Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some of 2014's best music writing that I feel bad for not having read until now

Flavourwire's Jillian Mapes compiled a list of the year's best music writing and there are plenty of gems there.  It's filled with sites I check at least semi-regularly and writers whose work I normally enjoy, and yet somehow I missed nearly all of these.

Lauren Nostro's profile of Nicki Minaj is a long-awaited peak behind the curtain that finally makes some headway in separating her public and private personas.  The career retrospective of KISS by Chuck Klosterman seems like a must read that I'll save for a rainy day.  Chris Molanphy's history of Billboard's R&B charts is by far the best analysis in the wake of the (mostly negative) publicity surrounding Billboard's controversial changes in the criteria that are used to compile the chart (along with other specialty charts).  He also explained this widely circulated but almost universally misconstrued taste map, which not only makes sense to me no, but might also show the way forward to reclaiming the audience-specific data that the old charts used to represent (it'll make more sense if you read the article).

In the separate best of Flavourwire list, there's a Run The Jewels profile by Matthew Ismael Ruiz that I really need to read, and a Tom Hawking piece about the politics in A Silver Mt. Zion's music that would have been unthinkable when they started out fifteen years ago, or even five years ago.  The slow transformation in critical opinion over ASMZ and GYBE from polemical weirdos to broadcasters of simple but effective messages of hope has been fascinating to behold.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Iggy Azalea vs Azealia Banks

This feud has been covered in detail by Jeff Chang.  The jist is that Banks is accusing Azalea of cultural appropriation (or "cultural smudging") and getting extremely emotional about, and Azalea is telling her to get lost in response.  My reading is that most people don't have much sympathy for Azalea because of the way she seems to take a perverse delight in adding fuel to the fire, but at the same time, Banks has received a lot of criticism for claiming black "ownership" over hip-hop.  Once art is out there, anyone can borrow it and be influenced by it, they say, although I can't help but wonder if these people were saying the same things when Katy Perry dressed up as a geisha.

Q-Tip chimed in with (naturally) a calm and reasoned approach to the whole controversy, saying that hip-hop can be fun but to never lose sight of the socio-political roots of the genre.  The reactions of Banks and Q-Tip may be as genuine as they come, but they would sound ludicrous if they were talking about any other genre.  Jazz and opera fans get ridiculed for assuming a self-righteous attitude about their music and setting up knowledge barriers for entry.

This stance is connected to hip-hop more than it is to race.  Electro and EDM have crossed over into pop music, and they have their roots in black music as well.  Nobody talks about cultural appropriation of those genres.  Techno also started as a black socio-political movement -- disillusioned black kids re-imagining a decaying Detroit as a futuristic metropolis -- and despite its long history and rapid spread around the globe, anyone who tried to claim that you couldn't really understand it unless you came from Detroit would get laughed at.  Techno always did a stellar job at incorporating its influences across racial divides though -- Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator and all that -- which helps to explain its global popularity.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top 10 albums of 2014

I won't remember 2014 as a great year for new music, and in a few years time I doubt I'll rank any albums from this year among my all-time favourites.  However, there was a steady stream of quality music trickling out all year long, and I don't think I fully appreciated that until I started putting together this list and realized how many notable albums there were to choose from.

You might find it surprising, in looking over lists of my favourite albums from the past several years, that the following albums did not make this year's top 10:

Raveonettes, "Pe'ahi".  Their last album, "Observator", was my #3 album of 2012 and I still play many of their earlier albums on a regular basis.  Their career is a series of brilliant albums alternating with mediocre ones.  Raveonettes are about as formulaic as they come, so they always walk a fine line between greatness and recycling the same ideas they've been beating into the ground for the past decade.

New Pornographers, "Brill Bruisers".  Speaking of formulaic, New Pornographers have been making the same album over and over for the past fifteen years, but there's nothing wrong with being the AC/DC of indie rock.  Their last album "Together" was my #5 of 2010, and even though "Brill Bruisers" checks all the right boxes, somehow I never really got into it.  It's a fun listen, but nothing too memorable.

Plastikman, "EX".  And how's this for "somehow never really getting into it" ... Plastikman's 2003 album "Closer" was my #2 album of the 00's, I've been in awe of Richie Hawtin's music for nearly a quarter century, buying album after album, single after single, alias after alias for most of my adult life, so what happened here with "EX"?  I wasn't alone in believing Hawtin was too preoccupied with capturing past glories.  In trying to be too precise in re-capturing the classic 90's Plastikman sound, Hawtin led his inspiration fall by the wayside.  There's nothing technically wrong with this album, the basic elements familiar to great Plastikman songs are there, but somehow each track fails to capture the imagination or stir up any feelings other than the desire to pull out his older albums and relive a time when he did this stuff so much better.  The early Plastikman albums needed to exist, they form a continuous narrative where you can hear how they get more and more sparse, paranoid, and claustrophobic.  Hawtin spent a decade meticulously refining the Plastikman sound, settling progressively further into a somewhat disturbed version of deep techno that's been almost impossible to duplicate.  "EX" doesn't really have a reason to exist, there's no overriding concept, no sounds that Hawtin was desperate to get out of his head.  It's just an excuse to get the proverbial band back together.

Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestite".  "Celestial Lineage" was my #3 album of 2011 and just might be my favourite ever metal album.  The missteps with this album are easier to trace -- they changed their sound completely and became a dark ambient outfit.  Grayson Currin wrote a brilliant review and it's hard to disagree that the band blindly jumped into this shift in styles long before they figured out what kind of band they want to be going forward.

Mogwai, "Rave Tapes"; Xiu Xiu, "Angel Guts:Red Classroom".  Mogwai are one of my favourite bands ever, who made my favourite album of 1999, my #11 album of the 00's, and loads of other great studio and live recordings, but they've been steadily declining and coasting on the value of their name for a decade, if not longer.  Xiu Xiu's "Fabulous Muscles" was my #1 album of 2004, and although I've enjoyed a lot of the music they've made since then, I think I'm simply over Xiu Xiu now.  I still enjoy "AG:RC" quite a bit, and I love the Suicide does gay fetish fanfic direction of the album, but it never grew in stature for me beyond the first few listens.

Now for the actual TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014.

10.  Donato Dozzy and Nuel, "The Aquaplano Sessions"  (Editions Mego)

Every track gracefully unfolds and picks up swampy minimalist steam, churning along in a semi-dreamlike state until it recedes into the shadows several minutes later. In other words, it's a typically great Donato Dozzy record.

9.  Petrychor, "Makrokosmos" (self-released)

Countless metal albums have borrowed from goth, new age and ambient, but I'd never heard one that borrowed from them so liberally while still remaining unmistakably metal.

8.  Kangding Ray, "Solens Arc" (Raster-Noton)

Much like his incredible mix for Secret Thirteen, "Solens Arc" shows Kangking Ray's knack for melding vastly different styles into an uncannily coherent whole.  The calming bleeps on "History of Obscurity" would have fit in beautifully on an ambient techno mix in 1994, the rave-y 6 AM comedown on "Amber Decay" could have been on a lost KK Records from a few years later, whereas "Blank Empire"'s menacing attitude and attention to detail could have only come from the 2010's.

7.  Swans, "To Be Kind" (Mute/Young God)

Swans studio albums and live recordings are converging into one, and "To Be Kind" comes closest to replicating their feel of suffocating live gigs on record.  This album might have finished higher on this list if it wasn't so overwhelming, to the point that it's hard to get in the mood to subject yourself to this kind of speaker assault.  And you can forget about listening to it all the way through -- that's strictly for the diehards.  The peaks (the title track, "She Loves Us", and "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'ouverture) are incredible though, bringing a completely unique type of sensory overload onto a studio record.

6.  Damon Albarn, "Everyday Robots" (Warner Brothers)

This is an album that I never expected to like, seeing how I haven't cared for much that Albarn has done in the 21st century, from "Think Tank" onwards. But "Everyday Robots" finds him settling well into an elder statesman role after two decades of being a brat.  It's the album that "Think Tank" should have been, intimate and personal, blending its many influences rather than trying to show off the depth of its music collection.  Albarn's voice is still in pristine form too, in fact, he's never sounded better.

5.  Run the Jewels, "Run the Jewels 2" (Mass Appeal Records)

I'm not even sure how it happened, but I finally "get" El-P.  Industrial scale beats with gritty, aggressive rap shouldn't have been so hard to process, but good thing that El-P and Killer Mike are two rather persistent guys.

