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.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Throwing Muses, "Red Heaven"; The Avalanches, "Since I Left You"

Two minor classics that I've never heard before ...

Why haven't you heard them until now?

"Since I Left You" came out at a time when DJ Shadow and The Beastie Boys were making cut and paste style hip hop that was safe for indie kids to like.  The Avalanches seemed like the natural heirs to the "token hip hop act in the indie rock fan's CD collection" throne, so of course I stayed away from their album completely.

Throwing Muses is a difficult one to explain, because I have a number of Kirsten Hirsh solo albums.  In fact, I won't even try explaining why I've never heard this or any other Throwing Muses album.  It makes no sense at all.

Not that we don't already know, but what do they sound like?

"Red Heaven" is uncannily similar to Hersh's solo album "Learn To Sing Like a Star" (or rather, the opposite is true).  Throwing Muses' drummer David Narcizo played drums on that album, so it's perhaps not much of a surprise.  I assumed her voice had naturally become more throaty and raspier as she got older, but here, her voice even sounds raspier (in 1992) that it would on the solo albums she recorded over the next fifteen years.

"Since I Left You" certainly isn't boring.  Each of its eighteen tracks feel like the amalgamation of two or three mini-tracks, with countless samples and melodies cobbled and bootlegged together.  Tracks are changing shape constantly, and the album's hour long run time just flies by.  Definitely a dream album for the ADD sect.  

Thirty one combined years of hindsight must be nice, but are they classics?

A lot of early 90's alternative rock sounds soft and generic today.  Nirvana and all who hung on to their coattails made their careers on convincing kids who were sick of hearing how softies like Michael Jackson and Prince were the greatest artists ever that music could be better if it sounded aggressive or threatening.  Nobody was about to start a revolution soundtracked by Throwing Muses, Belly, or the Lemonheads.

That's not to say that grunge et. al. have aged better than Throwing Muses.  My mom wouldn't change the station if a Throwing Muses song came on, but that's a testament to how stealthily this kind of "soft" alternative rock eventually seeped into the mainstream via bands like Matchbox 20 in the late 90's.  But that doesn't mean the music still stands out when I'm listening to it for the first time in 2012.  Fortunately, Hersh's solo albums remain endlessly replayable ... give me "Me and My Charms" anyday over anything on "Red Heaven".

It bears repeating that "Since I Left You" is anything but boring.  I like to complain about how 60-minute albums with 15-20 songs are usually the biggest slogs ... better to have a 40-minute album with fewer tracks or a 70-minute album with a bunch of longer tracks, but those albums where the 3-4 minute tracks keep coming and never stop always feel like the biggest endurance tests.  "Since I Left You" is something to be admired more than loved.  I couldn't be more impressed that they managed to assemble a zillion samples into actual songs, but this is more spectacle than substance.

I don't think I'll be taking it off my iPod for a while though.  The music fits/cures a lot of moods and it couldn't be more suited for random play scenarios!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 11

"They had left for Las Vegas with a mix of subprime mortgage bonds" - 62 minutes

It's redundant to say that the Electric Deluxe Podcast has been on a roll lately, because their podcasts are almost never less than excellent.  But Episode 74, mixed by Submerge, went above and beyond the call of duty -- 52 tracks, 2.5 hours of content, half classic house and techno, half industrial.  Nominate EDLX for service to humanity, please.  I was feeling the urge to make a mix around that time and surprise surprise, it turned out partly like Jeff Derringer's Episode 73 (rock 'n roll chill out) and partly like Submerge's Episode 74 (industrial death disco party).  I even stole the idea to use Acid Horse's "No Name No Slogan" from him -- I'd nearly forgotten how great a song it is.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

London Olympics Closing Ceremony -- running diary!

9:00 PM London time.  Emeli Sande gets to open for Stomp, a Winston Churchill impersonator (actually the same actor who played him in "The King's Speech") and a huge stadium sized print wrapped traffic jam.  Then Prince Harry is introduced as "God Save the Queen" is played.  Eight minutes in, and the Spice Girls can't possibly top all this, can they?

9:10.  I'm already thinking this diary was a bad idea, there's no way I can keep up.  Madness playing "Our House" on the back of a flatbed truck, Buckingham Palace soliders mingling with red-clad waitresses and shiny green leprachauns?  Help!

9:12.  The guards are actually a state band and they just broke into Blur's "Parklife"!  All the yellow and green and red and purple and yellow clad freaks are singing and waving along.  And that's just the opening for the Pet Shop Boys and a bunch of orange conehead wearing cyclists.  Chris Lowe is idly tapping what looks like a keyboard made of orange cardboard.  I will never forget this closing ceremony as long as I live.

