Friday, December 30, 2016

George Michael, "Father Figure"

George Michael left us far too soon last week, the latest in an annus horribilis for musician deaths that can't end soon enough.  The emotional response seemed stronger in the UK and Europe, maybe in part because of the horrible irony of the composer of "Last Christmas" passing away on Christmas day.  It is one of the most played holiday songs in the UK in the past thirty years, but never meant a thing in North America.

And yet, many North Americans have largely forgotten how much of a phenomenon the "Faith" album was.  Oddly enough, George Michael's was a far bigger star in the UK and Europe both in the Wham years (pre-1986) and the post-"Faith" years ("Listen Without Prejudice, his late-90's comeback "Older").  But during those inbetween years 1987-1989, "Faith" was massive in the US, with an almost unprecedented six top five singles from the album, including four number one hits (versus none in the UK).  It was the best selling album in the US in 1988, for comparison, Michael Jackson's "Bad" was released two months earlier and was a phenomenon unto itself.  Singles from both albums dominated the charts for two years, and "Bad" set a record that still stands (challenged but not beaten recently by Katy Perry) with five consecutive number one singles from the same album.  "Bad" was also one of the best selling albums (worldwide) ever, but at its peak in 1988, it was outsold by "Faith", at least in the US.  This is the kind of rarefied company George Michael kept at the tail end of the 80's.  

I was haunted by "Father Figure" at the time.  In one sense it was almost intolerably sexy, backed by a perfect video accompaniment featuring Michael looking unspeakably cool in leather underneath impeccable lighting and shadow.  The model that appeared in the video had a pristine body that was shot from the most titillating angles.  The whole presentation was intimidating, and it may have thrown off my perception of realistic love and seduction was for years afterward.  In another sense, the song and video were creepy and even frightening.  Michael falls in love with a woman and stalks her relentlessly, lurking in dark corners, walking a fine line between voyeurism and possible criminal behaviour.  The music is uncharacteristically spooky and atmospheric for a number one pop smash, and that was no accident.  In his own "When Doves Cry" moment of inspiration, "Father Figure" was meant to be a mid-tempo rock number but Michael found that he loved the strange empty spaces left behind when he dropped many of the recorded tracks from the final mix.  He was right -- less was more and erasing half of the song made it ten times as good.   

For whatever reasons, Billboard number ones of 1988 were dominated by soft rock ballads with long running times (between five and six minutes).  I can't recall any edited versions made for the radio.  You might as well point to George Michael (and Michael Jackson, who was of course famous for his epic videos and for producing extended video versions of his songs) as the driving force behind this -- both "Father Figure" and "One More Try" run nearly six minutes.   

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top ten albums of 2016 (with extended prelude)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the time I went to Soundscapes on College St in October 2003.  I would soon be travelling to Berlin for an experiment for a few weeks (which turned into two months) and wanted to pick up some new releases on CD for the trip.  I bought "Closer" by Plastikman, "Waiting for the Moon" by Tindersticks, "Echoes" by The Rapture, and at least one other album that I can't recall but very likely was Polmo Polpo's "Like Hearts Swelling".  Dropping money on four new releases in a day was unusual for me, and I even surprised myself with my willingness to shell out so much money for four new albums that I mostly hadn't yet heard.  I was buying them based on the reliability and consistency of artists I'd been following for a decade (Plastikman, Tindersticks) and the relentless hype machine that had made certain acts very difficult to ignore in 2003 (The Rapture).

It was quite the haul of new music -- an historically great haul for me, actually.  I walked away with my #2 and #6 albums of the 00's, my #2 album of 2003, and an album by the Rapture (well, nobody's perfect, although some leading music publications would have disagreed at the time).  I'd been going to music stores and buying expensive CD's, many of them imports by my favourite UK bands, for nearly a decade.  I lived and worked within walking distance of eight or so music stores that I visited regularly, and hardly two or three days would pass without going to at least one of them.  This was how I kept abreast of new releases, bought music magazines, and generally absorbed nearly everything I was learning about music.  This was the way it was done, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.  And based on that amazing bunch of new CD's I'd just bought, which would soon be packed in my CD wallet and taken with me to Germany along with my indispensable CD walkman, this beautiful ritual of frequenting music shops would undoubtedly be with me for the foreseeable future.

But less than one year later, everything had changed in ways I never would have predicted.  Seemingly in the blink of an eye, my main source of music and music news shifted online.  Printed music magazines were replaced by online publications and message boards.  I'd been a Napster and then a Kazaa user for a few years, but still previewed and purchased nearly all my music from physical shops.  Soulseek tipped the scales in the other direction.  Suddenly I found myself keeping up with a LOT more new music -- several times as much give or take.  And I know I'm not alone in believing that 2003-4 was the tipping point for a grand shift towards the true explosion of music on the internet, that would in a short time lead toward streaming (Youtube, Pandora, Spotify, etc.), mp3 blogs, yousendit, a rapidly expanding array of other filesharing and downloading options, and the rapid decline of music stores.  That large purchase at Soundscapes was not only my best single haul of new releases, it was also my last, at least in Toronto.  2004 wasn't a great year for music, but it was transformative.  My top ten for the year was filled with artists that I hadn't even heard of one year earlier.

2016 is feeling like another transformative year for me.  I've more or less stopped following any music publication, physical or online, with any sort of consistency.  The same goes for message boards, twitter feeds, or other types of social media.  I still heard tons of new music this year -- a lot more than in most years -- but it's becoming increasingly random.  Most often, I feel like music finds me, rather than the other way around.  If I happen to be reading about something, I know enough about what I like and don't like to be able to decide whether I'm interested in hearing it or not.  But it also means that the days of obsessing over specific artists, and following every move in their careers, may be finally over.  As a consequence, I feel less attached to the music than I once did.  With each passing year, the should-be great albums (top 2-3 of the year) don't seem as great as they once did.

