Monday, December 30, 2013

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 16

"The irony-emphasizing quotation marks underline the mix's futility" - 107 minutes.

For my last post of the year, here is my latest mix. I was originally looking to put together something stylistically similar to Podcast Ep. 6, i.e. a mix of short, semi-radio friendly songs for a lazy afternoon with a dash of weirdness thrown in.  I started gathering tracks from rarely listened to CD's in my collection and ... realized that the mix was shaping up to be something completely different from that.  I ended up with a long list of songs that I wanted to revisit in some fashion, and invested quite a bit of time trying to come up with a track order and ideas for forcing them all together into the same mix.

The mix was recorded in one take and besides some simple mastering, it's completely unaltered from the original take.  Despite a few mistakes and imperfections, I decided to leave it alone and enjoy it as is.  I hope you do too, and bye until 2014.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2013

I think I crossed a threshold this year where I now enjoy listening to podcasts more than going out to dance in the actual clubs.  Maybe it's a passing phase, or a part of the aging process, or simply an indication of how many great podcasts are downloadable on a regular basis.  Perhaps the biggest factor is the time restrictions on the average podcast.  Technically there are no time restrictions (e.g. Autechre laugh in the face of fatigue and short attention spans once in a while) but practically, podcasts are often confined to 60-90 minute run time.  Of course this is not all that new -- mix CD's have been around for twenty years and counting.  But the mix CD is usually a condensed version of what that DJ would tend to play in the clubs, whereas a podcast can take a number of different forms.  Want to show a different side of yourself and record a mix of classic soul instead of the techno that your fans are accustomed too?   Psychedelic rock might not play in the club but nobody's stopping you from tacking on a few of those tracks to the end of a podcast.  In the battle between a four hour marathon set in the wee hours of the morning and a bite sized 80 minute mix tape I can hear in the afternoon at work, I've been siding with the latter.  It's like the clock has been turned back twenty years and I'm taping songs off the radio again, wondering what it'll be like if I could get into the big, famous dance clubs.

I was surprised to see so many FACT mixes on this list.  It's not that I followed their weekly mixes all that closely, but it seems like every mix I heard from them this year was stellar (honourable mention to Floorplan's FACT 400 mix).

Selvagem, Beats in Space # 672 (Discoteca Hallucinante mix) (April 10)

Definitely the year's most unique, infectious, and baffling mix.  Eighty minutes of Brazilian funk, disco, house, and lounge rock from who knows which year, and who knows which artists.  Apparently they organize these kinds of parties once a month in Sao Paulo, but the mix could have conceivably been recorded at any time between 1985 and today.

Green Velvet Electric Playground 008 (April 12)

Green Velvet's weekly 30-minute podcast is always good, but I'm going with the first one I heard this year.  Could anyone else in the world have pulled off "Bigger Than Prince"?

Silent Servant, HNY 181 (May 29)

I'm sure that Silent Servant can pull off these 80's techno pop sets in his sleep, but they're always killer.  Is there anyone better in electronic music at combining nostalgia and contemporary sounds?

Prins Thomas, 66 min shoehorning (June 14)

Space-y lounge disco, or IOW, what you'd expect from Prins Thomas after he rolls out of bed, sips a coffee, and starts up a mixtape to wake himself up.  It's more laid back and restrained than his usual stuff, and that's what I love about it.

DJ Koze, FACT mix 387 (June 17)
Jon Hopkins, FACT 388 (June 24)

I listened to both of these mixes a lot more than the highly acclaimed albums from these two artists.   They're the "influences" mixes that provide the background for the albums, and featuring some of their new tracks to really drive home the comparison.

Material Object, CLR 234 (August 19)

A devastatingly heavy mix of cavernous techno, this is the one podcast on this list that demands a club listening experience (this is true for all CLR mixes in general).

Vatican Shadow, Fabric promo mix (September 5)

A 45-minute advertisement for his then-upcoming live set at Fabric, i.e. "this is who I am and what kind of music I like, come and see me play".  The mix takes you through noise, minimal techno, industrial, synth pop, and tribal ambient ... all in the first 20 minutes!

Mark Pritchard, FACT mix 406 Parts 1 and 2 (October 28 + 29)

Each year brings at least one great throwback mix to the early days of rave, but whereas most of those mixes highlight the sirens and breakbeats side of the genre, Mark Pritchard chose to focus more on the hip-hop and R&B elements that are almost always overlooked.  So massive (56 tracks, 90 minutes) that they had to split it into two.

Tiga, FACT mix 411 (November 18)

Fun, smooth, and eclectic, Tiga always makes mixing sound so much easier than it actually is.  Props for the timely Lou Reed tribute at the end.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top Ten Albums of 2013

For me, there weren't many great albums released in 2013.  There were a lot of good albums that I've enjoyed in the here and now, but I have serious doubts about whether I'll still be listening to many of the albums in this top ten in five years time.  Which is not to say we shouldn't enjoy them now while we still can ...

10.  Issakidis, "Karezza" (Kill the DJ Records)

The criminally underrated George Issakidis made the year's best leftfield experimental techno album and hardly anybody noticed.  Jumping from smooth, Luciano/Villalobos style minimal  to James Murphy's disco rock to oddball kitchen sink unclassifiable weirdness with ease, there's something for everyone here.

9.  Depeche Mode, "Delta Machine" (Columbia/Mute)

It's not the best Depeche Mode album, but it might be their best sounding album.  Deep, resonant, cavernous, electronic blues for packing stadiums and festivals.  

8.  Sannhet, Known Flood (Sacrament)

When people talk about the death of the album format, they're ignoring metal.  I relearn this lesson every time I discover metal albums I really like and remind myself that they demand that you immerse yourself in them for a full, uninterrupted 45 minutes.  In bite size chunks, "Known Flood" is nothing, as a cohesive unit, it's a blizzard of guitar noise that doesn't let up, like Branca gone metal.    

7.   My Bloody Valentine, "m b v" (MBV Records)

Bold prediction: in three years time, nobody who puts this album on their year-end list will stand behind their ranking.  Sure, we know it's not another "Loveless" and that's OK (although "She Found Now" could easily slot in there and even raise the average song quality).  Fans are just glad they've rejoined the land of living, breathing bands who record new music.  But how good is "m b v" really?  A million other bands could have made this album in the past twenty years.  Does that matter?  Would we tolerate weirdness like "Nothing Is" if MBV weren't the band behind it?  This album is something of a time capsule, the realization of the 1991-1996 rumours come to life (e.g. "they're recording a DnB album!?!" c-1995-6), maybe it'll be easier to process the legacy of MBV vers. 2 when we start hearing the stuff that represent where their heads are at in the 21st century.

6.  Traversable Wormhole, "Traversable Wormhole Volume 6-10" (CLR)

As the title indicates, this is not precisely a new album, but a mixed compilation of tracks from the latest five EP's from TW.  What you get is roughly the techno equivalent of the cover art -- an immeasurably dark, mind-warping descent into a black hole of industrial techno hell (you know, in a good way).  

5.  Sigur Rรณs, "Kveikur" (XL Recordings)

I say it all the time, but it bears repeating: Sigur Ros are one of the most inventive bands of this generation.  People think they've got them figured out, but they really don't have any idea of what they're going to do next.  I mean, who had "Sigur Ros goes metal" in the office pool??

4.  Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)

I really can't figure out why Daft Punk superfans don't think this is their best ever album.  A disco album recorded and produced in the classic 70's/80's style (complete with real life classic disco musicians and producers), an instantly iconic cover, and a world conquering single to boot.  Why, because it should have happened already with "Digital Love"?

3.  Moderat, "II" (Monkeytown Records)

A more than worthy follow-up to their classic first album, this one feels more suited for clubs and lounges than its genre-hopping, all things to all people predecessor.  Get well soon, Sascha, and get back to blowing minds again when you tour this thing.

2.  The National, "Trouble Will Find Me" (4AD)

Well, it happened again, I fell for an indie rock album (as in, exactly one album) by a band I hadn't previously paid much attention to.  While not obvious on the surface, the National are the closest thing I've found to 90's Tindersticks in contemporary music.  They can be sour or mopey or aggressive or funny, they know exactly when to dial up or down each of those components, and they can even pull them all off within the same song.  Whenever I hear "Graceless" or "I Should Live in Salt" or "Pink Rabbits", the world around me simply stops moving.  