4.  Alcest, "Shelter" (Prophecy Productions)

If you'd asked me in the 90's, or at any time up until a couple of years ago, whether Slowdive or MBV would have the bigger influence on metal, I would have laughed at the need to even ask the question.  And yet somehow Slowdive have come out ahead.  When metalheads want to turn the page they don't want to bleed their guitars dry (something they are already quite good at), they scale things back a bit and look to Slowdive (both in sound and career path).  

Alcest went all-in with their transformation from atmospheric metal to Slowdive tribute band.  They recorded their album in Sigur Ros' studio and even brought in Neil Halstead on guest vocals.  The results were inspired and fresh sounding even as they looked backwards in time.  

3.  SunnO))) and Scott Walker, "Soused" (4AD)

Like many people, when I got word of this unlikely pairing, I was sure it was an internet joke.  As much as I try to give Scott Walker's albums a fair shake, I have never understood the hype.  I file him away with legends like Arthur Russell -- arty music for people who like to talk about arty music.  

It turns out that SunnO))) and Scott Walker complement each other perfectly.  Walker gives a dash of colour to SunnO)))'s pitch black tones, and SunnO))) are bring the heavy dose of reality to Walker's otherworldly ramblings.

2.  The War on Drugs, "Lost in the Dream" (Secretly Canadian) 

This year I saw the best two word summation of any band ever and it was used to describe The War on Drugs: "Balearic Petty".  

"Lost in the Dream" is perfectly of its time. Springsteen and Petty are touring stadiums again and indie fans are allowed to like them again after spending a couple of decades in the not cool wilderness.  The confessional style of Bob Dylan's 70's albums have arguably surpassed, in the canon, his classic 60's work as the surrealist poet for the downtrodden.  But combined with motorik drumming and enough weird synth noises to alienate your favourite Springsteen fan, it's not simply classic rock updated for the modern indie rock fan. Times will change, most of these things will be uncool again, and The War on Drugs fans will come to prefer more swagger than introspection in rock music.  Until then, "Lost in the Dream" will be playing continuously in the background.

1.  Fennesz, "Bécs" (Editions Mego)

I'm looking over my #1 albums from 2008-2013, and they all have one thing in common - I was crazy about them all from the very first listen.  So "Bécs" was obviously a grower, and although I once criticized it for being a "noisier carbon copy of 'Endless Summer'", now I love it for exactly the same reasons. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Spiritualized live at Worthington Pier, July 9, 1994 (20 years later)

The year in music criticism has been packed full of 20th and 25th anniversary retrospectives and the pace should continue to be high for the next couple of years at least (it's never too early to prepare yourself for the 25th anniversary "Nevermind" articles in '16).  Admittedly, 1994 was a massive year and is deserving of just about all the praise it gets for being a transformative year, regardless of how you feel about many of the usual touchstones (e.g. Britpop).

Up until now I've stayed clear of writing those kinds of articles myself.  Obviously I'm all in favour of digging up old memories, but I don't get sentimental about round numbered anniversaries as opposed to the same round number give or take a year or two.  If you want to reminisce about an event after eighteen years, then do it, don't wait another two years because you think it'll be more "meaningful".  It won't.

Still, it's fun to trot out these retrospectives from time to time so I thought I'd try a different take on the round numbered anniversary game.  Instead of reflecting back on a particular album or music scene, I thought I'd take the occasional look back at some of my favorite live recordings.  Let's see how far I can go with this, starting with this eye-opening and very unique Spiritualized concert from '94.

The date on the recording is July 11, but the actual date was July 9 according to posters on the official SPZ boards.  The band didn't play many shows in 1994, which partly explains the confusion with their gigography according to various websites.

I discovered this recording around 2001. It was the missing link recording of live SPZ that I'd been searching for for years without any success.  It captures them at a transitional point in their career between "Lazer Guided Melodies" and "Pure Phase".  They were still frequently described as "space rock" or "ambient rock" even though this recording clearly indicates that they didn't sound much like either.  Instead, they were well on their way to perfecting the noisy jazz freakouts they'd be more famous for after "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space" dropped a few years later.

At the time of this concert, Jason was about half way through the post-recording/mixing period of "Pure Phase".  By the time the album was eventually released, it sounded nothing like their concerts from the summer of '94.  By spring of '95 they were somehow an ambient rock outfit again, at least on record.  Jason's voice is missing or distorted almost completely out of earshot on half of "Pure Phase".  The concert is a vision of "Pure Phase" that was never realized.  Every song is in the same key and the set comes off as one hour long blare of constant-toned noise.  Where "Pure Phase" purrs and relaxes your, this show sears them off.

This concert offers a glimpse into how "Pure Phase" might have sounded if Jason had went full steam ahead with the guitar-heavy sound he preserved in one of the channels in the final mix.  It features "Take Good Care of It" and its glorious coda before he transformed it into something else completely on the album and then ignored it for the rest of his career.  It includes incendiary live versions of "I Want You" and "Sway" that were also soon to be banished to hardly ever played again oblivion.  It has a jaw-dropping version of "The Slide Song" that incinerates the blissed out version that made it onto "Pure Phase".  As far as I can tell, this song was never played by SPZ at all outside of a few live shows in the summer of '94,

Finally, after spending more than a year mixing the album, they went out on tour and hardly played any songs from it.  And they still hardly ever play any songs from it, although songs like "Lay Back In the Sun" and "Medication" did finally creep back into live sets during the "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" tours.  Not coincidentally, post-2011 SPZ is more unpredictable than any version of the band since 1994 or so.  From 1995-2002 they were a powerful live outfit, but you could bet the farm on the "Cop Shoot Cop/Shine A Light/Electric Mainline/Electricity" section filling up half the concert, more often than not exactly in that order.  They'd improvise in parts and things would never sound the same way twice, but the set list was just about set in stone.  None of their live shows before or since resemble what they did in the summer of '94.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2014

I listened to fewer mixes this year than in the past couple of years, but the ones I did listen to were in heavy rotation from first listen/download up until the present day.  I listened to them as much or more than proper albums.  As in past years, this list is unranked and presented in chronological order of release, with one exception -- the one mix that was far and away the best of the year (it wasn't even close) that I'll save until the end.

Voices from the Lake, Beats in Space 720 (March 11)

This 80-minute ambient mix drifts by in what feels like five minutes, beginning with icy desolation, shifting into gentler fare that could almost accompany their anodyne beat-filled work, and winding down with more gloomy, sinister sounds.  Hypnotizing.

Haunting techno, alien electro, and bass-heavy broken beats populate this sweaty, ambitious mix. 

Abdulla Rashim, Resident Advisor 422 (June 30)

A very understated mix that keeps bubbling under and continuously threatens to really kick in at any moment, but never does.  Instead, it keeps subtlely churning along  and does so beautifully.  It reminds of another similarly structured mix by Bruno Ponsato, coincidentally enough, it was RA 222, exactly 200 RA podcasts before this one.  But it's not a simple mix by any means.  There are about 40 tracks packed into a little less than 70 minutes.  Much like Richie Hawtin's famed (but very overrated) DE9 mix CD, it's smooth and deep and there are a lot of little things going on in there that you'll miss unless you're paying close attention.

Throwing Snow, FACT 448 (June 30)

FACT said it best in the post that accompanied this mix: if Throwing Snow "stuck to one tempo he'd probably be a lot bigger by now".  To paraphrase Bill James, if you do one thing really well you'll be overrated, but if you do several things well you'll be underrated.  Nearly every track brings a different style or genre to the table, and it's as if he's throwing selected tracks against the wall to see what sticks.  Nearly everything does.

Efdemin, Electric Deluxe 123 (July 1)

Efdemin's tracklist-free effort for EDLX comes off like carefully constructed mix tape of epic leftfield tech-house tunes, oddball vocal samples and other oddities.   I saw him spin a main floor DJ set of rough and ready industrial scale techno earlier this month, but this mix couldn't have been more different while still maintaining a connection to the outer reaches of club-ready techno.  Keep this mix away from the main floor, but it's perfect for the denizens of the nearby smoking lounge.

Sawlin, Electric Deluxe 124 (July 14)

This type of mix is like catnip for me, it's practically my default mix when I get around to making them.  It starts out quiet and dreamy, and transitions to progressively harder and more aggressive techno.  The transition is something to behold too ("Stairway to Heaven"?  It works).

MaxM, K1971 radio show episode XT3 radio (July 24)

Deep, moody, cavernous techno not unlike some of my favourites from previous years (see the Dino Sabatini I wrote about here).  I can practically smell the cold fumes from the smoke machine in the club while listening to this mix.

LWE presents Rrose (September 9)

It was advertised as a no-nonsense mix that is typical of her live sets, and it delivered exactly as promised.  And along the same lines ...

