Monday, December 28, 2015

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2015

A typically great year for mixes ... mixes never go into a slump!  As in past years, the list is unranked and presented in chronological order of release.


Shapednoise, FACT Mix 482 (February 9)

One hour of caustic, savage noise and garburated beats, it's the perfect introduction to the world of Shapednoise.



Logos, Resident Advisor Podcast RA.456 (February 23)

A captivating twenty minute beatless intro, followed by a noisy load of abstract electro and bass music.  There are countless surprising turns and unexpected transitions here.  On some days, this was my favourite mix of the year, but it was eventually topped by an even more adventurous mix.



JD Twitch, Bigfoot Series 001 (It's a Nuclear War; It's a Motherfucker) (March)

Twitch's "tribute" to the threat of nuclear war, immortalized in song from Sun Ra to Frankie Goes to Hollywood.



Lowlight Mixes, The Ambient Dishwasher (April)

Arguably the finest selector of ambient music on Mixcloud, Lowlight Mixes produced consistently great work this year, but this mix stood out for its unforgettable theme.  For most of us, a malfunctioning dishwasher is just that, but for some, it's the perfect source material for blissfully chopped and stretched new ambient music.


The Cyclist, FACT Mix 498 (June 1)

The year's finest mix clocks in at an economical fifty minutes, but is packed with more preposterously ambitious transitions than most podcast series manage over the course of a year. Anyone who can finding the common thread to seamlessly connect such a wide flung range of tracks is hearing music on a impossibly high level of intuitive understanding.  Flawless, and best of all, it's an easy and fun listen.


Exium, Blocaus Podcast 13 (June 13)

Cavernously heavy and dark, it's the best way to experience the feeling of being in a club at 4 AM without having to leave the house.



Carlos Suffront, Bunker Podcast 98 (June 16)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the epic Aphex Twin filedump is that more DJ's didn't megamix the whole lot like Carlos Suffront did.  The mix isn't as mindblowing as you'd expect given the source material, but consider the degree of difficulty here.



Fotomachine, Juno Plus Podcast 115 (June 24)

This mix is so bleak it should come with its own Prozac prescription.  Barely functioning on the very fringes of what might get an open minded dancefloor to grudgingly move their feet and dance, many of these tracks are bordering on unclassifiable.  A good number of the transitions are unmixed, but the track selection is so good that it only becomes apparent after multiple listens.



Max_M, Gouru.fr Podcast 77 (July 30)

Another predictably great mix from the minimal techno master, sadly, this may have been his final recorded mix before his sudden death from cancer in May.



Oake, Secret Thirteen Mix 170 (December 15)

After posting one of the finest mixes I've ever heard in February of '14, Secret Thirteen quickly became one of my favourite podcasts and became the favourite of mine in '15.  This collection of gloomy noisescapes and industrial-tinged techno is the kind of sound I've been trying to nail down on some of my own mixes since forever.  


Three albums I didn't "get" in 2015

This year my tastes fell way out of step with the hype surrounding the most talked about electronic music , and I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason why.  Predictably, everything became much clearer after reading Philip Sherburne's excellent essay on The Year in Electronic Music for Pitchfork.  Wild hybridizations were in, and genre purism was out.   Sherburne notes that many of these hybrid styles are made by LGBT artists who are accustomed to being outsiders and never saw themselves bound by the so-called rules of making music in a particular genre. 

A backlash against genre purism comes along every few years in electronic music, so the mashing of otherwise disparate styles hardly represents a revolution.  The problem is that so much of this stuff, to me, sounds like a modern take on Tigerbeat6's adolescent nihilism,  which I didn't enjoy 10-15 years ago either.  One of the few exceptions is Arca, who combines Actress'  unconventional cut-up approach to rhythms with the twisted melodicism of 90's Autechre at their peak.  

Oneohtrix Point Never, "Garden of Delete"

Speaking of Autechre, this one takes the schizophrenia of their 21st century output and adds more humour and pathos.  On paper it sounds great.  On paper "Draft 7:30" was a great idea too.  Praise for that album usually starts with "wow, how did they generate that sound?  This is so much more advanced than 'Tri Repetae'!".  It also ends there, because debates over sound creation are as boring as sin, Autechre's best work never had to be compared to alien creatures coaxing unheard of sounds out of their equipment, no matter what you've heard to the contrary.  "Garden of Delete" is one of those albums where I can't remember a thing about it as soon as it's over, which is a shame because there are a million different things happening here and you'd think that one or two of them would be more memorable.  There's a wacky sense of ADD-style humour at play that feels like a cross between Kid606 and Duck Sauce -- two notorious novelty acts. 


Dawn Richard, "Blackheart"

It's a story that poptimist critics can't help but love.  "Making the Band" alumnus and former P. Diddy lackey breaks the mold with a most un-girl band-like album of dark electronica.  But there's nothing eye opening here, just R&B made by producers who never met a breakbeat or a filter tweak they didn't like and have a hankering for Burial. 


Suzanne Sundfor, "Ten Love Songs" 

I invested a lot of time with this album and wanted to like it so badly.  The pedigree is there -- she's got a great voice, worked with solid producers, and the world definitely needs an OTT orchestral pop album.  Maybe Sundfor is a victim of high expectations, in that nothing here comes close to the grandiosity of "Oblivion" (with M83).  The album is missing that majestic spark that made "Oblivion" so memorable, and not so carefully straddles the "McCarthur Park" line between parody and high drama.   

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 27

"On the second day of the convention the mix announced it was taking a $68 million quarterly loss" - 66 minutes

Inspired by a few mixes heard here and there (particularly from the often excellent Secret Thirteen podcast), I wanted to assemble a blissed out, downtempo mix where the tracks meshed together without necessarily beatmatching every transition. I strove for a consistent sound by repeatedly using two tracks from the same album (call it cheating if you must).  Including proggy tracks was also a must for some reason.  And yet again there is a track from the remix compilation of No Movement No Sound No Memories.  That disc is a goldmine for mixes -- you can find a track that fits perfectly with nearly every mix you want to make.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Top ten albums of 2015

I won't remember 2015 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.

I wrote the previous paragraph as an intro to last year's top ten list.  Technically, only the first part of it is still true.  I remain conflicted about several of these albums -- will I still be listening to them regularly in one year's time?  From last year's list, only Fennesz and Alcest have remained in heavy rotation throughout 2015.  Are they great albums, or only fleetingly great when you binge listen to them when they're new?  Are they only great when you compare them to lesser albums from the same year?  What happens once the year passes and those albums have to hold their own against other great albums, rather than against the detritus released that same year?

As for the second half of that opening paragraph, I did appreciate the steady stream of quality music throughout the year, and was consistently surprised this year by albums that exceeded my expectations.  That includes most of the albums on this year's top ten.  However, looking back at 2015 as a whole, the sum seems less than the sum of its parts.  Almost nothing disappointed me, and there was a lot of like, but perhaps not enough music to truly love.

I don't want to reprint that opening paragraph every year, but is this the start of a trend?  Hopefully not.  The music on my 2011-2013 lists was strong enough to cast a shadow over the music from the past two years.  Every decade has its uncharacteristically strong years, and its recovery years.

TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2015

10.  Shapednoise, "Different Selves" (Type)



You don't need descriptors for the music on a Shapednoise album.  Everything you need to know is in the name.  A throwback to the heyday of Ant-zen and the rhythmic noise of more than a decade ago, except in place of danceable rhythms, there's nothing but scraping, earsplitting ... er, shaped noise in place of anything that would be reasonably expected to make you move your body.


9.  Auscultation, "L’etreinte Imaginaire" (100% Silk)




In a year when Aphex Twin confirmed the legends about dozens of albums that had been recorded and hoarded away since the mid 90's by giving away hundreds of tracks for free, the most faithful reproduction of his career best work as Polygon Window was released by a much more obscure talent from the very non alien-like Madison, Wisconsin.


8.  Chelsea Wolfe, "Abyss" (Sargent House)




This fantastic album cover builds a powerful narrative even before you hear a note of the music: infernal, ghostly, reeking of death.  And the music?  Like the more expressive PJ Harvey of the 2010's returning to her more raw, visceral sound of the 1990's.  In a blues metal style.