9:15.  The Eurosport TV commentators say that One Direction are the biggest band in the world.  Use hyperbole much?  Of course there's nothing more British than ensuring that every generation of UK preteen girls has its own fresh faced boy band to worship for three to five years (until the inevitable reunions ten to fifteen years down the road).

9:22.  Acrobatic group Spellbound perform some dizzying gymnastics to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" while a black Rolls Royce delivers a haggard looking Ray Davies to the stage to sing "Waterloo Sunset".  He's not ready for his closeup but sounds great for a 68-year old rock legend.  A tightrope walker nearly slips and falls, not like anyone could notice with the 847 other things that are going on here.

9:27.  Emeli Sande returns for an encore of "Read All About It" as we approach the half hour mark and see a video montage of Olympic athletes from these Games crying tears of joy.  This is one instance when I'm looking forward to Jacques Rogge's boring Olympic summation speech so I can take a short break from all this.

9:35.  Olympics athletes, coaches and various chaperones are filing in from all directions.  Some are wearing team outfits, some aren't, some are streaming single file from the aisles in the stands, some are jogging on the floor of the stadium.  I can't make heads or tails out of it, and Elbow are soundtracking all this chaos for some reason.  Break achieved.

9:52.  As they continue filing in to fill in the giant Union Jack flag in the centre of the stadium, and I wonder what's supposed to happen once some of these drunk people need to start using the bathroom, the commentators announce that the "Symphony of British Music" to come later in the show will feature some five hundred songs!  Did I hear that right?  And I'm supposed to recap it?

10:00.  The British athletes enter to an interpretive dance set to Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", which gets set to a slo-mo video montage of athletes in motion, partly shot in black and white. You can't say they don't know how to dramatize sport in London.  This is followed by the men's marathon medal ceremony, the final medal presentation of the Games, one of my favourite traditions of the Olympics.

10:07.  And now it's time for the Symphony of British Music.  One hour's worth.  I will recap the breakneck insanity at at my own peril.

10:11.  I'm surprised they'd open with Queen and John Lennon, I mean, wouldn't you expect that to close the performance?  And the Spice Girls are supposed to top a white plaster John Lennon mask, deaf kids signing the words to "Imagine", and hundreds of white balloons?

10:22.  George Michael gets nearly ten minutes for "Freedom" and his new single "White Light"?  The commentators refer to him as a talented singer and a troubled soul, or something to that effect.  Troubled?  Because of his near death from pneumonia last year?  Sick people usually aren't labeled as "troubled".  So he must have been referring to his multiple arrests over the years.  Is it really appropriate to mention that right now?

10:24.  Kaiser Chiefs offer a teaser for the Who reunion later on with a cover of "Pinball Wizard".  Then it's  a rapid fire montage of David Bowie music and photographs.  For a moment I wonder whether this means Bowie is about to make a dramatic return from retirement, but unfortunately isn't just a few supermodels strutting around to "Fashion" while the commentators pimp the September issue of Vogue.  Yes, random supermodels << Bowie coming out of retirement.

10:32.  Hmm this looks like a goth Annie Lennox perched on the bow of a zombie ship?   A definite pass.

10:35.  Ed Sheeran, who I've never heard of (just 21?) leads a supergroup (incl. Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford) in a straightforward performance of Floyd's "Wish You Were Here".  Not bad, but aren't there thousands of other kids performing in bars across the UK who have this song in their repertoire?

10:39.  Everyone loves the Beatles, so it's no shock that the organizers wanted to pack in as many of their songs as they could. But Russell Brand as Willy Wonka warbling "I Am the Walrus"?  I'm eventually won over by the kaleidescopic outfits and swaying violinists.  I'm also wishing I was seeing this in HD, because the light show and background video screens (IN the stands all around the stadium) are spectacular.

10:44.  Fatboy Slim, whose CD decks may not be plugged into anything (Ladbrokes has it 3:1 against) dances to excerpts from "Right Here Right Now" and "The Rockafeller Skank".  Pretending to DJ is fun!

10:47.  From that we jump to the '10's generation with Jessie J ("Price Tag") and Tinie Tempah ("Pass Out) ... and Taio Cruz ("Dynamite").  They drive around in fancy cars because they like money, or something.  Norman Cook feigns his interest by continuing to pretend to DJ.  The trio then ascend to the stage to take on the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing".  I think they're picking random names and song titles out of a hat now!

10:52.  I'm wondering whether Adele, who is genuinely the biggest music star in the Western world and hasn't even been rumoured to be making an appearance (AFAIK), will provide us with a genuinely huge surprise later tonight.