1.  Eluvium, "Nightmare Ending" (Temporary Residence Limited)  

Recently I was starting to feel that ranking "Copia" as one of the top ten albums of the 00's was a mistake. Eluvium was following a clear formula -- warm, lush ambient mood pieces alternating with serene piano ballads -- that was wearing down after so many listens.  Even the previously unstoppable "Repose In Blue" was starting to lose its mesmerizing power.  Then he released "Nightmare Ending", which follows mostly the same formula ... and guess what, it still works.  The ambient songs have gotten longer and noisier, the piano ballads have become more intricate, and he could have split this 80-minute plus album into two and ended up with two best albums of the year.  

Perhaps the strangest year-end list from a notable publication I have ever seen

Popmatters Best Electronic Music of 2013:

20.  Akkord, Akkord
19.  Congo Natty, Jungle Revolution
18.  Mum, Smilewound
17.  The Black Dog, Tranklements
16.  House of Black Lanterns, Kill the Lights
15.  Front Line Assembly, Echogenetic
14.  Matmos, The Marriage of True Minds
13.  Morris Cowan, Six Degrees
12.  Skinny Puppy, Weapon
11.  mu-ziq, Chewed Corners
10.  Manix, Living in the Past
9.  Letherette, Letherette
8.  Autechre, Exai
7.  Ben Lukas Boysen, Gravity
6.  Comaduster, Hollow Worlds
5.  Machinedrum, Vapour City
4.  The Field, Cupid's Head
3.  Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest
2.  Jon Hopkins, Immunity
1.  Tim Hecker, Virgins

In decreasing order of strangeness:

-- Seemingly every 80's and 90's electronic music legend that released an album this year got a spot on this list.  Many of these acts hadn't been heard from in ages (e.g. raise your hand if you knew Front Line Assembly were still making new music) and hadn't seen many "best of the year" lists even in their primes.

-- Following up on the first point, was the BoC album really all that good?  All the reviews I saw can be summarized as "yep, this sounds like Boards of Canada".  Ditto for Autechre, which I have heard and sometimes enjoyed, but have we really reached the point where these acts get a free pass into the Best of the Year lists based on name value alone?  They make an album that sounds exactly like themselves and this is enough to clear some sort of critical bar.  I don't see how this is any different from Robert Plant and Eric Clapton getting Grammy nominations (and getting ridiculed) every time they release a new album.

-- Mum are still around?  Is Ninja Tune really still a thing?  Their roster is all over this list.

-- What's with Machinedrum getting mentioned in every blurb?  And then a Machinedrum album showing up at #5?

-- Albums that I was encouraged to check out based on their reviews (and the sample tracks included): Ben Lukas Boysen, Morris Cowan.

-- Jon Hopkins is showing up on every list imaginable. I still can't believe that "Immunity" was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.  I don't quite understand how Hopkins and Tim Hecker became the go-to icons for leftfield electronica, but it's a definite improvement over the days when Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers would reflexively fill those spots.

Friday, December 13, 2013

End of the Loudness War

I've read this article a few times and there's a lot to process, after each reading I come away with a slightly different appreciation for the details. 

It is generally agreed that overuse of compression is a problem in music.  Compression, even if used a bit excessively, can occasionally lead to stellar results.  The music packs an aggressive punch (i.e. sounds good when played very loud) at the expense of almost all dynamics and the unpleasant, hard to define feeling of ear fatigue.  For years (before I I knew there was something unique but also exhausting about listening to albums like Oasis' "What's the Story Morning Glory?" and Verve's "A Northern Soul".  They convey feelings of excitement and invincibility that comes across completely differently than music that is mastered with lesser amounts of compression.  The evolution of music production has taken it to places it never intended to go, and now it's like an arms race, where the problem keeps compounding and a wannabe hit song must be mastered loudly if it has any hope of competing with everything else on the radio.

Apple might be the only company big enough and ubiquitous enough to force this kind of change.  At this point, it has to be an industry driven (and enforced) change.  Most consumers aren't even aware of the issue.  The average listener won't be turned off of buying music because the amount of compression isn't to their liking.  I doubt they'd even notice the changes if iTunes Radio standards become widespread.

They mention "Wrecking Ball" as an example of a horrifically overcompressed song -- if you haven't listened to it closely, pay attention to the change in the volume of her voice during the verses and then during the intro to the chorus (before the full force of the backing music comes crashing in).  She's screaming the chorus but on the recording, her voice sounds much quieter than in the verses!  It's an unavoidable consequence of having to squash everything in the chorus to make it sound as loud as possible.

I wouldn't have guessed that the loudness range of hit songs hasn't changed in the past fifty years, according to the study cited in the article.  This means, if I understand it correctly, that even the more "properly" compressed songs that are dynamic in *parts*, are on average getting louder and more squashed.  So rather than Nirvana going quiet/loud/quiet/loud, there would have been a few seconds of quiet, followed by a uniformly loud/semiloud verse/chorus/verse sequence with Kurt Cobain's voice getting lost in the muddle somewhere.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Disappointing albums of 2013

Mediocre albums are the worst, especially when it comes to writing about them.  A great album makes you want to tell other people how great it is, and a bad album leaves you reaching for a thesaurus to explain its awfulness.  Either way, these albums inspire you, and emotions run high when writing about them.  People remember those 9/10 and 10/10 reviews, and they remember the 2/10's, which usually makes people more curious to hear them because they have to check for themselves if it really is as bad as claimed.  It's that endless supply of 6/10's that are read and instantly forgotten.  If you really want to damn an album to the wastebin of history upon arrival, the 5/10 is probably the kiss of death.

For me, 2013 has been a year of disappointments.  There were a bunch of albums that I was looking forward to hearing, by artists that I really like, who have made some of my favourite albums of the past few years.  Their new records turned out to be OK, but disappointing.  I'm not talking about disappointing yet bad albums, like the Arcade Fire's head scratcher that I could forget about and move on from almost right away.  There's nothing actively bad about any of these albums, they're not experiments gone wrong or preposterously bad ideas poorly executed.  Fans of these acts would immediately recognize it as their work.  They're just OK, nothing more, and despite their pedigree, I rarely find myself wanting to listen to them.

Donato Dozzy, "Plays Bee Mask".

The Voices of the Lake album was beautifully stretched out, with each track getting seven or eight minutes to breath before merging seamlessly into the next one.  The pacing was closer to something from Wolfgang Voigt's Gas than any contemporary techno album I'd heard.  But "Plays Bee Mask" feels like a bunch of skits and elements from unfinished songs that never really kick in.

No Age, "An Object".

This album suffers from many of the same problems.  It relies less on conventional rock themes than their last two albums, which on paper would have been an understandable progression from their earlier releases, something I would have looked forward to hearing. But much like their first album "Weirdo Rippers", it's more like a collection of ideas than a cohesive album.  "Weirdo Rippers" was actually a collection of EP's rather than a proper album, so its "odds 'n' sods" style is understandable, but "An Object" is more like a compilation of cool guitar sounds that they wanted to finally release after a frustrating couple of years of writers block.

Yo La Tengo, "Fade".

If YLT wanted to tour and needed a record a new album to justify it, then "Fade" has served its purpose and then some.  It's just too bad that they seem to only take risks on the opening track on their albums now (i.e. "Here To Fall" from "Popular Songs" and "Ohm" from "Fade") but otherwise hardly stray outside of their familiar comfort zones.  Is this really the same band that released "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One", where every track played with a completely different style of music but still managed to sound like classic YLT throughout?

Tim Hecker, "Virgins".