I still love MUSIC as much as ever, don't get me wrong.  I love hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years and surprising myself by still being able to sing along with the chorus.  It's one of the best feelings in the world.  I love reconnecting with old gems in my collections, especially through mixes.  I love commuting to work with music keeping me company the entire way -- I've been doing this for over 25 years (!) nearly without interruption, the routes and the music playing technologies have changed, but the experience is undiminished.  I love waking up to the radio every morning.  I loved driving through the US and Canada for hours this summer and sampling pop radio across different provinces and states -- sure, they all play the same Drake songs three times per hour, but that's a different issue, the point is that I still like plenty of chart pop. I still love reading a good interview or album review and appreciate good music writing more than ever.  It's in increasingly short supply these days.  And that's precisely my point, I love MUSIC, but largely don't enjoy FOLLOWING music anymore.

We live in difficult times, politically, or at least that's what music journalists have been telling me.  The music they value is expected to reflect the goings on in the world around them.  Except that it's not my world anymore.  I don't live in the US and their struggle isn't my struggle.  The Canada I used to know looks increasingly foreign from afar.  I can relate to the sentiments but there's no personal connection.  If music reflects politics, and I no longer have any direct stake in the politics, then I no longer have any stake in the music either.  But more importantly, I never wanted or expected political commentary from the music I like.  It's never been key to my listening experience.

In 2004, there was talk about how increased listening options via internet would create divisions between groups of fans and dilute consensus.  They said there would never be another monoculture, artists as transcendent as Michael Jackson would never come along ever again.  That turned out to not be true.  But the increased politicization of music has resulted in more consensus than I've ever seen in my adult life.  Every end-year list takes the same angle toward the exact same albums.  Even the token "electronic" albums, like Nicolas Jaar's snoozer "Sirens", are seemingly chosen because they're albums with an important message that we shouldn't ignore. 

I'm sure I'll catch hell for it, but the lionization of Beyonce is rockism on a scale just as bad as anything the former poptimists used to complain about.  People used to whine that the hippies grew up, moved to the suburbs, and became boring conservatives just like their parents.  Music journalism is now eating its tail too, as pop music criticism has gone the way of the stodgy boomer era rock music writing that they sought to replace.  Rockism was never about favouring rock music over other genres.  It was, and is about favouring authenticity over all other traits.  Playing your own instruments and writing your own music was considered authentic.  Not playing and writing music was less authentic and made you less of an artist.  Icons from the 60's and 70's released meaningful songs and lyrics that were more profound than any silly pop song you'd hear on the radio.  Fast forward to today, where Beyonce made her most socially conscious album and it was hailed as the consensus Album of the Year.  The same people who would decry "Rumours", "Tunnel of Love", and "Blood on the Tracks" as the self-centred ramblings of smug millionaires are falling over themselves to praise Beyonce's emotional honesty in songs like "Hold Up".

After that long intro, I don't think anyone wants to sit through another ten paragraphs about the year's best albums.  However, we still have a bunch of great albums to salute, so let's do this in haiku form.

Honourable mentions

Gunnar Haslam, Lebesgue Measure, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems)


Another clone of
Polygon Window, I can't 
get enough of them



The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (History Always Favours the Winners)


Like Lord of the Rings
Waiting to give out Oscar
For the last chapter



Matt Elliott, The Calm Before (Ici D'Ailleurs)


Not a great album
But words fail for opener
Crushing and Lonely



TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2016

10.  Enitokwa, "2069" (non entertainment research)


Comeback album of
calming strangeness could only
Come from a recluse



9.  Hieroglyphic Being, "The Disco's of Imhotep" (Technicolour)


Compare with Actress
Less funky but more rooted
In roughened techno



8.  Marsen Jules, "Shadows in Time" (Oktaf)


Hundreds of versions
Exist, evaporated
To nameless disk drives



7.  Xiu Xiu, "Plays the Music of Twin Peaks" (Polyvinyl Record Company)


Never watched Twin Peaks
But was sucked into Xiu Xiu's
Strange unsettling world



6.  PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island Records)



Bluesy squawks, crooning
Choruses with PJ's best 
Ever ensemble



5. D. Glare, "68 Samples At 68 BPM For Phased Heads" (Opal Tapes)


Like assembling a
Great DJ mix from nothing
But screams, clanks, and whirs



4.  Autechre, "Elseq 1-5" (Warp Records)




Whirring with details
Gulping loops but who bet on 
Five hours worth of it?  



3.  Tape Loop Orchestra, "The Invisibles" (Other Ideas)


Dense and engulfing
Building to satisfying
Side long conclusions



2.  Eluvium, "False Readings On" (Temporary Residence Limited)


Dead souls crying out
Beyond the ambient fuzz
Head swimming again



1.  Moderat, "III" (Monkeytown Records)


Electronic pop
Rarely so smooth, soulful, or
This professional

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 35

"I often stand on the boardwalk and stare at the mix and sometimes I marvel I made it" -- 99 minutes

This one started out as a more chilled out sequel to the 90's compilations mix, but turned into something quite different.  This does feature tracks from compilations I hadn't heard in ages, but it became a not quite ambient mix (i.e. ambient music punctuated by gut punch rhythms to keep the mood from getting too chilled) with a 140+ BPM coda that somehow worked (at least, I hope it did),


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2016

This list is always my favourite part of the year-end round up.  No pressure, no rankings, no trying to break down what it all means.  There's nothing to it but great music!  As always, these are listed in approximate chronological order of release.
 
DJ Nobu, Bunker Podcast 117 (January 26)

The first mix on the list also happens to be the best by miles and miles.  It's seventy minutes of dancefloor slaying deep as fuck no nonsense techno, mixed as seamlessly as any set you'll hear this year or in any other.


Samuel Kerridge, XLR8R Podcast 425 (February 9)

Bridging the gap between industrial-edged noise and warped techno, believe him when Kerridge says that it's not something that'll fly in most clubs at 4 AM.  The same could be said for his own music, so if you dig the mix, you'll want to hear the album and vice versa.


Regis, The Boys are Here (The Blackest Ever Black) (March 30)

There's a relaxed, home movie quality to this set that you simply never hear from techno mixes. Regis dialed down his typical white-knuckle intensity and knocked out a set that comes off like a personal influences mix that was meant to be circulated only among close friends and intended for bedroom listening.


