Saturday, May 16, 2015

The End of Idol

This is being treated like a big deal and deservedly so.  "American Idol" is arguably the most successful show in the history of television.  It was #1 in the ratings for seven straight years, a record.  It won in its timeslot for over five consecutive years, a streak that was finally broken by a nightly broadcast of the 2010 Winter Olympics.  It wouldn't be knocked out of the catbird seat in its time slot by a regularly scheduled show until "Big Bang Theory" managed the feat the year after.  No other reality show can come close to this record of success, and few scripted shows can come close in terms of viewership and cultural impact.

And that's just the purely TV aspect of it.  "Idol" launched probably two dozen genuinely notable music careers (and Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning acting career).  Not "notable" as in, one or two minor radio hits either, but actual superstardom by anyone's definition.  Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry were the biggest selling album artists in all of music in separate calendar years.

Maura Johnston summarized the show's triumphs and its slow decline for The Concourse, and I don't think anyone would disagree that the seeds for its demise were set by the trend of boring white guys with guitars winning over several deserving women and more maverick male talents.  Tween girls were drawn to the cute hearthrobs who had charisma but couldn't really sing, the teens and twentysomethings supported the oddballs (or voted for The Worst), and the housewives swooned for the boring white dudes. But like in any election, political or otherwise, approval ratings break that false equivalency.  White guys with guitars drew some measure of support from across the age spectrum, but the oddballs could only garner votes from their key demographic, anyone in the younger or older demo didn't really understand them at all.  That's why Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen could fly under the radar under the very end of the season and then crush the competition once it was down to the final three.

Maura repeats the tired meme that Season Five's Taylor Hicks helped to break the show because his style was so out of sync with contemporary pop music.  Season Five was the highest rated in the show's history.  The top six was arguably the most talented final group they ever had.  If Hicks was killing the show, there sure were a lot of people happily tuning in to watch him kill it.  That's precisely the point that I found missing in most analyses -- what makes for good TV isn't the same as what is marketable in terms of music sales.  Taylor Hicks was enormously entertaining and led a great cast of finalist, half of whom went on to rack up impressive album sales on their own.  For different reasons, people tuned in to Season Six to watch Sanjaya Malakar survive until the top seven, and to see Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis (the most polar opposite final pairing that AI ever had) fight for the crown.  It was AI's second most successful season in terms of viewership, so Taylor Hicks' supposed destruction of the show must have been a very slow kill indeed.  

The relationship between the voting results and contemporary pop music trends was always complex. For every Kelly Clarkson or Jordin Sparks, i.e. singers in the right time and place to merge smoothly into the pop landscape, there were five other R&B divas who were desperately pushed into the spotlight by AI judges and producers only to get rejected by the voters.  Clay Aiken fit nobody's mold of a contemporary pop star when he auditioned, but until Kelly Clarkson's re-breakthrough album "Breakaway", he was the biggest selling AI alumni in the then five-year history of the program. Blake Lewis nearly won Season Six years before EDM became a thing. Plenty of other contestants were praised for their uniqueness and never caught on with voters.  

Like many others, I'll be tempted to watch the final season after basically giving up circa Season 10.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MUTEK revisited (VI)

The next edition of MUTEK begins in two weeks in Montreal.  It turns out I will be in Toronto and gave some thought to getting on the train and catching two or three days of the festival.  I have no doubt it'll be an excellent festival as always but there's nothing I'm really dying to see this year.  Maybe next year.  I'm still kicking myself for missing the 2009 festival, which was pretty much my dream lineup (along with 2003) and might never be duplicated.

However, we can still celebrate past editions of the festival by revisiting more classic live performances from past years.  This is the sixth in a series of posts that began six years ago.   These recordings resurfaced recently and once again, I haven't heard either of them since the original performances in 2010 and 2003. 