Tim Hecker has made a career out of treading water, but when the formula is this successful, even treading water can lead to repeatedly great results.  It takes a lot of careful listening to peel back the layers of sound on a Tim Hecker album, so the relistening value has always been high as there are constantly new details to discover.  The recent profile in SPIN made me appreciate the level of care he puts into his records even more.  And so "Virgins" is his usual good effort.  The bells and chimes and other bits of live instrumentation don't add anything notable to the well established template he's used for the past decade.  In the past there'd be a fuzzy sampled guitar and now it's replaced by a chime, and that slight transformation is more than a bit gimmicky.  Maybe it's a rite of passage to help his growth as a composer, and if so, it could be a positive thing in the long term.  The quieter, ambient second half of the album is a confusing experiment in subtlety that doesn't suit Hecker's strengths.  "Virgins" quiets down and then just ... ends. "Ravedeath 1972" and "Haunt Me Do It Again" were outstanding because of their complete lack of subtlety and maximalist approach to nearly every track, and the quieter parts on his other albums were often about navigating between the peaks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Reviewing every Lou Reed live album

No surprise, but I've been listening to a lot of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground lately.  Reed and David Bowie were probably the most famous musical chameleons of the 70's, changing their music and personal style with nearly every album, and continuing to reinvent themselves in the following decades.  But whereas Bowie seemed to glide effortlessly from strength to strength (even his "sellout" album "Let's Dance" brought him the biggest hits and commercial success of his career, Reed's "Mistrial" and "New Sensations", not so much), Reed was as notorious for his misses as he was for his home runs.  "Metal Machine Music" is the most well known of these, but he certainly didn't get soft in his later years.  His collaboration with Metallica, "LULU" was the last album he worked on and it was almost universally panned (as if Reed could give a fuck ... and you have to admire that).  His failures are actually an integral part of his charm and stature as a person and an artist.

The same holds true for his live albums.  Until his death, I hadn't realised he'd released so many.  These range from good and possibly incendiary ("A Night With Lou Reed") to the polarizing ("Rock and Roll Animal") to the often ridiculed ("Take No Prisoners").  He performed with stripped down, semi-acoustic ensembles and full on RnR revues.  I sometimes wonder how he found the time to overhaul his live show and rehearse all these bands, especially in the 70's when he was a walking talking drug disaster waiting to happen.  But that was Reed -- always reinventing himself and never content to coast on his fame. 

I haven't heard most of Lou Reed's live albums, so these reviews are my tribute to the life of one of the greatest rock stars who ever lived. Because this is meant to be something of a career history, I'm limiting this to contemporary releases only, so no "Bataclan '72" for example (widely circulated as a bootleg, but not officially released until 2004).

Rock 'N Roll Animal (1974)

For me, the deal breaker on this album happens about two minutes into "Heroin".  Reed calmly sings the opening lines of the song, backed by sparse and delicate guitar lines, a big change from the bombastic, kaleidescopic opener "Sweet Jane".  And just as you expect the song to pick up speed and build in primal rage ... it breaks into a sunkissed squeal of guitar solos and drum breaks straight out of 70's session band hell. The noise and chaos of the original was trampled on and replaced by the sound of speeding along the highway listening to FM radio.  Sometimes this approach works -- "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" were written with exactly this sort of radio-friendly sound in mind -- but "White Light/White Heat" and "Heroin" are completely stripped of the desperate energy and frantic noise that made the original versions so iconic.  I can understand why people enjoy hearing these songs so radically transformed, but it's not for me.

Supposedly this was a Saturday night party album for proto-punks in the 70's, and if so, it was the first ironic proto-punk album because I can't imagine those same people celebrating this style of rock and roll excess if the name on the marquee wasn't Lou Reed.  However, there is plenty to admire about the slick, professional facelifts given to "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" though, so all in all, the good tends to cancel the bad.  6/10.

Lou Reed Live (1975)

This was recorded at the same concert as "Rock 'N Roll Animal", but had more promise based on the tracklist.  With three songs from "Transformer" and two from "Berlin", the song choices appear better suited for the glammy, rock and roll glitter show put on by Reed's then-band. IOW, if you're hiring Steve Hunter to play in your band, let him work with "Sad Song" and "Oh Jim", but by god keep him away from "Heroin". Unfortunately there's a reason that this album always gets overlooked in favour of "Rock 'N Roll Animal", and it begins and ends with Reed's annoying habit of improvising and changing up his vocals.  It's the same habit that nearly ruined the Velvet Underground reunion live album, to name just one future live recording that he dragged down (we'll get there). "Sad Song" and "Satellite of Love" should be lullabies springing to life in technicolour, instead, they're both dragged down by Reed's half whiny, half shouty "singing".  "Walk On the Wild Side" is a nice surprise that tones down the jazz in favour of an extra dose of groove, and "Oh Jim" is appropriately epic and benefits from Reed barely having to sing on it.  And the less said about "I'm Waiting For the Man", the better.  In all, it retains many of the flaws of "Rock 'N Roll Animal" and adds a few more of its own, and without a truly great performance to recommend it, this album seems best suited for hardcore "Rock 'N Roll Animal fans only. 4/10.

Take No Prisoners (1978)

I was looking forward to finally hearing the album that Robert Christgau famously labeled a comedy album. What could Lou Reed possibly have to talk about for 90+ minutes?  Do people get bored with comedy/spoken word albums after they've listened a couple of times and already know all the punchlines?  Maybe, but I've heard this album twice and I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface.  What's below the surface might be nothing but the ramblings of a madman, but there's still a lot to take in.  Or, it might be a unfiltered glimpse into the mind of one of rock's most literary, yet combustible, masterminds.  Which side you choose probably depends on the mood that you, the listener, are in that day, and whether or not you're in the mood for a 98-minute journey through a Lou Reed live set where half the time he barely bothers to get around to singing the words to the song he's supposed to be singing.

So why is "Take No Prisoners" is a big step up from the "Rock 'N Roll Animal"-era albums?  First, he's traded in the Detroit Rock City house band, whose glammy image was never a solid fit for Reed, for a rawer, bluesier outfit complete with backing singers and electric sax. Bruce Springsteen, who was in the audience when this album was recorded, certainly would have approved of Reed's own version of the E-Street band.  Second, whereas "Rock 'N Roll Animal" was too-professional to the point of being soulless, emphasizing image over all else without a single hair out of place, "Take No Prisoners" is sweaty, brutal, and honest to the point of slapping you in the face with its realness.  I used to collect bootleg cassettes, and still do enjoy tracking down live concerts of varying sound quality, because I wanted to capture the feeling of really being there in ways that slickly produced soundboard recordings usually can't do.  That's what "Take No Prisoners" is -- a gig with a beginning, middle, and end.  There's a fast opening section (starting with a blazing "Sweet Jane"), a slow middle section (shambolic but moving versions of "Satellite of Love" and "Coney Island Baby", a bluesy "I"m Waiting For the Man" that morphs into "Temporary Thing" mid-rant and then back again), and a killer closer/encore of balls out rock and roll ("Leave Me Alone") to send the crowd home buzzing.  There's also room for a mesmerizing performance of "Street Hassle" (the street ramblings of the recorded version are completely appropriate for a pissed off Lou Reed live show) and a "performance" of "Walk on the Wild Side" that gets sidetracked completely into takedowns of newspaper critics, stories about the characters in the songs, and a million other things that have nothing to do with the song.  Like many double albums that try to be "epic", it excites you, bores you, demands that you pay attention, and threatens to try your patience all at the same time.  It's how you feel once you've survived all 1.5 hours of it that counts.  8/10.  

A Night With Lou Reed (1983)

Technically not a contemporary release or a live album (the first TV broadcast wasn't until years later) but I'm making an exception because I love it.  In a career full of about faces and contradictions, this one might have been his most drastic.  A narrator opens the video with a dramatic description of the streets of New York and pushing it as a triumphant home field comeback for Reed.  They call it a comeback even though the concert was recorded at The Bottom Line -- the same venue as "Take No Prisoners" -- but between Reed's polished appearance and boyish looks (even at 41), cleaned-up attitude, and tight leather jacket, there is definitely an air of "'68 Comeback Special" to all of this.  Everything about his live setup is tidied up and more orderly than before, in short, Lou Reed was ready to take on the 80's.  From glam rock waif to punk godfather/notorious loose cannon to supper club entertainer, all at four year intervals.

Reed looks and sounds good and appears motivated in performing an efficient, but powerful set of hits and new songs, but he's nearly upstaged by his sideman, the incomparable Robert Quine.  Looking the part of the cold blooded killer with his dark sunglasses, white collar protruding from his black jacket intense yet calm expression, he arguably steals the show with one caustic guitar solo after another and just generally looking badass with everything he does.  No wonder a volatile personality like Reed couldn't stand working with him for very long.  8/10.