Internazionale, Secret Thirteen Mix 188 (May 15)

Secret Thirteen had a great year yet again, but this mix of spooky ambiance, synth pop oddities, and mechanized techno by Internazionale was my favourite (narrowly edging out excellent mixes by JK Flesh, Nite Fields, and a few others that are well worth the listen).


Conforce, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 173 (June 5)

This epic mix takes it's time getting off the ground, but that's the point -- the beatless first hour lulls you into submission and strangely enough does a wonderful job of setting up the blissful headnodding beats of the second hour.


Volte-Face, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 174 (June 20)

Yet another epic from Electric Deluxe, spanning forty years of techno, Krautrock, and experimental music.  Plus my favourite Billy Idol song.


Objekt, Kern vol. 3 (July 8)

Once in a while, something comes along that aims to deconstruct the typical boundaries of mixes altogether.  The famous "Grandfather Paradox" mix is often my go-to example of that, and Objekt's bold and innovative mix for Tresor's Kern series has certainly forced its way into the discussion. You might expect that a mix with nearly forty tracks in only 76 minutes would be a madcap schizophrenic dash, but the mood somehow stays relaxed throughout, selecting from the deepest of deep cuts and ignoring a number of rhythmic conventions along the way.


Bill Brewster, Record Replay 001 (September 8)

Are you starting a new mix series where you send a DJ to a used vinyl shop and ask him to make a mix out of whatever he can buy with only ten pounds in total?  Yeah, that's a task that couldn't be more well suited to Bill Brewster's talents.


Dan Selzer, Lodown magazine Monday mixtape, New York Endless Another Mix Pt. 1 (September 11)

When you listen to this mix very closely, it becomes apparent that Selzer isn't doing anything remotely complicated with his mixing or transitions.  What he's doing is even more impressive -- making a perfect selection of tracks and leading one perfectly into the next, i.e. the only true task required of a DJ.  And of course, this mix isn't meant to be heard "closely", it's meant to be danced to, and for that it's nearly impossible to resist.


John Twells, FACT Focus Mix 7, Halloween rap special  (October 26)

This mindbending mix of tracks based upon an unusual theme (hip hop tracks that sample from horror movies) is why the FACT Focus series needs to exist and double or triple their output next year.


RVDS, Resident Advisor 547 (November 21)

This is mix #11, but I couldn't find a way to leave out this newly uploaded one from the always notable Resident Advisor podcast series.  The theme is "slow music", which in this case falls between electronic music you can't exactly dance to, and late night after party music that's a bit too energetic when all you really want to do it crash on the couch.   

Friday, December 09, 2016

Marc Spitz, "Poseur"

This is my second review this year of an autobiographical bildungsroman about an artist struggling to succeed in the music industry in New York City (the first being Moby's excellent autobiography).  In both cases, the city itself is the main character in the story, where a picture of a bygone city is captured in vivid detail during its transformation in the 1990's.  Both authors struggle to find their way in a fog of substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour, and depression.  There's even an odd bit of convergence of their stories, where Spitz backs off from dating a girl because she'd been linked to Moby, and even becomes paranoid about the techno star stealing his crushes.

Despite the many similarities, their writing styles couldn't be more different.  Moby is an amateur storyteller, albeit a very good one, who recounts almost everything with nostalgic colour.  Spitz (whose book was published in 2013) has carefully honed his hipsterism over time, worshipping at the altar of countless great writers.  He's always on the bubble between trying to write the next Great American Novel (or play) and infusing the spirit of Lester Bangs (and the rock and rock lifestyle to go along with it).  Luckily for him, he got to do a bit of both.  

Even though Moby was born just four years earlier than Spitz, he's part of a totally different generation.  Moby's NYC is firmly in the pre-gentrification era, it's closer to the Wild West than anything one would recognize today,  Spitz's experiences hit closer to home for me because he's from my generation musically.  Moby was reared on late 70's punk and new wave.  Born only four years later, Spitz is firmly an 80's kid, bred on the Smiths, Cure, and Depeche Mode.    

Two thirds of the book happens pre-SPIN magazine, before Spitz had a real career to speak of.  Nevertheless, these pre-1996 struggles and story after story "about nothing" are the highlights of the book.  It's usually not a pretty sight, but Spitz keeps the narrative moving with heavy doses of humour and self deprecation.  He's astonishingly self aware and constantly critical of what he did and how he treated other people.  In the hands of a less gifted writer he'd come off as insufferable.  Nothing is romanticized, and it's clear that he's not encouraging anyone to emulate his behaviour, but he managed to function and interact with a fascinating array of characters (and many celebs), despite his troubles there's plenty to be envious of.  His is a story well worth telling.  

His success as a writer and playwright only makes him more unhappy.  He gets to interview many of his musical heroes and even befriends some of them.  Eventually we reach the happy ending, although not the one that's implied on the back cover of the book, where he seems to find love and live happily ever after.  In fact he ends up alone, content to soak in the city while walking his dogs.  But he's happy.  There was never one moment where he "recovered" and stopped being a drug addict and a major pain in the ass to his employers.  In his telling, he did nothing other than what we all do naturally and without even trying.  He grew up, entered his mid-30's, and understood that he had to leave all that behind.  No more chasing after the next cool musical trend, no more partying like a rock star.  It's real, and it's relatable.       

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project"

We've reached the last month of the year and I've been revisiting a lot of what I've been listening to over the past eleven months.  That includes the albums that I've been overlooking, and PJ Harvey's most recent is certainly one of them.

When this album was released, I found it somewhat offputting and quickly filed it away.  Musically, it was undoubtedly PJ Harvey at or near the peak of her powers.  Her voice remains uncannily potent even after twenty five years as a major recording artist, conveying rage, defiance, and empathy in equal parts, better than just about any other songwriter in music.  The album also contains her bluesiest work in two decades, with "The Wheel" as a standout that comes closer to recreating the feel of "To Bring You My Live" more than anything she's recorded since.  There are no shortage of anthemic choruses, and the rage against the dying of the light (and Walmart sized corporations) that is "The Community of Hope" ranks among her very best album openers.