10:53.  This Bee Gees "tribute" is falling flat on its face in large part because the three artists who are supposed to be singing it are obviously not the least bit interested in singing it.  "We sang our own hits already for 90 seconds each, aren't we done here?"

10:54.  FINALLY it's the Spice Girls reunion, and I can't help but wonder if they feel vindicated that all the criticism leveled at them back in the day now looks petty and vindictive now that *every* gonzo live performance (particularly on gala shows like this one) revolves around the spectacle rather than how well you can sing and dance in the classically trained sense.  Actually, I'm sure they don't feel vindicated at all, as if they could care less what people think of them at this point!  But why WHY do they get only a few short minutes to steamroll through "Wannabe" and "Spice Up Your Life" while Liam Fucking Gallagher gets as long as he wants to whine his way through "Wonderwall" with his backing band.  They couldn't deliver a surprise Oasis reunion if they had to insist on inviting this guy?

11:06.  The biggest ovation of the evening has just gone to Eric Idle as he broke into "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life".  Are you surprised that everyone from the dancing nuns to the Dutch Olympic team are waving and whistling along?  Of course there's only one way to cap it all off -- with an odd "Slumdog Millionaire"-like interlude and a coda involving opera singers, ice skating nuns and a man shot across the stadium from a cannon.  Hello world, there was your moment of British for the evening, i.e. you probably had to be British (or at least watched most of the Monty Python movies) to know what that was all about.  The rest of the world had George Michael and the Spice Girls, the Brits had that all to themselves.

11:13.  Unfortunately that's not the end of the British music extravaganza hour, it's Muse performing their completely ignored London Olympics theme song that sounds nothing like an actual Olympic theme song.  Say what you will about David Foster, but he knows his forte.

11:15.  But wait, it's not the end after all ... the real end is a video of Freddie Mercury leading a stadium crowd in a singalong, followed by a live performance of "We Will Rock You" by the remainder of Queen with Jessie J.  See, I knew they'd close with Queen after all.  Brian May might have let his still thick mane of hair go grey, but he can still shred.  And can you believe these guys have continued without Freddie Mercury for longer than they were actually with Freddie Mercury?

11:31.  As much as I've enjoyed this rapid fire review of the past forty years of British music, I'm more than ready to move on and take the crash course in Brazilian music, if this brief introduction to the Games of '16 are any indication of what's to come.

11:50.  Bureaucratic stiffs don't get much stiffer than Jacques Rogge, do they?

11:51.  A sad, dramatic extinguishing of the Olympic flame wouldn't be complete without Take That (sans Robbie Williams), would it?  Yeah, it's late and I'm ready for Rio now.  Nevertheless, why wasn't "Rule The World" the Olympic theme song rather than that Muse thing?

11:57.  Dancers with flame patterned tights are performing while the Olympic flame still burns.  Are they going to sacrifice themselves to the flame or something?

11:59.  After all that fanfare, a moment of restraint ... the individual torches that make up the collective flame simply vanish.

12:00 AM.  Restraint?  Seconds after the flames go out in a rare moment of tranquility, the opening chords of "Baba O'Riley" instantly kill the mood.

12:10 AM.  If the tepid response to the Who was any indication, it looked like the athletes and audience were both totally exhausted and ready to go home.  They should have ended this thing with the Brazilian sneak preview, with the Carnival performers ambushing the flame and sprinting out of the arena while the confused commentators speculated on what they just saw before the transmission abruptly cuts off and our screens fade to black.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Best of The Cure

ILM's latest artist poll is for The Cure, and I tried putting together my ballot the way I normally do.  Rather than putting together a giant shortlist of songs and whittling it down, I usually make very stingy choices, picking only my clear favourites.  This often leaves me with a list that's shorter than the length of the ballot I need to submit, but ranking those songs is a lot more straightforward and to the point (reducing the signal to noise, so to speak, but starting out with fewer candidate songs).  Having already taken care of the hardest part, I can then fill in the lower portions of my ballot.

Except that this time, I ran into a brick wall. I made the usual stingy shortlist, and was lost in trying to rank them.  I started listening to a bunch of Cure songs, but that made me add more songs to my shortlist, making the problem worse.

I was surprised that it was so difficult, but I shouldn't have been.  I realized it's all symptomatic of a very simple fact -- I've been listening to their music for over twenty years and have never been able to define my relationship to their music.  Usually you know where you stand with a band, especially after growing along with them for a couple of decades (needless to say).  Bands are subconsciously slotted into countless categories, such as your absolute, all time favourite bands, bands who you liked for a few years and grew out of them, bands who have a handful of great songs you like but whose music you never buy, etc.  Sometimes bands can hop between categories, but usually they don't, especially once you've spent a few years following their career and listening to their music*.