Live In Italy (1984)

The same band and the same tour as "A Night With Lou Reed", and mostly the same setlist too.  So let's just show some respect to:
1) Quine's solo on "Waves of Fear".  When you only had thirty seconds to spare but needed someone to shred the fuck out of a guitar solo, Quine was the man.
2) The smooth bass and more great guitar solos on "Satellite of Love".
3) "Walk On the Wild Side" going ROCK instead of faux jazz, "Heroin" getting stripped of its inherent minimalism and becoming an actual SONG in the hands of this band.  8/10.

Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)

This was Reed's first live album in fourteen years, not including the Velvet Underground reunion live album.  Although Reed gained a reputation for being unpredictable and not caring about sales or trends, he was in tune with the winds of change and knew how  to market himself.  Chris Molanphy examined this more fully in his recent article about Reed's chart history.  In the late 80's he dabbled in synth-pop and made amusing videos and got exactly what he was aiming for -- his highest charting albums in a decade and increased MTV airplay.  Then, as the early 90's boxed set era started hitting his peak, Reed, along with Neil Young and Bob Dylan, were resurrected and reclaimed almost overnight from relics who'd been left behind in the 80's into respected elder statesmen of rock and roll.  By 1998, Reed had been inducted into the RnR Hall of Fame (with the Velvet Underground) and was firmly entrenched as a rock legend with the multiple boxed sets and reunion tours to prove it.  In keeping with his image as a musical godfather who could keep up with the times, he released a live album that was an MTV Unplugged album in all but its name.

This album appeared when I was getting deeply into the VU (and Reed's solo career to a lesser extent) but despite the impressive, career spanning set list, I didn't pick it up because of the middling reviews it received at the time.  Fifteen years later, I'm finally hearing it and I can understand why it's become a nearly forgotten entry in Reed's live catalogue.  No performances really stand out, at least not in a positive way (the Lou Reed of the 1990's should not have been attempting "I'll Be Your Mirror") and it's a bit embarrassing when the set builds to a funked out version of "The Original Wrapper" that could have been an ironic cover by RHCP or Cake. However, there is plenty of breadth on display here, with tracks from nearly all of his 1980's albums, plus selected hits from the 70's and just one VU song, and that alone makes it an intriguing document in Reed's career. 6/10.

Animal Serenade (2004)

Reed's final decade in music might have been his most unpredictable.  Maybe with rock music hitting its commercial low point on the pop charts, Reed felt he could ignore trends altogether and finally do absolutely anything he wanted without caring one whit about sales figures?  His work in this period tended towards dream projects that had been simmering for years but never realized.  Dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe set to music?  Staging "Berlin" in its entirety?  An album with Metallica?  Why not!

"Animal Serenade" is the unplugged album that "Perfect Night" could have been.  It's the difference between trading his electric guitar for an acoustic one and stripping back the songs completely and building then again from scratch with new instrumentation and radically altered arrangements.  "How Do You Think It Feels?" and "Set The Twilight Reeling" start as solemn and delicate and accelerate toward furious, noisy conclusions.  "Venus In Furs" heads in the opposite direction in terms of tempo, stretching out every stanza in a manner that mimics the painful agony expressed in the lyrics, culminating in an insane cello solo that threatens to rip your eardrums apart.  Reed's voice probably never sounded better on this side of age sixty, and when he for once he picks his spots wisely when he wants to project rough and gravely -- "Street Hassle" and "The Raven" practically demand to be shouted rather than sung.

With nearly every track sounding inspired, this was the real perfect night (in LA), and call me crazy, but this is by far the best album of the bunch so far.  But can we do something about the album cover?  What's with the tufts of hair growing out of the words "Lou Reed" and Reed looking like a leathery zombie emerging from the shadows?  9/10.

Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse (2008)

"Berlin" is probably my favourite Lou Reed solo album (either that or "Songs For Drella" with John Cale).  Certainly none of his other albums have affected me as strongly, even after fifteen years, I've still never heard an album that can devastate one's mood more decisively if it catches you on the right (or wrong) day.  Reed hated the "most depressing album ever" comments, but I always saw those descriptions as compliments.  The best music has the power to completely transform the mood of a person or even a whole room of people.  Bringing you up is in no way inherently superior or more artistically meaningful than taking you down.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I heard this album a few years ago and was horrified to hear Reed practically sleepwalking through it.  His spoken word rantings on "The Kids" completely kill the song, to name just one example of Reed singing against, rather than with the instrumentation.  

Then I saw the Julian Schnabel-directed DVD when preparing these reviews, and it got even worse.  Now I could see Reed not trying rather than trying to infer it from the audio.  The only time where he looks like he could give a fuck is at the end of "Candy Says" as he gazes at Antony Hegarty like an adoring father.  And of course "Candy Says" wasn't even on "Berlin", but is easily the highlight here (mainly because of Antony's singing).

The staging and video projections are great, as is every moment featuring the choir.  The ambition and talent was there, but the execution wasn't there for some reason.  3/10

Creation of the Universe (2008).

Reed's final act was more secretly fascinating than a lot of people gave him credit for at the time (including me).  It's almost as if he eschewed conventional rock entirely and switched over to the performance art/improv world, likely in part due to the influence of Laurie Anderson. And then he recorded LULU, but that's another story.  

The "Metal Machine Trio" doesn't sound anything like the track/album implied in its name, but it never claimed to be anything other than "music inspired by MMM".  Fans of that album and grinding, noisy improv music in general will find a lot to like here. Ullrich Krieger's sax is processed and filtered in a million different ways, blending into the sheets of electronic and F/X laden squall churned out by the rest of the trio.  I'd say the first disc comes together more tightly as a piece than the second, but that's really a matter of personal taste.  The trio played a number of gigs over the years, and I have a recording of one from 19/04/2010 that's very similar to the music on this disc.  This kind of music really demands to be heard in a live venue, as loud as possible.  It's the kind of industrial, scraping, volatile noise music that I enjoy seeing live but rarely listen to at home.  7/10.

Reed, Anderson, and John Zorn released a recording that I couldn't track down, although video clips of some of their shows together are widely available on the internet.    

LULU may have been panned, but the fallout as far as Reed's live shows are concerned may have been immense.  In his final shows he was playing some of the most aggressive rock music of his career, witness this seventeen (!!) minute version of "Heroin" from a festival in the summer of 2012, in all its punishing, unhinged glory.  It's an intriguing glimpse into what might have been yet another new direction for the always unpredictable Reed.    

Monday, November 11, 2013

Arcade Fire, "Reflektor"

I go back and forth on this album, or at least the concept of it.  My gut reaction to "The Suburbs" was enough with the teen angst, crank up the Blondie tributes, and that's pretty much the direction they've taken with "Reflektor".  They even "became" a new band called the Reflektors, complete with lily white 70's-style suits, and got a noted dance music producer to work with them on their album.  If any band was due for a change after three albums of the usual, it was Arcade Fire.  You could counter that by asking why they'd mess with a  formula that had brought them nothing but exponentially growing success, culminating in arguably the most surprising Album of the Year Grammy wins ever.  But like U2 in the 80's (a band and a style that Arcade Fire certainly have taken cues from) there's only so far you can push yourselves trying to be the world's most earnest and meaningful band before self-combusting under the weight of your own seriousness.  Most people didn't see it coming with U2 -- they seemed to be in it for the long haul with the polemics they established in the 80's -- but to their infinite credit, they realized they had to become something totally different to get people to keep taking them seriously.  A lot has been written about U2 embracing irony, slumming it in Berlin long before it was the in thing to do, and going OTT with the Mephisto dress up games, etc.  It's been ages since a band at this level had the opportunity to follow in U2's footsteps and make the same kind of 180-degree turn.

Anyway, that's the concept.  I don't go back and forth on the album itself.  It's not good.  Like Steven Hyden pointed out on Grantland, it feels fake, pantomime, and utterly contrived.  What could have been more contrived than early 90's U2, you say?  But "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways" were very much ahead of their time, there was nothing even remotely like it on the stadium rock scene.  Their image might have been carved out with diamond-like precision, but the shocking thing was that U2 managed to circumvent all their peers and fast forward themselves into the 90's so smoothly.  It was pantomime and contrived to the nth degree, but it was still U2, a drastically updated version of them but still instantly recognizable.  It was never fake, it never felt like they were trying to shed their skins completely.  The same can't be said for "Reflektor".  I have no longer have any sense of the band behind the record.