However, I couldn't get past the notion that PJ Harvey is trying a bit too hard to make a statement, resorting to political tourism and acting as a vehicle for the ambitions of others, rather than writing about what she truly feels in her heart.  "Let England Shake" looked at war and imperialism through the eyes of First World War soldiers, which only could have come from the mind of an English soul attuned with the beauty and serenity of the countryside.  And even then, nobody else possessed the genius to see things from that angle. On "The Hope Six Demolition Project", she's parachuted into complex political landscapes, and as an outsider, she's well-meaning but impressionable.  Her reportage lacks the nuance of "Let England Shake" and even many of her third person, character-driven writing (e.g. most of "Is This Desire").

Community leaders in Washington were supposedly upset at her labeling their neighbourhoods as shitholes on "The Community of Hope".  Lines like these come off like they were fed to her by local guides with a personal or political agenda.  PJ Harvey rarely throws out lines to shock just for the sake of it, she's been above those kind of gimmicky quote-bait lyrics for her entire career.   It concludes with "they're gonna put a Wal-Mart here" which actually works to bring the song to a rousing conclusion, but is also as subtle as Wal-Mart itself.  Corporations are running America and trampling on the poor -- how unoriginal and exactly the kind of giftwrapped story that can be easily fed to foreigners looking to confirm their biases about America.  Look, I'm not saying that sentiment isn't correct, but PJ Harvey used to always find ways to look beyond the completely obvious, either to peer into the souls of her subjects deeper that her contemporaries would dare to, or to say the obvious in a decidedly non-obvious and unique way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

Days later, and it's still sinking in. We've become uncomfortably used to dealing with the deaths of A-list musicians this year.  But much like David Bowie's death, the clues were all there, left behind in Cohen's words and music, and we somehow didn't see it coming.  How can somebody leave behind such great art in the face of death, and maintain this type of poise and dignity until the very end?  Us ordinary folks may never understand it.  

Cohen's remarkable final act is now well known.  His former manager stole most of his life savings, and Cohen embarked on a massive, years long set of world tours to rebuild his fortune.  If he hadn't nearly been bankrupted, does he live out a quiet retirement, releasing the occasional studio album to mild acclaim by a fanbase and critical establishment that had more or less forgotten about him when he became a recluse in the mid 90's?  Instead of that alternate reality, he not only rebuilt his retirement fund but also his musical legacy.  Would the obituaries have placed him second to Bob Dylan among rock era lyricists (I have seen this written over the past week) if that tour hadn't happened?  Would he have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 without the newfound sympathy and interest in his music in the wake of the management scandal?  He'd been eligible for fifteen years and people weren't exactly up in arms about why he hadn't been elected.  The Leonard Cohen of 2005 hadn't released an album in over a decade, and had been widely assumed to have fallen off the deep end due to his years long stint in a Buddhist monastery.  

But you also have to wonder about the toll that years of touring took out of the body of a man in his late 70's.  He was meditating for hours per day in the monastery well into his 60's, so he was obviously of sound mind and body.  You still have to think that without his misfortunes, he stays at home all these years and is still with us.  He unknowingly traded that for a pile of riches he'll never get to enjoy and a "legacy".  Cohen never cultivated any kind of legacy and only people who lionize the 27 Club give a crap about legacies as they pertain to unforeseen death, but without that tour, the headlines probably read "'Hallelujah' composer dies" rather than the stuff you've been reading this past week.

Speaking of "Hallelujah", what happens if John Cale doesn't overhaul the song in 1991 and turn it into the now familiar piano led ballad?  The radio staple from the "I'm Your Fan" compilation was REM's version of "First We Take Manhattan".  This was "Out of Time" era REM, who were suddenly one of the biggest acts in music and were played on the radio across multiple formats.  Before "The Future", and before "Closing Time" inexplicably became a minor hit at the height of grunge and the years long Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey run of pop chart domination, Leonard Cohen was a relic with a covers album, not too different from the "Red Hot and Blue" covers album of Cole Porter songs that was released the previous year.  U2's "Night and Day" was the "hit" song from that album, because like REM on "I'm Your Fan", they were the biggest stars on an album filled mostly with cult acts.  There was no comeback for Cole Porter, who had been dead for decades, but at the same time there wasn't exactly a rush to cover more of his songs from that point on.  

In 1991, John Cale and Leonard Cohen were nearly the same artist, "legacy" wise.  Their styles are nothing alike, but in stature, they could be grouped with the likes of Patti Smith as the kind of artists major labels used to keep around to increase their cred among the weekend paper reading intelligentsia.  Other musicians would cite them as an influence, which also was considered important when building a roster of artists for your label.  Both were arguably far bigger in Europe than in North America.  A few years later, and Cale was arguably still ahead -- Cohen made "The Future", but Cale reformed the Velvet Underground and toured the world.  Could anyone have predicted how their careers would diverge from then on?  Cale has remained active for the past two decades, Cohen disappeared for years but eventually became a megastar anyway, who would have known?

 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Moderat, Autarkic, Noga Erez live at Hangar 11, Tel Aviv

Toronto music fans will remember the Warehouse (later the Kool Haus), which hosted countless international acts in spite of having the worst acoustics of any major music venue in the city.  I personally found the sound to be OK if you were down near the front, but at the back, sound was lost throughout the cavernous expanse of the venue, choked off by the many pillars spread around, vanishing into the high ceilings.  Hangar 11 is a similar venue for mid sized (~ 2000 persons) concerts and conventions, located on some prized real estate in the ultra cool Tel Aviv port, and "features" even worse sound that the Kool Haus ever had, at least as far as I can remember.

Noga Erez's version of "soulful" vocals over bruising electronic beats and live percussion was pleasant enough, although it felt like a million similar opening acts I've seen at other live shows.  Autarkic, however, was the perfect warm up act for this crowd.  He's obviously studied his LCD Soundsystem records well, memorizing every last ironic lyric delivered with pithy nonchalance, and every bumping intro building into electronic freakouts.  It was hipster techno extraordinaire, delivered to an impressive variety of vintage Tel Aviv freakos and hipsters whose ages spanned over four decades as far as I could tell.  Even I was starting to get won over by his set, although I'd never listen to this stuff at home.