7.  Nils Frahm, "Solo" (Erased Tapes)



Nils Frahm appeared on a few albums this year, but the best was the free one.  There's nothing particularly fancy going on here, just stark, wordless, stargazing piano ballads that work a special kind of magic.


6.  New Order, "Music Complete" (Mute)




Every generation can't have its own New Order, because the original keeps coming back.  How is it that nobody has bettered their particular style of dance rock in the thirty years that have passed since they first introduced it?  And how does their sound never seem to age?  The only thing that changes over the years is the guest vocalists.


5.  Prurient, "Frozen Niagara Falls" (Profound Lore)



Easily the most well-rounded Prurient album I've heard, this 90-minute double album takes in an epic sweep of noise subgenres.  


4.  Anthony Child, " Electronic Recordings from Maui Jungle Vol. 1" (Editions Mego)




The title is very misleading and nearly turned me away from hearing the album in the first place.  Is it yet another album of pysch-tinged field recordings and ghostly ambience? Actually, far from it -- you can sense the serenity of the jungle in these recordings, but this music isn't meant for quiet meditation.  The key influence of the natural surroundings is one of isolation, where nobody will complain about the droning noises and nobody will randomly come along to interrupt the recording.  So Child lets his compositions slowly envelop the listener, shoving all outside distractions into the deep background, and forcing time to stand still.


3.  Howling, "Sacred Ground" (Monkeytown)




The last two Moderat albums may have failed to set the world on fire like they should have, but Monkeytown Records haven't given up trying to recapture that same aesthetic.  This collaboration between earthy Australian Ry X and Ame's Frank Wiedemann is the latest genre-bending experiment to emerge from the Monkeytown camp, and very likely the best.  Dance remixes of indie acoustic songs have been huge hits in Europe over the past few years, but Howling decided to skip the remix step and make the records themselves.  


2.  Brandon Flowers, "The Desired Effect" (Island)



Last year, Future Islands' "Seasons" was a phenomenon, an 80's throwback that was so uncool it couldn't help but be cool.  It was the top track on Pitchfork's list.  It won single of the year on Pazz and Jop.  This year, Brandon Flowers released his own version of uncool 80's music, and ... what, was the uncool barrier somehow crossed?  Getting people to hear the album after they'd trained themselves to tune out the Killers years ago was an uphill battle.


1.  Beach House, "Depression Cherry" (Sub Pop)



For the second straight year, my top pick is an album that originally disappointed me greatly.  Both were among my favourite acts in music and carried high expectations.  It doesn't take a genius to believe that these things are related.  Look, I'm not even sure whether "Depression Cherry" is a great album.  But I spent more time dissecting it this year than the rest of the albums on this list combined.  I tried to unwrap its many layers and pinpoint what made these simple, lullaby-like songs sound so rich and textured.  I tried to analyze it track by track versus "Bloom" and understand what it meant for Beach House in the long term (which became even more difficult when they surprised fans with a second and very different album, "Thank Your Lucky Stars", only a couple of months later).  Was it really a search for a more insular existence, a reaction to their growing fame and the pressure to play louder and louder to fill up larger concert halls?  "Days of Candy" says yes, "Sparks" says emphatically no.  Did anything make me feel more at peace this year than "Levitation" and "Space Song" (no).  And so on, until the end of the year, and probably well into future years.  


Monday, December 14, 2015

Fennesz/King Midas Sound, "Edition 1"

I pretty much lost my head when I came across this album in the Berkeley Amoeba, for I had no idea it was in the works and didn't know that it had been released a few weeks earlier.  Kevin Martin and Fennesz ... joining forces??  What could be better?

Unfortunately the album turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, but that's usually the case with Fennesz collaborations.  His interests span genres far beyond his bread and butter formula of 60's melodic charm meets noise and static.  He's never been afraid to experiment in the most literal sense -- he doesn't force his signature stuff onto the record, the way a famous rock guitarist might play a guest solo in a style so familiar sounding, you won't ever mistake it as anybody else.  Fennesz genuinely loves to share ideas with a revolving door of musicians spanning genres and continents, and it certainly helps pay the bills between his own proper albums.  But sometimes it's too bad that he always saves his best stuff for the albums solely under his own name.

The dream Fennesz/KMS would be constructed out of infinitely dense slabs of guitar noise laid over cavernous metallic dub.  Instead of that, both artists decided to show their quieter sides -- atmospheric, dreamscapes dedicated to unknown lost loves, rendered spookier via strange, processed sounds squeezed from a sentient computer.  It's an album that fans of both acts will be proud to own, but won't otherwise grab many people's attention.  The second disc adds nothing to the overall product.  It's identical to the first disc but with the vocals removed -- no extended dubbier edits, alternative version, or unusual sounds you can't hear on the first disc.

UPDATE:  Why couldn't the entire album have sounded more like this transcendent three song live set??

Friday, November 20, 2015

New Order, "Music Complete"

New Order have released three albums in the past twenty years ("Lost Sirens" doesn't count).  Since breaking up for all intents and purposed circa 1994, their second act takes up more than half of their career, time-wise.  That's incredible to think about, especially considering how prolific they were before that.

What if "Get Ready", "Waiting For the Sirens Call", and "Music Complete" had been the first three albums of some other band's career and had been released over the past five or six years?  Their albums would receive good, but not great reviews from the usual indie publications.  The attention of the ex-LCD Soundsystem demographic would ensure they'd sell out 1500-2000 person venues each time they toured through major cities in the northeast and the large southern US college towns.  Critics would note that any song on any of their albums could be swapped with virtually any song on another one of their albums, and you'd scarcely notice the difference.  They'd never be called "daring" or "adventurous" because of their insistence on sticking to the formula, but even casual fans would admit that it was nice to know exactly what they're getting with each new album.  They'd be getting remixed by the likes of Hot Chip (hmmm ... this is one point where the alternate universe band intersects with the real life New Order).  They'd very likely have plateaued in popularity by their third album, but there are plenty of things worse than building a long term career off of modest but profitable world tours every two years.  Their fourth album might even debut in the top 20 of the Billboard 200.

However, tack those three albums onto the career of a band that hasn't had anything to prove since the 80's and everything is different.  Now it's the story of a band improbably adding to an already incomparable legacy, making quality new music long after they by all rights should have been finished as a creative force.  With each successive long hiatus, the idea that they could return and release anything passable became more and more preposterous, if not laughable.  Band members reconvened, quit, and rejoined, collaborators both strange and wonderful came and went, they appeared to be shifting gears and becoming an touring jukebox churning out "Blue Monday" until the end of time, only to split up or find their way into the studio again depending on mysterious circumstances that we will never completely understand.  Let's face it, at any point during the past twenty years, and most certainly since their big comeback gig at Reading '98, they could have begun their semi-retirement and made a healthy living playing only festivals and never playing a single note of new music.

"Music Complete" shouldn't exist.  And yet here they are, releasing "Restless" as their comeback single.  New Order have perfected the "we're back!" lead-off single during this second phase of their career, gone are the days when they're return with bombshell mindfucks like "Fine Time", now it's all about slipping right back into that old shoe and reminding people in the first thirty seconds that yes, you are listening to a New Order song.  "Regret" is still the gold standard in that regard, and they've tried to rewrite perfection a few times now ("Crystal", "Krafty") but couldn't, and probably never will, but no matter.  "Superheated" has become my favourite New Order album closer since "Leave Me Alone", although non-Killers fans may find it too ... Killers-y.  "Singularity" recalls The Cure circa "Pornography" and might be the most they've sounded like Joy Division since Joy Division, at least for the first minute.  Then it breaks into patented New Order dance rock with a synth hook lifted almost wholesale from "Bizarre Love Triangle".  Somehow it all works.  Based on the title, I expected "Tutti Frutti" to be a charmingly dumb song -- "Rock the Shack II", more or less -- but it turned out to be a dancefloor-ready stomper that ancient bands should have no business dabbling in, but again, New Order have deployed the spirit of "Technique" and it's a formula that still works against all odds and general common sense.  Finally, "Nothing But a Fool" is the album's centrepiece, running nearly eight minutes, featuring the album's best chorus and one of Barney Sumner's few genuinely heartbreaking lyrics in his career.