The lack of editing that nearly killed "The Suburbs" has made "Reflektor" quite the slog.  It's exhausting to listen to track after track of six-to-seven minute disco rock that never seem to hit any true valley or peak.  There are some bright spots, like the title track, but the stabs at reggae and funk couldn't possibly hit any further from their mark -- whatever the opposite of riddim and funky are, they found it.

I also have no idea how any of this will fit with their earlier material when they play live.  Besides the obvious inclusions of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" and "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)", I'm not sure how they'll manage to piece together a cogent live set, or how they can pull off the loose and laid back "Reflektor" material night after night when their live shows are famous for being anything but.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Leave the laptops at home

I was happy to see Attack Magazine tackle the issue of shifting trends in live techno music, not least because it's a woefully underreported subject.  There have always been plenty of articles about how the music sounds, and the thought processes of the artists, but very little about how the music is made.  I'd wager that the process of recording and performing electronic music is still something of a mystery even for devoted fans and clubgoers.  Any novice can look at a guitar, or watch someone playing a guitar, and connect the dots between the shape and feel of the instrument and the sound that emanate from it.  Almost nobody can understand what to do with hardware sequencer just by looking at it, or intuitively decipher digital waveform synthesis programs on a computer.  The way that the music gets made is still very much in the domain of the artists who actually make it.  

I've long since defended laptop techno as a performance art, or at least defended the idea that a laptop (and the lack of animation from the person clicking the mouse) should never be an obstacle to enjoying the music.On the other hand, using live, physical instruments (including electronic music hardware) does add something tangible to a gig, after all, the music can and should be enough but concerts are also performances and fans love to see musicians in the more physical act of performing.  As I noted in my MUTEK 2010 wrap-up:  "In 2003, nearly all the performances were centred around laptops. Almost every performer in 2010 incorporated a laptop into their setup, but in plenty of cases, the laptop was nowhere near the centre of the spectacle."  

As for why performers are switching from software back to hardware, well, it's very much an open question and the article doesn't offer many answers beyond the fairly obvious "people got bored and tastes changed". A hardware setup certainly creates a more unique visual effect onstage.  No matter what programs you use or how much effort you've put into trying to sound different from everybody else, a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop is just a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop, every time.  Even after more than 20 years, the idea of "live techno" is still something of a misnomer in the eyes of many people, which has led musicians to become more dynamic performers.  As fans became more conditioned to live sets, it became more acceptable for artists to break with blank-faced stoicism of the past.

Most of all, I'd say that the sound of techno in the '10's deserves most of the credit.  The days of "plip-plop" laptop techno and minimal are long gone, techno is deeper, groovier, and heavier than it was a decade ago.  Unless you were Ricardo Villalobos, you weren't about to get too animated while endlessly flat plains of minimal crept from the speakers, but the newer styles are far more energetic and therefore more conducive to more visually arresting, hardware-based live performances.

It's interesting to see (p. 2 of the article) that classical training is becoming more common in techno.  I think this would be a first -- I can't recall every reading something by techno artists who stress the benefits of having classical music training.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RIP Lou Reed

Didn't he always seem like he'd be one of the immortal ones who would never die?  As the joke goes, I thought he'd be around until the very end, with Keith Richards and cockroaches once every other sign of life on earth had burned itself out.  Lou Reed was the legendary Velvet Underground frontman in the 60's, a successful solo artist, unpredictable shit disturber, and near drug casualty in the 70's, and a comeback kid by the late 80's and early 90's with some of his most critically acclaimed work.  He solidified his legacy throughout the 90's with the VU reunion and a handful of almost classic albums, and settled into an elder stateman of rock role in the 00's and 10's, collaborating with whoever he damn well pleased, critics be damned (which he did quite frequently, Reed was a notoriously difficult interview subject).  He never compromised right up until the end, always tried to stay ahead of the curve, never went on a comfortable money grabbing greatest hits tour, he was too busy staging "Metal Machine Music" and "Berlin" and acting grumpy in photo shoots with Metallica.

Lou Reed's influence on rock and alternative music was so pervasive, it's practically incalculable.  People who don't know they were influenced by Lou Reed were influenced by Lou Reed.  The fact that labels like "alternative" have grown so large that they are almost meaningless is largely thanks to Lou Reed.  Perhaps only Dylan can rival him in terms of helping to shape so many different genres of music across so many generations of fans and musicians.

The height of my Lou Reed/VU fandom was in 1998, I bought all the VU albums, moped around to "Berlin", devoured the "VU Companion" almost daily.  That was the same year American Masters produced a documentary on his life, and the closing moments of the film contain my favourite Lou Reed lines which remained as clear and sharp in my mind over the past fifteen years as they were on the night I first heard them. At around the 71-minute mark:

Interviewer: How long can you be a rock and roller?
Reed: You see, that problem disappears if we don't call it rock and roll.
Interviewer: How long can you be a musician?
Reed: Right.  What would the answer to that be?
Interviewer: Until you die.
Reed.  There you go.  

The self assured attitude he displays there, the mix of confidence and snideness (even in his more politely mannered moments), has always been my quintessential memory of Lou Reed, and I don't see that changing now that he's fulfilled his prophecy.

And what would this post be without a few more links:

A Night With Lou Reed (1982).  Reed goes all leather jacket supper club, playing hits and songs from "The Blue Mask".  So great to see him and Quine together in their better days.

Dirty Boulevard (1989).  Squeezed among Roxette and Janet Jackson on weekly Much Music countdowns in 1989, needless to say I'd never heard anything remotely like this before.

The Kids (1973).  Still might be the most devastating song ever recorded if you hear it in a certain mood.

Heroin (live 2012).  Imagine still getting to play rock and roll like this when you're 70.

Stephanie Says (1967).  Maybe the prettiest song the VU ever did, a prelude to the softer side he displayed on some of his mid-70's albums, but never bettered.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 15

Six months between mixes is inexcusable!

I was aiming for a midtempo rarities mix, but of course things rarely turn out the way I want.  I was also determined to squeeze some Glenn Branca into a mix, and now I'm not sure whether it really fits.  Judge for yourself.

I ended up with a mix that was more of a 2013 favourites mix, although there is a bit of quality cratedigging too.  And how long had it been since I'd heard that Delerium track?  So don't expect much in the way of a 2013 year-end mix ...

“The OH mix has been observed in interstellar space”

94 minutes

tracklist in the comments ...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Clubbing in Damascus

This remarkable article about the barely alive and kicking club scene in Damascus was published in the UK Daily Mail about a month ago.  The highlights are the pictures, and in fact I'd probably recommend just looking at the pictures and skipping the text entirely.  The most striking thing about them is how normal everything looks -- people are smoking, dancing, and enjoying themselves in scenes that could be almost be taking place in most Western countries.

As for the text, let's just say there's nothing approaching investigative journalism here.  It's the fluffiest of fluff pieces, and perhaps that was all the author and photographers were aiming for (N.B. it's difficult to tell which ones are stock photos and which ones were places visited by the reporter, the article is very vague about specific names and places for reasons we'll get to later).  But considering the very real horrors of the war that has torn apart most of Syria, and the wealth of misinformation coming out of there, the Daily Mail had an opportunity to dig beneath the surface and tell the story of a truly unique scene, far different from the usual narrative of club owners struggling to keep their doors open despite countless obstacles that we've seen told in a million other cities. Even a one-dimensional depiction of "downtown Damascus is a bubble where people can have fun and remain callously oblivious to the carnage in the rest of the country" would have been a story worth telling, and a lot better than the rather colourless reporting that was actually done.    

The main question that is never asked or even implied is this: how did they find all these clubs?  The club owners don't want their names or locations publicized for fear of "reprisals", so if we take those comments at face value, how does one get into these clubs?  Who was the insider with knowledge of the scene?