10.  The Caretaker (A/Visions 2, 2010)

You can listen to the set here.  My original comments (and a photo) are posted here.  At the time I wrote "The Caretaker presented a slide show of his drink and debauchery exploits in Berlin while drinking a bottle of whiskey and doing very little else."

That comment comes off as dismissive and cynical, but that's just due to the format of the review for that year (which was a photo essay more than an in depth review).  In truth, it was one of the more unique performances I've seen to this day.  There was nothing "live" about it, because Kirby literally did nothing except prance around the stage with a bottle of whiskey while the video played on the screen behind him.  Considered as a piece of performance art coupled with a screening of a short film with the director in attendance, it was indelibly etched into my memory.  The experience of immersing myself in the world of the Caretaker continued well into the next year, as "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World" was one of my favourite albums of 2011.   

Obviously the audio recording can't capture the full experience of seeing this in a theatre against a backdrop of a perpetually hungover Berlin while the artist himself stalks the stage looking every bit the casualty victim of the scenes depicted on the big screen.  But the recording on its own is still incredibly powerful.  It builds you up by violently shaking you to attention at its noisy start, and throws you to the floor in a depressive funk in its solemn middle portion.  The noise returns at the end and a distorted voice warbles through "The Way We Were" and what has been learned from all this?  Drinking is bad for you?  Not really, because the piece never shows any regrets.  Live in the moment?  Not exactly, because who can find even a speck of glamour in any of this?  This music is as confounding as the day I first heard it. 

11.  Narod Niki (Finale, 2003)

The legendary final performance of the best MUTEK I ever attended.  A forty five minute excerpt of their set can be heard here, and was linked via MUTEK's website.  After years of circulation as a bootleg (audio for the entire festival was available for streaming over the internet that year), they claimed it is the first ever "official" release of the recording.  The full set lasted over two hours, and can be heard here.

At the time I was awed by the star power on stage and by the sheer amount of gear they'd dragged up there.  I was also exhausted by watching nearly forty three hours of live music over five days and nights.  The description I gave remains accurate though: "From the names involved, I'm sure you can guess what it sounds like. If you've never heard of any of these guys, I can't imagine that you'd have read this far. Otherwise, you'll be able to imagine what each guy is likely to equally contribute to a group effort such as this."

Narod Niki performed together only a handful of times.  They deserve their reputation for one simple reason -- it was the best collection of techno performers ever gathered together on one stage.  But at the same time, any fan of the artists involved didn't really have to be there to imagine what they were like.  If you know their music, you know what this was like, especially if I tell you that Villalobos looked to be the conductor of the orchestra.  The two hour performance is what you need to hear, because you need to hear the intro, appreciate the buildup, and imagine the anticipation as they filed on stage.  Once they were all out there, the drama was essentially over, the purpose of the performance completely fulfilled.   The music continued until the lights were turned on and the authorities finally shooed all artists and fans out of the building.  The recording will make for some pleasant background music at your local bar for twentysomething singles, or for your next get together with friends who like to groove.  It offers few hints about the singular collection of talent that was involved in creating it.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Fleetwood Mac, "Destiny Rules"

Kurt Cobain is back in the headlines, following the release of the documentary "Montage of Heck".  It's been touted as the most personal and revealing portrait yet of the former Nirvana frontman, and I know I'm not the only one who reacted to the hype with a fair bit of suspicion.  Nirvana are one of the most dissected bands ever, so much like the release of something from the bottomless pit of Beatles recordings, my first reaction was "how can there be anything left"?  There have already been a few Nirvana documentaries and concert DVD's, a box set, and the publication of Cobain's private journals.  Don't we know everything already?  When is it finally enough?

Brian Ives considers that very question in this commentary about "Montage of Heck" and a few other, extremely personal documentaries about other rock legends.  I still haven't seen the Cobain doc, but Ives' article informed me about a rarely seen Fleetwood Mac film, "Destiny Rules", about the making of their album "Say You Will" and the preparations for their massive world tour.