I'd waited seven years to finally see Moderat live (although I've seen Modeselektor twice) and nothing about their show was disappointing. Unfortunately, I can only dream of how much better it could have been in a venue with decent sound, where guitar techs know how to do proper sound checks and the bass doesn't sound distorted nearly beyond recognition.  During songs that were lighter on the bass it wasn't too distracting, but "Intruder" (to name the most egregious example) was completely ruined by the wall of watery, distorted bass vibrations that blanketed the song.

Nonetheless, their nearly two hour set couldn't have been executed any better.  The visuals started out in minimal black and white, casting the band in stunning black silhouttes.  Colour started seeping into the occasional song, mainly in monochrome, before "No. 22" closed the main set in a blitz of kaleidoscopic colour.  A good half of their set was built around the subtle, R&B tinged downtempo techno of their third album.  But "Milk" is an exception in their catalog, a ten minute slow building clubland epic that destroyed when played live, as you'd expect.  Their more expansive, breakdown filled songs ("Running", "No. 22") were the highlights for me, even though I've come around on their new album since the start of the year.  If the end of the trilogy really represents the end for Moderat as a studio project, their album stands as the best advertisement possible for forward thinking pop artists looking to collaborate with electronic music producers.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Kate Bush Story (BBC documentary)

There are certain strains of pop music that I have come to appreciate a lot more than I once did.  The music stands apart as more time passes and nothing that sounds even remotely like it comes along.
These notions are repeatedly highlighted in this short BBC documentary about the career of Kate Bush (there is also a two hour version that I haven't yet seen).  It's hard to imagine something as strange and adventurous as "Wuthering Heights" or "Running Up That Hill" on the radio today.  Even after countless listens to "Wuthering Heights" over the years, the first appearance of the chorus always catches me by surprise.  Her vocal acrobatics and complete lack of melodic repetition during the first verse throws off one's sense of timing.  One expects four lines with convenient rhyming, and a line or two in the bridge to build to the chorus in an obvious way.  "Wuthering Heights" begins as a love/hate letter to an old flame without any clear structure and then boom, the chorus descends as if parachuted in from a completely different song. 

At that point in time, Bush seemed to take her cues from the unpredictability of 70's prog music.  "Running Up that Hill" takes a different approach, anchored by a consistent, predictable rhythm while the verses churn along before sliding gracefully into the chorus. 

This is the first time I had seen clips of Bush's 1979 tour, and I was surprised to see how much of a complete performer she was.  Merging pop with high performance art was particularly visionary stuff for 1979, especially for an artist who had never toured before and had barely even sung on stage outside of her brother's pub band.  And it was yet another reminder that the days of recording artists who can retire from the road to make "challenging" albums for major labels are long gone.

The documentary doesn't reveal anything about Bush that her fans wouldn't already know.  The point is more about featuring celebrity musicians (Elton John, Brett Anderson, Tricky) and their musings on Bush's music.  The most interesting comment for me was from Tricky, who focused on the "breathing my mother in" line from "Breathing" and attributed his entire career to that line.  That one line neatly summarizes how he'd internalized his feelings about his mother (who he never knew) and tried to express them, one suffocating song at a time.  Another interesting comment came from Steve Coogan, who quoted a line that Byron once said of Keats -- "Keats writes about what he imagines, I write about what I lived".  Bush is like Keats in this instance, writing character driven songs because she felt they were more interesting than anything in her life.  However, Bush would go on to write a number of personal songs too.  And then it struck me that PJ Harvey, most notably over the past ten years, is the closest we might get to a second Kate Bush.  Harvey excels at writing personal songs too, and when she gets bored of that, she also writes songs about historial/literary characters with dark political overtones with unconventional musical arrangements.  

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pitchfork's 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time

The most surprising thing about this list is that it took them so long to finally run it.  Although it's a good idea on paper (scratch that -- a great idea considering the tastes of the contributors Pitchfork has at its disposal) the reality is that it's exceedingly hard to come up with fifty original pieces of writing about bands faithfully copying the sound of maybe three other bands.  There are only so many adjectives about shoegaze to go around, and we've heard them all countless times because the vocabulary hasn't changed in twenty five years.  Comparing the subtle differences between UK and US bands is a trope that works in a single album review, but wears thin after repeated mentions.  Sure, US bands were influenced a bit more by grunge and lo-fi indie rock like Pavement.  That's neither surprising or all that interesting, to be honest.

I appreciate the attempts to solidify the place of shoegaze hybrids in the canon (e.g. techno shoegaze such as Seefeel and Ullrich Schnauss, or metal shoegaze such as Jesu and Alcest).  But elsewhere, a number of albums on the very fringes of what can be considered shoegaze, great as they are, really don't belong ("A Storm in Heaven", "Pygmalion", "Chrome").  And in the end, six of the top seven albums are by the predictably entrenched threesome of early 90's UK shoegaze.  There's something very disenchanting about trudging through a list that ostensibly gives shoutouts to a handful of more recent albums, but saves the top spots for the real stars of the genre, all of whom made their best music more than two decades ago.  It's not any different than every "best of" list I saw as a teenager, with the same Stones/Beatles/Zep songs/albums at the top each time, "confirming" the notion that the music I listened to sucked because clearly all the best music had been made before I was born.  I'm not saying that you need to make wild picks for your top 10 just to be contrarian, but predictable lists don't always make for interesting ones.

I think my favourite part was the intro written by Sonic Boom -- indeed, as he wrote in his piece, that is not something I expected to see, and he offered a welcome viewpoint from the perspective of a pioneer/outsider.    

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 34

A perfect opportunity to network and connect with old 90's mixes (75 minutes)

As I alluded to in earlier posts, I recently dug out a huge binder of CD's that had been stored away and unheard for years.  Most of it's content are 90's and 00's electronic music compilations, and I've been having the time of my life revisiting this stuff.

Naturally, one thing led to another and I made a mix exclusively from six of these compilations:

Em:t 2000 (Instinct Records)
Pop Ambient 2001 (Kompakt)
Networks.1 An Intellinet Compilation (Studio!K7/Plus 8/Mute)
Montreal Smoked Meat (Force Inc. Music Works)
Detroit: Beyond the Third Wave (Astralwerks)
We Are Reasonable People  (Warp)

Plus there's a Facil track thrown in because why not, it fit.

