Monday, April 29, 2013

Record store closures, downloads next to go?

SPIN's article about the final days of Bleecker Bob's record store in New York should be bronzed and archived for future generations who won't have any idea what record store culture was aside from "High Fidelity" (assuming anyone still cares about that movie in twenty years time).  Maybe kids will ask their parents where they got all those vinyl records and CDs (assuming there will still be machines capable of playing CDs in twenty years time) that clog up so much room in the basement, and the ensuing stories about dad's favourite second hand vinyl shop that will seem as quaint as drive in movies and roller skating parties do now.

All the characters in the SPIN story -- the 50-something clerk with no last name who seemingly has no job prospects or ambitions beyond  working in a music store, the hippie founder, the workers who "specialize" in buying a specific kind of music or music memorabilia -- are becoming extinct.  Everyone who frequented music shops knows these kinds of people, they're the same in every city.  And everyone says the monoculture is dead!

I'm actually quite sad about all of this, I mean, it's a huge chunk of "my youth" that's been decaying for a while and will eventually go missing.  But at least record stores will probably outlive downloads -- Steven Hyden summed up the situation recently on Grantland in a "future of music consumption" article that masqueraded as a tribute to Record Store Day.  More specifically, vinyl will survive yet another supposed threat to its existence.  Tapes were supposed to be more portable and less fragile, CD were supposed to sound better, downloads were supposed to be the ultimate in convenience, and all of them were supposed to make vinyl irrelevant.  Instead, after hitting a low sometime in the early 90's, vinyl sales have been slowly rising ever since.  As Hyden points out (and of course it's obvious to anymore who has ever left their house to buy music or practically anything else from t-shirts to fruits and vegetables), the process of buying the music is enjoyable and will be nearly impossible to deprogram out of some people.    

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Mosquito"; Depeche Mode, "Delta Machine"

It's been a while since I've had such a deep interest in such a polarizing album.  Some claim that it's badly produced (or conceived), sounding more like a set of demos recorded in a garage than a real album.  Why did they have to experiment with white boy dub, what were they thinking?  Everyone who likes it are giving them the benefit of the doubt for doing something different.  They're excited about their comeback and the NYT interview and the SPIN cover and feel the need to say something conciliatory about the music.

It's boring and doesn't rock like their other albums!

Actually, that last one is closest to the truth for me, as lazy as it sounds.  "Mosquito" requires a lot of  patience, it's more laid back and it doesn't make the effort to grab you from the opening notes of each track.    "It's Blitz" was YYYs finally blossoming into a 21st century Blondie, switching between disco and garage rock and swaying ballads with ease.  But people eventually stopped paying attention when they started overreaching with the Caribbean-tinged "Island of Lost Souls" from "The Hunter".  In trying to be different for the sake of being different, they lost touch with almost everything that made the band great.

"It's Blitz" was special because it was a different direction and was still immediate.  They'd done nothing remotely close to "Zero" before but somehow the shift in style felt natural.  "Mosquito" is treading a fine line -- on one hand, I love it when bands refuse to coast on what has worked for them in the past, and YYYs have been very successful in that regard.  But in listening to "Mosquito", I keep getting the feeling that they were in love with the idea of each song a little too much.  It's like they were sitting around smoking something strong and an idea dawned on them -- "hey, what's this reggae track we're listening to?  Couldn't we try writing something like this?" -- and they were determined to see it through no matter what.  Interviews with the band seem to bear this out too.

Have I mentioned that the lyrics to "Mosquito" (the song) and "Always" are horrendously bad?  I usually don't even hear lyrics until the third or fourth listen but these ones stood out for me right away.