The narrative is important.  It could have been the steady third album by a band happy to tread water in mid-sized venues, but instead it's the shockingly great tenth album by a band that continues building their remarkable legacy.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

U2 live at Superbowl XXXVI

U2 have become a very small subplot in the follow up to the attacks in Paris.  They are nearing the end of their tour and their Paris concert was set to be broadcast live on HBO.  Now that show has been cancelled (as have all concerts in the city by orders of the French government) and the band chose to honour the victims by laying flowers outside of the Bataclan.

The pictures of the band paying their respects have been widely circulated, and seem to be touching a nerve with people, in part because U2 have a strange knack for getting entangled in hardships and tragedy taking place in the world.  There's little doubt that they see themselves as a band with a calling beyond the music world, with a duty to mankind to publicize injustices and to aid in the healing process during tough times.  There was Live Aid (1985), the Salman Rushdie dial-ins (early 90's), the concert in Madison Square Garden after 9/11, the appearance at Live 8 (2005), and now the Paris concert, which will surely be rescheduled and draw a far larger viewing audience than it would have had it proceeded as planned.  Finally, there was arguably the most famous concert of their career, at the Superbowl halftime show in 2002.

That show has been praised and ridiculed in equal measure -- a microcosm of the polarizing opinions that U2 have generated for virtually their entire career.  It regularly gets ranked among the best Superbowl halftime shows ever, if not the very best ever, because of its importance as a cathartic moment at the most intrinsically American cultural event only a few short months after the 9/11 attacks.  It gets ridiculed for ... well, mainly for Bono's hokey reveal of the American flag inside his jacket at the end of the show.  And for the "America ... fuck yeah!" jingoism of telling the country that everything will be OK in the context of a football game that means nothing in the life or death grand scheme of things.  And for being U2 by the usual people who don't like U2.  

The truth is, I never really understood the hate.  Like it or not, the halftime show of the post 9/11 SB was going to be an event forced upon some band that would be expected to deliver in the moment.  It wasn't the time or place for a solemn ceremony, but getting on with business as usual wasn't what was needed either.  That middle ground is almost impossibly difficult to inhabit -- acknowledging the events without getting preachy, conveying emotions without getting emotional, projecting dynamism from the stage without falling prey to jock rock tropes.  If not U2, then who?  Which band could hit upon precisely the appropriate tone, on that big a stage, with that size of a viewing audience, with songs that most of the country was familiar with, and accomplish it all in twelve minutes or less?  

Today I watched U2's Superbowl halftime show for the first time in nearly fourteen years.

At the time I could barely focus.  I scarcely believe that the Patriots were not only playing in this game, but had taken a big lead into halftime.  I was at a party with people who were not very emotionally invested in the game, and was in general somewhat distracted in all the usual ways that parties can distract you from what's happening on a TV in the corner of a room.  

And yet, even without having seen the concert since it was aired, I felt I could recall its key moments in vivid detail -- the heart shaped stage, the scrolling names, the setlist, the American flag in Bono's jacket.  Of course there were plenty of small details I missed.  The crowd on the field looked at genuine as Superbowl crowds get.  They were energetic and very very loud.  This was not a crowd of people who were there to look happy on TV.  There was not a single American flag on display as part of the show, with the exception of Bono's jacket.  Simple, classy.  The roll call of names only reached the "C"'s, which actually helped to underscore the scale of the tragedy.  There were absolutely no dancers, special guests, projections (other than the names of 9/11 victims at the end), complex light shows, or anything even remotely frilly or garish.  It was just U2 and their perfectly chosen three song set.  The significance of the second song -- an interlude of "MLK" as the intro to "Where the Streets Have No Name" -- certainly eluded me at the time.  

The backstory is also more complicated than I realized at the time.  Apparently Janet Jackson was originally booked, but pulled out.   U2 originally wanted to put on a much more extravagant show, but those plans were nixed.  It's hard to believe they could done better than they did.  They hit upon all of the proper subtleties that turned their set into one extended poignant tribute without smashing you over the head and declaring "this is a tribute!" like many bands would have.

So it shouln't come as much of a surprise that U2 touched so many people in Paris today without playing a note of music or saying a word.  

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Two number ones: Adele, "Hello"; A-WA, "Habib Galbi"

It was only after getting caught up in the sandstorm of publicity surrounding the release of "Hello" that I learned that "21" has sold thirty one million copies worldwide.  

That's a preposterous number.  Those albums that were fifteen million sellers twenty years ago, which were ubiquitous on the radio and became influential benchmarks that dozens of charting artists would attempt to copy, now sell in the range of five to six million copies.  "Frozen" was the top selling album of 2014 worldwide and a genuine phenomenon if there ever was one.  It sold ten million copies in 2014.  That's an incredible number -- more than the year's top selling album has sold in about a decade.  It was the top selling album in the US in 2014 until the very last week of the year, when it was passed by Taylor Swift's "1989" -- another phenomenon that practically transcended music.  Both sold a little less than four million copies in the US in 2014.  But neither album has sold, or will sell, anything close to THIRTY ONE MILLION COPIES WORLDWIDE.  

So it really isn't hyperbole when Chris Molanphy states that "21" is the "Thriller" of the 2010's.  And likewise, when referring to Adele's carefully orchestrated comeback, Molanphy nails it on the head again when referring to the opening moments and lines in her new video: "Has a first single from a superstar album ever arrived more freighted with persona? Michael? Madonna? Whitney? Amateurs. None of them previewed a predestined blockbuster with a song quite as carefully branded, and instantly successful, as “Hello.”"

Indeed, I can't think of a more successful "comeback" song than this.  A gargantuan breakup ballad with an epic video that is exactly what her fanbase (which is pretty much everyone) would expect her to deliver.  A video that screams "I'm back" in its opening minute -- despite not saying a word.  After a single listen to "Hello" on the day it was released, the chorus was stuck in my head for the next two days.  It dropped and was instantly, and I mean instantly, EVERYWHERE.  People linked to streams on social media.  I heard it in supermarkets and in malls.  It was all over the radio.  There was no steady climb on the charts, no drawn out hype cycle.  The song dropped, and it went mega in the blink of an eye. 

Next week it will assume its spot at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first of approximately ten billion weeks.  But you should seriously not be surprised if it breaks "One Sweet Day"'s record.  

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Meanwhile, in Israel, an Arabic language song has topped the charts for the first time in the country's history.  Should we be surprised by this?  There have been six non-English language #1 hits in the sixty year history of the Hot 100 despite the presence of a very large non-English speaking minority. However, there has been only one such hit in the past twenty five years -- "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)" by Los Del Rio".  No, "Gangnam Style" never made it, it peaked at #2 despite hitting #1 in dozens of other countries, including Israel.  You could probably make an impressive list of other non-English songs that were huge hits but never reached #1, such as Nena's "99 Luftballons".  You could also point to a number of artists who had #1 hits in English but couldn't translate that success into a Spanish language #1 (or even a steady string of Spanish language hits), despite being well known for singing both in Spanish and English.  Shakira and Gloria Estefan are two obvious examples.      

So the lack of an Arabic #1 is unusual, but not altogether shocking.  The most improbable fact about the amazing success of "Habib Galbi" is not that it reached #1 in Israel, but in how it's making waves in other countries.  I first heard about it a few months ago in the context of its surprising success in Arab countries.  More recently, the group has begun a tour in Europe.  English language media may be starting to pay attention.  

The song was produced by Balkan Beat Box singer Tomer Yosef, whose band has been a trailblazer in Israel in fusing Eastern music with modern dance music.  It's really a perfect combination of artist and producer.  And of course "Habib Galbi" is hardly the first song of its style to become a hit in Israel, it's just the first one in Arabic.  So before anyone thinks of complaining about "cultural appropriation" or something, consider that this is absolutely nothing like "Ice Ice Baby" becoming the first ever Rap #1 hit on the US Hot 100.  If white and black people had both been making rap since the very beginning of rap, but had begun rapping in different languages and dialects in more recent years, only to have a white rapper hit #1 in a language that had often been more popular among black artists, then one could possibly draw a trickle of a comparison between the two.