The second half of the film is fairly standard backstage pass type stuff, as we see the band putting the finishing touches on the album and jamming in preparation for their tour.  The meaty stuff happens in the first half of the film.  Buckingham shows up to the studio with a plateful of songs, Nicks turns up with her songs (and a mood-setting decorative statue/scarf holder), McVie and Fleetwood sit around looking bored while mentally calculated the money they're earning (or losing) with every passing day, and it might as well be the 1970's all over again.  Buckingham is determined to stick to his vision of an ambitious double CD, thinking only about the art and completely oblivious to the concept of what may or may not sell in 2003.  Stevie Nicks also sees dollar signs floating in front of her eyes while listening to the playback of their shimmery pop rock demos, instantly recognizable as the sound of classic Fleetwood Mac.  Buckingham insists its all about the art, and if the art is good, the album will sell records based on the name value alone.  If it sells only half a million copies, then he's fine with that as long as his creativity isn't compromised, except nobody else in the band thinks that he truly believes that.  Nicks is marginally more realistic, believing that if they can cobble together their catchiest twelve new songs, then kids in their teens and twenties will buy their album.  Nobody seems to have any concept of the realistic ceiling for this album.  From 2000-2004, pretty much the only rock bands to make a dent in the singles pop charts were Creed and Nickelback.

In the end, they did probably reach the absolute ceiling for "Say You Will".  Buckingham came to his senses and agreed to a single CD (albeit a bloated, 18-track, 75-minute single CD).  Near the end of the film, he speaks to the camera and explains that the added costs of releasing the double CD would necessitate a much longer tour (and/or future tours) to recoup the costs, something that nobody in the band is ready to commit to just yet.  With a new house to pay for and a family to feed, he can't take that chance.  Of course, the idea that they could recoup costs by selling more records is no longer considered.  By this point, they've understood that it's not 1977 or 1982 or 1987 and their brand of music isn't going to enter heavy rotation on the radio or MTV.  The tour was a huge success and did lead to a number of follow up tours that continue to this day.  The follow up album to "Say You Will" never materialized.  2002-3 was just about the latest year that a record company would consider letting a band record that might (if they're lucky) sell a million CD's, record their album in the matter they'd been accustomed to, with months of studio time, rented Hollywood mansion, and so on.  Fleetwood Mac post-2003 know where their bread is buttered, and after seeing "Destiny Rules", it's easy to see why they're not rushing to go through the stress of recording again together.

The documentary I really want to see is a definitive look at the Buckingham-Nicks relationship.  Ives writes about a nearly unbearable tension between them as they agree to disagree over the recording and mixing of various parts of the album.  I always see something different whenever I see them on film or on stage together.  I see a pair with a deep connection that often transcends words, an ex-couple that are completely over each other but inexorably drift back together to make their best music, often with each other as the lyrical subjects of their most inspirational songs even thirty years later.  Moments before they take the stage for the first concert in support of "Say You Will", they clasp hands and stare at each other intensely.  There's a glint of fear and nervousness in Nicks' eyes, which is a bit surprising for someone who has played countless gigs in large arenas, but also a sense of comfort in knowing that Buckingham is there and between the two of them, they'll get through this gig with flying colours just like they always have in the past.  You see the same look of admiration and respect when they sing a duet together on stage.  They're two conjoined souls completely in awe of each other's talent, and I don't think anyone other than the two of them really comes close to understanding it.    

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Robbie Williams live at Park Hayarkon,T.A.

These "first time in Israel!" shows sometimes backfire.  It happened at this somewhat infamous stadium show six years ago, and it happened last night with Robbie Williams in Ganne Yehoshua park.  Casual fans get drawn in by the blanket advertising and curiosity factor, show up to the concert, and wait to be entertained.  I went to far too many shows in Toronto in small venues where half the crowd thought they were too cool to wander more than a three metre distance from the bar.  It's a much more frustrating scene when you multiply it by one hundred and let people loose in a large grassy field.

