Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Langley Schools Music Project, "Innocence and Despair"

On most weekday mornings I wake up with the radio.  The music plays, and the DJ tends to ramble on about the songs, but I'm usually not listening very carefully to either.  But music can really surprise you when you're not really paying attention and aren't expecting to hear anything special.

I was completely taken aback by the sound of a children's choir singing the Beach Boys "God Only Knows".  The voices were haunting and yet somehow uplifting.  Voice intonation would come and go, which would ordinarily ruin a song for me but in this case it didn't seem to matter. There's something so very affecting about hearing children struggling with fragile, untrained voices, singing words that you know they can't possibly fully understand.  It's exactly the same unusual quality that characterizes Daniel Johnston's best work.  Plus, the absurdly simple arrangement flies in the face of the Spectorian approach that Brian Wilson took with his mid-60's productions.  The DJ identified this otherworldly recording as something belonging to the Langley Schools Music Project.  The brainchild of Canadian schoolteacher Hans Fenger, these long lost 1976-77 recordings were rounded up and re-released on CD in 2001 with the title "Innocence and Despair".  The title is perfect -- no two words could summarize Brian Wilson's lyrics any better.   Somehow I'd never heard of this album before, even though it finished 29th in Pazz and Jop in 2003, and inspired.at least two prominent Hollywood movies (Richard Linklater's "School of Rock" and Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are".

Of course, song selection is the most essential aspect of any covers albums.  In 2001 (and today), nearly every song here was an obvious, timeless classic.  But in 1976?  The Beach Boys had been rediscovered and rehabilitated only two years earlier, after the release of their greatest hits compilation "Endless Summer".  Fleetwood Mac were only one album into the Buckingham/Nicks era, their days as an inescapable FM radio juggernaut hadn't arrived yet.  Barry Manilow is much better regarded today than he was in the late 70's and early 80's.  Pulling off songs as weird as "Space Oddity" and "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" with such fluidity --and with children -- took a considerable amount of vision.  Fenger somehow knew what would work just as well as he knew what he needed to avoid. One Bay City Rollers song is fine, but most people in his position would have overloaded on goofy, happy songs like that.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Brit Awards 2012

Thoughts on some of the performances:

Coldplay's cold opening of the show with "Charlie Brown" was pretty fantastic.  When they drop the pretentious attempts at hugeness, keep things simple and just rock out (plus a few fireworks), they are one damned fine band.  Hell, even when they want to do "pretentious", they're less annoying and crank out better songs than most other bands trying to do the same.  I don't know if I've said it before, but I have no problem with Coldplay being the world's biggest rock and roll band.  Since it's the Brits, it's appropriate to compare them to another iconic British rock band of the past twenty years: Oasis.  Let's see, Oasis released two great albums and were then content to coast on their reputations.  Eventually, most people got fed up with their antics (brotherly infighting, slinging mud at other bands every time they wanted to draw attention to themselves), especially when the quality and consistency of the music took a nosedive.  Nobody was surprised when they finally broke up, and nobody really mourned them.  Coldplay honestly seem to try harder with every new album and aren't content to simply recycle what worked for them in the past.  I keep expecting them to fail, but they keep releasing number one albums, two or three classic singles per album, and when all is said and done, they might have assembled the strongest "greatest hits" (not songs, "hits", actual, radio-saturating hits) collection of their generation.  They might be the Pink Floyd of our time, wildly popular but reviled by many critics at the time for their exaggerated sense of self-importance (at least in the years when they were all but a Roger Waters solo project).

Rihanna, "We Found Love".  Speaking of adaptable artists who are putting together one of the best hits collections ever, here's Rihanna.

If you know anyone who believes that Adele's big win at the Grammys means that American and British tastes are converging, play them Olly Murs' performance of "Heart Skips a Beat".  Dance pop + fey clean cut young males + twenty five girls in red leotards dancing in front of a set of red hearts?  Good luck bringing that to America.

Florence and the Machine, "No Light, No Light".  I love it when goth storms the charts, no joke.

Adele sang "Rolling in the Deep" and flipped the bird, and it's fair to ask whether this is any different from what MIA did at the Superbowl.  Answer: it's a lot different.  Not to condone swearing on live TV, but ...