Pan-Pot, Watergate 17 (October 13)

The only official mix CD on this list, if you're looking for a mix that replicates the experience of actually being in a sweaty Berlin club, look no further.  I've read far too many interviews where the artist wants to "show a different side" of themselves, but Pan-Pot's mix is peak time at Watergate from start to breathless finish.  

Best mix of the year that you should all listen to (or re-listen to) immediately:

This absurdly ambitious mix skips between genres without hardly any effort, staples rap over hard techno, marries R&B to squelchy electro techno, finds common ground between old school EBM, assembles music from over four decades, and takes in 28 tracks in 54 minutes without seeming the least bit rushed.  A truly inspiring mix that never ceases to amaze with every listen. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Vapourspace speaks

M. Matos has posted a very entertaining and rather unexpected interview with Mark Gage (Vapourspace) on Red Bull Music Academy.  The music press has been chock full of 20th/25th/30th anniversary articles over the past calendar year, but the 20th anniversary of the 1993 See The Lights tour seemed to pass without much commemoration.  I discovered Jim Poe's insider account of the tour only now, thanks to the links provided in Matos' article.

The Toronto gig without a doubt changed my life because it cemented me as a techno fan for life, mostly thanks to a transcendent live set from Orbital (who I only knew from "Chime" at that point).  Aphex Twin's set was baffling but certainly eye-opening, and Moby's was all spectacle but it hardly mattered to anybody.  Everybody knew that it was mostly a DAT show but he had a gift for connecting with the live crowds and whipping them up into a frenzy with an intensity that was off the charts.  Moby jumped into the crowd a bunch of times and I joined with countless others in grabbing him in a giant crowdsurfing bear hug.  I'm mostly on Moby's side in the infamous DAT or not to DAT flamewar -- there's room for all types of performances in techno, rock, or any other genre.  The Hartnoll brothers were pioneering the idea of the portable live studio at the same time as Moby was trying to find the meeting point between the excitement of live techno and the savvy cool factor of rock and roll.  It can all work if done right.

It's important to note that the default type of "live" performance in techno clubs was most certainly DAT-based, if not entirely prerecorded.  When there was a backlash, the promoters started putting "live PA" on the flyers to cover their asses against the charges of shows not being performed live.  But make no mistake, the standard performance of the time was three or four songs on playback with absolutely nothing plugged in, including keyboards and microphones.  See The Lights definitely accelerated the shift from live techno as a spectacle at 3 AM at a rave, to a genuine live performance in a standard concert hall.  So it's not correct to portray Moby as some kind of huckster who was betraying the fans and cheating them out of a "proper" live show.

True story: I had the money to spend on a ticket to the See The Lights tour because Suede had cancelled their planned 2nd North American tour leg due to exhaustion.

Seeing as Vapourspace opened every night on the tour, "Gravitational Arch of 10" was the first techno song I ever heard played live.  It really was a track that united everybody in the days before the scene fractured into a million little pieces.  It pleased the trance, house, and techno fans.  It's still an undisputed classic that seems to get more classic with time.  Reading the interview, I can't believe I never heard the Front 242 influence in the bassline, it really couldn't be more obvious.   Wouldn't we all love to hear the long lost super extended version if Gage can ever remember where he left it?  Finally, it's cool to hear him talk so frankly about how breezily he recorded it (live, in one take) and how he knew almost immediately that he'd never be able to top it no matter how hard he tried.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Music in Berlin 2014

This year's entertainment was nearly identical to last year's -- no techno clubs, but there was salsa, a stack of new CD's from Spacehall, and a Depeche Mode memento.

Landing on the date of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (an unintentionally well-timed bit of travel planning), I half-heartedly considered making an afternoon visit to the Berghain to catch the remnants of Saturday night's mindblowingly sick lineup.  Some semblance of level-headedness prevailed though, and I decided to join the huge crowds at the balloon ceremonies near the East Side Gallery.  The crowds extended as far as the eye could see, and this was but one location out of many spread throughout the city.  There was no music however, and as far as I know, only the Brandenburg Gate ceremony featured any live performances.  I caught Peter Gabriel's stately but forgettable performance of "Heroes" on TV before I went out (Bowie had something better to do??) and word is that security stopped letting people into the area around the Brandenburg Gate before the official ceremonies even started, so I wouldn't have had the time to get down there to hear Barenboim conduct the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony anyhow.

A visit to Spacehall on Zossener Strasse in Kreuzberg was essential as always.  Shopping there was a somewhat painful experience because I was suffering from a second hand smoke hangover from the bar hopping the night before in Friedrichshain.  How much time would I have spent there if I wasn't feeling so shitty?

At a Media Markt I picked up the 5CD box of Depeche Mode's "Live In Berlin", which to the best of my knowledge was not supposed to be released until the following week.  Was there a Berlin-only early release date?  My first impression is that the filming of the concert itself isn't in the same league, visually or creatively, as Corbijn's "One Night In Paris".  It feels like it could have been shot by almost anybody, many of Corbijn's typical touches (long shots focused on a single band member, close attention paid to body movements, playing of instruments, or interactions between the musicians on stage) weren't immediately evident.

The week ended with a Saturday night at the Havanna Club, which might be the salsa club of my dreams.  There was a healthy mix of people of all ages dancing to salsa on the main floor, but that's just one dance party out of four you can find at this place!  In addition to salsa, they have reggaeton upstairs, and two dancefloors of contemporary pop and 80's music downstairs.  The salsa crowd was the first to arrive, but by 2 AM the downstairs parties were hitting their stride.  As someone who likes the atmosphere of a salsa party but doesn't usually join in the dancing, I approve of the variety of dance scenes all mashed together under one roof.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Billboard Top 40 (1982)

A Facebook thread of awe and ridicule in equal measured turned into the most fun I've had on memory lane in a while.

Here is a playlist of the Billboard Top 40 songs from 32 years ago this week.

I think that most people without any recollection of 1982 (anyone younger than me, more or less) won't recognize hardly any of these videos.  It's right on the edge between the era of videos as previews to get you excited for buying the album, and videos as Hollywood min-movies and cultural touchstones in their own right.  Once 1983 rolled around, videos were about beautiful people racing through exotic locales and intricately choreographed dance performances, which helped submerge the careers of the less telegenic, hone their chops in the studio bands (e.g. Toto, America, Alan Parsons Project, Supertramp).

This also happened to be right around the time that I first developed a concept of what it meant to be a music fan.  At first you just absorb the music you hear in the environment around you, and eventually you develop a filter and find ways to seek out and buy the stuff you really like.  That means I have vivid memories about some of these songs even though I didn't particularly like them.  Examples: Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong" (ughhhh) and Men at Work, "Who Can It Be Now?" (I could go through life very well without hearing a Men At Work song ever again).

Here you'll find campy classics ("Gloria"), campy classics that have somehow gotten better with time ("Eye in the Sky"), and Olivia Newton-John's "Heart Attack", which I (and most of humanity) haven't heard in thirty years.  Every music fan needs to experience the humbling, where has the time gone feeling of hearing a hit song for the first time in decades.  I'd forgotten about the completely out of place sax solo in the song's final seconds, the strange "Poltergeist"-like FX, and the ... giant dried condoms hanging from the ceiling of ONJ's bedroom.

My favourite song in this chart is easily Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy".  Stevie dancing in front of the mirror (swoon), the 20's dance scene, the pixie dust jam session on the cliff tops, everything about the song and video is mesmerizing even thirty years later.  And it was supposedly the most expensive video ever made until "Thriller" (although I cannot find a reliable source for this).  Why don't people ever mention "Gypsy" as one of the best videos of the 80's?  Because they should.

The video comes off almost like a Stevie Nicks solo project, as the rest of the band is relegated to supporting characters in what for me will always be Stevie's signature FM song (sorry "Dreams", and "Sara", take a back seat).  It wasn't the first single from "Mirage", that was "Hold Me", which makes sense because it does sound a lot more like a "Fleetwood Mac are back and making commercial pop!" single than "Gypsy".  But Stevie was coming off the huge success of her solo album and easily had the star power to justify her "own" obscenely expensive signature video.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Snobbery or harmless nostalgia?

I was taken aback by the level of hostility toward Dan Brooks' recent article in the NYT Magazine, entitled "Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift".  Your take depends completely on whether you read the article as sincere, or tongue-in-cheek.  For me, Brooks is engaging in bittersweet nostalgia about the past, but for many others, he's hopelessly stuck in the past and highly critical of the present.

