking off" either.

Closer listening reveals all sorts of interesting details bubbling below the surface, which of course is typical for Villalobos' music.  There are countless little snippets of percussion and voice, sometimes featured as a blissed out melody cruising alongside the steady, insistent beat, and sometimes chopped up into nearly infinitesimal bits.  I'm partial to the odd, circular synth melodies on "Zuipox" because they sound exactly like something that would have appeared on a mid-90's Autechre album, but then again, I would be.  The closing track, "Ferenc", stakes one of the more muscular beats on the album to an eerie ambient hum, all of which would have been very much at home on a 90's Warp Records release (most likely the Polygon Window album).

But too much of "Dependent and Happy" is basically just there, coasting by in one long and drowsy 100-minute techno suite.  Villalobos rarely hesitates to do in ten minutes what can be done in five, and it's only on aforementioned tracks like "Zuipox" (which transforms itself halfway through) and "Ferenc" (which is short enough to not overstay its welcom) that he offers any surprises that don't require a great deal of patience to appreciate.  This is the kind of album whose tracks I would frequently skip if they randomly came up on a playlist, because there are only so many ten minute minimal techno tracks you can sit through before you start looking for something more hook-filled to entertain you and hold your attention.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Another link roundup (mid-October edition)

The first two are courtesy of RA's news feed:

1.  One normally finds links to mixtapes and newly released underground club tracks on the blog "The Head of Rothchild".  They also enjoy the occasional slog through the crappiest music one can find over the internet, posting audio, video, and photo links for us to point our fingers and laugh at.  I'd never heard of them until I saw their post on corny DJ photo shoots.  The intentional send-ups at the end of the post are actually not any more ridiculous than the real promo shots.  I can't for the life of me figure out what the guy in the first picture is supposed to be doing.  Is he pissing on his record collection through the hole in that fluorescent green disc?  

These photos don't look anything like actual DJ promo shots, so they can't even say that they were trying to steal from the pros and just overused the usual cliches.  They only have themselves to blame ... and that's saying something, because DJ promo pictures are unbelievably cliched and uncreative.  For instance, there's the "DJ covering his eyes" shot, and the million varieties of "serious and forlorn".  The most popular one is where the DJ looks off to one side, completely away from the camera, with his face partly in shadow.  These are just a few examples, but trust me, this is one case where the truth is nearly as bad as the parody.  

2.  An interview with Jeff Mills ... in Forbes!!  I love the description of him in the title - "artist, producer, DJ, and entrepreneur".  It is Forbes after all, so he's an "entrepreneur" and much of the discussion is devoted to his company/label's business model.  I can only imagine what the stock watchers thought when they saw this article.  Mainstream music publications are still obsessed over album sales figures -- how much did such and such an album sell in its first week, etc. What they consider "success" is still associated with a business model that is decades old.  Sometimes you see lip service paid to other versions of "success", like the free downloads as loss leaders strategies of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, and Youtube views.  But I think most of them still don't get it.  A song like "Gangnam Style" became a worldwide phenomenon, complete with iconic dance, hundreds of millions of Youtube views, PSY guest spots on American talk shows, flash mobs, countless tribute and parody videos, etc.  Despite all that, before it had started to make a dent in the charts outside Asia, a lot of music industry people wouldn't have considered it a "success".  At least not until it started racking up actual sales and downloads, which it eventually did, topping the iTunes download charts and pop charts in dozens of countries.  Now they'll just point to its iTunes ranking as "proof" that it was a hit, and ignore all that other stuff that made it a huge phenomenon -- stuff that's a lot more significant if you ask me.

Forbes and Tamara Warren, the journalist who conducted the interview, get it.  Mills comes across as the savvy head of a music and merchandise company that's keenly in tune with the changing needs of its customers.  Most actual music publications don't.

3.  Last week I thought I wrote a fairly inspired review of a concert by a legendary 80's music group. I tried to put the passage of time in perspective while trying to capture what makes them and their tour so special for longtime fans.  Then I saw this review of Morrissey by Hua Hsu on Grantland, which tackles much the same angle and of course blows my writing out of the water.