The political partisanship of the characters in the piece is hardly subtle.  In the midst of a civil war, where making your friends and supporters known to all is a matter of life and death, we see normal goings on in the centre of Damascus (an Assad stronghold), in venues that display pictures of Assad, and hear about music that's popular with Assad's supporters.  Dancing, drinking, Western-style clothes, and intersex mingling are obviously not popular with the rebel groups, so in that aspect the clubbers would strongly favour Assad.  But there's so much we don't know.  Have the businesses that refused, for whatever reasons, to show their loyalty to the regime been shut down?  Does the regime support or merely tolerate these kinds of establishments?  We can't even assume that the entire photo-op wasn't set up by people with business or personal links to the regime as a way to project a sense of normalcy in the capital.  Judging by many of the comments on the article ("Assad allows clubbing so he can't be all that bad!"), there are plenty of people ready to buy into just about any positive spin about Syria.  

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Miley Cyrus, Sinead O'Connor, Amanda Palmer spat

We've seen this movie a million times already, haven't we?  I think this is my standard reaction to 99% of music "scandals" these days, so at the risk of adding to the redundance ...

First, it's a bad idea in general to take life advice from Sinead O'Connor.  Brilliant musician, well-meaning person, a wealth of experience worth listening to, hell yes.  The voice of reason in a debate about the "evils" of the music industry?  Pass.

Second, if Miley was really so deeply inspired by Sinead and her iconic song and video, you'd think she'd react more along the lines of "thanks but no thanks for your two cents" rather than treating Sinead like dirt and ridiculing her past behaviour.

Third, what kind of apocalypse is upon us when Amanda Palmer comes across as the most sane person in a Twitter war/war of letters?  Even so, her portrayal of Cyrus as a shrewd personality who carefully manoeuvers herself through the music industry is exaggerated (to be fair, Palmer is hardly the first to make that characterization and claim that Miley is a lot smarter than the average pop star).  To me, it looks like Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to shed a few real tears in her new video (thx Sinead!!) and that's roughly where the inspiration begins and ends, i.e. hardly the work of someone who carefully maps out her every move.

Fourth, although she has every right to be pissed off about Miley's response(s), Sinead is embarassing herself by stooping to Miley's level because there's almost no way for a 47-year old to come out looking good in a flame war with a 20-year old, especially given the subject matter of Sinead's original letter.  Again, see #1.

Fifth, child stars will grow up and rebel and do crazy stuff to get attention and there's really no reason to get upset about it because it's happened over and over in the past sixty years of rock and roll history and will continue to happen from now until approximately forever.  Next!

Monday, September 30, 2013

GY!BE meets Weird Al Yankovic

Nothing will ever break my brain like the Dave Ogilvie/NIN/Carly Rae Jepsen mutual admiration society did, but this story comes close.

What's more surprising, the fact that Godspeed like Weird Al's music and hand picked him for ATP, or that Weird Al sometimes listens to Godspeed's music?  It's truly the chicken vs egg debate of our time.  And it's hard to believe that he'd never played a single show in Europe over a career spanning more than thirty years, and after all this time, who finally stepped forward to make it happen?  Did anyone guess Godspeed You! Black Emperor?

You have to respect GY!BE for staying true to their principles after all these years.  Alternative icons like Trent Reznor, Metallica, and Red Hot Chili Peppers got nice haircuts and became mainstream (even Oscar winning!) superstars a long time ago, but GY!BE won't compromise or tone themselves down even just a little bit, even after more than fifteen years, even long after indie bands "selling out" became as routine as breathing.  Most indie rock fans couldn't care less about these sorts of outdated "principles", and yet here they are more or less telling the Polaris Prize organizers to go fuck themselves.  Railing against billion dollar companies on one hand, curating major music festivals featuring Weird Al Yankovic on the other, you can't say that GY!BE don't control their own destinies and do precisely what they want to do, when they want to do it, this time and for all time.  And that's something I'll always respect about them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock Chart

Chris Molanphy's article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock/Alternative chart is tremendous and an essential read for anyone who grew up on the version of "alternative" music as defined by that Siouxsie and the Banshees-topping first chart back in 1988.  We're basically talking about people born between 1968 and 1976 who remember "alternative" music when it was a catch-all phrase for a genre-spanning (but mostly rock-based) collection of countercultural music that rarely found a way to sniff the "real" charts, rather than a genre unto itself (i.e. a euphemism for grunge and everyone who rode grunge's coattails to stardom).

Molanphy's breakdown of the chart into six "eras" is spot on.  Anyone who was listening in the "British Empire" era (1988-1993 according to Molanphy) but still paid attention after that to the general happenings in the pop charts probably had a moment around era number four or five (2000-2008 or so) where they were surprised to see that the chart was still around.  Like me, they probably glanced at Billboard, saw RCHP or Foo Fighters topping the chart in the middle of one of their many 10+ week runs at the top, and wondered what the hell happened and what was even the point of this chart anymore.

Three comments related tangentially to Molanphy's article:

1) Although the article gamely attempts to accord some kind of overall historical meaning to the chart, the fact is that nobody, probably including musical artists, has ever given a crap about the Modern Rock chart.  Molanphy is certainly not blind to this -- he more or less defines it as "a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn't want to be charted -- but I'm hard pressed to think of a major national music chart that has had less impact or sense of worth to the artists and fans involved.

2) The "coming full circle" narrative of the article, where the awful rap-metal and rock of the 00's is symbolically phased out and a woman reaches #1 again on the chart, is a bit forced and artificial.  It's been a male-dominated chart for the past fifteen years, no doubt, but Evanescence, Hole, Chumbawamba, and The White Stripes have all been to #1 for multiple weeks since then, and all feature female members in prominent roles (including lead singing roles, with the exception of The White Stripes).  True, none of them were solo female artists, but it wasn't a total dead zone for female artists as the article implies (not even mentioning Gotye f. Kimbra from just last year).  And in the two years prior to Tracy Bonham having the last #1 by a solo female artist until Lorde earlier this month, Tori Amos, The Cranberries, and Alanis Morissette had #1 hits and sold zillions of records at the height of alternative music's commercial peak.

"Somebody That I Used To Know" being recognized as the Billboard Hot 100 song of the year and Alternative song of the year is impressive, but not as impressive at it would seem considering that the music industry virtually killed off the single in the early 90's.  Albums were what counted in the 90's unless you were Mariah Carey or a friend/collaborator of Mariah Carey.  In 2013, the balance is tipped in favour of songs again, there are no more Cakes and Smashmouths having minor hits and selling millions of albums.  Now, if your album went platinum then you almost certainly had a huge hit on the Hot 100.  Alanis Morissette's songs were everywhere in '95-'96, and as it stands she had arguably the biggest album of the 90's.  In the current climate she almost certainly would have had a few #1's on the Hot 100 as well.

To me, the most amazing thing about Gotye's success is that for more than a decade, there wasn't a single #1 on the Hot 100 that could even be remotely considered as an alternative crossover hit.  Nobody fluked into a #1 until Owl City managed it in 2009, and since then the #1 spot on the Hot 100 has been more or less a steady stream of proven singles heavyweights.  Nobody paved the way for "Somebody That I Used To Know" to break through, it was a truly unprecedented smash hit.  The previous Hot 100/Alternative crossover smash hit was probably Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", which hit #1 on the Modern Rock and Hot 100 in 1998 (but not simultaneously, strangely enough).

3) Perhaps the most glaring omission in the article is any mention of the Hot 100 changing from a "singles" chart to a "songs" chart in 1998.  For instance, Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" was inescapable in 1998, but wasn't eligible to chart on the Hot 100 because it wasn't originally released as a single.  But the time it finally received a single release, the song had peaked in real, popularity terms with five weeks at the top of the Modern Rock chart and eighteen weeks (still a record) at the top of the Hot 100 Airplay charts. So for all intents and purposes, Goo Goo Dolls should have had a smash crossover #1 hit, and you could say the same for No Doubt's "Don't Speak" and many other songs during the mid-90's. Molanphy's 1997-1999 "faux-ternative" era comes off as a tepid placeholder between the decline of the grunge giants and the resurgence of the 2000's brand of cock rock.  Like them or not, the faux-ternative bands were a hugely successful brand of pop music, more so than any "alternative" bands that came before or since.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Electronic music in the 80's in East Germany

Most unique and outright fascinating oral history of the year?