There's a lot more material where this came from ... this mix might be the first of a series.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Swans, "The Glowing Man"; Tim Hecker, "Love Streams"

These are two new albums by acts that have (stubbornly?) stuck to a formula for some time but have gotten away with it on account at being better at their style than anyone else.  In fact that would be underselling their talents -- they've been so successful at what they do that they're practically inimitable.  

On one hand, they get to claim a micro-genre for themselves and monopolize the attention and accolades that come with it.  On the other hand, there's a fine line between working the formula successfully and falling back on it as a safe default option, in place of pushing their creativity forward.  With both of these albums, we've reached the latter point.  The bloom is off the rose, and we've heard all they have to offer with this style (sadly, one could say the same about the M83 record as well).

Michael Gira had already announced that he was retiring Swans in their current incarnation.  I sense that he knows he's taken the 2010-2016 version of the band to its extreme, and there's nowhere left to go. The next time we hear from Swans, he claims it'll be a studio based guest artist collective, rather than a fixed collective of surly middle aged dudes who flesh out their ideas at maximum volume on stage.  "The Glowing Man" has been labeled as the softer, more contemplative side of Swans, but that side was always around on their past few albums.  It was on the folksy "The Daughter Brings the Water" (from "The Seer") and the mammoth, shimmering intro to "No Words/No Thoughts" (extended to almost unfathomable lengths when played live).  "The Glowing Man" is a half hour of crushing and spectacular noise, but they've done a few of those now and the sense of numbing shock you get when hearing those kinds of tracks is lessened every time they do it.

Tim Hecker's explorations into the densest, blackest drone reached their extreme with "Ravedeath, 1972".  Since then he's tried to lighten up, so to speak, but I can't hear much beyond the fairly gimmicky "Hecker + choir" combo.  He's not adapting his music to fit the choir, he's doing his thing and hoping it sounds cool and different with vocals decorating the mix. Hecker has played a number of live shows in churches over the years and perhaps that's what inspired him here, but his math feels off.  It's like there's an assumption that the hazy, soaring vocals merged with Hecker's typical style will automatically produce something meditative and spiritual, but I'm not feeling it.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 33

His ancestor mix would be simultaneously revolted and proud - a techno classics mix (85 minutes)

After my last mix I wanted to continue making pure techno club/dancing oriented mixes.  I also wanted it to be a fun, "greatest hits" type of set with a number of well known tracks rubbing shoulders with a few newer ones.  And these were the results ... there are nearly 25 years of techno represented here, with (multiple) tracks from 1992 right through to 2016.

V/A, "Clicks and Cuts" (Mille Plateaux)

I recently dug out a massive booklet with more than a hundred old CD compilations from my parent's house.  I haven't heard a lot of this stuff in over ten years, so it's like a wormhole opened up and dropped a mountain of classic and rare music from a long lost galaxy right on my head.  Expect a good deal of tripping down memory lane over the next little while, including at least one mix (already in the can).

This very famous compilation was released in January 2000, and the symbolism of the date is significant because it was intended to signify a new paradigm for techno in the 21st century.  It's title became synonymous with the entire genre, and the first MUTEK was for all intents and purposes, a "Clicks and Cuts" tribute festival.  I was the target audience for "Clicks and Cuts" without a doubt -- a fan of bedroom techno (e.g. Warp's Artificial Intelligence series), of minimalism, ambient, of Oval, Sub Rosa compilations and similar oddities on the outskirts of techno.  It was one one of my top albums of 2000, and I was very much in favour of the slow continuing takeover of "Clicks and Cuts" style techno. 

Of course it didn't quite happen that way.  "Boring" laptop techno was superseded by less boring laptop techno with a beat, and became minimal techno that you could actually dance to. 

Needless to say, this stuff hasn't aged well.  On the first CD, even the stuff with a semblance of a groove that I really dug back in the day, like Farben, now sounds feeble and almost directionless.  Tracks by Sutekh and SND are nearly unlistenable, with nothing to draw one's attention outside of the frittering pops and whirs that burrow into your ears like sand swept up by a gust of wind.  The stranger tracks have fared better, such as Vladislav Delay's ten minute "Synkopoint", which used to bore me but now presents a more varied and unpredictable palate of sounds than anything else on the disc.

The second CD is a bit better (fifteen years ago I would have said the opposite).  Again the weirder tracks by Ester Brinkmann, Dettinger, and Goem are the highlights.  The Panacea, Ihan, and Kid606 tracks towards the end form the worst three track run on "Clicks and Cuts" by far, with almost nothing to redeem then other than the historical curiosity of being included on this album.  But that's the whole point here -- as a historical document, "Clicks and Cuts" is still essential as an accurate summation of a major trend in techno at the time.  If you try to edit this down to a 40 minute condensed version of "highlights", you're missing some important information.   

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Starship, "We Built This City"

GQ's story about the making of "We Built This City" is an instant classic and might be the funniest oral history I've ever read.  At least half of it reads like parody.  I'm not even 100% sure that it isn't.

I remember that Blender list from '04 that named it as the worst song ever.  Up until that point, I don't recall it being ridiculed more than any one of dozens of silly and dated 80's synth rock songs.  But somehow the worst song ever moniker took on a life of its own.  The "We Built This Starbucks" remake/rewrite didn't help either.

For me, "We Built This City" falls into a rare category along with songs like Phil Collins' "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" -- a song that I absolutely despised in the 80's but have come around to thinking it's sort of awesome.  The bridge is epic!

The "selling out" tropes are hilarious, for a number of reasons beyond the usual (i.e. the idea of maintaining some kind of arbitrarily defined integrity and refusing to "sell out" is tired and meaningless now):

1) The most embarrassing thing about the song isn't the music, it's the clothes that Grace Slick is wearing on the single cover.  It's mind boggling that anyone over the age of 15, even in the 80's, would agree to be photographed wearing that.