Yes, A-WA are Jewish.  No word on whether they changed their name from "Haim Sisters" after learning about their namesakes from LA.  

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Amy" (dir. Asif Kapadia), "Love and Mercy" (dir. Bill Pohlad)

Long flights are a great chance for catching up on recent movies -- especially music-related ones!

This short commentary about the DVD release of "Amy" gets only one thing right -- the opening "Happy Birthday" scene is indeed the best moment of the film.  In those brief moments, we see a talented girl who loves to sing, no more and no less, it's the purest display of her gifts that we see in the movie.   Everything that follows is about juggling fame (or the need to become famous) with the expression of that talent.  That opening scene is shockingly normal -- it could almost be anyone's extroverted daughter singing -- and it's that normalcy that's been missing from the tabloid-driven Amy Winehouse narrative until now.  However, the movie does not perpetuate a myth in the same way that, for example, Jim Morrison worshippers perpetuate his myth by accentuating the most extreme moments of his life.  For Morrison acolytes, more debauchery is always better.  Any attempt to portray him as a human and not a cartoon character comes via his poetry (his nonsensically moronic poetry, that is).  

"Amy" wants us to desperately view her as a down to earth girl who was corrupted by outside influences, and we're reminded of this constantly through the voiceovers and interviews with family members and childhood friends.  Everything post-2007 felt like a mad dash to a depressing finish, the years of misery and gossip and paparazzi hounding are de-emphasized.  Living through it as a music fan felt like a long, scandalous slog.  Every day brought new and increasingly ridiculous rumours and articles about Winehouse, and those last four years of her life passed very slowly indeed.  But the movie "Amy" wants us to remember her audition for Island executives, sitting on a black couch playing sparse guitar lines and wowing the room with her unique voice and personal charm.  It wants us to picture her recording the song "Back To Black" acapella, not as a misbehaving drug addict but as a Ronnie Bennett superfan with an eccentric taste in hairdos.  The movie indulges in some myth-making by featuring Winehouse's poetry at various points but is careful to stick to the overall story by linking the meaning behind the words to real people and events that are described in the film.

The movie even glossed over the role that Winehouse's parents played in her career.  Their divorce, their manipulating influence on their daughter, their frequent post-death cash-ins (dueling biographies and other conveniently available merch) are almost totally ignored, such is the director's dedication to keeping mud-slinging and finger-pointing out of his film.  Even Winehouse's ex-husband gets off easy.  In these cases I saw red flags because you'd expect this documentary to at least attempt to provide some answers, but it's simply not willing to go down that route.  

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"Love and Mercy" tells two halves of a story in two very different ways.  This was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who could have picked one actor to play Brian Wilson in both time frames but instead chose to highlight the contrast between the dynamic but confused Wilson of the 60's and the just plain confused Wilson of the 80's.  The scenes set in the 60's are time machine-like in their accuracy and vividness, and Paul Dano convincingly transforms himself into Wilson right down to his voice and piano playing. A special mention also goes to Jake Abel for absolutely nailing the essence of Mike Love, including his on-stage mannerisms.  I can't think of another movie that puts this much emphasis on the action inside a recording studio, often eschewing even dialogue in favour of letting ostensibly tedious (in real life) recording sessions carry the story.  

Paul Giamatti is terrifying as Dr. Eugene Landy, easily the most despised and yet mysterious character in the greater Beach Boys story.  Supposedly the real person was even more over the top, I figure they had to scale him back for the movie lest nobody believe that this vile human being was a real person.  The most glaring weakness lies with John Cusack's performance, which is too close to the socially awkward characters he has played in many other movies.  I couldn't buy the realism of his performance at all -- I could only see John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack movie, and couldn't reconcile that person with the mentally ill musical genius he was supposed to be portraying.   

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ian Svenonius trashes NPR

For me there has always been something sterile about NPR that I could never quite put my finger on.  It's one thing when a "public" broadcaster serves as an outlet for giving national exposure to localized bands who could use the extra boost. It's another thing when that broadcaster develops a house style of promoting a specific type of airwave-palatable indie band.  Its stylistic choices eventually become as safe and predictable as those of the corporations they're supposed to be offering an alternative to. Not to mention that NPR music always feels like it is geared toward a specific kind of liberal arts educated upper middle class 30-something who feels they've lost they're edge since they left college and is looking for an outlet for connecting again with music but isn't creative enough to develop their own unique taste.

This is hardly the first article to criticize the gentrification of indie.  But whereas past critiques tended to point fingers at record companies for domesticating and mass marketing indie, rending it nearly empty of its former individuality and underground appeal, Svenonius takes aim at the consumers and leaves the evil record companies out of the equation entirely.  And it's not the first time he's accused the public of being complicit in gentrifying themselves.    

When it comes right down to it, I have very little sympathy for punk -- Svenonius' scathing attack on yuppies for their largely successful attempts to gentrify punk don't particularly disturb me.  Counterculture movements need to rapidly evolve either by growing in popularly and influence, or they have to fade away quietly.  A radical idea worth caring about can't stay on the fringe indefinitely without seeping into the mainstream and becoming more palatable.  After a while it becomes a Pavlovian reaction to whatever is dominating the mainstream, as entrenched in the old ideas and attitudes as anything big business could dream up.  In the interview I linked to above, Svenonius has also recast punk as taking pride in one's local surroundings and drawing inspiration from it. In other words, something that automatically must evolve as the local population evolves, or else gets swallowed up by the forces that smooth out the differences between different areas within a city.

A national public broadcast then can't help but yuppify a genre like punk -- it broadcasts everywhere and is blind to differences in locale.  There's room in the market for punk music that's been drained of its raw emotion and sense of danger, and "real" punks shouldn't expect anything more of a station like NPR in that respect.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pitchfork Media sold!

Who saw this coming?

Many people have commented on the remarks by Fred Santarpia, Conde Nast's Chief Digital Officer, who noted that the acquisition of PFM brings "a very passionate audience of millenial males into our roster".  Meaning we should expect more coverage of hipster beardo indie bands, less coverage of niche genres, and less of an emphasis on female artists and contributions by female writers.

But isn't that an overreaction?  People have complaining about PFM's narrow scope practically since it was founded.  Then they attempted to branch out into non-indie genres and hired fantastic writers to makes those genres accessible to a non-specialist audience.  The results were not unlike record labels in the 70's supporting artists like Lou Reed or Patti Smith, not because they might break out and sell millions of records, but because they were "prestige" artists who brought an artistry and sophistication that to their roster that was different from what mainstream acts could offer.  Lou Reed would get dutifully reviewed in the NYT, giving some cultural cache to his label, but the real money was earned elsewhere.  And so it is with PFM.  The money is in attracting a devoted urban male readership who click on the news feed every day and listen to Destroyer.

I'll be interested to see how this affects the number and quality of long feature articles on PF.  Music journalism has been trending toward one paragraph review, soundbite links, and endless lists for well over a decade.  We'll soon see if PFM's new corporate overlords share that "vision".

Or maybe the whole thing is a slick way to sell more Vogue subscriptions to males ages 25-35.  Either way.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sterling Morrison after the VU

This is not a new story, but it's a welcome one.  Many VU-related articles contained contradictory information about Morrison's post-VU life, but this one seems to set the record straight.  No bombshells, no real surprises, just a charming mini-bio of a man who wanted to change his career path and quit being a semi-celebrity.

His academic career still raises a few questions.  Besides playing occasionally in Austin-area bar bands and holding court over a succession of beers in student bars, what exactly was Morrison doing for fifteen years?  Did he turn more to teaching once he started a family?  Besides financial reasons, why did he become slowly disillusioned with academia not unlike the way he had with rock and roll?  The story is familiar to grad students today, who still tend to take on larger and larger teaching loads to support themselves while finishing their theses, which leaves them with fewer hours for doing research, which brings them no closer to finishing their theses, so they keep taking on a high teaching load to continue to make a living, and so on.  Is this what happened with Morrison?

