Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I bought another stack of cheap CD's. Time for some fifty word reviews.

Twenty years ago,  used to drop $25-$30 on nearly every imported CD I bought.  Earlier this month, I paid about $30 for fifteen CD's.  Yes, times have changed.  Let's have a brief look at them all and bring back the fifty word review for the first time in I don't know how long!   This was sort of like Twitter in the days before Twitter!

This mixture of jazz, ambient and trip-hop could only have been released in the mid-90's. There's almost nothing to implore you to hear this album in a context other than as background music at your next mixer, but some of the kick-drum heavy grooves have some serious thump to them.

With the exception of the "Peace From Chicago Mix" (a storming track that deserves to last well beyond its already epic nine minute run time) none of these remixes deviate much from the nearly unassailable original. I had high hopes for Philippe Zdar’s mix but it’s the biggest disappointment here.

This mix is a funky, chaotic mess (that's meant to be a compliment) that should make fans of mid-2000's dancepunk reminisce and smile. Of course that means I feel like I've heard it fifty times already, and I would have said the same if I'd heard it back in 2005.

On every 90's electronica compilation, I discover at least one standout track that I haven’t heard before, and that's why I stock up on these cheapies whenever I can. Unfortunately, this disc is an exception, and even the artists and tracks I already knew sound boring in this mix’s setting.

This hypnotizing EP features four rather different styles of experimental music -- "Voices" and "Flange" are throwbacks to Morton Subotnick's futuristic bleeps, but "Untitled" treads closer to Sonic's more blissed out, organic E.A.R. project, and "Organ" could almost pass for a hummable instrumental interlude on an indie rock album.

More proof of St. Etienne's genius: their contribution to this charming covers EP could have been recorded at any time in their career and stays vaguely faithful to the original without sounding like a hungover pisstake. Flowered Up, I'm looking at you although you always make me nostalgic for 1992.

They were one of those legendary indie bands who were always spoken about in hushed whispers by people who were convinced they should have been huge and playing stadiums. Over the years I occasionally heard a song by them on the radio, but never really checked them out.  Mistakes happen.

One of those iconic albums I had inexplicably never heard until now.  I hadn't realized there were so many guitars here, making the Parliament half of "Parliament and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator" stand out that much more.  These guys saw the future long before the rest of us did.

Oddly enough, I was turned off from Biosphere for a long time because of his non-standout contributions to one of my favourite 90's techno contributions.  More recently, mostly thanks to "Substrata", I understood that his ambient (not beat-filled) tracks are where it's at, which makes "Patashnik" mostly decent, partly sublime.

(no further information available on the 'net)

Not even sure where to start with this eclectic and often wondrous collection of music from around the globe.  Approximately twenty countries are represented, with folk, reggae, and Michael Jackson covers (to name just three examples) coming from unexpected sources.  Well OK, the Michael Jackson cover is by Senor Coconut.

There's always been more than a hint of Broadway in Merritt's work.  Despite the nominal change in genre and format, longtime fans will immediately recognize his fingerprints here.  It's interesting to hear (mostly) new voices interpreting Merritt's work, as opposed to the usual cast of characters on Magnetic Fields' albums.

This album was already my ultimate bargain bin discovery.  Isn't it a great feeling when you excitedly gush about something becoming of your favourite albums after only a couple of listens, and it actually happens? "Hips and Makers" did in fact turn me into a Kristin Hersh fan for life.

[aside: strangely, WMP recalls a tracklist (and year!) which is different from the one in the liner notes, and which is different from the one listed on Discogs.  The latter appears to be the correct one]

The title threatens to subject you to predictably corny "chill out" fare, but have no fear: this is exceptional 90's underwater ambient techno in the style of the best material released on R&S in that decade.  Featuring a full slate of underappreciated Norwegian producers, this disc is a lost gem.

This haunting soundtrack ranges from "Mi Media Naranja"-era Labradford to creepy, abrasive ambient, like Marsen Jules locked in a basement undergoing sleep deprivation testing.  When we imagined what a Trent Reznor-penned movie soundtrack would sound like in the 90's, it was a lot closer to this than "The Social Network".

The first track is nothing less than the ground zero recording that introduced me to electronic music.  I bought this (imported!) cassette in '91 for the bargain price of about fifteen bucks (for years it would regularly retail for 25-30 dollars), and somehow never owned it on any other format.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Mistaken For Strangers" (The National documentary, dir. Tom Berninger)

In the past couple of weeks, as the rockism vs poptimism debates heated up in print and on the internet, the National somehow became the poster boys for stodgy rock music that takes itself too seriously.  The defense's timing is impeccable, as evidenced by the release of this documentary that is ostensibly about the band's 2010 world tour, but ends up as a case study about two brothers who were once inseparable, were forced apart by the unexpected success of the band, and their struggle to rebuild their relationship.

Or is it?  Every review I have read (except for one) takes the film completely at face value.  The story of the doofus younger brother getting his act together and making his family proud is fun to play along with, but I found myself constantly questioning whether what I was seeing was real.  Could anyone really ask so many dumb questions?  If he's a lone wolf filming his stupid documentary without permission, then who is holding the camera most of the time?  Why would the band's management, who come off as being fun hating squares who are constantly preoccupied with protecting the National's image in documentary footage they've never seen, possibly want to green light the finished product?

In "This is Spinal Tap", the filmmaker played the naive straight man and the band were the fools.  It's remarkable to think that it took thirty years for somebody to try the opposite combination.