How this article is perceived is particularly important to me because there are many similarities between Brooks' style of writing and my own.  I write stories about the way things were (according to me and all my inherent biases) all the time.  But fondly reminiscing about the past isn't the same as wishing we were still living in the past, or even approval of how things were in the past.  A lot of what Brooks is saying comes off as quaint snickering about the way things were.  Remembrances of the days before cell phones and TV remote controls would be similarly quaint and hilariously dated.

Brooks' article reads like what his 20 years ago self would have written about musical culture today.  His insulting take on "objectively hideous" major label music of the 80's and 90's is something that a 90's alternative music critic would have written about the rock music of the 80's.  There are too many nods and winks in the article (linking Journey and Smashmouth as the prime examples of this kind of dreck cracked me up) to suggest that Brooks doesn't know it's a dated method of criticism.

Music listening and purchasing used to be done mostly at home and in record shops.  Now we listen almost everywhere but at home, and track down music online before making even the most rudimentary purchased.  Surely we have lost something along the way.  I miss hanging around record stores, and yes, which record stores you frequented did say something about your personality in the same way that the bars you frequented did (and still do).  It was fun, but the experience has been de-romanticized by countless writers and even movies like "High Fidelity".  Record store clerks really would snicker at their customer's purchases and insult them after they'd left the store.  At the time it was fun (I never worked in a record store, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, even the hostility and yes even some of the snobbery), but I don't want to relive it again.

Nobody's debating the inherent sexism of fetishizing the female record store clerks or the dewy-eyed naivete of trying to date girls with "acceptably" cool CD collections.  This stuff really happened!  The debate is about how sincere Brooks is being when he writes that "the major labels have collapsed and ruined dating too".  Many people are assuming he's being sincere.  I think he's laughing at himself.  .

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

RIP Mark Bell

In 1990, Gez Varley and Mark Bell aka LFO released their eponymous debut single.  If they'd both retired from music after that, they'd still be spoken about in reverent tones by techno fans everywhere.  The single was an instant classic, and the creators became folk heroes renowned for their abilities make subwoofers waltz around the room or destroy them altogether.   "LFO", the single, recalls a specific time and place (the height of early 90`s British rave music) more vividly that any other record of its time.  It's like the Haight-Ashbury of 90's techno -- we get dewy-eyed and nostalgic about it much the former flower kids of the 60's do about their beloved golden age.  It's the kind of nostalgia that you always feel good about wallowing in.

LFO accomplished a lot more though.   The follow-up single, "We Are Back" was also an instant classic (and even better than "LFO", depending on the day that you ask me the question), and their debut album, "Frequencies" was yet another outstanding effort that still ranks high on many "best techno albums" lists.  After a long layoff, the second LFO album "Advance" finally appeared and easily exceeded expectations.  Whereas many of their early 90's peers (Prodigy, Utah Saints) continued releasing music as if the rave had never really stopped, LFO shifted gears entirely into a maximalist wall of sound style of techno that they virtually invented and that still sounds fresh and vital nearly 20 years later.  Quaking bass, ringing chimes, tracks that built into furious climaxes and slowly dissolved away, much of it wasn't easy to dance to but seemed like the future of club music anyhow.  "Advance", FWIW, was my third favourite album of 1996 and is easily the best thing LFO ever did as far as I'm concerned.

They weren't done though.  Varley and Bell went their separate ways shortly afterward.  Varley released a number of essential records under his own name and as G-Man and became a minimal techno godfather of sorts.  Bell released just one more album as LFO but more importantly, make the completely unprecedented leap into music production.  He worked on several of Bjork's albums beginning with "Homogenic" and was the sole producer on Depeche Mode's "Exciter".  Bell joined a very exclusive club of producers who gained legitimacy and importance outside the dance music scene.  Indeed, outside of those who have worked with Madonna at some point, it's hard to think of any others who started out as DIY club kids making techno in their bedrooms and ended up producing some of the world's most respected acts.

 Bell was like that one kid who escaped the small town for the big city and managed to make it on its own.  Except he didn't let the city transform him, he didn't survive in the jungle by learning how to play by the rules of the natives.  He didn't get swallowed up, rather, it was the opposite -- the big boys came knocking on his door because they wanted to conform to him, to sound more like him, to use his ideas to keep them on the cutting edge.  No matter how big he got, Bell always seemed like "one of us", the local boy who made good.  And now, sadly, he's gone. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees 2014

These ballots have gotten more and more interesting for me over the years, as the music I grew up with (as opposed to the music my parents' generation grew up with) gets added to the ballot.  Let's go through the nominees, in the approximate order of their likelihood to get elected (i.e. approximated by my completely unscientific methodology aka MODO):

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.  They seem like the token first wave punk/new wave act on the ballot, their look and sound may be timeless but they don't have the string of inescapable hits to match.

NWA.  Influential and incredibly important to the history of hip hop, but so were 2 Live Crew.  I'm not sure they should get in when there are hugely successful hip-hop acts with far more longevity (including solo careers of NWA members) who are waiting to get in and will be waiting to get in once the big 90's stars (Jay-Z, Snoop, 2Pac) become eligible.

War.  More of an idea than a great band, no?

The Smiths.  For a subset of my generation, this is a no brainer -- they're the most iconic British indie band ever, influenced generations of bands, and inspired the kind of fan devotion that few in the RnR HOF can claim.  They even burned brightly for five years and split up and how rock and roll is that?

They're not getting in any time soon.  The average HOF voter sees the Smiths as a bunch of fey Brits and a microphenomenon that would have broken through in the US if it was worth anything.  They're not getting in while The Cure and Depeche Mode, two bands with immeasurably higher profiles in North America (and 20 + years more success), are still longshots to get in.  The acceptance speeches would be must see TV, but dream on, Morrissey fans.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  I don't think anyone has a clue why they're being considered for induction, but it's not their first nomination so somebody up there likes them a lot.

Chic.  On the other hand, it's inconceivable that Chic haven't been inducted yet, but at the same time, it makes perfect sense.  Releasing two of the biggest selling singles of all time and spearheading an entire genre should be enough, no?  Of course the problem is that disco is for gay people or isn't real virtuoso music like Eric Clapton or isn't rock and roll or take your pick of flimsy excuses.  As I said, they haven't been inducted yet, but in the same way that hip-hop has never received a Grammy for Song of the Year, it makes perfect sense because we already know the reasons why.

Nine Inch Nails.  It won't happen this year, but Trent Reznor's eventual induction feels kind of inevitable, doesn't it?  He helped fuse industrial and rock, brought it into the mainstream when there was absolutely no precedent for anything like it in the charts, has one Oscar in the bag and might win another this year -- it's an impressive resume.

Kraftwerk.  Another band that absolutely belongs in any Hall of Fame in any genre and would be on my shortlist for the greatest band of all time.  I doubt that the average Joe Cleveland rock fan "gets" Kraftwerk in even the slightest way.  Voters probably know that they're important via reputation and association, in the same way that they know that Stephen Hawking is a famous physicist without understanding anything about his work or having read anything that he wrote.

The Spinners.  They have the longevity, and if they're going to be inducted then it's probably good to do it while there's still one living original member.

Stevie Ray Vaughn.  You mean he's not already in?  He's a legend who could shred and died far too young, it's a HOF blueprint.  However, 95% of rock and roll fans with a casual association with SRV couldn't name a single one of his songs.  He's great by reputation, but he absolutely deserves that reputation.  Why isn't he in?

Lou Reed.  He died last year, which explains the timing of the nomination.  But he's been eligible since 1997 and the Velvet Underground were inducted in 1995, so if his solo career was considered Hall-worthy then he would have been in a long time ago.  Still, his name value is high so you never know.  Speaking of name value ...

The Marvelettes.  Frankly, this is a ludicrous nomination.  They had one big hit.  I can't imagine Lou Bega getting nominated in 2024 when he's eligible.  Oh, but their one hit was on Motown, and every Motown band from the 60's gets enshrined eventually.  What's more, it was Motown's first number one, which seems like it should count for something but really doesn't.  If it wasn't the Marvelettes, another Motown band would have been the first, the bands were practically interchangeable.  You can't claim that they "influenced" anybody, because all Motown records were written and recorded by the same people in exactly the same style.  They were a hit factory, and the Marvelettes were one of the names that happened to appear on the sleeve of the record.

Still, it's Motown, so you never know.

Bill Withers.   Great voice, great songwriter, great performer, a decade's worth of pop and R&B hits including a few that have been in heavy rotation since the day they were recorded.

Bill Withers got me thinking about the rising standards of the Hall of Fame.  He seems to pass the smell test of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, but he had just four top ten hits, one number one hit, and two Gold albums in his career.  Red Hot Chili Peppers sold 80 million albums and were one of the world's biggest bands for twenty years and counting.  It seems like you need to be on the U2/RHCP level to be a sure thing if you started in the 80's or later.

