Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jay-Z and Tidal

As noted by Billboard, Jay-Z doesn't do a lot of interviews.  But here he speaks at length almost exclusively about his new venture into the music streaming business. 

He has a clear vision for his Tidal streaming service and articulates his goals well.  After reading the interview I looked for reactions to his announcements in the MSM and was surprised (well, not really) to see how many people managed to miss the point completely.  The reactions were almost entirely along the lines of "Jay-Z wants rich music artists to get richer" while willfully ignoring everything he said about spreading the wealth to ensure that everyone involved in the creative process (including writers and producers) and the special features (video, high end audio) that promise to differentiate it from other services.  Not to mention that nearly all of the "rich artists" getting called out made most of their money in the era when CD's were overpriced and the single had been killed off.  What about the artists who weren't born in time to sell millions of albums in that brief era when it cost $20 to essentially purchase a single song? And most tellingly, none of the so-called criticism addresses the core question of fair compensation for artists as a percentage of the total music sales pie.  Nobody's arguing that some artists don't make a lot of money, but in over one hundred years of recorded music history, there still isn't general agreement about payment structure, so what's wrong with entertaining new ideas?  Especially since most people will agree, if indeed they can agree on anything, that for most if not all of those one hundred years, artists have been getting the short end of the stick at best, and getting royally screwed over at worst. 

Jay-Z notes that music has become a common utility that is taken for granted, which has degraded its value.  People expect to hear anything they want for free on Youtube, and are therefore less likely to see music as something worth shelling out money for.  People will pay six dollars for a bottle of water when they can drink water from the kitchen sink for virtually no charge.  However, there's a niche quality to food and drink that defies easy comparison with music and other commodities. 
There's a market for high-end streaming services in the same way there's a market for gourmet food.  The difference is in how these products are purchased and consumed, namely with respect to convenience.  Mega-markets coexist with high end food shops and often cater to different audiences.  People will gladly drive out of their way to stop at their favourite niche shop or restaurant instead of settling for whatever happens to be closer by.   Eating in a fancy restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere is part of the perceived value that justifies the cost.  Even the six dollar bottle of water is justified if you're drinking it in a good restaurant or club, the cost becomes part of the overall experience of the night out.  In contrast, I haven't seen any evidence that an overwhelming majority of people want anything other than the utmost convenience when it comes to online music streaming and purchases.  For this reason everything tends to gather under a very small number of huge, online umbrellas (Amazon, Spotify, iTunes).  It's not just that the perceived value of the music has decreased, but that the experience of purchasing music has been devalued to almost nothing.  The listening experience has been devalued too.  Once upon a time you had to take the music home in order to hear it.  Now you can conjure it up from wherever you are on a variety of electronic devices.  Supermarkets are everywhere, but you can't press a button and have a sandwich materialize in front of your face in an instant. 

I'm not complaining about these technological advances, but they strongly contribute to the decrease in the value of music and make it exceedingly difficult for new services like Tidal to succeed.   

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress"

Godspeed's newest album is streaming now on The Guardian's website.

Whoever wrote the brief accompanying article did a terrible job of introducing the record.  Their last album clocked in at a hair over fifty minutes, so I'm not sure where they're getting "Godspeed's first single album since forever" from this. 

I also don't see how chopping off ten minutes in running time compared to "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" leads to a "more focused" version of the band.  The album flows together almost like one, epic piece, it could have just as easily been sequenced as a single, forty minute track.  The run time of the complete album is misleading, this is as loose and drone-y as Godspeed have ever been, either live or on record.  

They played most of this material on their last tour.  For me it was a welcome change for them to start a show with fifteen minutes of droning and focus thereafter on new and as yet unrecorded material.  GYBE are the last band you'd expect to come back after several years hiatus and settle for playing their "hits".  But as brilliant as their swarms of droning guitars can sound when they're trying to zone out and bliss out, their eventual crescendos are missing something significant.  They've become much better at writing the middle of their epic pieces than the beginnings and endings.  The full-on band performances that bookend this album don't gradually introduce a theme or reach a destination.  They churn forward incessantly, as each band member tries to outdo the other in a slow burning competition to pile on as much noise as possible.  The middle two tracks are quieter, but surprisingly more intense.  This version of GYBE are at their best when they let their songs breathe before they regroup for the big finish.  It never used to be that way.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Manic Street Preachers, "The Holy Bible"

Is there a more fascinating album to revisit on its 20/25/30 year anniversary than this one?

After the relatively polished "Gold Against the Soul", the Manics could have headed further down the radio-friendly route.  Instead they delivered this caustic album of bludgeoning hard rock, with some of the most biting and cynical set of lyrics ever featured on an ostensibly "mainstream" 90's British release.