Not only that, his point is much more interesting and profound than mine.  Me = we get older and so do our favourite bands, how do both of us reconcile our current and past selves?  Nothing wrong with that, but it's hardly an original concept (which I knew, but still wanted to tell the story in that way.  But Hsu notes that these tours are partly about musicians playing the characters their fans expect them to play.  In the process, they blur the lines between those characters and their actual selves, and at the end of the day, who knows who is the real artist, who is the character that does what he can to collect the ticket money, and when the former morphed into the latter?  I don't this happened with earlier generations of artists.  It's not like Led Zeppelin turned out to be asexual homebodies who hated the blues.  CCR didn't admit they were pro-war all along and just went along with what the hippie crowd wanted so they could sell a few records.

Then you have artists like Morrissey and Robert Smith.  They were icons owing to a simple, almost parasitic formula.  They felt lonely, depressed, and isolated.  They wrote songs that expressed those feelings.  Their fans, who were also lonely, depressed, and isolated people who felt especially alienated by the plastic 80's music, idolized them because they perfectly understood everything they were feeling in their everyday lives.  And that's how The Smiths and The Cure built such a loyal following.

At least that's how the story goes.  But at some point, writing those kinds of songs in character became the most natural thing in the world for them, just like any fiction writer would put him or herself in the shoes of the characters in one of their books.  We can believe that Robert Smith was obsessed with death in '82 when he wrote "One Hundred Years", but as a fifty year old happily married man who tours stadiums and makes millions?  Morrissey is a militant vegetarian who hates the British royal family, there's no doubt about that, but he pushes those views as a convenient way of maintaining his legend, not as part of a deliberate attempt to change people's minds.  It's not to say that he's given up on the latter completely, but influencing people is not his main concern anymore.  He doesn't insist on meat and leather-free buildings because he wants people to follow his lead, he does it because it's convenient for him and he sees himself as a big enough star to warrant the special treatment.  And if it helps convince fans that he's as real as he was in the 80's and still deserving of his former status as a messianiac indie god along with the pile of earnings from the concert tours to go along with it, well, he's fine with that too.   You have to think that the Morrissey of the '80's wouldn't have played along with Stephen Colbert the way he did, he's more likely have stormed out rather than lower himself to trading barbs about vegetarianism with an American talk show host (even on a talk show parody like Colbert).

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that indie stars of the 80's turned out to be greedy just like the mainstream artists they stood as the antidote to some thirty years ago.  After all, they were products of the 80's just like the rest.  Will there be a reckoning when fans start resenting their former heroes for turning into fakes?  Or did that already happen when the bloom partly came off the rose with their run of less successful albums starting in the mid-90's?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Jesus and Mary Chain @ Barby

I've written a pile of things about Depeche Mode over the years.  Out of all my "favourite bands" over the years, they've been by far (FAR) the most enduring.  The first concert I ever saw was Depeche Mode at Toronto's CNE Grandstand (RIP ... or not, everyone hated that place), and I've continued seeing them on almost every tour they've done since.  Depeche tours are like federal elections, coming along once ever few years, and lead you to take stock of your life and think what you've accomplished since the last go around, see this review from 2009, for example.  After Depeche Mode concert, I could say they were the first and last band I ever saw, and there's something very special about bookending one's life through music like that, remembering the band who broke through huge with "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence" (and the teenager who used to crouch by the floor next to a tape recorder, taping the remixes of those songs off CFNY) and so on to the present day, and our older, hopefully more mature and grounded selves.

Except there's a bit more to the story than that.  Depeche Mode weren't exactly the first band I ever saw in concert.  The opening band that night was Jesus and Mary Chain.  And I hated them.

[actually, there were two opening bands ... the first was Nitzer Ebb, so they were the honest and 100% truthful first act I ever saw in concert.  Nitzer Ebb also continued their career into the late 90's, split up without me ever having seen them again, and reunited recently, so I suppose I could be writing this type of article all over again at some point.]

I knew a few JAMC songs from the radio, and never paid them much attention. "Head On" was their big single at the time ("big" for alternative radio) and it wasn't really my thing.  I didn't know anything about their early days, with the fifteen minute gigs and the riots and the walls of feedback.  I didn't know a thing about the shoegaze scene, which was reaching it's peak in terms of critical accolades at the time over in the UK.  What I did know what that this horrible sounding band was standing between me and "Enjoy the Silence", just one song after another, completely bereft of melodies, rendered completely unlistenable by the aimless squalls of noise that covered literally every single second of every song.