I'm not even sure what I can add to this, since the subject matter is so far removed from my personal experience, but this is essential reading.  Cold War era Eastern European music history is sitting on a gold mine of great stories and important music criticism just waiting to happen (at least in English).  For the longest time, these stories literally couldn't be spread outside of their extremely well guarded borders.  The press and other forms of written communication were subject to crackdowns, and so the best way to perpetuate a music scene (and preserve its memory) had to be through word of mouth and personal experiences of those involved.  Thus, for retelling the story today, the oral history is completely appropriate and not simply the fashionable thing to do.

This really turns the American version of DIY on its head.  In New York there were countless stories of art school dropouts forming bands because they were bored.  They didn't know how to play instruments but it hardly mattered -- in fact, it was almost a badge of honour -- and they would stumble into regular gigs without even trying  But in East Berlin in the 80's, you had talented musicians who were heavily devoted to their craft who had to jump through a labyrinth of hoops just to get their instruments smuggled into the country, let alone find gigs.  Building a fan base without getting the secret police on your case was a challenge, and you practically had to know somebody in the ruling communist party to sniff the inside of a recording studio.  There's no doubt it was DIY, but it couldn't be more different from the oft-told American version.

Hopefully this and anthologies like Depeche Mode's Monument are just the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Kanye West, "Yeezus"; Nine Inch Nails, "Hesitation Marks"

"On Sight", the first track on "Yeezus", explodes out of the blocks with abrasive industrial noise that I never would have expected from on a Kanye West album.  And that's taking into account his past and current collaborations with Daft Punk.  This isn't like Darren Price producing a Madonna record in his own image, this is something funkier and meaner than anything Daft Punk would have conceived on their own.  "On Sight" shocks you to attention and forces you to notice it from its first moments onward, which is something I haven't been able to say about a Nine Inch Nails record since "Broken".

And yet, despite the obvious nods and outright theft from industrial music (NIN included), "Yeezus" isn't the kind of album that makes you want to play a game of spot the influences.  He's captured the mood of the genre, twisted it in new shapes, and forced it to conform to something resembling a Kanye West album. Sure, "I'm In It" makes me think of "Down In It" (especially the intro), but as a whole, I don't find myself wondering which Skinny Puppy album inspired a certain bassline or what have you.  Techno producers have plenty to be jealous about here too. "I'm a God", with it's layers of echo, oddly processed guitar sounds, and stomach churning, cavernous bass, could be credited as a Dubfire track featuring Kanye West and nobody would doubt it for a moment.  "Send It Up" brings back 80's industrial thudding and OTT rave sirens to contemporary music, and not a moment too soon. West's attempts at connecting industrial, EDM, and hip hop don't always fit together so smoothly, for instance, the bruising robofunk bridge on "Bound 2" seems unnecessary, a complete non sequiteur in the midst of a mellow 70's soul number.  But for the most part, this is another startlingly creative home run for Kanye West.


"With Teeth" is clearly the album that kicked open the door for the second act of Trent Reznor's career.  "Hesitation Marks" probably could have been made at any time in the past ten years, there's nothing particularly contemporary about it and that's the entire point of it  (i.e. it's the album where he returns to his late 80's/early 90's heyday, except older, wiser, and mellower).  But if this album is released in 2003 then he's likely labeled as a 90's burnout trying to hang on and stay relevant.  Instead, Reznor disappeared for a long time following "The Fragile", returned with an armful of stories about how he'd been to the brink and lived to tell about it (who can resist that narrative in music?), and an album that sounded nothing like his earlier work.  It was different enough not to draw too many comparisons to anything on "The Downward Spiral", but still recognizable as a NIN album.  Gone was the pressure of having to make each record more shocking and more extreme than the one before it, and so much of "With Teeth" and its more rock-influenced tracks fit in well with alternative radio of the time, without rocking the boat too much.  He was now a Reliable Artist -- no longer representing the vanguard of new music, but someone who could be counted on for a decent slate of songs and an energetic tour every few years.  And for artists who sold millions in the sales inflated 90's, that's a recipe for doing healthy arena tours from now until retirement age.

The success of "With Teeth" also left room for Reznor to escape his 90's image, an image that easily could have been turned into a caricature like with so many 80's hair metal bands.  It left him free to do what he wanted without feeling pressed to make a Nine Inch Nails (TM) album each time out.  Not five years later, this former junkie and 90's relic, best known in mainstream circles for singing "I want to fuck you like an animal" in heavy rotation on MTV (bleeped during the daytime of course) and performing at Woodstock '94, was a respected Oscar winning soundtrack composer.  It boggles the mind just thinking about it.  

I do play a lot of spot the influences when I listen to "Hesitation Marks".  "Copy of A" sounds like the new "Sin", although a better comparison might be the style of electronic blues that Depeche Mode have been doing (and doing better that Reznor) on their last two albums.  "Find My Way" contains elements of "Something I Can Never Have", ditto "Running" and "Ringfinger".  In many ways it's a very safe album for Reznor to make, although I can't fault his timing in wanting to get back to writing the kinds of songs he does best and recalling his glory years a bit.  Parts of "Hesistation Marks" are great, but mostly it's just reliably good NIN music, and honestly, that's enough.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beautiful pictures of the week -- the DJ Diner and record stores to die for

A couple of gems courtesy of the RA news feed ...

DJ Diner episode 6 featuring Ruede Hagelstein and his shnitzel recipe.  Why was the "DJ's and their living rooms" photo series such a hit a few years ago?  As much as people try to pretend that the club scene is all about the music, or all about setting a mood in the club, or the interaction between DJ and audience in the club, or about the DJ showcasing his or her personality using only music, we all want to peek behind the curtain at some point.  It's precisely because DJ's usually are, or were so reclusive (or altogether faceless) that we'd jump at the chance to be a fly on the wall and learn more about them, for example, by sneaking into their houses and photographing their living rooms when they weren't at home.  Or at least that's what it feels like to browse through those pictures.  Of course you can learn a lot about someone just by seeing how they live -- who's unexpectedly a slob, who's the most tech savvy, who has the rig or music collection you'd give your right arm to have.

That was seven years ago, before the widespead use of social media and before podcasts accompanied by extended interviews with DJ's became commonplace.  Reclusiveness is fading into the past and openness is the new, expected norm.  The EDM explosion has probably contributed to the willingness of DJ's to advertise their personalities a bit more, although perhaps many of them would not want to admit this.  Resentment toward "superstar DJ's" of the 90's like Sasha and Sven Vath is still reasonably fresh -- in the not so recent past, the backlash was fierce and destructive if a DJ got too big.  But the mainstream attention given to the club culture of cities like Berlin is likely a huge factor too. Clubbing is no longer the exclusive domain of select individuals who are in the know, worldwide, it's probably never been as socially acceptable to be a club kid or a DJ than right now.

So what's the next logical step in the "DJ as pop star" series?  Maybe it's DJ's sharing home cooking recipes while playing your tracks in the background.  I mean sure, why not? I love shnitzel and Ruede Hagelstein's tracks are exactly the kind of stuff I like to play while I'm in the kitchen too.


Just when you thought you couldn't take any more stories about record store or concert club closures, an article such as this one pops up -- 27 breathtaking record stores you need to shop at before you die.  I've only been to five of them (1, 3, 5, 6, 26) and they are all worth the plane fare to get there with the exception of the last one. Seriously, is there anything better in music photography than pictures of beautiful record stores or of a person's sprawling music collection?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two more oral histories

Oral histories -- they're everywhere now!  I singled out these two mainly because of the one interesting factoid in each that sort of blew my mind.

First, an oral history of Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ.

The good: Makes you feel as though you were actually there.

The bad:  An incomplete, all too brief history, they skipped the middle of the story and presented just the beginning and the end.  It seems they could have elaborated more on what they had -- how many more gold nuggets like the Korn story are left to be told?

The factoid: Bruce Springsteen filmed the video for "Glory Days" at Maxwell's!  I had no idea, but it makes perfect sense.  Go Bruce.

Second, an oral history of "Be My Baby" on its 50th anniversary.

The good: Not a whole lot.  A lot of the key figures in the story have passed away (or are in prison), so perhaps we should be thankful to get any stories at all.  It's a little sad to present an oral history with only three interviewees, one of whom had no connection to the original recording.  Maybe that's the best thing to come out of this -- I listened to Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight" about five times in succession after reading this.  Great tune, awesome chorus, and I hadn't realized it was his biggest hit.  So there's that.