1) Adele is the world's biggest music star, and the Brit Awards are the top music awards show in her home country.  As expected, she won all the biggest awards.  The show was about HER.  Not getting more than 20 seconds to speak after winning Album of the Year is pathetic.

MIA was a sideshow at a halftime performance at a football game. The TV broadcast was about the game, the halftime show was about Madonna.  She rode the coattails of bigger stars to get there and tried to make the show about her, when it wasn't.

2) Like I said in my Superbowl post, there's a time and a place for protesting and trying to look badass, and the Superbowl halftime show isn't it.  The Brit Awards aren't the Superbowl.  Somebody gets drunk at the Brits and creates a "controversy" every year, it's practically expected to happen every year, and nobody gets too upset about it because awards shows aren't taken as seriously as they are in the US.  The Brit Awards are a big celebration, but it's generally understood that the Grammys are more like an annual meeting of industry insiders, and more decorum is expected.  It's impossible to imagine people being OK with swearing at the Grammys or the Oscars.

As a matter of fact, it would have never happened in the US because American awards shows run long all the time (less so than they used to), so Adele would have been allowed to talk for as long as she wanted. The Brits have to run in their allotted time slot, down to the minute.

Blur were great as usual, and it's amazing to see how "Tender" has been transformed from nearly forgotten single on their most "difficult" album to their biggest big happy singalong.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two "new" releases, the Legends Edition (II): Drugstore, "Anatomy"; Woob, "Repurpose"

Last year, I wrote a post about new albums by PJ Harvey and Mogwai, two fairly well known acts who happened to release their best new music in years.  This pairing is a little different. Both acts vanished without a trace for a number of years, only to make fairly recent and unheralded comebacks.  So unheralded, in fact, that even I had no idea they'd released new albums until a few weeks ago.

A lot of people would consider it a stretch to call a couple of relative unknowns legends.  But they both made singular, other-worldly music in the mid-90's, including albums that I believe were two of the top ten albums of that decade.  At the same time, I don't think they can be considered "cult" acts either.  Drugstore recorded a single with Thom Yorke at the height of the "OK Computer" hype. Woob was the flagship act on Em:t, which was a very well regarded label in ambient music circles.  On just about any given day, you can find Woob and other Em:t CDs fetching impressive sums for resale on eBay.   Some bands make a couple of great albums, disappear for a while, and their legend only grows with time.  But most bands that disappear for ten years are simply forgotten.  Even some of their biggest fans, like me, forget all about them.  That is, although I still love the music they made, Woob and Drugstore ceased to exist as living, breathing things for me some time ago.  Even when I knew that Drugstore had reunited over two years ago for a series of comeback gigs, it didn't seem real.  They had been out of sight and out of mind for so long, and I simply forgot to check up on new developments.

Isobel Monteiro summarized her "lost" years on her blog and posted regular updates leading up to the release of "Anatomy" this past summer.  Woob's official website doesn't say a word about why Paul Frankland decided to resurface when he did, but the past two years have seen a number of new releases, as well as the re-release of the classic "Woob 1194" album.  It's like a dream I never thought I could be having -- it's 2012, and both Drugstore and Woob are active, working musicians again.  Did their talents come along for the ride too?


"Anatomy" is a lot less immediate than the other three Drugstore albums.  There's nothing resembling the Velvet-y fuzz rock of the debut or the stadium-sized crunch of "White Magic For Lovers".  "Songs for the Jetset" caught me off guard because it was so tranquil and laid back.  Its mellow, understated melodicism only clicked for me after a number of repeat listens. But "Anatomy" is even quieter and slower moving.  Nothing "rocks" here, even compared to the more upbeat moments on "Songs for the Jetset".  Besides a few twangy splashes of guitar on the opener (and single) "Sweet Chili Girl", the opening trio of songs crawl along so slowly, with so much empty space on the recording, that you might mistake them for a set of iTunes-only acoustic outtakes rather than the songs on the actual album.  I came around on those songs however.  Besides, the essence of a Drugstore album is never within the first few songs.  You always have to wait a bit until they slice your heart open for real.

