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.