2) There's nothing more safe and conservative, in the 21st century, than lionizing late 60's psychedelia and hippie culture.  So Grace Slick and her "we want to make hits and rake in money and then we'll shit on our music and complain that there was no 'integrity' in the 80's" attitude can take a hike.

3) Jefferson Airplane's legacy (that some people would go out of their way to defend and protect) comes down to two songs that predated their classic lineup (Grace Slick brought them from her previous band).  At least Starship were genuinely huge for about two years and had three number one hits.

The hero of the piece is of course Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, who delivers all the best lines and may in fact be a fake Twitter account rather than a real life washed up 80's rock star, I can't be sure.  Choosing between his best lines is tough, but I have to go with "Marconi's the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba.  But listen to the radio now.  Do you hear any mamba?  That's how I look at the lyric: things change.  I could be totally wrong."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Moby, "Porcelain" (book)

After reading only a few chapters of Moby's new memoir, "Porcelain", I had already decided that it is one of the finest music autobiographies I've ever read.  The subject matter (NYC clubs, English raves) is fresh in the world of musician bios and certainly in need of chronicling, and his writing style is unlike any other star bio I've read.  In most bios, the story unfurls linearly, tracing the key steps in the advancement of the star's career.  In Moby's book, which is part coming of age story, part mish mash of moralist anecdotes, while his career somehow takes shape during his unpredictable journey.

The first chapter is about heading out from his 100 square foot "apartment" in an abandoned factory in Connecticut, and taking the train to New York to drop off a mix tape at a club in the hopes of getting hired as a DJ.  The style of this chapter sets the pattern for the entire book.  Moby the writer has a talent for turning the mundane into the spectacular, crystallizing the feel, look and smells of his functionally homeless life and the decaying atmosphere of NYC before it cleaned itself up.  It's a collection of stories and moments, oddball conversations and unhinged characters.  Most chapters take you into the weird minutiae of a particular day in his life but are page turners thanks to his gifts as a storyteller.  This includes a fair bit of cynicism and self deprecating humour -- 2016 Moby knows how messed up and insane things were, but stays in the moment to relate how things were, at all times.  In the meantime, his career slowly develops, almost as a backdrop to the stories he's telling. 

The first part of the book covers 1989-90, but the subject matter is equally NYC as it is Moby.  It's about recording the seediness of its neighbourhoods and of the club scene for posterity, Moby is almost a passive participant in these event who just happened to be around to observe all of it.  The second part covers the early 90's rave years in much the same way, and he himself becomes more of a central figure in what's going on.  Once we hit the "Everything Is Wrong" period, the narrative becomes less focused on a particular place, and jumps from one drunken exploit to another, with casts of characters and interesting hookups that vary depending on the city.  Somewhere in the chaos his career briefly flourishes, and then collapses. 

The wildness and debauchery keeps ramping up, and things never get any better.  At the start of the book he's desperately poor and eager to launch a music career (despite having no clue how to go about it), and talks at length about how happy he was living in what he calls the best city in the world.  By the end, he's at his lowest point, lonely and depressed despite having no shortage of parties or women in his life, clearly convinced that his career was over.  In the final chapter, he's listening to an early version of "Play" during a late night drive, which only serves to convince him that it was a badly produced mess that nobody will want to listen to.  He'd already begun planning to move back to Connecticut and start a different career.  And just like that, the book ends.  There's no light at the end of the tunnel, and no sense that things might start getting better. 

Of course this opens the door for a second memoir quite nicely, and in fact Moby has already begun writing it.  But sometimes the journey to stardom is far more captivating, and brings out better writing, than the stardom itself.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Tragically Hip live at the Kingston K-Rock Centre

Like millions of other Canadians, I was able to watch the  Tragically Hip's final (?) concert thanks to the CBC (in my case via their Youtube channel).  During the show, I found myself flipping occasionally to WWE's live Takeover Brooklyn special, which served to remind me about some important lessons about how to produce live TV.

Pro wrestling is all about the interaction between the performers and the audience, perhaps more so than any other entertainment medium.  Watching bits and pieces of Takeover, I could feel the intensity of the crowd at the most important moments -- the thunderous crowd pops at the end of matches, during the entrances, and during special moments like the farewell ovation to Bayley at the conclusion of her match.  Bayley spent four months building toward a rematch to regain her title after being streamrolled by Asuka in April, and her spirited loss to Asuka signified a conclusive end to the story.  There's nothing left for her to do in NXT, and although it was never acknowledged on TV, the fans know what happens next.  She'll end up on the main WWE roster soon enough (probably in two days), performing in front of bigger but perhaps not better or more caring crowds.  Tears were shed, the camera panned the crowds so that the people watching at home could feel, see, and hear the reactions, the crowd mics were cranked way up, the commentators stayed quiet and let the crowd tell the story.   

There was very little of that in tonight's Tragically Hip concert.  Plenty of credit goes to the CBC for broadcasting this, and I have no doubt that the six thousand in attendance were losing their minds all night, but you wouldn't have known it from tonight's broadcast.  It was shot just like any other concert.  The camera zoomed in tight on Gord Downie for most of the show, oblivious to the fact that especially on this night, it wasn't about micro-analyzing the movements of the lead singer, it was about the interactions between a great band and its hometown fans.  The band doesn't perform in front of the fans, they perform with the fans, tonight more so than ever.

Many videos have been uploaded to youtube showing the raw exhilaration of these final (?) Hip shows.  Only during the quieter moments of the CBC broadcast (e.g. "Fiddler's Green") did we really get to experience that (discounting the odd, spoken word tributes to Justin Trudeau that came off disturbingly like paid shills for the Liberal Party.  What was with that?)  Also thanks to youtube, I got to see Downie's incredible, white knuckle intense performance at the end of "Grace, Too" in Toronto.  If I hadn't already see that, his similar performance tonight near the conclusion of the concert would have been almost unbearably difficult to watch.  But I had seen it before -- a very well executed bit of drama by a consummate actor.  