[*here's a counterexample to demonstrate what I do not mean by this.  Once upon a time, I knew who the Velvet Underground were, understood that they were considered a legendary band, an immeasurable influence on the entire alternative music scene ... but aside from hearing "Sweet Jane" occasionally on the radio, I never listened to their music at all.  I only "discovered" them properly in the late 90's and pretty much became obsessed with them immediately.  So the VU were an "all time favourite" from the beginning, i.e. from the point I properly discovered them.  They didn't switch from "legendary band with no relevance to me personally" to "all time favourite".  On the other hand, The Cure have been changing categories for me ever since the late 80's, and at times have even been nearly uncategorizable.]

With The Cure there is a huge disconnect between the songs I liked by them when I was 16, 26, and 36.  The teenaged me would have put "Just Like Heaven" at the top of his ballot without thinking twice.  You couldn't be into alternative music in those days without being reasonably versed in the songs of the Cure.  Not listening to them was as unthinkable as listening to classic rock radio and not caring a whit about Zeppelin or the Stones.  You liked them whether you wanted to or not, not least because you probably knew a few girls at your school who were massive Cure fans and you could only hope that you were cool enough to date one of them.  But the teenaged me didn't dive too deeply into The Cure's back catalogue.  I listened to the Disintegration singles on the radio, taped them all and listened to them a million times, but somehow never bought (or even heard) the album.  I owned "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me" and "Standing on a Beach" and for the longest time, those cassettes (along with whatever singles were being played on the radio) were the extent of my Cure vocabulary.  I never became obsessed with Robert Smith's lyrics (or thought he was a great lyricist), never wanted to dress like him, and didn't care for most goth music.  I liked "Mixed Up" because I loved dance music, and the idea of the Cure getting the remix album treatment (even at a time when every band was getting the remix album treatment) seemed hilarious and unexpected.

Twenty something me hardly listened to The Cure, perhaps not a surprise since I'd never been that into them to begin with.  They'd blown up huge with the "Wish" album and especially with "Friday I'm In Love", which went into such heavy rotation that I (and most people) became sick of hearing it.  When you also consider that the band were mostly on hiatus from 1993-1996, it became rather easy to ignore the Cure for a long while.  Twenty something me finally saw the Cure play live (on the Dream Tour in 2000) but it was one of those things I figured I had to do at some point in my life.  It didn't trigger a rediscovery of the band's music.  I hadn't even listened to a note of "Bloodflowers" before seeing the concert.

Thirty something me could hear or download practically any Cure song from the internet on demand.  Slowly I started to discover parts of their back catalogue that I'd never heard before.  This didn't just spontaneously happen over the past few years.  I may not have listened to them much during the 90's but when I did, I was usually discovering many of their older songs and diving deeper into their catalogue, beyond the more well known songs.  I was mostly listening to live albums like "Concert", "Paris", and a recording of their Finsbury Park concert in 1993 (their last concert before taking an extended break for a couple of years) that quickly became one of my favourite live recordings by any band.  In short, the songs (and eras) of The Cure that I value now are very different from what they were twenty years ago, which is why this ballot has been so difficult to put together.

It's easy to see why some people have grown out of The Cure.  You listen to 1982's "Pornography", and you're hearing a fairly disturbed dude who's hiding some dark and twisted secrets.  It's not hard to understand why high schoolers would relate to him, or even idolize him.  These days, The Cure are expert salesmen of gloom and nostalgia in equal measure.  Robert Smith hasn't changed his look in over twenty years and he can't now, because it's an integral part of his sales pitch.  Just like James Brown looked the same and danced the same and did the whole feigning exhaustion only to throw off his robe and return to the mic bit until the day he died, Robert Smith knows what's expected from a Cure show, hint of self parody or not.  He markets his brand of music every bit as well as the Stones market theirs.  The Stones haven't been decadent rebels for a million years, but they know how to put on the act, feigning the part and making the nostalgia come alive.  They're so good at it, they can play the arena shows and festivals until the next ice age.  This is all true of The Cure as well.

Maybe with The Cure it was pantomime all along, who's to know?  But I enjoy being a Cure fan now more than I did when they were at their "peak" from 1987-1992.  I know their music better now, and appreciate their body of work more than I did back then.  They bust their asses every night, playing three hour shows and changing the set list every night. They still release a new album every few years, and while you  shouldn't hold your breath waiting for a classic (this has been clear ever since 2000's "Bloodflowers" failed to live up to expectations) they don't run in place and still have a knack for turning out a few songs on each album that stand up well to almost anything from their career.  These days, I'd rather hear them play "The Only One" (yet another typically great Cure-style pop single)  than "Lullaby" or "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" for the thousandth time.