But enough negativity.  I really like "Mosquito".  I have no idea if it will continue to grow on me or whether I'll lose patience for it in a few months.  The atmospherics in "Sacrilege" and "Subway" hooked me immediately -- not in the same way that the big choruses of "It's Blitz" did, but that's band evolution for you, and that's a good thing.  "Under the Earth" is where the dub warfare portion of the album starts to kick in, but I also hear a lot of Joy Division in its thudding basslines and spacey, stripped down arrangement.  "Area 52" gives a not to the older, garage band version of YYYs and combines it with this newer version of the band that covers their guitar solos with swarms of electronic noises.  Even the bizarre Kool Keith collaboration on "Buried Alive" doesn't sound as silly as it did on my first listen.  Finally, "Dispair" and "Wedding Song" are suitably dramatic endings for the album that would have fit nicely onto "It's Blitz".  


I was a bit down on the buildup to this album.  Of course I bought my tickets to see them on tour six months in advance and watched a bunch of the documentaries from the remastered albums again and the brilliant "One Night in Paris" DVD and the long walk/Pimpf scene at the Rose Bowl from "101" about 400 times.  Even though their albums are still consistenly good, they don't seem like events anymore.  The choice of the understated "Heaven" as the first single didn't help (it's good, but not "single" good and not "we're back after four years" good).  Is this the first tour when nobody will really mind if they don't play anything from their previous album?

Are Depeche Mode are in the "Steel Wheels '89" stage of their career, where they can come back after a few years away and tour stadiums without any questions asked?  The fact that they have a new album to tour behind might start becoming superfluous.  They're even about the same age as the Stones were in 1989 (how about that for making you feel old??), and that was also around the same time that any new Stones songs made an impact on radio or amongst more casual music fans.  They've released albums every four years going back twenty years, to 1993, and the pattern of spring release followed by year of touring is becoming a precise endeavour on par with the Olympics.

As time passes, I appreciate an album like "Songs of Faith and Devotion" more.  It was the most dramatic sonic shift of their career, but it still felt natural and their fans had no trouble buying into it.  In retrospect, their turn towards rock and more introspective, redemptive lyrics were exactly what they needed to fit into the 90's.  They didn't get swept away like so many other 80's superstars did, instead, they kept getting bigger. Their musical experiments didn't always work out and there was endless turmoil behind the scenes, but make no mistake, SOFAD was an event, and "I Feel You" was sonically massive enough to be the hotly anticipated follow-up single to an album as huge as "Violator".  I'm not sure that's ever been properly appreciated.

But enough negativity.  I really like "Delta Machine".  It's laid back and feels very organic, a lot like "Exciter".  Whereas "Sounds of the Universe" took vintage synths and incorporated them into the modern sounding Mode Machine, a lot of "Delta Machine" sounds like a more deliberate throwback to the past.  "Soft Touch/Raw Nerve" could almost be a rerecorded version of a song they originally released in 1982.  There are plenty of nods to late 80's EBM (i.e. most of the second half of the album), and "My Little Universe" might be the closest thing they've ever done to honest to goodness techno music (not including remixes).  You could even say it's a Plastikman song featuring Dave Gahan on vocals.  And "Soothe My Soul" should sound immense as it rings out across many a happy stadium full of Depeche Mode fans when they play it live every night this summer.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Independence Day concert featuring Machina and Rita (among others) at Kikar Rambam

As far as Independence Day traditions go, the Israeli one (free, municipality-funded concerts at night, BBQ with family and/or friends the next day) is right up there with the best of them.  

The concert nearest to me happened to feature acts I was really interested in seeing.  Machina might be loosely compared to Manic Street Preachers.  Both bands try to exude a certain sense of danger and aggressiveness, an image which is aided by not infrequent intra-band disputes during their history and tight, energetic live shows.  But dig a little deeper and both bands are fairly soft on the inside and have achieved considerable chart successes with slickly produced pop-rock and anthemic choruses.  That's not a dig at either band, but more of a statement of how they've managed to adapt and find ways to remain popular after sixty years of combined history.  Machina were going through the motions a bit on this night, perhaps partly restrained by the mere 40 minutes allotted to their set.  They made sure to choose songs that would turn into big singalongs in front of a very mixed crowd that obviously wanted to have something to sing along to, and by this measure their appearance was a big success.  The band's job is sometimes easy when everybody loves your songs and nobody has to be won over, but I loved their show regardless.