Teenage angst paid off well in the early 90's, to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, and by '94 there was nothing particularly dangerous or threatening about grunge anymore.  It was a commercially successful form of music just like all the others, if you weren't a depressed freak then it wasn't so hard to write some lyrics to seem as though you were.  A decade later you could say the same about any number of emo bands.  True, genuine, deeply hidden feelings were all over the decade's most popular music, but none of it was actually a true, genuine glimpse into the souls of the people writing it.  It was all for good show, not much more than a popular subject to write about in your songs.

There was nothing even remotely amusing about the lyrics on "The Holy Bible".  It didn't make darkness or depression feel like something you'd wear like a badge of honour on your livejournal (if they existed then).  The guy who wrote these lyrics wasn't trying to capitalize on trends or tap into the suburban youth market. He was living in the shit.  He was haunted every day by the kinds of things he wrote about in this songs.

Richey James, the principal lyricist for the MSP, disappeared on the day he was to leave for an American press tour to promote this album.  To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. There's nothing romantic about anything in this story, it's not cool to be a tortured, sensitive artist and to commit suicide because you can't handle the perceived evils of the world.  But it happened, and he left behind an amazing piece of art that's still confounding listeners even twenty years later.  The overtly pessimistic political outlook manages to sound closer to something released in the present day than something from the relatively sunny 1990's.  The uncomfortably personal "4st7lb" is about as real as lyrics get, equal parts horrifying and educational (kids, this is what NOT to do, and I think Richey saw it that way too).

And now, this interview with James Dean Bradfield has emerged on The Quietus, almost like something recovered out of a time capsule.  Ned Raggett was one of the very few journalists to interview him in the very short time between his arrival in the USA and his return to the UK following news of Richey James' disappearance.  Raggett managed to dig deep into the essence of the album despite having only received it about a half hour before the start of the interview.  

Much of the interview focuses on the meaning of the lyrics, and how the lyrics and music mesh together.  Even today, "The Holy Bible" is the most unlyrically lyrical album I've ever heard.  On the printed page, it's nearly impossible to imagine the words as the lyrics to songs -- there's no clear cadence or rhythm to them and you can't separate the verses from the bridges and choruses.  They read like freeform rantings on a page, but then you hear the songs and the words flow so naturally throughout.  It's a tribute to how carefully the band assembled their songs, and Bradfield explains it in detail in this interview.  He'd only start writing the music once he had the lyrics in hand, which makes sense because shoehorning any of "The Holy Bible"'s lyrics into a pre-prepared chorus you'd written on the guitar in your bedroom the month before seems well on impossible.

Bradfield gives a thoughtful, intelligent interview.  The Manics were always refining their image in print and on stage, and the meaning behind their lyrics was a crucial part of that.  They always struck me as a band that spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about exactly who they were and why they were doing what they were doing.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Bjork, "Vulnicura"

I haven't heard a Bjork album in full since "Homogenic", which I found underwhelming despite the potential of a collaboration with producer Mark Bell.  Eighteen years later, the news of an Arca/Haxan Cloak guest producer tandem was finally enough to pique my interest again.  

That might seem to put me in a category with the people who are short-changing Bjork by making "Vulnicura" about her producers rather than about her, and thereby refusing to give her the proper credit for her music.  A lot has been written about this, and I don't think either side has got it completely right.  Arca and Haxan Cloak are a significant part of the story that is "Vulnicura", and I give Bjork all the credit in the world for bringing them onto the project.  This is in no way a backhanded comment.  It's like giving credit to a DJ for having good taste in music.   Track selection (i.e. knowing which tracks will sound good together, building a set list, having a feel for what the crowd wants) is by far the most important skill for a DJ, even though it's the more technical aspects of DJ'ing (e.g. beatmatching, use of effects) that often get most of the attention.  Choosing a producer is more than just finding a hot hand, it's about meshing of two conceivably different mindsets.  The difference between a successful meeting of minds and a stylistically ugly clash in styles comes down to the artists' instincts about what is likely to work and what won't.

The actual music makes a lot of this discussion moot anyway.  The album is dominated by the string arrangements (composed entirely by Bjork) and of course her singular voice.  The electronic flourishes are the undercurrent to the main melodies -- they enhance the music but aren't central to the plot of the album.  I could easily imagine a strings and voice only version of the same album.  However, the dark, murky sound of The Haxan Cloak is all over "Family", the lone track he co-produced.  The only superfluous guest contribution is Antony Hegarty as the guest vocalist on "Atom Dance".  His parts feel imported from a completely different album and forced onto this one.  Otherwise this is a fairly minimalist album that sticks faithfully to a simple aesthetic.  I would have wanted to hear more electronic experimentation along with Bjork's breakup hymns set to modern classical music, but longtime fans of hers may not agree.