Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two amazing pieces of research

Writing for Scientific American, Jen Christiansen has solved the 35-year old mystery about the origins of the Joy Division "Unknown Pleasures" cover.  We know it depicts radio signals from a pulsar, and her story links to an interview with designer Peter Saville where he talks about the source for the image (an astronomy encyclopedia) and the mythology that has been built around the image.  Christiansen went even further and tracked down the source publication for the image and interviewed the then-Ph.D. student who actually made the plot. As you might have guessed, he had no idea that he'd inadvertently created the cover art for a legendary album.  Equal parts scientific and music history, this story goes far beyond a simple SciAm blog entry, it's one of the best pieces of music journalism you'll read this year.


I'm hardly an audiophile, but I've always been fascinated by the differences in sound quality and tone between different formats (vinyl vs CD, CD vs mp3, etc.).  It's no surprise that I was all over this essay by Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate at the Virginia Center for Computer Music (hat tip to RA's news feed).  Using Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" as source material, he experiments with the original and compressed files, but rather than focus on the sound quality of the mp3, he extracts the sounds that are discarded from the original during the compression process.  The detritus that is left behind consists of ghostly remnants that contain easily recognizable parts of the original song.  As he notes, you don't have to be an audiophile snob to hear the valuable sonic information that gets thrown away.  Most of Maguire's experiments are done with relatively low quality (128 kbps) files, because that's what the mp3's creators were using as their reference when they refined their algorithms.

The purpose of his work isn't to rail against the decline of listening standards.  Instead, he sees this work as a form of cultural criticism.  A sculptor who makes art out of garbage or recycled items might have similar motivations, creating their art in order to critique the wastefulness of modern western societies.  He even uses the "ghost recordings" as a basis for sound reconstruction, for example, by playing them back in a virtual "diner" and commenting on the new textures that emerge.  Alvin Lucier ("I Am Sitting In a Room") would be proud.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Popmatters -- The Greatest Hits from the Greatest Hits Albums

This article is a couple of weeks old, but I had to make note of it here because it's the most interesting idea for a list I've seen in forever.  Considering that 95% of entertainment-related media is made up of lists, it's rare to see a list that to my knowledge has never been done before, even in a vaguely related form. 

Honourable mention could have gone to Gordon Lightfoot for re-recording half of his greatest hits for "Gord's Gold".  The re-recorded versions are now by far the most well-known versions, although technically they don't qualify for the list because they weren't new songs.  Unless you count "I'm Not Sayin'/Ribbon of Darkness" and "For Lovin' Me/Did She Mention My Name" as new songs in their joined forms. 

I can't remember why Tupac sampling Bruce Hornsby and the Range wasn't a bigger deal ... or maybe it was?  Thugs belting out the chorus to an 80's MOR hit?  Did Puffy completely steal his thunder the year before with "I'll Be Missing You"?

It makes sense that Lenny Kravitz and Madonna would show up here because, as noted in the text, their music is best represented by their singles, even though they worked in album-dominated eras.   It's especially surprising in the case of Kravitz, who released his best known material in the 90's when the CD album was just about the only music format available. 

The list loses me at #2 and #3.  Neither song really ranks among the best of Tom Petty or Depeche Mode.  Janet's "Runaway" is a reasonable choice for #1, but I don't think it stands out from her other singles in the same way that "Lady" does for Kenny Rogers, or "Again" does for Lenny Kravitz.  I would have ranked those two at the top in some order, although you could make a good case for "Raise Your Glass" too.  #4 would have to be "Justify My Love" -- it's not Madonna's standout song (although up until the "Evita" era it basically defined her 90's sound and image) but it's a personal favourite.  

Friday, February 06, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 21

"Technological advances in producing the isolated mix have facilitated real time experiments", 104 minutes

It has been a while since the last mix I posted here.  Much like the last mix, I have been sitting on this one for a few months (since August) wondering what exactly to do with it.

At the time I had bought a bunch of discounted CD, decided to take tracks I'd barely heard from those discs, and use them as the basis of a mix.  It was not the first time I'd done this, or the first time I'd made a mix with the intent of revisiting some old music that I hadn't heard in a while.  It's difficult because inevitably you have to give airtime to tracks that don't have much of a place in the flow of the mix.

I was high on the individual tracks I chose for this mix but not on the journey you had to endure in order to hear them all.  This mix got shunted to the side, until now, when I finally decided to do the mastering for it.