Rita is a different story completely, closer to an Israeli version of Cher with her ageless appearance and the way she makes every second of every song sound like a big dramatic moment.  Rita would be described by her fans as a "survivor" too, and whereas Cher was a star in many different musical genres (not to mention acting), Rita is a star in at least three languages (English, Persian, Hebrew).  You'd think that Rita and Machina couldn't possibly share fan bases, and in the US or Canada, they wouldn't.  It's a credit and a constant mystery of Israeli society that many mainstream acts are celebrated by just about everybody.  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Alternative Press - 100 Bands you needed to know in 2001

This article made the rounds last month but if we already waited twelve years to revisit and make fun of some of these bands, another couple of weeks won't change anything.  Here are the AP's comments for a selection of bands from the article, followed by some of my own comments.  The full list is here:

2nd Gen

"The nom de plume of electro-terrorist Wajid Yaseen, 2nd Gen signed to Mute Records in 2001 for the release of his migraine-inducing second album, Irony Is. In 2006, he teamed up with Alice Kemp for a similarly uncomfortable project called Uniform and from all indications, he’s still making a racket and getting paid for it."

This was a great catch by AP in '01. Mute/Novamute released and licensed plenty of electronic and techno music around that time but it still surprises me that they released something this extreme.  Mute was the label of Nitzer Ebb, Laibach, and Renegade Soundwave but none of them blew up your speakers like 2nd Gen could.  Unfortunately, "Irony Is" couldn't have been released at a worse time.  It was several years too late to catch onto the tail end of the hard, tracky techno that was the rage in the 90's, and was several years too early to find a home among the industrial techno that has become somewhat popular today.  At the time, people in the rhythmic noise microscene would have loved it if they had heard of it.  Most of the techno head into minimal and clicks'n'cuts, both of which couldn't be any different than this.  I discovered "Irony Is" in a California bargain bin in 2003, loved it immediately, and really need to revisit it soon. 

Black Dice

"The band who started as an angular hardcore quintet before morphing into a groovy effect-laden beast have slimmed down to a trio of brothers Bjorn and Aaron Copeland and Aaron Warren. Their sixth album, Mr. Impossible, was released last spring."

Black Dice were Animal Collective before most people had heard of Animal Collective.  Their brand of electronic/freak/psych rock could have maybe perhaps been on the verge of breaking through into the indie stratusphere.  They lost me around 2006, when it became clear that their primal drum circle leanings were never coming back, gone forever in favour of twiddling all the knobs on their samplers simultaneously.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

"Peter Hayes and Robert Been remain at the core of this menacing, noisy and remarkably influential psychedelic band. Their seventh album, Specter At The Feast, was released March 19. In addition, guitarist/frontman Been has been performing with the Call, the ’80s alt-rock band his father Michael Been formed."

Every generation has its JAMC tribute band?  I'm not sure how "influential" they are but it's amazing that a gimmicky band that seemed primed for a two albums + acrimonious breakup type of career is still going. I suppose you could have said the same about The Raveonettes too, but they're not going away anytime soon either.


"Tragedy hit this respected British electronic band when lead singer Trish Keenan died in 2011 after contracting swine flu. Their last album, the soundtrack to the film Berberian Sound Studio, was issued by Warp this past January. It’s been reported that sole member James Cargill is working on a new album with vocal performances by Keenan prior to her illness."

Broadcast blew my mind in 1998 with their contribution to Warp 100, after that I stayed angry with them for years for never managing to be the same band I'd heard on "Hammer Without a Master".  I was back on board by the time of 2005's "Tender Buttons" and feeling kind of silly for missing out on some solid music they'd released in the interim.  Trish Keenan's death was a shock and a tragedy.