I arrived too late to hear Ninet Tayeb's set, save for a few songs I heard from outside the park while on my way in.  A huge crowd of about 40 000 strong were ready for Robbie Williams to finally hit the stage after months of hype.  They were ready to record their favourite bits and post them on the internet as soon as possible.  Being there -- and having proof of the fact -- was arguably more important that being familiar with most of Robbie Williams' biggest hits and showing up ready to enjoy oneself.  

The focus of his current tour, which ended last night, was to bring his show to a number of relatively out of the way places that are off the regular touring track for many artists (UAE, Slovakia, Latvia).  His sets were chock full of his most memorable hits, with virtually no glaring omissions, and if those weren't enough hits for getting your money's worth, they were also chock full of covers of megahits by Queen ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), Lorde ("Royals"), R. Kelly (a slick barbershop quintet version of "Ignition (Remix)" and a handful of others.  He has more than enough original material to fill up a two hour set, but he includes the covers presumably because it encourages more audience participation, and what better way to fulfill his Freddie Mercury fantasies than by stealing straight from the source?

Yes, the Robbie Williams Revue tries to deliver something for everyone.  As great as it was, and as powerful a performer as Williams is, perhaps it wasn't the best idea in the world to watch his 2003 Knebworth DVD the night before, because he couldn't possibly live up to the standard, and neither could the Tel Aviv crowd.  But that's OK, because it's nearly an impossible standard to live up to.  The most amazing thing about those Knebworth shows is that they're nearly all about him.  His band is great, of course, they're admirable performers. But there are an unfathomably small amount of bells and whistles included in the show (dancers, outlandish video screens, costume changes) that are standard issue for nearly any other artist trying to entertain such a large crowd.  The crowd are locked with precision onto the songs and locked onto him -- transfixed by every word he says, and every move he makes.  Those concerts are completely driven by Williams' mercurial (no pun intended) strength as a performer.  Robbie in 2015 puts together a slick, professional band that executes the game plan perfectly.  Robbie in 2003 seemed to be making it all up as he went along.  His band would reign him in and help keep the show on the rails.  Seeing how he hardly rehearsed for those Knebworth shows, this was quite a formidable task.

In transitioning from pop star to band leader, something inevitably got lost in translation.  My favourite parts of the concert were therefore the looser, more laid back moments where Williams showed off the songs and his connection to them, rather than trying to overdeliver a showcase for the ages.  "Strong" turned into a wonderfully spontaneous singalong, and "Come Undone" was stripped of its full-on maximalism to become something less confrontational and more contemplative.  "Feel" was simply gorgeous, just Robbie belting out the song while standing almost completely still with his hands raised in the air, while dozens of rays of soft green laser light slowly swept through the night air, in time with nothing in particular.  Duetting with his tuxedo clad father Peter on "Better Man" was another fantastically personal moment, a style clash that made total sense to anyone who has followed Robbie through his various musical guises.

It really was an amazing show, the set list was even filled with a few surprises that typically weren't part of other shows on the tour ("She's the One" played in full, "Strong").  It was missing a killer crowd to take it into the stratosphere, and Williams himself even said as much in a chat with fans on his website following the show.  If anyone knows how to read a crowd, and to fairly criticize its involvement, it's him.     

Saturday, May 02, 2015



I never get tired of reading "best record shops" articles, usually accompanied by photos to whet the record shopping appetite.  FWIW, I've only visited five of these (two in Vienna, two in Berlin, one in Milan).  For whatever reason, the Parisian shops are the most stylish and best organized of the bunch.


This has been linked everywhere over the past week, but Clickhole's "oral history" of Radiohead's "OK Computer" is genius.  I think that the best parodies are written by the biggest fans, but since I'm not a Radiohead fan, I can't really gauge whether their fans are horrified by this article or are laughing along with it (not that I really care ... screw you, Radiohead fans!)