Depeche Mode were in the process of redefining their image from the 80's and trying to become something other than teen idols playing pervy synth pop.  Nevertheless, it might seem strange that a band like JAMC were chosen to open for them, but it really wasn't.  Depeche Mode's appeal across genre boundaries has always been underrated by the music establishment.  The wide variety of rock and pop bands who have toured with them over the years is but one testament to this (Raveonettes, The Bravery, Fad Gadget, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, M83, Motor).  In 1990 it actually made perfect sense -- the goth kids loved JAMC, especially the "Darklands" album.

Of course there's no way to know how JAMC really sounded that night.  It's all but certain they didn't sound as noisy and shambolic as I thought they were, and I can blame my untrained ears for that.  I can also blame the soundsystem and acoustics at the CNE Grandstand, which was rather famously subpar (although the atmosphere at concerts there could easily make up for it).  But chances are they didn't sound too different than they did this past Thursday night at the Barby.  In fact, with only a handful of songs from the 90's and a band whose sound was perfectly tailored toward the punchy rock and roll style of "Automatic", most of their set could have been lifted completely what they played on the "Automatic" tour.

However the '90 version of JAMC (or at least my memory of them) had one thing that the '12 version didn't -- they were threatening, angry, and dangerous.  The '12 version is a slick, professional rock band with all the cues timed down to the second and all the spontaneity or ability to surprise an audience stripped away.  But for the most part, a literal belief of those things would be naive.  Anything new and somewhat strange, particularly if it's rock and roll played by people wearing dark clothes, will sound scary or even dangerous. And the Pixies' hugely successful reunion and multiple tours showed that there was a market for 80's and 90's alternative bands to mend their fences, appear as a more mature and palatable version of their former selves, and crank out the same "hits" night after night to an audience itching to see them again after so many years.  We're no different from every generation before us.  We laughed when the Eagles reunited to make a few more bucks, and yet here we are, basically the same age as those Eagles and Who and Page and Plant fans were twenty years ago, shelling out good money to hear our heroes portray blander versions of the bands we grew up with and play the same exquisitely rehearsed hits night after night.  

But that's really fine by me.  I don't think anyone wants Soundgarden and the Mary Chain and whoever else to be exactly like they were then.  After all, we were around then, and we already remember what they were like quite well. We have no desire to relive our lives again from that period and we don't expect our bands to  want to either.  JAMC '12 might have been a bit *too* professional for my taste, a bit too much of the Reid brothers and their finely coiffed, emotionless backing band, but they played roughly all the important hits and played them well, and you can't ask for much more than that.  Jim Reid's voice has aged remarkably well, and although it's not like these songs were much of a challenge to sing, he still deserves plenty of accolades. William Reid is still rocking some of the 80's crazy hair and made the occasional racket on his guitar.  If anything, the last five years of reunion tour are only enhancing their legacy, and they have a chance to keep it going if they ever get around to releasing the long rumoured new album.

Of course, over the years I've come to like, even love quite a bit of JAMC's music.  By the time they broke up in '98 I was regretting that I never went to see them again, despite no shortage of opportunities.  What we called noisy alternative rock back then now sounds very normal, the weirdos (or at least some of them) always find a way to conquer the musical world (or at least a small part) once the niche they forced into the music landscape eventually becomes accepted by the masses.  So it's hardly JAMC's fault that they come off sounding almost mainstream, that's always the way things evolve in music. They're just playing the songs they had the foresight to write when most of their peers didn't have the talent or the balls to do it first.

And there's more, namely, how do you pass up an opportunity to see a band after nearly an entire generation apart.  How often in your life can you say you did that? 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Raveonettes, "Observator"

The Raveonettes have always been good at owning their influences.  "Lust Lust Lust" didn't just borrow the best bits from JAMC's "Psychocandy", it copied the blueprint and improved on it.  Same goes for "Chain Gang of Love" one-upping scuzz-pop and early Blondie.