"They fell into obscurity following the 100 Bands issue never to be heard from again. Moving on… "

Yeah, these guys have done all right for themselves.  The most interesting thing about this from a 2013 perspective is the fact that they were tipped by the AP to begin with.  I mean, Coldplay ... alternative?  Tipped as a band to watch alongside nearly one hundred weirdos and obscurities?  But they weren't the only publication to do this -- they were also featured in the Melody Maker's similar feature at almost exactly the same time, in their first issue of the year that tended to have short profiles of bands to watch in the coming year.   (At least I think it was the MM ... it was a British publication, and whatever it was, it was the first time I'd heard about Coldplay)  I remember comparisons to U2 being made, but even the people writing the articles probably thought their ceiling was a poor man's Travis who'd be reuniting in fifteen years for a one off show that would feature their lone hit, "Yellow".


"History is repeating itself for this U.K. ambient pop ensemble, who announced a break in 2010. They say that if ever they do return, it will be a completely fresh start. That wouldn’t be a first for the band, who restarted from scratch as Doves after they lost their second LP and equipment as former incarnation Sub Sub in a studio fire."

It's amazing to think there was a time when Doves vs Coldplay were battling for the post-U2 Eno-tinged epic stadium rock crown.  

Godspeed You Black Emperor!

"The post-rock band of brothers (seriously, there are a lot of them) released Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! their first album in more than a decade last October."

A bit late to the party, were we AP?  By 2001 GYBE were already minor legends and had already peaked.


"Dylan Nathan, aka Jega, came up through the late-’90s British electronica scene. His last record was a two volume set called Variance."

Jega was hyped to the moon by the electronic music press at the time.  I bought his debut album "Spectrum (which was not my usual cup of tea) based largely on the many positive reviews and was soundly disappointed.  I probably haven't heard or even thought about this album in ten years.


"This Liverpool dark electro quartet have kept up their momentum over the years (mostly in the U.K.) and released their fifth album Gravity The Seducer in 2011. Just last month, they unveiled a new video for “International Dateline.” However, vocalist Helen Marnie’s PledgeMusic page for her solo project, Marnie, notes that the group are currently on brief hiatus. Note: It only took three days for Marnie to reach full funding on PledgeMusic."

An interesting pick by the AP, because Ladytron in 2001 had "fad" written all over them.  They could have been swept away just like every electroclash-related act were, but they hung around and kept getting better with every new album.  I ignored them up until 2006, but like Beach House, it's a good thing that I kept away from them for a while until they had morphed into a band that I couldn't help but like.  Had I tried listening to either one of them in the early days, I would have pushed them aside and missed out on a lot of great music five years down the line.

Mean Red Spiders

"Four records and several member changes later, the Canadian band are still making music. Their last album came out in 2003. "

Really?  Can't believe the AP knew who these guys were in '01!  I saw them live a couple of times -- the Southern Ontario neo-shoegaze scene was small but the bands were strong (e.g. Hollowphonic, South Pacific). Again, I can't believe Mean Red Spiders made the list.  This was pre-Broken Social Scene's "You Forgot It In People" -- nobody was watching the Toronto indie scene in those days (outside of Toronto.  Even Montrealers wouldn't have cared what was happening in Toronto then)

Sigur Ros

"Masters of ebbing and flowing post-rock, the Icelandic delegation issued their sixth album, Valtari in 2012, before bidding farewell to multi-instrumentalist Kjartan "Kjarri" Sveinsson earlier this year. The band are planning to continue as a trio with additional touring members, and are releasing a new album, Kveikur, on June 18."

I heard about Sigur Ros for the first time in the same Melody Maker (?) article where I first heard about Coldplay.


"British sound artist Leyland Kirby would sample and electronically mangle other people’s hits with results that were at times sinister, hilarious and unfathomable. He now makes spooky, unsettling ambient records under his own name and the moniker of the Caretaker."

Perhaps the only act on this list that got more popular as they got weirder, continuing on to the present day?

Vladislav Delay

"A pseudonym of Finnish electronic musician Sasu Ripatti, Vladislav Delay released their newest album, Kuopio, last year."

Vladislav Delay was my least favourite of the major Chain Reaction acts.  There was a lot of watery and directionless ambient techno being released at the time, and Vladislav Delay was one of the worst offenders.    I remember hearing Luomo for the first time in a record store and being shocked when the clerks told me that it was the same guy who did Vladislav Delay.