And somehow I never realized that Galaxie 500's "Tugboat" was written as a tribute to him, although it all seems so obvious now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

SPIN's 50 Best Fictional Songs of All Time

Just when you thought that every kind of list had been done to death, along comes someone with a relatively untapped idea for a new one.  The latest brilliant idea comes from SPIN, in the form of the greatest "fictional" songs ever.

Of course no reader is ever going to agree with all the choices and rankings on any list, but this list is more problematic than most in that regard.  I see a lot of pet favourites of the writing staff showing up here, in favour of more obvious choices that are more entrenched in pop culture.  However, credit goes to them for not falling into anti-modernity trap and choosing mostly songs that are 20+ years old, for picking from a variety of interesting sources (live action comedies, animated TV shows, mockumentaries, etc.), and for nearly sticking to a one song per "artist" rule (the only show with more than one pick on the list is "The Simpsons", unless you group the three Beatles rip-offs into one unit.  And three Beatles tributes/thieveries is at least one too many).

Some of their picks seem to run counter to their own rules, for instance the picks from "Hedwig and hte Angry Inch" and "The Producers" run counter to the "no musicals" rule in my book.  Now technically you could claim that they only excluded examples where "characters break into song outside of a performance context".  In other words, musical numbers where the characters shift from dialogue to song while standing in the street don't count, but put those same characters in a band or on a stage and they're in.  That's a seriously problematic dividing line, and even if you accept that logic then as noted by one commenter, "Time Warp" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show would be an inexcusable omission.

Putting aside my own favourites/biases ("The Wedding Singer", HIMYM, "This Is Spinal Tap"), the rankings should favour songs that could be played on the radio, or even are played on the radio, without coming off like novelty songs from a TV show or movie.  In other words, songs that transcend their source and have been accepted into the canon of "real" songs.  By that measure, the top two are solid picks.  You could argue that The Heights' "How Do You Talk To An Angel" should have been much higher, seeing as it went to #1 on the actual Billboard charts.  For anyone who wasn't around at the time, its extraordinary success was inexplicable then and it's still inexplicable now. It wasn't riding on the back of the popularity of a TV show (this explains "Do The Bartman" hitting #1) because the show wasn't even a hit and in fact would be cancelled very soon after the song hit #1.  It stayed at #1 for one flukey week and then sank from the charts like a stone, and has been more or less forgotten.  Plus, the song sucks, so I'm not going to complain that it couldn't crack the top 20 of this list.

If choosing between The Archies and the Wonders for #1, I personally would have chosen the undeniably classic "Sugar Sugar".  But you can make a very good argument for "That Thing You Do".  The movie is a fondly remembered minor classic, and the song hits exactly the right notes, and more importantly, is completely believable in its role as the perfect top ten hit for the time and place it's supposed to be capturing.  For all of the other songs on the list, the song adds a bonus element to the movie/episode that puts it over the top as something even more memorable.  But without the perfect song to represent "That Thing You Do", there simply is no movie at all.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 26

"He endangered the safety of the mix and the ambassador held no authority to forgive him", 58 minutes

Once in a while I play around with the idea of doing a beatmatched mix without actual beats, that is, mixing rhythmic parts and long intros/outros rather than stringing together one 4/4 track after another.  This mix contains plenty of weirdo rhythms, but also some proto-big beat, classic early 90's electronica, and a few just for the hell of it slamming techno beats.  I think this is one of my most unique mixes, and has quickly become of the favourites that I've done (judging by how much I've listened to it over the past couple of months).

Thursday, September 03, 2015

X-Factor Israel Season 2: now with MORE talent and a BETTER Bar! And less fixed than before!

The first season was something of a work in progress while they tried to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the glut of other music-themed reality shows.  One thing was clear -- whereas other shows tended to go with a simple, no-frills stage setup with the singer's voice front and centre, X-Factor wanted full-on MTV Awards glitz and glamour, with no bells and whistles spared.  Contestants were backed by flashy video backdrops, dance troupes, and elaborate stage props in every effort to have them come off as stars.  Songs in English with a clear emphasis on pop were not only tolerated, but encouraged.  Nevertheless, there were a number of problems in the first season, some of which I wrote about here

I still don't like the pacing of the season -- the taped audition and cutback episodes are endless, whereas the live episodes whittle twelve contestants down to four in the blink of an eye.  The judging has been devoid of genuine honesty and insightful criticism because presumably the judges don't want to insult each other's pet projects.  Criticism was doled out almost for variety's sake.  In one episode nobody could do anything wrong, and in the next episode everyone would get critcized despite nothing really changing.  Example: one week about Anna Timofei it's "you're voice is so operatic, it's incredible", the next week it's "you can sing, but does everything have to be an aria all the time?", and the week after that they're back to "you've combined opera with pop -- we love it!"  If there were twelve weeks of live episodes (like American Idol) then I can understand trying to create some uncertainty amongst the favourites, but we're less than a month into the live episodes now with only the final left.

The blatantly fixed vote trading that nearly made a joke out of last season's results is thankfully no more, but Almog Krief was predictably eliminated last night, mainly because there's an unwritten rule to have exactly one finalist for each judge.

The plusses: Bar Refaeli is miles better than last season.  She would woodenly read from the teleprompter, too focused on getting her lines right to let her genuine enthusiasm come through in any way that wasn't forced.   This season she sounds much more natural, and shows more personality than the judges do most of the time.

Best of all, there's some real talent this year!  I have no clue who will win and you could argue for three or four of the other top twelve acts to deserve a place in the finals.  But ultimately I think the voters and judges have gotten it right this year, with the best of each grouping taking their place in the finals.  The exceptions are the horrible Ido and Attara, but there were no good groups this year anyhow, so it's not as if they stole a spot from a clearly deserving group.  If a group had to make the final then what can you do.

Ido and Attara sing amazing love songs in the most bland and sterile way possible.  Their appeal seems to be based on their boy/girl next door squeaky clean looks and the way they permasmile at each other when they sing, take criticism from the judges, eat lunch with Moshe Peretz and his wife ... in short, this pair does nothing for me.  And for a show that constantly obsessed with pigeonholing its contestants into a well labeled category of contemporary Israeli or North American pop, how are these two supposed to sell records?  Are Kenny Rogers-style duets about to make a comeback and nobody told me?

Yossi Shitrit is a phenomenon, an effortlessly great performer, and the equivalent of the country-themed Idol contestant who "knows exactly who he is" from the very start of the competition and never wavers.  This happens a lot with the Mizrahi singers on these shows.  The pop singers are so much further removed from the source material, they're copies of copies of what they think an American singer should sound like, and so much gets lost in the translation.

With the exception of the amazing Danielle Yafe, that is.  If she doesn't win X Factor she can start a revue performing Madonna covers, she's already halfway there.  She also sings in perfectly enunciated English.  Flip between channels and you'd think her performances were straight off of an awards show.  She's the most underrated contestant this season -- sure, they tell her she's great, but they undersell how great she really is.

Finally, there's Anna Timofei, the wild card of the finals.  She's beautiful, has a unique voice that can make the lions lie down with the lambs, and sings well in several languages.  She's the only contestant that can stun me into silence, shocked that such a person actually makes it onto my television and can be successful.  Lastly, she's marketable, maybe not to kids, but there's obviously a market for opera mixed with pop (e.g. Andrea Bocelli).  That said, her Evanescence performance showed that her pop side still isn't completely convincing, and her uniqueness as a TV character may wear off when she's not on TV and wants to make a living in the music business.

Predictions?  I'll go with Yossi Shitrit, but any of the four could win and it wouldn't surprise me.   

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Omar Souleyman profile in the Guardian

I'm not sure why these types of articles bother me, but they do.