Their last album, "Raven In the Grave", found them in the midst of an identity crisis of sorts.  There were still plenty of bands for them to steal from, and they couldn't figure out who they wanted to steal from most.  Would  it be a reconfiguration of their earlier thefts, or a meld of the safe and obvious with the new and unexpected?  On "Observator", the transition finally seems complete.  There's an added emphasis on melody and harmony (proper torch songs by The Raveonettes?  believe it!) and they've dissolved their influences so deeply into these songs that almost all traces of gimmickry left over from their earlier albums have now disappeared.  It's easily their best album to date, and at just 31 minutes long, their most concise and replayable.  An album this short and this hummable has a way of minimizing its weaknesses, in that they're over and done with before you have a chance to get bored of them or dwell on them.  But in truth, digging for flaws in an album this good is a fool's errand.

"Young and Cold" might be The Raveonettes most sensitive and bittersweet song, and it certainly doesn't hurt that gentle distortion over repetitively strummed acoustic guitar with boy/girl harmonies are basically musical kryptonite for me.  "Sinking With the Sun" and "She Owns the Streets" offer a back to back dose of mid-80's UK indie by way of the Stone Roses and the Smiths, the jangly melodies of the latter making it an obvious choice for a single.  "Downtown" returns to their girl group roots, but adding another flavour of jangly 80's indie rock makes for yet another refreshing combination.  "Til the End", with it's forceful drumming and hissing guitars could almost be an "Isn't Anything"-era MBV outtake.  It's the most gimmicky song on the album, and it's also arguably the weakest, which says a lot about how far The Raveonettes have come.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 12

"Relaxation with talking" - 81 minutes

In which I spin mostly oldies (i.e. 90's electronic) in my CD collection and talk a bit about the tracks as I go. I tried to keep my comments brief and not tell my life story or anything. There's no mixing, but I learned something about recording voices, such as how to record while avoiding annoying background noise, and how to enunciate so it doesn't sound like you're talking into a scarf (learned via trial and error and many many takes).

Friday, September 21, 2012

Three interviews

Fantastic work by on the first two by the Guardian:

1.  First, a New Order interview conducted by Dorian Lynskey.  New Order haven't been particularly interview shy over the years, but they've always been reluctant to really open up about anything, particularly regarding relationships (or lack thereof) between the band members.  Lynskey got Bernard Sumner to be honest about his feelings for Peter Hook and challenged him over his numerous past comments about him seeing no future for New Order.  Getting Gillian Gilbert to talk about anything would be somewhat of a revelation, here, she opens up about her hiatus from the band for the past ten years (including, sadly, a 2007 cancer diagnosis that she has thankfully recovered from).

In reference to New Order's famously blundering ways (disastrous, drunken gigs in the 80's, legendarily bad financial management), Lynskey offers the following comment: "This is why, although you can hear New Order's influence in countless bands, nobody uses their career as a blueprint."  Is there a better one-sentence summary of New Order?

2.  You thought New Order were shy and reclusive?  You haven't seen anything ... here's Rob Fitzpatrick interviewing -- AR Kane!!

AR Kane's story is one of the oddest and most fascinating in music history.  Somehow they got practically signed to a record contract without actually existing or having any songs (as told in the interview)! It was all based on a concept, "it's a bit Velvet Underground, a bit Cocteau Twins, a bit Miles Davis, a bit Joni Mitchell".  A band that would mix all the best parts of those acts would probably be the best thing ever.   But you couldn't possibly sum up AR Kane any better -- they were all about the concept, never about the execution (which was usually patchy).  They could do radio-friendly dance pop and completely radio unfriendly dream pop and shoegaze that still sounds fresh today.  They exaggerate when they claim that MBV were a "jangly indie band until we put out 'Baby Milk Snatcher'" but otherwise their honesty and realistic post-assessment of themselves comes off as refreshing.  They're honest about their deficiencies (especially in the very beginnings of the band's existence), about who did their thing better than they did, and when they felt the magic was gone and they weren't motivated to continue in AR Kane, they ended it and never regretted it.  It helps that they recorded "Pump Up the Volume" and made a bazillion dollars off it (or at least whatever was left over after they paid royalties and fees for the samples), so they probably don't feel bitter that AR Kane weren't more successful.