The bad: The article revealed absolutely nothing that we didn't already know.  I've thumbed through Hal Blaine's autobiography and this interview was just more of the same, in short, how can he be so dispassionate about everything he's done in his career?  He's played on literally hundreds of legendary rock songs, but to hear him talk about it, everything was just a gig, they did the jobs they were hired to do, the Wrecking Crew were pros, etc.

The factoid: The "By My Baby" beat is the same rhythm as that on Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" (which Blaine also played on)!  It's sped up and played with more emphasis, but it's the same!  I couldn't believe my ears -- this is up there with the "More Than a Feeling"/"Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff stealing that nobody notices or even suspects until it's pointed out to you.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shlomo Artzi, Ashdod Amphitheatre (15/08/2013)

Shlomo Artzi tok to the stage flanked by a tightly rehearsed nine piece band. 

I'm fairly new to the experience of seeing stadium sized concerts by sixty something rockers, which means, fairly or unfairly (probably the latter), my first thought is to generalize and find a way to lump them all together.  The plot certainly seems familiar, as an example, consider Leonard Cohen's hugely successful world tour.  An aging music star wants to assemble a stage show that will be worthy of the ambitious arena and stadium tour he has planned.  He puts together an impressively sized band, complete with brass, strings, and other odd instrumentation as he sees fit.  He hires attractive background singers and musicians to inject some youthful energy into the proceedings, because nobody wants to buy tickets to see a traveling circus of senior citizens.  The staging and lighting are reserved, tasteful, and not too complicated, because huge LED screens and flashy graphics would look like a ploy for trying to appear younger and more contemporary.  All in all, the show is clearly centred around him and higlights him as the star, while at the same time not requiring him to do all that much.  He plays and sings at all the key moments but knows when to step aside and leave his capable musicians and singers to their extended solos, intros, and filler parts in order to fill out the whole of a two plus hours long concert.  This isn't meant to be a putdown of Leonard Cohen (I didn't get to see him in concert but heard recordings and saw many video clips of his last tour, which was more than deserving of the praise it received) or anyone else.  Concerts and tours are long and exhausting, and performers of any age or experience should be taking all steps to show off their strengths while simultaneously hiding their weaknesses.  

Most of this is also true of Shlomo Artzi.  Except that nobody told him that he's supposed to step aside and lets his backing band do the yeoman's share of the work.  From the first minute to the last of this nearly two and a half hour concert, Artzi was in total command of the stage.  His still strong voice dominated nearly every moment that of the show, and his remarkable energy is what drove his band, not the other way around.  His tireless work ethic was the key difference between a near pantheon level show and just another greatest hits set by a guy who could live comfortably off playing greatest hits sets for as long as he wants. 

It's partly because the people with him on stage are more than just capable hired hands.  It's more of a family affair, with his son Ben, his drummer of more than 25 years, and a pair of brass-playing brothers.  But can you show me another 63-year old performer who can sing a nonstop train of lyrically complex hits for over two hours (there was a teleprompter but he barely glanced at it), dance with audience members, act as the joke telling emcee, and generally entertain a mixed crowd of literally all ages (everyone from teenagers to their grandparents were there) while doing so?  I'm not sure I've ever seen an artist connect with his audience as well as Shlomo Artzi connected with the crowd in Ashdod.  The connection was almost telepathic, people stood when he wanted, sat when he wanted, danced when he wanted, sang along when he wanted, and while some of that can be chalked up to setlist pacing and song selection, you mostly have to chalk it up to Artzi's incredible charisma as a performer. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hey granddad, EDM is huge in vegas

Yeah, I didn't see this article coming.

Of course I knew about EDM taking off and the incredible success of Skrillex et. al. and the re-re-re-rise of the superstar DJ charging obscene fees for two hours of work.  Naturally there's some crap being peddled in that article by the kinds of people you'd expect to be peddling it in the interests of making money, i.e. everyone who boasts about how there's no end in sight to the growth potential of the scene and whatnot. I seriously doubt that the EDM industry is worth $4.5B annually, because that's not much less business than what major North American sports leagues are doing every year.  The article doesn't even clarify if that's supposed to be just in North America, or worldwide, or what kind of tickets/merch/other are included in that number.  Does it include the total cost of a weekend in a major city centre if somebody travels there for festival or a party (probably)?  The scene is undoubtedly big, but whether it's a 21st century rave fad or something more permanent isn't yet clear.  That's implied in the article too.  The merging of technology (state of the art animation, video screens, and lighting) with the excitement of electronic music has finally led to the EDM scene becoming  more accessible to a wide spectrum of people.  That's obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the scene as well, and it's a relief to finally move on from the "laptops and video screens: is it 'real' live music or not?" arguments.

What I didn't know before reading Andrea Domanick's report in SPIN is that the epicentre of EDM excess is VEGAS.  I had no idea that Vegas could draw 200K people for an EDM festival.  I didn't know that Vegas was making Celine Dion-sized investments in EDM clubs for partygoers.

I aged about five years reading this article.  Hell, I still read "EDM" as "EBM" half of the time, and wonder how I managed to miss out on the Front 242 revival. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories"; The National, "Trouble Will Find Me"

Maybe Daft Punk will start releasing new albums more than once every eight years and eventually build up a real catalog.  Regardless of how long it takes, eventually they will build up a deeper and more varied catalog and it will become increasingly harder for people to keep putting their first two wildly overrated albums on their undeserved pedestals.  They would disappear for years at a time and their fans dissected their only two albums without end on countless message boards and blogs, entrenching the Daft Punk canon into a feedback loop that it hasn't been able to escape to this day because there hasn't been enough new material to freshen up the discussion.

The best two Daft Punk albums are the most recent two.  This shouldn't even be a debate.  The first two are radio friendly techno pop made by anonymous robots.  It's been done to death.   Then you have "Human After All", a coarse and brutal slab of minimal dance funk, recorded cheaply and absurdly quickly, packed with loops and shrill squawks, and a supporting tour that literally revolutionized the industry and helped pave the way for EDM's commercial breakthrough in the US.  And now we have "Random Access Memories", a full on disco revival album right down to the live instrumentation and collaborations with a impressive list of disco pioneers and contemporary vocalists.  "Get Lucky" is far and away their finest ever single and in twenty years people will talking about how Daft Punk finally had the breakthrough anthemic disco megahit that their hardcore fans had always wanted them to have.  They won't be talking about how they always get a tear in their eye when they hear "Digital Love".


Every year I seem to get way into a new album by a much admired indie rock band that I'd never paid any attention to in the past (see: YYY's, Beach House).  I can't really explain why this has been happening, any more than I can explain exactly what touched a nerve inside me that morning when I heard a song from "Trouble Will Find Me" on the radio one morning and decided to give the whole album a chance.  Maybe it's related to those 2000-1 years when I got really into Travis for a while, which I attributed to an unconscious backlash against all the wordless techno and "difficult" experimental music I was listening to.  Sometimes you need a break from that stuff and need to listen to simpler, gentler rock songs that you can sing along to.

The National chose that name because it sounds anonymous and nondescript.  Like their name, "Trouble Will Find Me" is difficult to pin down or define.  In a way this could be any one of a million mopey indie bands.   Their obvious influences (Nick Cave, Joy Division, Leonard Cohen) have influenced so many bands that the comparisons don't really help to describe what they sound like.  I could add a couple of more, but I'm not sure it helps.

1) Smashing Pumpkins ballads from "Mellon Collie ..." and "Adore".  In particular, "I Need My Girl" would have been at home on "Adore", and the whole album kind of gives me a "thirteen more fully fleshed out versions of 'Blank Page'" vibe.

2) Drunken Arab Strap ballads, especially "Pink Rabbits".  Like the best of Arab Strap, "Trouble Will Fine Me" is melancholy, but not particularly sad, you can wallow in it but it doesn't really bring you down.  It's not like the best Smiths lyrics, where almost anyone who was once a teenage can relate, rather, it's something you observe from afar, ultimately feeling uplifted and thankful that these things aren't happening to you. Lines like "You didn't see me I was falling apart/I was a television version of a person with a broken heart" are devastating though.