No matter what your take, a band that chooses to "profile themselves" by foregoing all the usual rules of documentary filmmaking by agreeing to get strung along as bit players in a story of brotherly redemptions can't be taking itself all that seriously.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Breadcrumb Trail" (Slint documentary, dir. Lance Bangs)

This might be the definitive "for fans only" documentary -- essential for fans of Slint and "Spiderland", confusing and utterly irrelevant for everyone else.

It struck me while watching this film that even though their music was freakish and unconventional, as a band and a collection of personalities, Slint were as cliche as any other rock outfit.  The guitarist was a quiet loner who looked unassuming until he started to shred; the singer was a moody, nervous, angst-filled guy; the bassist tried to stay out of people's way and was the most invisible, underappreciated band member; and the drummer was an out of control weirdo.  I guess you could say that about 99% of bands though.  The story tends to repeat itself -- on record they were dour and serious, but in real life, they were young kids having fun.  The former members and entourage of Joy Division let their myth build up over the years before eventually clueing fans into the fact that they were getting drunk and laughing their asses off most of the time. Now it's Slint's turn.

"Breadcrumb Trail" is almost entirely composed of interviews.  It's an oral history told in front of a camera, but the principals get plenty of face time so by the end of it you feel like you've had a fairly intimate look at the personalities of everyone involved.  The snippets of archival footage is outstanding and really attunes you to how young and how talented Slint were (and how pretentious ... tuning up for 1.5 hours at a high school "Battle of the Bands" show?  Totally dickish but also hilarious).

The major flaw of the documentary is that the breakup of the band in 1991 is mostly glossed over.  Maybe they wanted the subject to be off-limits, maybe they wanted to keep mum about it (even after twenty years) to add to their mystique, maybe they don't want to open old wounds in the interest of keeping their occasional reunion gigs going.  Still, it's odd considering the level of detail in the rest of the film.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Outkast reunites at Coachella 2014

Andre 3000 summed it up perfectly when their 90-minute set was abruptly cut off due to curfew -- this was "kind of weird".  Yes, he was referring to the halting of their set when they thought they were getting to the big finish with Killer Mike, but he could just as easily have been talking about the entire night.

The audio glitches were the least of their problems.  I didn't like Dre and Big Boi spending so much time inside the screen-lined cube.  It felt like they were trapped there and I couldn't figure out why it added to the performance when they were prevented from using the entire stage.  The timing and pacing of the set felt completely off, with some songs getting inexplicably shortened ("Ms. Jackson"?  Huh?), and the set never built properly to the hits that people expect to hear at these kinds of shows.  After all, the Outkast reunion is taking place at festivals, and you have to tailor your set to a broad festival goer audience, not the most hardcore thousand or so fans in every town.  They brought out Janelle Monae and Future to almost no reaction, because this wasn't the sort of crowd that would know who they were.  Somehow they seemed surprised by this.

Of course there were high spots -- the horn section, "Roses", "Rosa Parks" and Janelle Monae's guest spot (even if the crowd didn't care) to name a few, but overall this concert was a shockingly unpolished work in progress.  

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The decline of downloads

Great article in Billboard about the competition between Apple and iTunes on one side, and the double threat of streaming services and Google's stranglehold on mobile devices.

Here is a graphical history of sales (as a percentage of total units shifted) for the various music formats.  CD's passed cassettes as the top format from 1990 onward, but interestingly enough, IIRC, 1989 (or perhaps even 1990) was the top year for total cassette sales.  IOW, when cassettes hit their peak in terms of total sales they were oddly enough already on the decline -- a decline that came swiftly and definitively.  I believe the peak for CD sales occurred in 2000, although the graphs show that the CD reached its peak in terms of percentage of total sales in 2002-3.  So one could equally claim that when CD's hit their peak around 2002, they too were on the decline -- a decline that came just as swiftly and decisively as it had for cassettes not much more than a decade previous.

CD's ruled the industry for not more than twelve years.  Total download sales didn't pass physical sales until 2012, but by that time the CD had been dead as the leading format for years.  Downloads and streams (both legal and otherwise) were taking over and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but the industry found a way to squeeze more juice out of the very profitable CD model before finally admitting defeat, kicking and screaming.

Downloads will not rule the industry for nearly as long.  The pie charts show that the rise of streaming/subscription services and legal downloads happened roughly simultaneously, so it's arguable whether they ever really dominated music consumption at all.  But iTunes has been crushing the competition in the download market, that part is indisputable.  But as the Billboard article explains, they're rapidly losing market share to streaming services, which should come as a shock to no one because once you've weaned people off the idea of buying music as a physical object, you can't expect any brand loyalty from consumers who are accustomed to thinking about songs as faceless, invisible objects. No matter which site you get your music from, it's all the same mouse click, there's no aesthetic or sentimental reason to prefer one website to another.

If you thought the CDs' decline was swift, that was nothing compared to what's going to happen with downloads.  Download sales may have peaked around 2012, but like CD's and cassettes before them, that doesn't mean that the format wasn't already in decline.  Things were never the same after the iPod was introduced.  It showed that music as a physical object to be purchased in a store was on the way out -- the future would be based around playback devices. Apple, of all companies, should understand this.   So in 2014, that means mobiles and tablets, and Apple will have to shift its way of thinking, and fast.

I still remember the day in 1990 when I was listening to CFNY in Toronto and the DJ (forgot who, but I believe it was early afternoon on a weekday in the summer) talked about some pie-in-the-sky news/tech-y story about how in the future we wouldn't buy our music, we'd have a service (perhaps envisioned as a satellite-based service at the time) that would play our music on demand for us.  And I couldn't even imagine how it could possibly happen one day.