Their last album "New Clear Child" was actually not too bad though.  It was much too "dreamy" and lacking in guitar-led chaos and experimentation, but it was 1994 and you can't blame them for trying to distance themselves from the then-worn out sounds of shoegaze (indeed, any shoegaze band that hadn't already disintegrated would go in that direction as well, if they hadn't already).  

3.  Finally, a Clash Music feature on the Top 10 Lost Factory Records, hand picked by James Nice and Mike Pickering.  Of course some of these records weren't actually on Factory, so read the comments from Nice and Pickering to understand the concept behind the list.  I'm posting this for the links to the songs (which are beyond great without exception) and Pickering's debunking of the oft-repeated story that Factory passed on signing Black Box (which would have earned them more money than they could count and probably would have transformed Factory into a full-fledged dance music label, closer to XL at the time or what Warp are releasing today).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shed, "The Killer"; Sigur Ros, "Valtari"

Over the past few years, Shed somehow became a beacon of hope for the techno heads.  Every new album was expected to be a watershed moment that would shift and expand the boundaries of techno.  I bought into the hype too, and conditioned myself to expect the moon and the stars.  His last album "The Traveller" certainly aimed high, forgoing the most straightforward 4/4 tempos of his earlier work and dabbling with a different subgenre on nearly every track.  Full marks for the concept, but thumbs in the middle for the execution.  Now, with "The Killer", he's found a middle ground between the ADD/mad scientist approach and more flowing, dancefloor friendly tracks.

Can I just say that "The Killer" is such an awesome title for an album?

"The Killer" is far better than "The Traveller".  By trying less hard to be original, it flows far better and tells a much tighter story.  It starts with a beatless mindfuck track, like a Jeff Mills/Vainqueur hybrid with the percussion filtered out. Then it slides into gritty kick-drum heavy techno with just enough embellishments on top of the standard 4/4 beats to prevent you from zoning out and getting too comfortable out there on the dancefloor.  The pattern repeats, with the weirder, beat-free tracks always thrown in to mix up the pace a little bit, before missing the mark slightly with the more downtempo, hip-hop tinged "VIOMF!/The Filler" and a halfhearted stab at a soulful instrumental house track, "Follow the Leader".  The hits are usually fantastic, and even those slight misses make sense as cool down tracks at the end of the album.

But there's nothing here that marks a shift in how I think about music.  It doesn't mess with your mind like Actress' "R.I.P." does, recycling sounds that haven't been heard on most techno records since a few Warp releases from twenty years ago and twisting them into a vaguely danceable type of lo-fi stew.  However, if you're expecting a watershed moment in music and declare anything less than that to be a failure, then you're hardly being fair to the artist.   Obviously this isn't restricted to dance music, for example, here is one recent, high profile review of that sort (full disclosure: I haven't heard the new Animal Collective album yet).  I'll stand by my comments on Shed from my MUTEK 2010 review -- to paraphrase, what he's doing isn't altogether original, but he does it really, really well.  It's more than enough.


I always feel like I'm repeating myself by writing about Sigur Ros and the way that the media always seems to get it wrong with them.  "Valtari" is beautiful and cinematic and contains many familiar elements of past Sigur Ros albums.  As if sounding like yourself or making stunningly pretty music was some sort of industry crime.  A lot of "Valtari" sounds like extended versions of the twee Disneyland intros and outros to the songs on "Takk ..."  That was their best album, so what's the harm in revisiting it a little bit?

The point is that "Valtari" is a new direction for Sigur Ros -- not a complete revolution in their sound, but an album with a purpose and feel that is wholly distinct from their other albums.  Far from being a band that always relies on the same old tricks, they tend to change direction all the time, and rarely get any credit for it.

"Valtari" is the first ambient record by Sigur Ros.  Most of it doesn't have any vocals, so people can't even recycle the usual falsetto and Hopelandish jokes in lieu of actually writing something thoughtful about their music.  Their last album took a turn toward pop music and featured a few obvious singles, whereas this one doesn't have anything even remotely resembling a radio-friendly (even an indie radio friendly) single, although they have managed to release two singles from it to date (naturally two of the few songs that have some semblance of vocals and drums).   Each song on the album features at least one video by an acclaimed director, an undertaking they termed "The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment", which is the kind of thing that gets you branded as artsy and pretentious if you're Sigur Ros (and a visionary who isn't afraid to take chances, regardless of the success of the project, if you're Bjork or Kanye West, for example).  