This is the most quotable music article I've read in years, so picking a favourite bit is just about impossible, but for now I'll go with this one: "'OK Computer' was an important album because it opened the door to more music about computers doing things, like playing guitars. Now, there are albums about computers riding bicycles, boxing each other, and drinking coffee. This was inconceivable before 'OK Computer'".


I think Maroon 5's "Sugar" may be the most self-indulgent music video I've ever seen, and that covers a LOT of ground -- "November Rain", "Justify My Love", "Trapped In the Closet", "Bound 2", everything Michael Jackson released in the 90's, and way too many more to mention.  But all those other songs (well, except for "Bound 2") have one simple thing in common.  They're great songs, and great videos.  Almost by definition, an artist has to be legitimately great to reach the level of popularity (with fans and with the record labels who are paying for these music videos) where they're afforded to possibility of being so self indulgent.  Each of these acts were several years into superstardom when these videos were made as well.  These videos are special because they represent something entirely different from the kinds of videos those artists would normally do up to that point in their careers.  Their longevity and consistent success at the highest levels of the industry had made just about all of their videos iconic.  That's why it was so notable when they switched gears and made their self-indulgent hot mess.  When a relative newcomer tries it, it often comes across like a publicity stunt, a plea for attention, or in the post-2005 world, desperation clickbait (hello, "Wrecking Ball").

Maroon 5's success has always baffled me.  In 2004, I would have bet huge money them being a one hit wonder on the back of "This Love", the token alternative MOR minor radio hit of the 00's, or roughly what Fastball's "The Way" was to the late 90's.  Barring that, I couldn't possibly envision their ceiling being higher than The Black Crowes, with two songs (one uptempo, one ballad) becoming radio staples off their breakthrough album, followed by a slow slide into chart irrelevance albeit with a healthy career as a touring band until they decided to finally call it quite a decade and a half later.  And yet here they are, five albums into their career, and a pop radio phenomenon.  You can argue that it wouldn't have happened without Adam Levine serving as a judge on "The Voice", but that kind of exposure from the "American Idol" franchise didn't save Jennifer Lopez's career (barring one fluky hit single featuring Pitbull).    

Their spectacular record of success aside, Maroon 5 have made a career out of releasing a steady train of unmotivating and unmotivated bland pop pleasantries, slick enough to nicely mesh into whatever pop radio is playing at the time, but without showing the tiniest spark of inspiration or giddy creativity to suggest that they care one bit about anything other than maximizing their brand potential.  They are to 10's rock what 50 Cent was to 00's hip-hop.  Unlike the other examples of beautiful self-indulgence I mentioned, "Sugar" is an awful song, and the video is nauseating.

The video is predicated on the idea that a surprise appearance by Maroon 5 at a wedding would be the most exciting thing to happen in the lives of every bride and groom in the country.  The video then proceeds to show this premonition coming true over and over again.  Whether the video was staged or not is besides the point.  If it was "real" then we know there was plenty of prompting by anxious producers involved in getting the necessary shots for the video (everybody knows how "reality" shows work these days).  And if it was staged, well, fuck everyone involved for staging it and giving interviews trying to pass it off as real.  The interviews read like your standard reality show script -- great idea, what if they don't like us? (dramatic pause for commercial), on our way to the wedding, hey!  crisis!  what will happen, (commercial break), everything turned out all right, everybody loves Maroon 5.  Buy the album!  Personally I think it was staged, just look at the lighting and the sheer number of camera angles, and the exaggerated reactions of the wedding guests, the instant mass rush for the dancefloor for a supposed surprise.  Not to mention that anyone who's spent more than five minutes driving in LA knows that it's not plausible that they could have had the time to crash so many weddings in one day, unless LA couples aren't like couples in most other western countries and don't all get married in roughly the same two or three hour window in the evenings.