"Anatomy" is very much the sequel to "Songs for the Jetset", in that it has the same recorded in a log cabin, stripped down, whisky-soaked feel. It could have released at any point in the past ten years.  There are no production gimmicks, nothing that does or will date this album anytime in the near future (as opposed to the treble-heavy Owen Morris-style sound of "White Magic For Lovers", which was left behind in the 90's on the Oasis and Verve albums from which it came).  It's a Drugstore album through and through, filled with all of their usual trademark song types.  There's the motivational ode to alcohol ("Can't Stop Me Now"), the mid-tempo rocking duet with a male singer ("Aquamarine"), the silly song ("Blackholes and Brokenhearts"), and all the tear-stained ballads you could ever want, featuring Isabel Monteiro's still deliciously sultry voice.  And "Clouds" is the type of soul-crushing breakup song that separates good bands from essential ones.

I'm not sure there's ever been any album quite like "Anatomy", that is, I'm not sure time has ever stood still like this.  You might expect that Isabel has the type of voice that would slowly disintegrate over the years, for example, in the same way that Kristin Hersh's has.  But time and mountains of cigarettes be damned, she sounds absolutely the same as she did fifteen years ago.  The rest of the band is new, but they've been seamlessly, impressively plugged into the Drugstore formula without a single misstep.  How often does a band take a ten-year time out from recording music, pick up at the precise moment where they left off, and still manage to sound this contemporary?  Two years ago, Drugstore were nothing but a memory, now they've reappeared out of thin air and gone straight back to being one of the world's most interesting bands. How did it happen?


Whereas Drugstore seemingly hopped in a time machine, reappeared ten years in the future, and continued where they'd left off in 2001, Woob's 2010 comeback album, "Repurpose", is less of a continuation than a do-over of past work.  Significant portions of  "Woob 4495" have been reedited and reassembled -- it's as if you're hearing a long lost alternate mix of the album.  One problem with "Woob 4495" was that nearly every track was too short (e.g. the brooding opener "Gate") or too long (the 24-minute "Depart", too long by at least ten minutes).  "Repurpose" strikes a good balance between those two extremes , keeping the best elements of the source material and embellishing or cutting back as appropriate.

All in all, Woob's ethno-music direction fit nicely into what Em:t was releasing at the time.  Most of "Repurpose" is reminiscent of his post-1995 music, when he was comfortably nestled into the Em:t pack.  But "Woob 1194" was superlative because it was completely unlike anything else on the label. It combined warm-blooded dub with bone chilling ambient, effortlessly and seamlessly switching between styles, blissful at one moment, frightening the next.  "Repurpose" doesn't break new ground until the final track, "85 Bit", which finally recalls the anything goes spirit of the debut.  It combines science fiction soundtrack melodies, speaker rattling bass, prog rock organ sounds, squelchy downtempo beats, and a million other things into a 17-minute catalog of ambient moods and textures.

Perhaps the most flattering thing one can say about listening to "Repurpose" is that not a minute goes by when the music isn't instantly recognizable as Woob.  As a fan, you can't really complain about that, especially when an artist returns after fifteen years in the wilderness.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston RIP

This one really shocked me.  She had had a number of well-publicized personal problems over the years, although more recently she had claimed to clean up her act. Or maybe once her star had fallen, her problems never went away, they just became less publicized.  No news is not necessarily good news. 

The shock I felt over Michael Jackson's death was dampened considerably because I'd become so accustomed to hearing stories of his eccentric living habits and various health scares.  But with Whitney Houston, there may be a sexist element involved here -- with Amy Winehouse as a recent exception, in the 21st century we don't expect female stars to be sad junkies who turn up dead in LA hotel rooms. 

Some people have noted that two of the four megastars of 80's pop music are now gone.  Twenty years ago, Whitney Houston was unquestionably the most down to earth of the bunch -- Michael was Michael, Prince was changing his name to a symbol, and Madonna was doing softcore pornography and trying to push every boundary she could.  Whitney's reputation was unblemished, she was at the peak of her powers and about to release one of the biggest hits of all time.  Who would have picked her out of that bunch as the 80's superstar most likely to fly off the rails? 