Bill Withers was perfect for his time without necessarily being a leader in his time.  He crystallized the sound of the 70's but wasn't original enough or popular enough to survive once the industry moved on.  The vast majority of bands don't adapt or fit into any era except the one they broke through in.  A select few, like Bill Withers, can rise above and be remembered decades later.  A select few from the select few can still sound contemporary (RCHP) or find ways to adapt (Madonna) long past the time they could have faded away without a trace.  The 90's equivalent of Bill Withers in R&B might be All-4-One and they won't be getting into the RnR HOF.

Green Day.  They'll get in.  If you'd asked me in 1994 if their songs about wanking would be one day HOF-worthy, I'd have laughed but yet here we are.    

Sting.  He's been a kind of punchline for 25 years as the pompous MOR cure for amnesia who won't hesitate to gross you out with his tantric exploits, but he's a legend to the people who run the HOF.  He's already in as a member of the Police and he'll get in again as a solo performer.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Britney Spears, "Baby One More Time"

This is completely unrelated to my "40 for 40" btw ...

This is a tremendous writeup of Britney's debut single from the UK #1's blog, Popular. 

Tom really nails it here -- he sets the scene for the album sales-inflated late 90's, defends Spears against derogatory "manufactured pop" charges, and describes why the song was practically destined to dominate the charts.

His only stumble is in his take on Britney's voice and it's well-known limitations.  On "Baby One More Time", they covered up her deficiencies well, but without Autotuning her out of existence or drowning her out with background singers or other production tricks.  Ewing goes on to write that "it’s not until the breakthrough into full-on R&B and club pop that she (and the producers) can really start playing with it [her voice], and with her role in the song".

I think he's giving short thrift to Britney and to the superstar producers that would become household names in the next decade.  This is definitely a case where US/North American and UK/European experiences diverge.  In the US, before Britney, R&B oriented chart pop by female artists was dominated by the big voiced Diva.  You aspired to be Whitney Houston or else.  Toni Braxton, TLC, Mariah Carey, and Whitney herself all took turns barricading themselves at the top of the Hot 100 for years.  Just a few months before Whitney's breakthrough, diva worship reached its apex with the extraordinary success of Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine", which was #1 for the entire summer of 1998 (13 weeks).  The popularity of this music showed no signs of waning whatsoever.

But seemingly out of nowhere, Britney changed the narrative completely.  Suddenly, the focus was on the song rather than the quality of the voice behind the song.  Manufacturing songs and stars, rather than seeking out the most god-given singing talent and accelerating its rise to the top, became acceptable again.  This meant that producers were free to create rather than accentuate the same Boyz II Men-inspired vocal melodies again and again.

The Spice Girls owed their success to many of the same ideas, but Christina Aguilera and a million other teen pop idols weren't swarming the charts within months of their debut.

The idea of a manufactured star backed by a producer/svengali figure responsible for the studio magic was hardly new, it was just long overdue by '99.  Ewing even mentioned the Shangri-La's, who are a perfect comparison to Britney.  They weren't much better than passable singers either, but to analyze their vocal intonations would also be missing the point.

Within a few years, every teen idol and tabloid semi-celeb this side of Hillary Duff and Paris Hilton would be making albums -- hit albums even -- with the best producers money could buy, and nobody would blink an eye.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Inner City, "Big Fun"

I've decided to cut this song from my "40 for 40" list.

My serious dance/club music fandom began in earnest in '89-'90.  At the time (as it is now), my interest in the music was mainly fueled via outlets that didn't involve going out to the actual clubs.  You had to be of drinking age (19+) to get into most of the good club nights anyhow, so at least I had a convenient excuse.  I'd tune into CFNY's live radio simulcasts from RPM, and browse through vinyl and dance club charts at the shops on Yonge Street on the weekends.  RPM closed in the mid-90's and was reopened as part of the expanded Guvernment complex that occupies the same site on Queens Quay East in Toronto.  Unfortunately, it is slated to close its doors for good in January 2015.  With Sunrise Records announcing the closure of their Yonge Street shops this November, the flagship HMV store and Play de Record are now the last music stores on a strip that was packed with them for decades.  The 90's in Toronto already seem like another era.

In many ways it was a golden age for dance music.  I've lost count of the number of times that dance, or EDM, or whatever you want to call it, was about to cross over into the mainstream and blow up all over the world, according to rock critics supposedly in the know.  The top dance producers of the time were too busy counting their money to care about such trivial labels.  Black Box's "Ride on Time" was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1989.  C + C Music Factory's first album went 5x platinum in the US, and "Gonna Make You Sweat" was #1 on the Hot 100.  Dee-Lite went from having a buzz in the underground to being played at your cousin's wedding seemingly overnight.

The most unexpected mainstream crossover was from Kevin Saunderson and his Inner City project.  At the time, it seemed like an organic and natural transition from the clubs to the radio.  They had catchy songs, hedonistic summer-ready lyrics, female vocalists who could belt out a tune with the best of them, so what's not to get?  As the years have passed though, I'm increasingly blown away by what Saunderson managed to accomplish.  Derrick May and Juan Atkins seem to get more respect from the uber-devoted techno heads for laying down the blueprint of what Detroit techno was and what for the most part, it still continues to be.  "Detroit" is an adjective mostly thanks to May and Atkins.  Saunderson, in comparison, was a populist who had his songs briefly played on the radio.  I felt the same way for a long time.  Derrick May's "Innovator" compilation was the Rosetta Stone of techno, no less than required listening for anyone who planned to carry on a serious conversation about the music.  On the other hand, Saunderson's success was something of a fluke.  He was an oppurtunist who happened to be in the right place at the right time and managed to get his album recorded first.

I was wrong, and it wasn't even the "Faces and Phases" compilation that convinced me of how wrong I was (great as it is, it doesn't even contain any of the big Inner City hits).  Twenty five years later, in a genre where records often sound dated before the year is over, Inner City's parade of hits still stand out as some of the finest mainstream techno ever recorded.  The most amazing thing is that Saunderson took a then-regional micro genre and found a way to fast track this music into the charts, creating a market that almost nobody knew existed.  This wasn't like Madonna collaborating with a hot producer with a 5-10 year track record of success, he took his cues from virtually nobody.

My list needed a song that would symbolize that era when dance music streams were crossing over with each other and into the mainstream at a breakneck pace.  I was profoundly influences by the era and the styles of music, which set the stage for all my future forays into techno. So who better to represent it than the iconic "Big Fun" by Inner City, my favourite techno hitmakers of the late 80's?

The problem is that as integral as Inner City might be for contextualizing the music I listened to in '89 and throughout my life, this list is first and foremost a songs list.  Representing eras is important (this is certainly the case with other songs on the list) but I couldn't justify including "Big Fun" instead of other songs that I couldn't live and breathe without hearing.  There are plenty of songs that were representative of my taste in music and defined who I was at the time to the point that my interest in those songs became a calculated obsession.

I couldn't even decide on a standout Inner City song.  I think I've tended to prefer "Good Life" over the years but "Big Fun" sounds more like a classic -- a proper introduction to the band and what they were doing -- mainly thanks to that killer opening riff.  But "Ain't Nobody Better" is great too, and if we're looking at Saunderson's career apart from Inner City, I was (and still am) crazy over Reese's "Rock To the Beat", and the deliriously fine  Detroit mix of New Order's "Round and Round".  Was Saunderson on fire in those days or what?

In short, the "40 for 40" list is about telling stories, but first and foremost it's about standout songs.  Sometimes it will favour the the artist with one song that drove me crazy over the artist with a consistently strong output.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

U2 and Apple

The release of a new U2 album for free to 500 million iTunes users has become arguably the biggest music story of the year.  I'm surprised that a) they managed to keep it (relatively) secret up to the moment it was announced, and b) nobody has tried to spin "Songs of Innocence"  into the "biggest" or "fastest" "selling" album of all time.

A multi-billion dollar corporation has joined with a band of megamultimillionaires to pull an end around the music industry and force their product onto consumers who may not even want it.  It certainly sounds bad to have it phrased it like that.  Is this kind of practice bad for music fans, as virtually every music critic has been claiming?  I don't see how one could argue otherwise.  But it is really all that different than what has already been going on?  Has a significant line been crossed here?  I'm not convinced of that.
In my post about Lady Gaga at SXSW, I wrote that mainstream music seems to be heading toward a model where a small number of wealthy patrons (or companies) will support the work of an equally small number of artists.  The arts thrived with this type of funding structure for centuries.  Did it provide work opportunities to anyone other than a select few?  Did it give consumers (i.e. extremely wealthy people in the proper social circles) much choice about what to listen to?  No.  But a small number of excellent artists were able to thrive and produce meaningful work.