I like Omar Souleyman, but that's not the point of this post. This is about the way in which he's profiled in Western media.  These kinds of 750-1000 word mini-profiles are standard fare for non-music exclusive online and print media, but even within that relatively short word limit, there is plenty of space for digging into a musician's background and providing some meaningful analysis. But for this piece about Omar Souleyman (which is typical of the coverage he's been given since becoming a semi-known name in the English speaking world), it's amazing how little research goes into understanding the culture he comes from.

First, the article tap dances around the reasons for his success.  It's presented as a mystery still waiting to be solved -- his music is unlike anything else on US and UK pop radio, so why have people taken to it?  If you've never heard a Souleyman song, the article offers a description -- his music features "[a] dizzying use of ululating keyboards, pounding synthesized beats, and throaty vocals".  You might as well say that a certain techno artist's music features "looping, hypnotic beats, a club-rattling bassline, and a catchy electronic riff that belies the lack of vocals".  In other words, thousands of Middle Eastern musicians could fit that description, so it doesn't tell us very much at all.

We know why Western audiences have been paying attention to Souleyman's music.  Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) likes his music and has produced albums for Souleyman that have been released on Western music labels.  Souleyman has a few well-connected friends who have helped open doors for him.  That's what sets him apart from other Middle Eastern artists who don't have the same connections.  I've read countless articles about white rock bands that meticulously catalog their rise to prominence in the music industry in ways that are less than flattering -- in the right place at the right time when four A&R people happened to wander into one of their concerts hoping to check out a different band on the same bill, mentored by managers and producers with plenty of clout, etc. -- and searched for quality within their music as an afterthought.  With Souleyman the narrative gets flipped, the role of his well-connected collaborators are ignored, and a desperate search for greater meaning behind his popularity is halfheartedly begun but left unfinished lest people find (justifiable) reasons to doubt the entire premise.

Second, for an article about an artist from a troubled country, politically, there is absolutely no attempt to dig deeper into the artist's thoughts on the subject.  Half of the paragraphs mention the Syrian civil war and/or Souleyman's relationship with his home country. Don't get me wrong, I am not at all a fan of bringing political discussion into musician profiles.  But if you're going to devote so much attention to it in the article (and obviously Souleyman's career has been influenced by the situation in Syria), then why not ask Souleyman for his opinion on the matter?  Which side is he on?  Again, it shouldn't be relevant which side he's on, but it's impossible to imagine taking a "political" bent in an article about a Western (or Israeli) artist and not at least raising the issue.  Is Syrian politics off-limits in a way that Western (or Israeli) is not?

Third, every article on Souleyman makes reference to him as a "wedding singer" with hundreds of live albums to his credit.  The inference is that he has only recently crossed over to being a "proper" recording artist after decades performing in obscurity at weddings.  To a Western reader, a wedding singer is not a "real" artist (i.e. not a contemporary pop music singer), just like a "wedding DJ" isn't a real club DJ who tours the world and plays in top dance clubs.  Nobody would assume anything different without the proper context.  Another example -- in North American movies, hit songs from movies are songs contributed to the soundtrack by established artists, not songs that are sung by the actors themselves (exceptions such as the Grease soundtrack are rare).  This is not true for many movies made in India, for example.

The truth is that the natural sphere for a performer like Souleyman is the wedding circuit.  Appearances at weddings and other celebrations pay extremely well and are considered prestige gigs.  For a Western artist, once your songs get on the radio and you release an album, your days playing concerts at non-ticketed events are over.  That's not how it works in the Middle East -- even the biggest artists with their songs all over the radio will still hire themselves out for private parties (in addition to whatever solo gigs they might play).

Why does it matter?  The first two points can be hand-waved away via vague notions of adhering to "cultural sensitivity".  That's fine, but for the third point, cultural sensitivity suddenly becomes unimportant, and Souleyman is presented as somewhat who rose from wedding singer obscurity to performing for adoring ticket-buying customers at Western clubs and festivals.  That's the kind of narrative that Western readers can easily relate to, but it's not accurate and actually disrespects Souleyman, his culture, and his music.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

I haven't seen "Straight Outta Compton" yet, but there have been plenty of good articles about the film so far, and a fair number of strong criticisms about what got left out or glossed over.  Most notably, incidents involving women have been left out of the story completely, such as Dr. Dre's assault of Dee Barnes, and JJ Fad legitimizing Ruthless Records and giving them the credibility to release NWA records.  JJ Fad's "Supersonic" (the song and album) was legitimately huge, the album went gold, the group earned a Grammy nomination, their singles ruled the clubs, and I honestly have no idea how this kind of thing gets left out of the movie. 

Most Hollywood biopics get scorched by critics over what they leave out, or the liberties they take with the truth.  I usually accept this as part of the challenge of trying to bring a complicated subject to the big screen, and am understanding of the fact that not every great story necessarily makes for a great movie (without some embellishment or added scenes that likely never took place).  Again, I haven't yet seen the movie, but the always excellent Wesley Morris touches on many of the movie's weaknesses for Grantland.  The final paragraph stings, paraphrasing, the movie avoids showing the realities of the lives of the people it claims to be accurately portraying in favour of accentuating how rich and famous they all got.  That could apply to just about any Hollywood biopic.  The only thing that Hollywood likes more than movies about people who are success stories are movies about people who overcame serious obstacles to become success stories.  Anything that interferes with the telling of that basic narrative gets left out.  Even the biopics that end on a tragic note make sure to redeem their subjects by emphasizing that their legacy lived on far longer than they did, in which case anything that detracts from their ordeals is also quietly left out (I'm looking at you, "The Imitation Game"). 

NWA didn't invent "black reality", for instance, Public Enemy were superstars long before "Straight Outta Compton" and famously described their music as "black CNN".  The critical respect they garnered at the time was widespread even among white critics.  Hip hop already knew how to portray the reality of the streets in a way that would sell records, but NWA were selling something a bit different.  As Morris writes, "NWA didn't invent 'scary' as the black-male trope.  They perfected it".  That reality includes the misogyny and other stuff that seems to have been dropped from the movie.  A movie about black kids who grew up in a dangerous neighbourhood and became rich is a salable concept.  A movie about rappers who beat up women and made money off their reputation as such is not. 

Finally, there's a clear interest on the part of any filmaker to put on rose coloured glasses when taking on a project like this.  Movies like these get made to honour their subjects, not to show them up by dragging old skeletons out of the closet.  It should also be said that Dr. Dre is a billionaire who is one of the most powerful people in the music industry, and counts several other powerful heavyweights among his best friends and business partners.  Did we really expect anyone involved in this picture (who still plans on being involved in the music industry in any way) to insist on telling the whole truth? 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 25

"This hot streak has suddenly turned the MVP race into a two way mix", 74 minutes

Yet another mix for baking in the summer heat, but with a completely different feel from the previous podcast.  This was another one of those "dig out some old CD's and see what happens" mixes, and is mostly downtempo but with a moody, tension-filled edge to it.  The slower parts aren't strictly ambient either, as you might expect from previous mixes.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A brief history of the featured rapper in pop music

In all seriousness, I've been waiting for someone to write this article for about fifteen years.  I had assumed that the trend had its roots in hip-hop and had later spread to pop music in general. However, Molanphy's analysis shows that it was more likely that pop hitmakers wanted to hybridize the then-popular styles of R&B and dance, while siphoning off hip-hop's cred in the process.  Early 90's producers racked up the hits and helped rap become more palatable to mainstream listeners, and in the long run everybody won.

At some point in the early to mid 90's, the guest spot went from a rare occurrence (and one that often required a careful reading of the liner notes to uncover) to a requirement, particularly in hip-hop.  I've heard that attributed to LL Cool J ("Mr Smith" was his turn away from rap and towards R&B and was full of guest spots), or the massive success of "Gangstas Paradise" by Coolio featuring L.V., or any one of a handful of other candidates.  Featured raps were prevalent in the G-Funk scene -- Snoop Dogg's career was famously jumpstarted by his verses on "Ain't Nothin But a G Thang" -- but the scene was too insular, with the same crew guesting on each others records, in the spirit of Molanphy's claims, their influence didn't cross genre lines, that is, unless you want to claim an indirect influence when Dr. Dre branched out and worked with other artists (e.g. Blackstreet).  Molanphy does a great job of tracing out the history of the trend, finding clear answers to all the "hows" but the "whys" are still lacking.  Did musicians suddenly become more democratic?  When Mick Jagger or John Lennon would sing background vocals for their friends, they hardly needed the publicity.  Was the "featured" spot looked upon as a way to break a new artist in a relatively low pressure setting?  In other words, the lead artists' name value would have to carry the record, but the featured artist could still break through if the record was a success.  That might have been the case twenty years ago, but you could argue that the pressure is now shared equally because featured spots are now so prevalent.

Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" comes across as the unsung hero of the piece.  Melle Mel didn't get a "featuring" credit, but his rap is the most iconic and most imitated part of the song.  Previous collaborations blended backing vocals into an existing song, or gave the songwriter/producer a featured space to put their stamp on a record that was theirs to begin with.  The rap on "I Feel For You" brought a completely new element to a Chaka Khan song, and even overshadowed her while paradoxically cementing the song as a hit (as well as Chaka's big comeback).  The song was written and recorded by Prince, and covered in previous years by other acts, but it's Chaka Khan and Melle Mel's version that everyone remembers.  As with other songs that were covered multiple times but eventually owned by one particular artist (Aretha Franklin's "Respect" is a more well-known example), this version had a certain it factor that the others didn't.

Unsurprisingly, Eurodance gets somewhat overlooked in the article, as is usually the case with modern day critical reappraisals of 90's music.  Dozens of Eurodance records featured verses by unsung rappers who never received their proper credit, or vocal hooks by singers who were replaced by models in the videos.  Molanphy discusses C+C Music Factory and Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations", but there are countless other examples that are waiting to be thoroughly unpacked in an article like this.  It's a difficult task mainly because of the maze of labels/remixes/re-recordings involved.  The labels wouldn't bother to clear samples, the song would be re-released with new vocalists who also weren't properly credited (and were dis-invited to the video shoots and occasional live performances).

I could swear that there was a version of Snap!'s "The Power" credited to Snap featuring Chill Rob G, but I can't find any evidence of that now.  The original version featured his rap over the same backing track that was on the megahit version.  "Featured" is too strong a word -- Snap!'s svengali producers lifted the rap word for word from one of his songs -- and later rerecorded it with new verses (keeping only the "it's getting kinda hectic" line) and a different rapper (who also never got the proper credit), in order to avoid getting sued into tiny bits.  The new version was an even bigger smash, and a transcontinental one at that.  I thought that eventually something was worked out and the Chill Rob G version was rereleased as a type of remix to go along with the more famous version, but I seem to have been wrong about that.  Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" was credited to Technotronic featuring Felly and was a huge smash, which would appear to predate all of Molanphy's early 90's  examples.  But of course all the vocals were by Ya Kid K and Felly was only the model they put in the video.  It's also not like they were hiding Ya Kid K completely, like C+C Music Factory did with Martha Wash.  She was duly credited on other singles.  To make things more confusing, the album track "Move This" was featured in a Revlon ad campaign for years (this may have only been in Canada and not worldwide), and if you were alive between 1992 and 1995 you will remember being bombarded by it constantly.  It was remixed from the three year old album version, rereleased to capitalize on its newfound popularity, and retroactively credited to Technotronic featuring Ya Kid K.  Why the sudden change?  Why did the song "feature" a singer who was already a regular collaborator for Technotronic?  I'm not sure.

If you've read this far and still not clicked on Molanphy's article, do it now.  His pop chart analyses are consistently some of the best music writing around.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 24

"A luxurious stone exterior according to the choice of mix" -- 114 minutes

It's a baking hot summer and you just want to chill out.  Or do you want to dance and sweat?  With this mix, you can do both!

The ambient parts fit safely into my comfort zone, but the dancier parts aren't typical of my other mixes.  I stayed away from moody techno and tried for something approaching the sound of bouncy fun.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

33 1/3: Daphne Carr, "Pretty Hate Machine"

This was easily my favourite of the handful of books in the 33 1/3 that I've read.  Much like a number of recent books in the series, it's ostensibly about the titular album although it contains almost no information about the making of the album and no new interviews from any of the principals involved.  It's about Trent Reznor's role in shaping 90's alternative and mall culture, why his fans are driven to obsession over his music and lyrics, and the Rust Belt towns that serve both as a backdrop to Reznor's upbringing and to characterize the frustration and despair felt by so many of the people who grew up with his music.  It was a difficult book to put down, although I frequently had to in order to revisit my own memories or look up further information about the decline of the once mighty northern US manufacturing sector.

Most of the book consists of testimonials with NIN fans, assembled via a series of interviews with people Carr encountered on message boards and friends of friends who still live near to where she grew up in Ohio.  The oral history genre is in good hands as long as Carr is holding the reigns.  She collected a motley crew of nobodies with fascinating stories to tell, all of them.  Each of them live in the Mercer to Cleveland corridor where Reznor grew up and got his start.  She features people from broken homes, lapsed fans, young professionals, dreamers who still hope of escaping their dreary communities, and those who have given up and have accepted the reality of spending the rest of their lives in unglamorous small town Ohio.

Their stories elicit sympathy, pride, and pity, sometimes all at once.  There are bad endings and happy endings.  But their transcend class structure and international boundaries -- their voices are familiar to any formerly teenage NIN fan.  I'm not used to reading about NIN in the same way you'd read about idol worship of 60's and 70's music stars from the generation before mine.  People my age easily bought into the mythology of the Beatles and the Stones, even if you weren't a huge fan, you still got it, you understood why people drank the Kool-Aid.   The spectre of NIN as a hero of the black clad suburban teen of the 90's looms large amongst the kids even further removed from the classic rock era.

I was surprised at the praise heaped on "The Fragile".  Many of the subject didn't start listening to NIN until later in the 90's, they were too young to absorb "Pretty Hate Machine" when it was first released.  They became obsessed during the long layoff between "The Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile", and the latter was the first NIN album they got to experience firsthand.  By the time of "The Fragile", my fandom had run its course, I was sick of the horrible Reznor clones he had inspired and couldn't stand Marilyn Manson or the wave of industrial-rock and horrible nu-metal that had sprung up to carry the torch that Reznor had dropped.  I viewed "The Fragile" as the last straw, an act of misguided indulgence by a millionaire drug addict whose forced anger and rage seemed like a quaint relic of what had once been real feelings expressed by a real person.  Interestingly, many fans who were ten years younger than me saw it as his masterpiece, "The Wall" for the 90's generation.

"Pretty Hate Machine" came along at the perfect time.  Rock stars could still celebrate being rich and famous and untouchable in the 80's.  Duran Duran (who were awesome, this is not a knock on them) would make the most glamorous videos imaginable and people lapped it up throughout the Me decade -- yes, yes, more yachts, more beaches, more beautiful models, what's what we want from our musical heroes, that's how they should behave.  PHM came along at a time when a critical mass of young fans wanted to listen to music that better represented what was happening in their own lives.  For the most part there was no internet, no social media.  We obsessed over NIN by listening to the albums countless times, fandom was spoken about in hushed tones among trusted confidants in high school lest the greater populace accused you of being a disturbed freak.  Reznor was untouchable in a different way because he seemed like one of us, and yet besides the lyrics and the occasional fantastical rumour (did you hear he's recording an album in the Sharon Tate murder house??), information was scarce and a cult of personality developed to fill the void.  Celebrities now are almost too real, they tweet their lives in real time, and appear on countless TV award and reality shows.  Social media has sold people on the illusion of getting closer to their idols than any generation ever had before. It's become cool to tweet bikini body pictures from luxurious beaches and to flaunt one's wealth wherever possible.  Envy subsides at the relatively low price of giving fans a bit more access.  It's cool once again to be a rich music star.