I was never much of a fan of her music, although her influence on every R&B diva that followed her cannot be overstated.  "I Will Always Love You" might have been the most inescapable song of my lifetime.  At the time, I hated it because I heard that song, along with anyone else with even a passing interest in music in the early 1990's, more than any human being could possibly tolerate.  Michael Jackson's superstar status fizzled around the same time as Whitney's, but his influence on contemporary music seemed to vanish for a number of years, until a generation of teenaged stars (boy bands, Britney Spears) brought him back in a big way.  Whitney's shadow, however, was constant.  She's been a presence in the charts for over 25 years, whether she was releasing music or not.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Madonna and friends at the Superbowl

I don't remember hearing "America the Beautiful" sung at the Superbowl before, is this a new tradition?  Is the NFL taking cues from the WWE again?  During the introductions they also played "Written in the Stars" by Tinie Tempah Ft. Eric Turner, which was the theme song for Wrestlemania last year (I'm not sure if it was played in the stadium or just for the TV broadcast, but I think I heard it in the stadium).

During Kelly Clarkson's very capable version of the national anthem, I wondered how exactly one gets chosen for this sort of gig.  Singing the national anthem at a high profile sports event, especially the Superbowl, is just about the highest profile appearance you can get.  I understand how it works If the singer is connected to the network somehow, e.g. a Glee cast member singing at a football game broadcast on Fox, but otherwise, do record companies pitch for this stuff?  I feel the answer is obvious to most people other than me, I mean, how many high profile sports events have I seen without giving this much thought ... ?

I really enjoyed Madonna's performance, it's up there with Prince's as possibly the best Superbowl halftime show in recent memory.  Although music-wise, I much prefer Madonna to Prince, her show had a number of flaws -- some dodgy sounding vocals (a mixture of live and lip synched singing), a video floor that was bright and busy to the point of distraction -- whereas Prince's didn't really have any.  This is exactly the sort of spectacle I expect to see in a Superbowl halftime show -- part concert, part circus, part light and video show -- that you can't get from a performer like, say, Tom Petty.  You have to have a deep and varied catalogue to pull off crowd pleasing singalongs, uptempo dance numbers, ballads, a bit of funk, a bit of epic, insane choreography, unanticipated drum/guitar/voice solos, and cool guest spots all within a brief but action packed twelve minute time window.  Prince and Madonna can pull off that kind of show without even trying, whereas acts that wrote the same song over and over for thirty years (e.g The Rolling Stones) cannot. 

Cee-Lo Green sounded amazing and very nearly stole the show, which he tends to do at spectacle and awards shows such as these, Nicki Minaj was terrific as usual, MIA is of course a load of crap. Watching live, I completely missed her flipping the bird because I was thinking about her complete lack of talent as a singer or rapper, especially in comparison to fellow cheerleader Nicki Minaj, whom she had to follow.  I know that giving someone the finger on TV isn't exactly shocking in 2012, and it's not like I'm worried that this might corrupt the youth of America or anything like that.  But if you're going to brush this off with "get over it, it's 2012", then you also have to recognize that in these technologically advanced, supposedly enlightened times, there are a million ways to make a statement and get your message out, and an equal number of times and places where it's advisable to do so.  Halftime at the Superbowl is not one of those times.

I didn't think MIA could possibly do anything that would make me respect her less, but once again she outdid herself.  First off, she crapped all over Madonna, whose coattails she was riding last night, ensuring that the post-show gossip would centre on her rather than on the megastar that people tuned in to see.  But most of all, MIA is completely clueless to the fact that she's a sellout.  It doesn't get more red state, Jesus worshipping, heart of corporate America than the Superbowl.  No matter how much of a rebel you think you are in your own mind, when you accept an offer to appear at the Superbowl, then you're getting into bed with all those things whether you like it or not.  Accept it and go along for the ride, or stick to your "principles" and find another publicity outlet.  It's pathetic to see a celebrity, who married into one of the world's richest families, trying to stick it to the Man with ridiculous stunts on one hand, while living the lifestyle of the Man on the other.  What's even more pathetic is that she truly believes that this makes her every bit the rebel that her infamous father was, like she's carrying on his legacy or something.