We're going to be left with a very small number of obscenely funded artists at the top of the food chain, and a huge number of talented people barely able to make a living in music.  The music of the rich will be well preserved and easily tracked down by future generations, and the music of the folkspeople will be fractured into so many mini-scenes that it'll remain difficult to collect and process, with or without the internet.

In fact, this is more or less the setup we already have, except that the wealthy patrons are the major labels, who for the time being can fund a relatively large number of artists each (but a much smaller number of artists than they did a generation ago).  The majors seem destined to die out within another generation, which will separate the wheat from the chaff even further.  Music will be distributed in increasingly creative ways, but seeing bands live on tour may be more difficult unless they're funded by the right sponsors looking to leech off their cred.  Rock and pop might have to start taking cues from EDM -- the selling point is the DJ and the party atmosphere first, and the music they actually play comes second.  

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Pitchfork 500 and my own 40 for 40

Earlier this year, I read the Pitchfork 500 book from cover to cover.  The format is a bit exhausting -- five hundred blurbs of 100-150 words each -- and if you don't already know most of the songs I'm not sure how much you can really get out of the book.  There were maybe thirty truly excellent write-ups that either really made me want to hear the song (if it was one I didn't know) or forced me to think differently about something I thought I already understood quite well.  I would classify another one hundred or so as "good" or "very good", and the rest were just kind of there.  The forced editorial style of constantly quoting from the lyrics of the songs and trying to connect those few lines to the criticism of the song simply didn't do it for me most of the time.  Ninety nine percent of music lyrics lose their power to captivate when removed from the context of the music.  

However, the essays at the start of each chapter/time-period were nearly all outstanding, and the sidebars that looked at specific genres or microgenres, often with a healthy dose of cynicism, were also consistently entertaining and a welcome break from the super-seriousness of the rest of the book.  

It was disappointing to see such a varied mix of songs from the 70's up until the late 90's (i.e. until the early years of Pitchfork), only to have the book suddenly dive deep into an indie rock hell with only token nods to hip-hop and techno.  In the introductory essays to each chapter, hip-hop and techno were highlighted as being so vitally important to the evolution of music, but they were mostly ignored once they hit the mid-90's and had passed through the established canon of those genres.  Still, for a coffee table book about music that I (mostly) love, it was a worthwhile and often thought-provoking read.

But my main problem with the book was that it claims to be representing the best music of the previous 30 years by songs, rather than albums, or as the back cover explains, "[reflecting] the way listeners are increasingly processing music -- by song rather than by album".  However, the actual song selections don't reflect that philosophy, especially once they hit the mid-90's and beyond.  A good portion of the book reads like they made a list of the best (PF-approved) albums from the time period and simply picked a song from each of those albums.  You could go through the top albums of the year lists for PF from 1999-2008 and pick out many of the artists that appear in the book for yourself.


A lifelong friend turned 40 last year and "celebrated" by carefully compiling a "40 songs for my first 40 years" list.  She told me about working on the list and I knew right away that I had at least one thing to look forward to about turning 40.

That time is quickly approaching.  She roughly defined the criteria for the list as "whether or not I could listen to the song repeatedly without being sick of it and whether it invokes a strong emotional connection for me."  Simple and to the point, and the eventual list was unranked.  I want my criteria to be a bit different, and I struggled to define exactly what kind of list I want to make.  However, after reading the Pitchfork book, I certainly knew what kind of list I didn't want to make.   You will not be seeing 40 tracks from my favourite 40 albums, that's for sure.

First and foremost, it will be a songs list.  Some of them will be the songs that "changed everything" and profoundly affected my listening habits going forward.

The list should tell a story, so roughly speaking, it should summarize how my tastes in music changed throughout my life.  Songs that captured certain periods or important moments in my life will be on there.  In the past I've made fun of publications that bestow a magical influence on a song or album, writing that such-and-such an album summed up the year or who's impact would resonate through its legions of soon-to-be copycats.  I make fun of this because it doesn't make sense to generalize about a huge community of music listeners in this way.  But for an individual, a song absolutely can summarize a summer or a year.

Because the songs tell a story, it shouldn't be necessary to like all of them as much now as I did then.  In most cases, they will be songs that have been close to me for years or decades, but in some cases, a song may be necessary to tell the story even if I don't care for it much anymore.

Not all of them will be songs from great albums.  In some cases, I will not have even heard the albums they came from.

A few bands will make the list on account of being in my pantheon of favourite bands ever.  If there's not a particular song of theirs which stands out in a way that I've described, I'll probably have to pick a song that defines the essence of that band for me.  I will not reflexively pick a great song from what I think is their best album.  The song is always the key, it would have to be the song that first drew me in, or the song that I heard and knew I'd be a fan of the band for life.

Not every year needs to be represented, it's not a "40 songs for 40 years" list.  Some years may have a few songs represented and many others will have none, because life just isn't neatly ordered that way.

It will be a biography told in the space of 40 songs, attempting to summarize what I am and what I once was as completely as possible.

Even at this late stage of the game, I'm not sure in what format to present the list.  It will be unranked and the songs will be presented in the order that they impacted my life (regardless of which year they were originally released).  Blurbs in the style of yearly top ten lists seem bland and inappropriate for a project like this.  I'm trying to get it all figured out.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 20

"Some of them in the name of national self determination founded their own mixes", 75 min

I've been sitting on this mix for about four months, and at the time I wasn't completely sure what I wanted out of it, besides something new to listen to on an upcoming plane ride.  I was aiming for something mellow, but not particularly spacey and chilled to minus-40 like the last podcast (Episode 19).  The Lustmord, Jacaszek, Ishay Adar, and John Massoni/Sonic Boom discs were new purchases, and new discs provide my typical excuse for making mixes.  The entire tracklist was pretty much improvised.

Somehow, out of this vagueness of purpose, came a nearly perfect mix.  Whatever it is, I don't think I could have done it any better, if that makes any sense.

What I remember most about making the mix was my stunned reaction to Talk Talk's "I Believe In You" and how the mix nearly fell apart completely after that because I had no clue how to follow it up.  That might be the last time I look to "Spirit of Eden" during an improvised mix.  If you're thinking that the John Massoni/Sonic Boom track sounds like a chance to catch one's breath before the mix shifts gears into something with a more aggressive pulse, you're right.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

Woob, "Lost 1194"

Bob Dylan's "Bootleg Series" albums have been huge hits with fans because they allow them to take a peek behind the curtain, offering insight into creative process of an artist who has always been somewhat shadowy about what he does and how he manages to do it.  We can hear how tracks developed through demos and live versions.  We've heard acoustic tracks go electric, electric tracks take on new life during live revues, and the unearthing of songs from his ignored or underappreciated periods.  The series is still going strong after twenty years.

If only we could open the recording vaults for electronic musicians too (no, the "bootleg series" equivalents for them are not remixes).  I'm not comparing Woob's catelog to Dylan's much more extensive one, but for  whatever reason, he seems to be at the forefront of prominent 90's electronic artists revisiting/reworking their material ten or twenty years after the originals.

Much like "Repurpose",  his earlier trip into the vaults, "Lost 1194" does pack many surprises or relevations.  Overall it's a bit heavier on beats and percussion -- the long intros to "On Earth" are scaled back and the dubbier portions extended on "Lost On Earth", and the final portion of "Lost Odonna" adds a drum part that was missing in the original.  Many of the samples are different, which doesn't affect the final product much, with the exception of the bone chilling screams that shifted "Strange Air" into a nerve-wracking deep freeze that are missing in "Lost Strange Air".  Only "Lost Emperor" serves up a different mood than its corresponding original.  Rather than the swampy hell of the bass heavy original, "Lost Emperor" seems tranquil, taking its cues from Eno's early ambient work rather than dub.

The key thing I've learned, having now heard both "Repurpose" and "Lost 1194",  is that "Woob 1194" may be the biggest fluke in electronic music history.  The alternate takes and everything Frankland has done since then (e..g as Journeyman) can't come close to what he captured live, with no editing, when he recorded "Woob 1194".  It gives me a greater appreciation of how difficult it is to come up with quality live improvisations and mixes night in and night out, and how important it is to know your music inside and out, let your instincts guide what you're doing, and record almost everything you do.  The stuff that spills out of you, seemingly without trying, may be impossible to duplicate no matter how hard you try.  

