Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 18

"Each stage of a Lyot mix is one half the size of the preceding stage" (63 minutes)

I've been meaning to record something similar to Episode 8 for a while -- something danceable (i.e. beatmatched) but also eclectic and SHORT (under one hour).  Sometimes you don't have any tolerance to take an epic journey and would rather listen to a bite-sized mix instead.

There aren't a lot of things I would change about this one.  The end result was almost exactly what I was aiming for.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dance music blows up

Around 1994 (my memories are fuzzy), Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a greatest hits collection and the Smiths released or rereleased some compilation or other (it may have been "18 Singles" in the spring of 1995, but it doesn't really matter for the story).  Both bands were long since defunct, and had recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their landmark albums "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" and "The Smiths".  One of the big UK  music mags (I think it was the NME, but again, it's not so important for the story) lumped the reviews together into one and took the opportunity to compare the legacies of the two bands.

Britpop was massive at the time, and "X is the best British band since the Smiths" was a catchphrase that was tired on arrival, but was still used regularly as a lead-in about a band that the papers desperately wanted to promote.  Reviews of each album were generally positive (cash grab or not, the best of both bands are unfuckwithable) but the essence of the review was that the Smiths still sounded fresh and contemporary, while FGTH were a horribly dated relic of the 1980's.

It's now twenty years later (was it really that long ago???) and I'd say the roles are reversed.  In an era where dance music has successfully infiltrated pop music production and the (admittedly catch-all) genre of electronic music is legitimately huge in its own right,  Frankie's brand of slick, provocative dancefloor bangers seems far ahead of its time.  The Smiths, OTOH, now look like quaint, sleepy products of the 80's, back when being an indie rock band meant having a defeatist attitude and wouldn't dare to dream about ever playing to more than a few hundred people at a time. You toiled away in noble obscurity and the idea of "not selling out" was worn like a badge of honour.  Morrissey's personal war against all forms of dance music doesn't make him look good in the eyes of history either -- I mean, he always looked silly taking these cartoonish stances about how "dance music is killing everything!", but in the 90's he still had a lot of defenders, whereas now even his staunchest fans won't back him up on that or just about any political or social issue he's ranted about in the years since.

And thus, "indie rock" is now regularly used in ads for cars and fast food, while EDM is arguably the hottest brand of music in North America.  Michaelangelo Matos' piece in SPIN gives a great deal of insight into how EDM is marketed, the types of people doing the marketing, and those making the A&R decisions.   It also explains -- perhaps better than any other article I've seen on this subject --  how the usual way of doing business was forced to change in order to sell this music properly.  The majors were clueless about this in the 90's -- they tried to sell electronica as if it was rock or hip-hop via flashy videos pushed into high rotation on MTV and a big emphasis on albums.  The club and vinyl culture aspect of it was completely ignored, and the idea that your top artists could be your best A&R people was absurd.  The evolution of the industry is a major focus of the SPIN article.

It's still not clear to me why this music has gotten so big.  It may be too soon for a definitive history,  but in an age where music is dissected everywhere on the internet within hours of its release, maybe it shouldn't be.  In '91, it was easy to point to Nirvana and say that they were the spark behind a shift in music tastes, but such straightforward analysis is exceedingly rare these days.  That's especially true for the dance music scene, which was already so delocalized even before the internet and file sharing changed listening habits forever.  In another era, you'd say that David Guetta and Calvin Harris produced smash hits for superstar artists and dragged EDM kicking and screaming into the mainstream, but that shoe doesn't seem to fit here.  Timbaland and The Neptunes connected EDM with hip-hop and were insanely influential while doing so, but you can't draw a line between "I"m a Slave 4 U" and anything on a David Guetta album.  Eurodance was huge in the 90's (and remains underrated) and the promotion was all about the single, the investment in artists as long term projects (rather than something thrown together in the studio for the producer's benefit) simply wasn't there. 

Or maybe FGTH invented everything ...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mogwai, "Rave Tapes"; Xiu Xiu, "Angel Guts:Red Classroom"

Both of these bands received Album of the Year "honours" from me (Mogwai '99, Xiu Xiu '04), stayed on a hot streak for a few years (according to me, and the judging by the praise and attention they received in the music press) and eventually sunk into a rut of relative indifference.  Only their fans take notice when they release an album these days, and although that's not so unusual when you've reached your eighth (Mogwai) or ninth (Xiu Xiu) album, they've also brought it on themselves by happily confining themselves to their own little microgenres and releasing essentially the same album several times over.  

The problem with Mogwai post-2003 is one of diminishing returns.  They can write these keyboard lullaby tracks like "Heard About You Last Night" in their sleep these days, and the results were a lot better the first few times they recorded them ("Take Me Somewhere Nice", "Hunted By a Freak", most of "The Hawk Is Howling").  After a few false starts (e.g. "My Father My King") they threatened to become a full time metal band around the time of "Mr Beast", but outside of a few killer tracks where they got it exactly right, they proved to be average at best at doing metal, and at this point the novelty of hearing them aim in that direction is long gone.

There's a noticeable lack of loud guitars on this album.  "Come On Die Young" is still their quietest album, but it was packed with tension and built toward thundering climaxes that paid off the patience of the listener.  There's no payoff, no final destination to "Rave Tapes".  You can be quiet and still be intense, which "Come On Die Young" pulled off beautifully, but "Rave Tapes" is mostly no-frills easy listening -- I keep putting it on and 90% of it simply fades into the background as I go about whatever else I'm doing.

The best thing about "Rave Tapes" might be the album cover, and it's too bad the music didn't take its cues from 70's prog too ("Remurdered"'s not to Krautrock aside).  The experiment might not have worked, but it would have been an interesting risk worth taking.


I'm not sure why it took so long for Xiu Xiu to morph into Suicide.  The elements were always there -- robotic, jackhammer beats; lo-fi electronics and blistering, often uncomfortable noises, and a charismatic frontman with a half speaking/half singing delivery that becomes an acquired taste.  All that was needed was to take the extra step, go full on "Rocket USA", and churn out songs like "Stupid In the Dark" and "The Silver Platter".  And from there it's a quick left turn into 90's Skinny Puppy on the industrial squelch of "Lawrence Liquors".  Elsewhere, "EL Naco" is like Speak And Spell-era Depeche Mode after it's been left out in the arid desert to rot, its once sunny synth pop tones having long since been taken over by madness.

Jamie Stewart's vocal and lyrical styles remain as twisted and unconventional as ever.  "Black Dick" has a chorus that consists of just those two words repeated (or rather, stuttered and spat out) over and over.  "Cinthya's Unisex" finds him huffing mind bending lines like "Oh God, you're so confused when you're ... cute", and losing his mind with screams of "nononononono" and  seconds later "yesyesyesyesyes".  Then he throws a tantrum over hickeys, as if he's poisoned by the memories of them, and finally ends up whimpering "I hate everyone but you" helplessly a few times as the machine drum beats pile on relentlessly.  And "Botanica de Los Angeles" might be Xiu Xiu's best "pop" song since "I Luv the Valley OH!".

Xiu Xiu are can still be frustrating, because their tendencies to shock and be abrasive can overwhelm their songs.   But they're challenging even their most devoted fans to buy into what they're doing, that's for sure.  They're trying, which is more than you can say for Mogwai.