That's what makes the second act of Reznor's career so interesting.  Carr explicitly calls for someone to write a comprehensive biography about his post-2004 body of work multiple times in her book.  He's gone from being a junkie that time forgot (c. 2003, rock had vanished from the top of the pop charts and NIN couldn't have been any less relevant) to having a successful comeback with NIN, a pioneer of marketing music over the internet, an Oscar-winning composer, and a key player for Beats and Apple Music.  He seamlessly became one of the rich, beautiful people and I for one am still not sure how exactly it happened.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Beach House, "Depression Cherry"

Beach House's new single "Sparks" started streaming this week and when I heard it my jaw nearly hit the floor.  Between "Teen Dream" and "Bloom" they'd become a band with a more fully realized, complete sound, moving away from the concept of a duo playing sparse dream pop in their living room and becoming a weightier, Cocteaus-inspired full band.  And now, with "Sparks", it seems they'd done it again, adding MBV's head-swirling walls of feedback to add even more awesomeness to a sonic palate that somehow hadn't yet topped out on its awesomeness.  

But the full album isn't "Sparks Parts I-IX", and that's undoubtedly a good thing, because no band wants to be tarred with an MBV-lite brush.  "Depression Cherry" is a return to the more subdued, inward-looking sound of "Teen Dream", a succession of blissful lullabies recorded with a more expensive bag of production tricks.  I've been listening to "Teen Dream" a lot lately, and I'm more than happy to get a more grown-up sounding sequel.  The more upbeat and commercial sounding "Bloom" has been bypassed almost completely.

The opener, "Levitation", is a slow burning ballad that builds via gentle repetition like a "Playing With Fire"-era Spacemen 3 track.  Whereas "Myth" set the tone for "Bloom" and clearly indicated that the album was going to be something they'd never attempted before, "Levitation" also gives notice that its time to get tucked in and concentrate on the upcoming forty minutes of dream pop minimalism.

"Space Song" is a likely future single, with its insistent rhythms, simple but catchy ascending scale keyboard riff, and wailing guitar solos.  The album then hits a more downtempo middle section, much like "Teen Dream" did, but there will be no room-filling "10 Mile Stereo" acceleration to the finish here.  "Days of Candy" leads off with a choir and spends several minutes gathering its strength for the swampy, candlelit finish.  It's like "Irene" ("Bloom"'s closing track) played at half speed, with all its muscle and arrogance stripped away, leaving only winsome apologies in its place.

"Depression Cherry" is said to be a reaction to the band's increase in popularity, a return to their simpler roots.  That's clearly true even from the most cursory first listen.   But it also sounds almost nothing like their early albums.  "Depression Cherry" might be their most studio-centric album, taking them closer to the Cocteaus' form of precision-refined studio wizardry where reproducing that sound in concert becomes ever more difficult.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 23

"If you're in the mood to hear mixes available only in heaven" - 132 minutes

The first Shesek tribute was so much fun, I decided to do a sequel.

Things didn't go according to plan, as usual.  The sequel turned out to be a rather different animal.  Instead of scuzzy rock with a few dance elements, it became a tribute to the dance music I listened to circa 1990.  The last mix captured the mood of the bar (at least as I remember it) more accurately, but this mix is a hell of a lot more fun.  Old school tunes rub shoulders with newer tracks from the likes of Efdemin and Radio Slave, with some mid-90's Tresor thrown in the middle, and a zonked-out ambient/noise finish.

Monday, June 22, 2015

NEU!, "NEU! 4"; Brandon Flowers, "The Desired Effect"

Hardly anybody ever talks about this album (including the surviving core member of Neu, Michael Rother, who disowned it when it was released without his permission) and even fewer have bothered to listen to it.  Until a few weeks ago I was one of the large majority of Neu fans who had never heard it.   And on the surface, why bother tainting one's impression of the band and their timeless mid-70's album trilogy by subjecting oneself to a dour stuck-in-the-80's palette of spotlessly clean production, horribly dated synthetic slap bass sounds, and sterile guitars mixed so blandly as to contain not a grain of the excitement and danger of rock and roll?

I hate to be that guy, but "Neu! 4" is great, perhaps even the equal of any of the first three Neu albums, all of which are patchy anyhow and tend to be dominated by their standout tracks.  As fine as the non-"Hallogallo" tracks are, the first album can't help but be "Hallogallo" plus non-"Hallogallo" support.  That's the narrative of the first album, and my opinion hasn't changed from the first time I heard it some twenty years ago, right up until the present.

One might counter with the assertion that "Neu! 4" has only two tracks on it, "Schoene Welle", "Good Life", and several variations on both.  One could also say the same about "Neu! 2".  But whereas "Neu! 2" was little more than the original tracks played at different speeds in order to fill out the second side of the album, "Neu! 4" twists a few basic melodies into fascinating variations.  "Wave Naturelle" re-imagines "Schoene Welle" as a mid-tempo ballad in the style of U2's, "With Or Without You", actually predating the mood of the Lanois/Eno transformation of U2 by a year. "Quick Wave Machinelle" cranks up the soaring, glittery synths and with its propulsive, insistent beat, gradually blossoms into a cheerier version of Joy Division's "Isolation".  "Crazy" is "Good Life" by Neu by way of the Feelies, a fascinating combination that is sadly not explored further on this album.  Elsewhere, "Nationale" and "Fly Dutch II" are a couple of wonderfully moody ambient pieces that could have fit comfortably onto any Neu album.   It's only with "Danzing" and "La Bomba" that the album strays into more pedestrian dance funk mode and kowtows to 80's trends that now come off as dated.

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I admit to being skeptical that a Brandon Flowers solo album had any reason to exist.  I assumed it would be a Killers album in all but its name, much like his first solo record.  But how wrong I was ... far from coming off as a lesser version of the Killers' anthemic brand of rock, this is Flowers' love letter to a side of the 80's that most artists haven't bothered ripping off.  Whereas most 80's throwbacks are about Duran Duran's sense of glamour (and their spidery basslines) and synths shaped like guitars, Flowers' heroes are Don Henley circa "Boys of Summer", Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and Huey Lewis and the News.  With "I Can Change", he even managed to pull off the best of the 58923 "Smalltown Boy" sample/homages I've yet heard.  It may never reach the dizzying heights of the Killers' best songs, but it's a consistently great effort that manages to be cool by daring to be uncool.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

One more time with feeling: thoughts on Mogwai at 20

This article is generating some interesting discussion, where its detractors are accusing the author of backhandedly flinging mud at the band when it's supposed to be an article that celebrates their longevity, while the people who don't care/stopped caring about Mogwai a decade ago don't get the fuss because Pitchfork has long since locked the band into the critical friend zone where their albums seem to merit a steady stream of 7.1's regardless of quality or level of praise in the review.

For me, the problem boils down to the following two points:

1) I find it somewhat disingenuous on the part of PF to accuse Mogwai of stubbornly sticking to an unpopular genre when they are the type of website that can have an impact on which microscenes get popular and stay popular.  They're not a small site that can do nothing but sit back and churn out clickbait about some massively popular cultural phenomenon as it evolves in a manner too complex to be controlled by anyone.  Music genres can be cool if PF says they are cool.

2) Twenty years of cultural relevance is an unrealistic goal for any band.  No band can be at the vanguard of a chic genre for that amount of time -- neither the band or the genre will retain its pedigree over such a long period of time.  By the early 80's, the Rolling Stones were well past their culturally relevant peak, and even the most diehard classic rock fans wouldn't say they were still making their most impactful music.  It's simply not a standard that any band can be held to.

In techno, I'm reminded of techno acts like Adam X (and his various monikers) or Chris Liebing, who stuck with hard techno during the years that it was cruelly unpopular, only to come out the other side and get hailed as saviours again when everything came full circle and that style became popular again.  Some might say they were being stubborn by not changing with the times when everyone and their brother went minimal or electro or schaffel.  But the glass half full viewpoint would say they were dedicated to their craft and wouldn't compromise.  That would be a far more interesting angle for an article about 20 years of Mogwai.  Unfortunately, in most rock-based criticism, the writers are too locked into a simple model where a band is lumped into a scene with a bunch of other like-minded bands for easy classification purposes, and loses their relevance when that scene is no longer the hot new thing.  At that point, their window of opportunity for making canonical records has passed so they are rarely spoken of again, except by die hard fans who are anyway too distracted by their own homerism to be taken too seriously.