Monday, August 04, 2014

It’s Time to Revisit All 38 Soundtracks to Hit No. 1 Since "Purple Rain"

The title is rather self-descriptive, and call me crazy, but this is my favourite bit of music criticism of the year thus far.  Kudos to Dave Holmes.  It's not too often that the most insightful lines in a music article are consistently the funniest as well.

Breaking down the list further, we can see that the distribution of these 38 albums has been highly irregular:

1985-1989 (six albums, 44 weeks at #1)

Each of these albums was a cultural phenomenon and their core songs remain staples of "do you remember the 80's?" compilations up to the present day.  Multiple songs from each of these soundtracks dominated pop radio at the time and each was responsible for making at least one or two careers.  In the case of "Dirty Dancing", nearly everyone who appeared on it had a first or second career that they owe almost entirely to the soundtrack.  There was even a "Dirty Dancing" tour, featuring the performers and music from the soundtrack, and an accompanying live album from the tour.  And you thought this kind of brand-name cash-in started with the "American Idol" and "Glee" summer tours?
1990-1991 (zero albums)

Just like that, the soundtrack album gravy train dried up.  It's not clear why -- were Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer really so invincible?  The "Pretty Woman" movie and soundtrack were huge hits in 1990, and Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" hit #1 on the pop charts, so maybe the lack of #1 soundtracks in these years is just a fluke, rather than a shifting of the guard, especially since ...

1992-1998 (sixteen albums, 72 weeks at #1)

Yep, soundtracks were back.  There's no bunching happening here either, these albums are uniformly distributed over these six years.  This works out to an average of four weeks at #1 per album, but that's misleading because six of them were in the top spot for just a single week, and four others were #1 for exactly two weeks.  Most of the rest were mega-gigantic blockbuster hits with radio exposure to match, especially "Titanic" and "The Bodyguard".  This is just further proof that although some people remember the 90's as a time when alt-rock and nu-metal were dominant, the truth is that sappy soundtrack ballads in the vein of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" never went away, and were in fact bigger than ever.

1999-2001 (zero)

I'm not sure what happened here, but I took a closer look at 1999, and it was a weird year for music.  Teen pop, country, nu-metal, and hip-hop swapped in and out of the #1 album spot without any rhyme or reason.  As for soundtracks, there was almost nothing of note.  I suppose the most significant was the "Austin Powers II" soundtrack and it's radio hit, Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" (Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman" also performed well).

2002-2003 (three, 10 weeks)

"8 Mile" was a phenomenon because Enimen was an unstoppable commercial force, and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" may have been the most unlikely Album of the Year Grammy winner ever, but otherwise you can't really say that soundtracks made any kind of comeback in these years.  

2004-2005 (zero)

Again, I can't find any notable soundtracks in these years.  There were a lot of #1 albums in 2005 -- a majority of them spent only a single week at #1, so you know that soundtracks were ice cold if not a single one could ride a big opening weekend into a first week sales boost and a short stay at #1.  The most notable soundtrack in these years would appear to be "Hustle and Flow" and its Oscar-winning track "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp".  Yeah, yeah, here's the link.  Enjoy.

2006-2013 (twelve,17 weeks)

Soundtracks came back over night, thanks to Disney successfully targeting the tween demographic and young adult fiction making a jump to the big screen ("Hunger Games", "Twilight" saga).  There were plenty of dead spots for soundtracks during these eight years, and most of these albums only spent one week at number one.  Soundtracks were bankable but forgettable.  None of these albums had a huge, breakthrough single.

2014 (one, 14 weeks)

"Frozen" gets its own category because no soundtrack has dominated the album charts like this "Titanic" in 1998.  Every generation has its own Disney soundtrack to call its own I see.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Teste, "The Wipe"

Is there a more underappreciated Canadian contribution to techno than Teste's "The Wipe"?  It still appears regularly in many DJ sets, is immediately recognizable to countless techno fans, but how many of them know of its humble Toronto origins?

Count me among those in the dark, that is, until I read Juno's feature on the story behind "The Wipe".  Richie Hawtin broke the track by releasing it on his  Plus-8 label (I first discovered it on the Mixmag Live Vol. 20 compilation, mixed by Hawtin) and it's grown steadily in stature over the years, becoming more influential as it ages.

Techno has been around for long enough to reevaluate plenty of old classics.  How many techno tunes have become steadily more classic as they age?  Underappreciated albums are not uncommon in rock music, people are discovering and rediscovering gems from the past all the time.  In dance music it's usually a different story -- a song becomes a smash hit in the clubs, picks up classic status almost immediately, and appears on a million DJ sets and compilations.  But after a few years, most of those tracks stop getting played and end up out of earshot, out of mind.  There is no classic rock radio equivalent for techno, so eventually twenty years pass and somebody wants to revisit those old tracks in a blog post ...

For example, how many songs from the first Flux Trax compilation are as classic or more classic now than they were in 1995, when the compilation was released?  At the time it was as close to a definitive collection of techno's all-time greatest hits that you were going to find.  And now?  The CJ Bolland, Jam and Spoon, and Empirion tracks have aged horribly and have practically dropped of the face of the clubbing earth to the best of my knowledge.  Others such as Slam's "Positive Education" and Hardfloor's "Acperience" are still remembered fondly but does anyone really feel the need to listen to them anymore?  I would say that the only tracks that have remained stone cold classic throughout the past two decades are "Voodoo Ray", "Energy Flash", "Can You Feel It?", "Loop", and "Strings of Life".  One could also make an argument for "Rez" (Underworld got way bigger long after "Rez", but does anyone really play it anymore) and "Altered States" (one of my all time personal favourites, but it didn't have the impact that many of the other tracks on the compilation had).  Out of those first five, only "Voodoo Ray" feels like it's bigger now than it was at the time (and it was HUGE at the time in the clubs, but now it's huge even among casual electronic music fans who don't remember it from when it was in the clubs).

On the other hand, Hawtin's Mixmag Live mix that I linked to earlier, which was underappreciated at the time and still remains probably the most overlooked Hawtin commercial mix, contains several tracks that have gotten more classic with time.  Octave One and Plastikman were famous then and are still famous now, but "The Wipe" and G-Man's "Quo Vadis" have slowly grown from minor hits into all time techno blueprints over the past two decades.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The "lost" Caustic Window album

No matter how much of a fan you think you are, there's always somebody out there who relates to the music more passionately than you, is willing to run the mailing list and/or fan site more than you, or pay $46 000 for a one-of-a-kind vinyl album more than you.

Fans of 90's electronica remember hearing the fables about dozens of unreleased Aphex Twin albums supposedly locked away somewhere, all of them supposedly mind-blowing according to the likes of Mike Paradinas (mu-ziq) but relegated to the closet by the perfectionist R.D. James himself.  Have the archive doors finally been blown open?  It's hard to believe that the likes of Prince relented years ago and agreed to release his archived work, while Aphex Twin stubbornly refused to budge.

The album is streaming in several places on the internet.  Fans of "Selected Ambient Works I" will surely love the opener, "Flutey", as it's overall mood and sonic palate are virtually identical. On the other hand, "Stomper 101mod Detunekik" (love the name -- has to be the name of a patch he put together just for this track) and "Popeye" recall the vacuum cleaner rave music of the early 90's done up Aphex style with dreamy ambient synths lurking in the background.  "Afx Tribal Kik" seems to be a stab at ethno-techno done for a bit of a laugh, but it actually comes across as a killer demo of sorts for Polygon Window's all-time classic "Quoth".  "Airflow" brings things back toward "SAW I" again, only to careen back into pure WTF-ness with the biggest oddity of the album, the acid-cum-italo house "Squidge in the Fridge".  "101 Rainbows (Ambient Mix)" might be the biggest find of the album, a collision between then-contemporary ambient house and the melodical precision of Krautrock, like Cluster and the Orb collaborating at the height of their respective powers.

As a compilation of odds and sods, the album makes sense, as many of these experiments wouldn't have blended into his other albums.  You can almost imagine Richard James' thought process on every track ... "now I want to see if I can make my style work with (insert esoteric genre name) ... eh, not bad, maybe I'll tweak it a bit later (*files track away and doesn't play it for twenty years*)".  I doubt that it will blow many minds, but it will certainly remind people of why they were such big Aphex Twin fans in the first place.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Casey Kasem RIP

It's been a rough couple of days for celebrity deaths (Tony Gwynn??  No...) and it's good to see that Kasem is getting the respect he deserved in death, seeing as the end of his life appears to have been anything but pleasant.  His family feuding over his estate and his wife allegedly holding a senile Kasem prisoner in their home will hopefully be forgotten -- a sad end to one of the great lives in pop music history.