"Valtari" is yet another excellent Sigur Ros album.  With less of the things that tend to turn people away from them (made up words, bowed guitar, prog rock meanderings), you'd think that people who have gotten sick of them (or never gave them a chance to begin with) would be willing to give this a listen.  At this point, I think I just feel sorry for people who can't find something to love about them.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Another link roundup

1.  Naoise Hefferon helps catch me up on what I've been missing from the Toronto electronic music scene.  It makes perfect sense -- anyone who wants to make a living playing pure techno has already skipped town and isn't coming back, so a bunch of weird hybrid genres pop up to fill the vacuum.  By not being the epicentre for any of electronic music's main genres, Toronto has more freedom to define and develop its own microscenes.  Sometimes it's nice if the city and the music are inexorably linked (e.g. Berlin and Detroit to techno), but on the other hand, up and coming producers don't have to worry about fitting their music into the dominant musical framework that surrounds them.

Nautiluss and Jonah K's haunted, IDM-tinged dubstep make them two artists to watch for sure.  I'm partial to the Jonah K track, possibly because of it's resemblance to Speedy J's classic track "G Spot" from 1995.  Speedy J ... way ahead of his time once again.

2.  Michael Gira is killing it on the interview circuit in the promotion of the new Swans album "The Seer".  If "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky" was a throwback to the brutal, rhythmic pounding of mid 80's Swans, then "The Seer" recalls the 90's version of the band with its walls of guitar noise and uncomfortable ambiance (although there is ample time given to the scraping and pounding stuff as well over the album's two hour running time.

3.  Orbital and Stephen Hawking at the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics.  To recap: we hear the brilliant "Where Is It Going" from their new album over Hawking's promise of new frontiers opening up in particle physics while the TV commentators say "the stadium transforms into the Large Hadron Collider of CERN".  I certainly didn't expect to hear any of those things during a sports broadcast in my lifetime, not even individually let alone in combination.

4.  Rolling Stone have been going list crazy lately (the sidebars on their website are full of list links) and the US has been going crazy for dance music, put it all together and you get the 30 Greatest EDM Albums of All Time.

The list is a joke, of course.  Unless your experience with EDM either a) begins and ends with Deadmau5 and Skillrex or you b) are old enough to vaguely remember that time in the 90's when a handful of Fatboy Slim and Prodigy videos were in heavy rotation on MTV, then you'll take away nothing from this list other than twisted nightmares of what RS considers canonical about these genres.  The acts that fit into the two groupings above (Skillrex, Deadmau5, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, Prodigy) are accorded albums in the canon, whereas everyone else, including the legends who would stand front and centre in any ordinary history of EDM or techno (e.g. Carl Craig, Juan Atkins, Orbital) are represented via compilations.  You know, because unlike Skillrex, apparently none of those acts released a great albums during their 25+ year careers, so you're better off tracking down their greatest hits instead.  There are so many compilations and DJ mixes on this list that you might read it and believe that almost nobody was capable of making a great album in EDM.  Or that all these great DJ's and producers never ventured outside the cradle of their clubs or home studios and everyone stayed in a holding pattern until Moby and Madonna showed them how to turn their ideas into credible albums.

What's more, there are some absolutely bizarre comparisons in the album write ups:

-- '[Kraftwerk's "Pocket Calculator" gives] EDM its very own version of Chuck Berry's 'Rock and Roll Music'".  ???

-- "If Juan Atkins was ? and the Mysterians, [Jeff] Mills is the Stooges".  ??? Is it just because they're all from Michigan?  

-- "'Block Rockin' Beats' is up there with the riff to the Kinks 'You Really Got Me' in the Ass Kicking Intro canon".  Why is it up there with "You Really Got Me" instead of "Smoke On the Water" or "Sunshine of Your Love"?  Why this random choice?  Were they just picking superstar rock names out of a hat? I suppose they wanted names, any names, that their readers would be sure to recognize, because it's not like they could put anything on the list in its proper context by comparing it to music by other EDM artists.