It's better than I remembered.  Then again, it's been a while since I've heard most of these tracks.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Aphex Twin Soundcloud filedump

In a recent interview for Grooves magazine, Aphex Twin answered 25 questions posed by 25 top DJ's and producers.  Some questions were thoughtful and introspective to the totally ridiculous ("Does it suck to be you?" ... thanks for playing, James Holden) but all were entertaining.  His answers were refreshingly honest, a rare glimpse behind the curtain into the mind of a notorious recluse, a master of deception, and an expert at using his notoriety to fuel his own myth.

But after reading the interview, it took me a while to realize that he hadn't revealed very much at all.  He'd managed to avoid any mention of exactly what he'd been doing for the past thirteen years and why he hadn't felt the need to release much music.   It's nice to know that he's still motivated and keeping busy with recording, but ... what does that mean precisely?

However, he repeatedly mentioned closing new chapters and moving onto new ones, and also dropped hints about listening and compiling which could possibly lead to putting out a lot of new stuff ...

Well, this week I've been making my way through more than one hundred "new" Aphex Twin tracks that he semi-anonymously uploaded to a Soundcloud account.  The news sent the internet into a frenzy.  We've been hearing rumours about dozens of albums of unreleased Aphex music for the past twenty years ... so why would they start appearing now?  At first, most people concluded that the tracks had to be fakes, albeit really high quality ones.  Except that they kept piling up and piling up and who would possibly invest this much time in trying to copy Aphex Twin's style?  New tracks were being uploaded in bunches, and people were finding it hard to stay up to date.  Eventually I found a 102-track download and stopped worrying about being a completist (the final total was 110 tracks).  On the day I'd finally finished listening to ten new albums worth of material, he uploaded another thirty tracks (and later that day another ten) and nobody has any idea when it might stop or even why he's doing it.  And again, why now?  Is this what closing a chapter means?

Arranged chronologically, the first hundred or so tracks tell a story ranging from the more rave-y side of the SAW I era to the late 90's drill n bass era.  You can hear him experimenting with tracks that are a lot like "Quoth" but not really like "Quoth", tracks that could have been on SAW I but not really because they're too rave-y, several tracks that sound like burbly acid house remixes of the stuff he actually released, sublime seven or eight minute tracks that he likely rejected because they were too long or not poppy enough or whatever, a couple of chill out numbers (but nothing that really would have fit onto SAW II ... which means there must be loads of unreleased isolationist ambient still lurking in his archives, right?), a couple of weird voice experiments, and plenty of other odds and sods, and nearly ALL of it is really fucking good and flows together well like one of the best box sets of unreleased rarities you'll ever hear, and did I mention that he's STILL putting this stuff out and nobody has any idea if there's any end to it in sight??

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Low @ Barby Club (Jan. 26)

The opening act whose name I didn't catch performed a mesmerizing one man solo act of tortured country blues, which hit upon exactly the right formula for setting the mood for Low.  I heard a name like "Sam Taylor" which is unfortunately un-Googleable (as is "Low").  Make no mistake, this was a crowd of dedicated fans who came out in full force to see Low, packing the Barby fuller than I'd seen it in a long time. 

Much like their last visit in the fall of '08, Low went long.  Not 2.5 hours long like they had previously, but close to two hours, spanning two encores and some twenty songs spanning just about their entire career.  Low have reached the point in their career where you can pencil in each new album for a middling 6.5-7.0/10 from all the usual review sites, but they can still make an impact by playing these kinds of gigs to a healthy group of fans for as long as they want to.  Their most recent album, "The Invisible Way" was their most muscular effort since my personal favourite "The Great Destroyer", and anyone who dismisses Low as one trick ponies either live or in the studio hasn't been paying close enough attention.

Their set featured two songs from their debut that I'd been dying to hear live for ages, "Words" and "Lullaby", the latter being particularly rare in their live sets.  They also played "Things We Lost In the Fire"'s arguably most sublime moment, "Laser Beam", and several songs from "The Invisible Way" that simply slay live, most notably "On My Own".  But Low have reached a point where they have ten albums worth of material to pick from, and songs that they can conceivably play in just about any order. The mood is the star, not any particular song or past single that they may or may not get around to playing.  It never comes as a surprise, but Low delivered their signature sound and mood in spades.