Chris Molanphy captures the essence of Kasem perfectly in his piece for Slate.   It's true, he unashamedly loved pop, even when it wasn't exactly popular to do so.  Chart nerds could salivate over how he'd phrase a dramatic jump from #5 to #3, making it sound like a titanic newsworthy event without hardly ever raising his tone of voice.  I grew up watching "America'sTop 40" on TV every Saturday and rediscovered Kasem (in a way) on radio in the late 80's when I would listen to the countdown in full nearly every week.  I listened to and recorded his broadcast of the top chart songs of the 1980's and relistened to it incessantly in the 90's, it was one of my personal all time favourite radio moments.

As Molanphy explains, Kasem's true talent was that he was a storyteller who rarely came across as a hype-fueled DJ paid by record companies to plug the week's most popular music.  He humanized the artists in a way that DJ's and even many journalists rarely do, and his stories were so vivid I could often picture myself in the room while the music was being created.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"20 Feet From Stardom", dir. Morgan Neville

There are plenty of impressive things about this documentary.  The celebrity roll call, which includes Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen, is eye opening to say the least.  The big celebs speak better to the importance and admiration for the background singers than the background singers themselves do, which in a roundabout way, turns out to be the single biggest weakness of the film.

This film came off like a series of disjointed interviews that relies on name dropping and the aforementioned star power to make its case.  The irony of the background singers (who in large part, for various reasons, couldn't make it as solo artists) needing their superstar friends to tell their story for them seems to be completely lost on the director.

The film floats several reasons why they never became stars in their own right.  Many simply loved their roles as background singers and had little desire to do anything else.  Others were afraid, or lacked the confidence to stand centre stage, and learned to accept their background role.  Yet we also see them getting singing duets or even getting featured solos as part of stadium tours, and writing songs for the breakthrough solo album that may never get recorded.  So which is it?  Are they missing the "charisma gene" (as implied by Springsteen) or is a matter of never being afforded the opportunity to shine by a myopic music industry?  The movie never takes sides, but it really should have.  Documentaries should have a point of view.  Beyond the obvious degree of admiration for what they do, I left the theatre not having a clue how the director really felt about most of these people.

The highlights include Merry Clayton's story about getting woken up in middle of the night and called in to record "Gimme Shelter" with the Rolling Stones, and every scene featuring Darlene Love.        

Short aside: in the pre-film lecture by Yashiv Cohen, which focused on the gospel roots of soul and R&B, I realized that there's not much of a leap between The Soul Stirrers' "I'm a Soldier" and The Velvet Underground's "Heroin".  At the risk of sounding silly and ignorant, has this drone rock gospel been hiding in plain sight all this time and I didn't realize it?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Music in Vienna (May 2014 edition)

No radio alarms and Irish pubs this time, just great shopping and two incredible concerts.

At a time when music shops are an endangered species just about everywhere, I was happy to see that all the shops I visited six years ago are still in business.  I even stumbled across a couple of new ones (new to me at least). 

The results were a bit different however.  Rave Up Records carried more punk and indie rock than I remember, and the new stores (including Record Bag) were also heavy on punk and metal.  Scout Records is packed with records and discs from floor to ceiling, with boxes piled upon boxes upon racks of CD's, crates underneath tables and discs hanging on the wall. It's the kind of place that will cease to exist when the 70's and 80's punks and jazz aficianados leave the music business, so enjoy it while you can.  Musik und So's stock seems to have shrunk considerably (IIRC), but you can still buy plenty of great CD's for one Euro or not much more.  I bought the 2CD reissue of The Cure's "The Head on the Door" (an album I never owned in any format) for just nine Euros. 

The most worthwhile stop was at Substance.  Not only have the prices in Vienna leveled off and even fallen below those of other major European cities (e.g. Milano), but Substance is now undercutting their competitors in the Viennese electronic music market, which I definitely don't remember to be the case last time.   I had to put back several amazing CD's to justify the total expenditure to myself and keep the total cost under 100 Euros.  I grabbed a ton of great stuff, including last year's Haxan Cloak album that I'd been meaning to check out for ages, the new Voigt and Voigt, a not so new Emeralds disc for a great price, and a few more. 

The concerts were great but the venues were even better.  The Musikverein is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic and it's not clear to me how a box shaped venue could have such exceptional acoustics.  The abundance of wood as opposed to steel is a big part of it, but beyond that I'm stumped.  Its main chamber is called the "Golden Hall" for obvious reasons -- it's a sensory overload of shimmering gold, glistening wooden beams, and regal paintings.  Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture has long been a favourite of mine despite a lifetime of not liking opera, but his Piano Concerto No. 3 is not (too many frilly runs) although soloist Rafal Blechacz's playing could not be faulted.  The highlight, by far, was Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" -- a piece I'd always appreciated for its historical importance but couldn't bring myself to like.  Hearing it played by a full symphony orchestra changed that.  All its unusual rhythmic shifts felt natural when you can react along with the notes while watching the orchestra attack the piece, and the pounding of the drums ring in the ears and enhance the experience far beyond what you would normally experience on disc.

The Burgtheater (National Theatre) is another stunning building that I felt privileged to visit.  The organizers of the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival) deserve a round of boos for their arcane rules for ticket collection and distribution, and for selling tickets with partially obscured views of the screen without any regard for fair pricing.  I sat in the centre section on the first mezzanine level and every seat in that section, save for the pairs of seats in the corners of the last row, were sold at the same price.  However, at least one third of them (including mine) had partially obscured views due to the low hanging ceiling or sharply angled side walls.  It's fine for a play, when you don't need to see much more than the performers on stage, but for a 3D Kraftwerk concert, it's an inexcusable promotional mistake.  I think many people in the side balconies and the upper mezzanine would have had similar problems.  In my section, there was a fair bit of seat reshuffling, as people preferred to sit in the aisles while the people in the back rows moved down to take their seats or used the extra space to recline and find better views.

Once I found a way to deal with these issues, I could start to properly enjoy an otherwise excellent concert. 

My decision to choose the "Trans Europe Express" concert deserves a bit of explanation.  There wasn't much question about it really.  TEE has always been my default choice for my favourite Kraftwerk album.  Of equal importance, songs from "The Man Machine" and "Computer World" have been the basis of their live sets for years, whereas most songs from "Autobahn", "Radio-Activity", and TEE have been rarely played over the past two decades, if ever.  If you're going to a special event that only takes place in a select few cities, why choose to hear the same songs you can hear in nearly all their regular concerts? 

After buying the tickets to the show, I listened to TEE (of course) and heard things I'd never heard before.  Over the past several years, I found myself listening to the modern, reconstituted touring band version of Kraftwerk (e.g. the "Minimum Maximum" DVD or other recent live shows) far more than the original albums.  During a rare airing of Kraftwerk as they were thirty seven years ago, for the first time, TEE sounded weak, tinny, and lacking in punch.  In contrast, "The Man Machine" has a lot more in common with contemporary electronic music -- funkier, more precise, more metronomic.  This is where they first because The Robots and adopted a style and image that they'd carry with them more or less for the rest of their career.  However, "The Man Machine"'s streamlined efficiency is also its biggest fault.  Everything is too ordered, not a note is out of place, and there's not the slightest air of whimsy or improvisation.  TEE is more varied, more cerebral, and its highs are a lot higher.

TEE is the last album where Kraftwerk's roots as a jazzy improv outfit are central to the music.  It's their final attempt at preserving and advancing the style of music they broke through with.  After that, the pressure to evolve was too strong and there was no way to push the old style any further.  It was time to transform into something else.

For some reason, this kind of album turns out to be my favourite for a lot of notable artists.  Other albums fitting into this category include Depeche Mode's "Violator", Stereolab's "Mars Audiac Quintet", and PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me".  They are the last albums of those bands' "original" style before they quickly morphed into something else entirely. 

On that night at the Burgtheater, even their playing seemed like a throwback to the old days.  In order to play these old songs they needed to go back to being what they once were.  I could see Ralf Hutter playing the chords to "TEE" (the song) on his keyboard.  Kraftwerk looked like performers again and less like office workers who would prefer to send their robots on stage to do the work for them. 
In fact, a quick check of the "Minimum Maximum" DVD shows that their live setup hasn't changed much.  Although their work stations once had monitors that blocked the audience's view of what they were doing, in some shots you can see that they still had the same keyboards and effects modules, and you can see them physically playing the notes if you look carefully enough.  But in Vienna in 2014 -- perhaps due to the venue or the set list --  Kraftwerk's world looked and sounded different for the first time in a long time.