The Warlocks

"This psychedelic eight-piece are still active, but appear to have never caught on heavily in their 14 years as a band. They have a new album in the works that is likely to be ready for release “fall 2013 or January 2014,” according to a recent blog post."

I agree, it's kind of sad that the Warlocks never caught on.  The Phoenix album was supposed to be their big break, but the next three albums were far superior -- more focused, melodic, but still wonderfully groovy and very much still "out there".  Unfortunately each album in succession was met with increasingly higher levels of contempt and derision.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Voice Israel, Season 2

I didn't get to see the finale live and thought I could manage to avoid hearing about the results for several days until getting back from out of the country.  I thought I was home free until I picked up an English language newspaper several days later and the results were there of all places, buried on the back page of the front section.

I was really invested in this show (the first season of The Voice I've watched in any country) and this is but one of many reasons that I never even think about what's happening on American Idol any more.

Lina Makhoul emerged as a very capable winner in a season loaded with talent.  I was blown away by the quality of the contestants who were eliminated in the duets round -- the round of 48!  And to think that American Idol can't even put together a top ten without a few embarrassments in most years.

Lina wasn't anywhere near the top of my list (possibly not even top ten), and in fact, based on talent alone, I might not have kept her in the duets round if it were up to me.  Based on charm and star potential it was obvious that she'd be sticking around for a while.  She managed to advance to the finals partly because of the  unfair bracketology of the show.  She had very little competition because she was the class of a very weak group.  Her jaw-dropping Fayrouz cover (in the round of 20, I believe), by far her finest moment of the season, practically cinched her road to the finals.

Her opponent in the final pairing, Ophir Ben-Shitrit, fought through a ridiculously talented group mentored by Aviv Gefen and was by far my favourite performer of the season.  In the round of 16, Aviv's group had a reasonable claim to being ranked 1-2-3-4 overall, at the very worst, they were four of the best seven or eight left in the competition.  I thought Ophir vs Lina would be a close contest, but Lina wiped the floor with her despite singing a sterile version of "Hallelujah" as her final song (although Ophir's final song was far from her best performance too).  But Lina had the girl next door smile and charm, whereas Ophir was a bit too much of an ice queen to really connect with the voters.  She could come across as a bit snooty and vain even I'm sure she doesn't have a vain impulse in her body.  Personality is key in these shows, and the singer who lets down their guard and bares their soul tends to do well.  Lina seemed more like an open book throughout the season, Ophir was more distant.  

In a season where judges took shots at each other over who could and couldn't connect to the lyrics in English language songs, where several contestants were judged largely on their abilities to sing in different genres and languages, almost nobody seemed to have a grasp on what a good English performance sounds like.  Natives of the Middle East have a lot of difficulty enunciating hard consonants in English, particularly the "r"'s, and for this reason a lot of performances throughout the season came off sounding sloppy, as if they were trying to sing with a mouthful of food.  Words and sentences would be slurred together into a complicated jumble, and often I doubted I would be able to understand what they were singing about if I didn't already know the words to the songs.  The cadence of the lyrics would be inconsistent, and melisma was often totally misapplied. This was easily the most frustrating thing about the season because performances of very famous English language hits were more often than not praised to the heavens, even though they were at best average.  Lina's audition performance of "Empire State of Mind" is exactly the kind of thing that would have gotten her eviscerated by the judges in the semifinals of American Idol.  She'd have found herself quickly in the bottom three after a few "that's tough, taking on a great singer like Alicia Keys" (i.e. the "never sing songs by Whitney or Mariah on talent shows" rule) and "I don't know, for me it was a bit all over the place" type of comments from the judges.

The only contestants on "The Voice" who could sing well in English were Atalia Pierce and Roni Perry.  Neither of them made it to the finals (how Dana Tsalah made it past the duet stage, let alone into the finals, is a complete mystery to me) but this might not be the last we hear from them, particularly (if justice and Aviv Gefen have anything to say about it) from Roni Perry.