During the third encore, and towards the end of final song ("Ahead By a Century"), Downie carefully placed the microphone back on the stand and took a few moments to blow kisses to the crowd.  When the song finished, the band posed on stage, arms around each other, and soaked in the cheers.  Downie looked exhausted.  Happy, relieved, and certainly humbled, but also exhausted.  He probably could have stood there all night, but it really seemed to me that he needed to go home and rest.  Who could deny him otherwise.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Denise Benson, "Then & Now"

In the Forward to Denise Benson's history of 48 influential Toronto clubs, Stuart Berman writes: "no matter if your dancing days were defined by bell bottoms or dog collars, glow sticks or glue sniffs, you played some part in this story." I probably rolled my eyes the first time I read that line, a variation on the tried and true musical trope "we couldn't have done it without the support of you fans".  Berman's line could have been written by the book's publicist and slapped on the back cover.  But as I made my way through the book, and nostalgia kicked in hard -- even for the clubs I'd never attended -- it all started making sense.

"Then & Now" isn't a comprehensive history of Toronto club culture.  However, you can infer the evolution of the city's night life by studying the map of club locations in the book's final pages, tracking the epicentre of underground nightlife as it flowed between neighbourhoods within the city.  The book doesn't read like a history either, there's no narrative to connect the chapters -- each one profiling a single club -- or any attempt to track musical trends over the years.  The writing does get repetitive after a while (everyone was accepted, there was a real sense of community, it was "more than just a club", etc.), and the profiles are overloaded with names and places that makes for heavy reading at times.  It's not a book for everyone, and you might not get much out of it if you didn't grow up in Toronto and didn't go to at least a handful of these clubs.

But enough about what this book is not.  "Then & Now" is an indispensable source of information about the Toronto club scene.  If Benson hadn't done all of this research, and had access to so many of the principals owing to her long standing presence in the Toronto music scene, where else could you possibly find all this information?  She's done every Toronto music fan a service by cataloging this information for posterity, archiving rare photos, interviewing everyone from the DJ's to the bartenders to the security staff to the clubgoers themselves.  She writes with an attention to detail that could have only been filtered through the lens of someone who was there.  In one example, she notes how every speck of lint on your clothes would shine under the fluorescent lights at the Limelight.  For many, this reads as a passing comments about the club's interior, but for any past regular (e.g. me), this type of detail will take you back immediately.

Benson doesn't need to philosophize and provide historical context, that's not what the book is about.  It's part clubbing scrapbook, part story behind the story of the clubs you knew, loved, danced at, and then forgot about.  Your memories will provide the context, and her job is to help you recall them.

However, if I were to look for a turning point in the Toronto club scene, using the book as a representative sample, everything pivots around Industry nightclub.  As we see, in the 80's, cool clubbing meant 80's alternative staples (Depeche Mode, New Order, Human League, goths, punks, Cure fans, etc.) and proto house, electro, and techno.  A lot of the 90's clubs were run by 80's veterans and catered to the natural descendants (e.g me) of those 80's scenes.  But Industry was something different entirely.  As the city cracked down on outdoor raves, the parties moved indoors.  The club denizens didn't grow up with CFNY (which was purely a rock station by the mid-90's anyway), and weren't looking to dance to underground hits they might have heard on the radio.  Stories about bartenders getting grandfathered into DJ roles dry up, and expert mixers spinning purely electronic genres completely take over. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 32

The Ancient Methods Mix -- 49 minutes

This may have been the easiest mix I've ever made -- and it also may have been the most fun.

Cold steel industrial doesn't get any better than Ancient Methods, not now, not ever.  They can cave in chests with some of the roughest beats in the business, but if that's all they could do, their podcasts and DJ sets would become endurance contests rather quickly (it's hard to enjoy music when your ears are bleeding).  Plenty of Ancient Methods tracks contain several minutes of almost blissful restraint, almost lulling you into complacency with hypnotizing bass lines and clanging percussion buried deep in the mix.  That's what they use to bring you down in their sets before dropping the hammer once again.  Their tracks and mixes ebb and flow and coast and soar like no other.

It so happens that I had been listening to a few all-Basic Channel mixes during the week that Ancient Methods' "A Collection Of Ancient Airs" compilation dropped.  From there, making the mix itself was nearly effortless.  With material this good, anybody can sound like a genius.  I was having so much fun that I couldn't help but pad the mix with a few like sounding tracks.


Monday, July 04, 2016

Three brilliantly esoteric articles

I'm posting this a week late, but all three of these articles are essentially time-insensitive and remain just as great:

First off, Philip Sherburne put forth an epic takedown on ... the sorry state of whistling in pop music?  This is the most complete treatment of a minor (and undoubtedly passing) trend in chart pop.  My question is, where does all this fit into the recent trend of remixes of folk/acoustic songs getting the dance music remix treatments, like this for example?  Both involve blending styles that don't ordinarily belong together, and rely heavily on the novelty element.

On the same day for Pitchfork, Christina Lee wrote about the life and tragic murder of Atlanta's DJ Nando.   By the end of this inspiring article, you'll be convinced that Nando was the greatest unsung DJ of this generation.  Somehow I had never though about payola being such a major force in strip club programming, but it makes perfect sense.

Finally, Michaelangelo Matos compiled a stunning overview of DJ mixtapes in America.  You'd think that this story had been told a thousand times already, considering how important DJ mixes are to the culture, and yet I've never read anything even remotely like it.  This article helps fill what seems like a fundamental unwritten gap in the history of electronic music history.  There are many familiar names and stories for the longtime fan who remembers buying/copying/"acquiring" these mixes, but there are plenty of obscurities too (I knew maybe -- maybe -- half of this stuff).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 31

Passenger must verifty and reconfirm the mix (short songs mix) -- 53 minutes

The original idea was for a mix of short, bizarre songs crammed together into a blitz of sensory overload.  After discovering that I didn't have enough music for that sort of mix (where did I leave that "45 Seconds Of..." compilation again??) it turned into a mix of noise, ambient and off-kilter funky electronic tracks, with an emphasis on short running times and fast transitions.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Islamists" attack Radiohead fans in Istanbul

An unusual incident occured in an Istanbul record shop this past Friday, where a number of loud and opinionated individuals, assumed to be young men in their 20's, 30's, 40's, or 50's, caused a disturbance during a listening party for Radiohead's newest album.  

Major media outlets were quick to condemn their behaviour as a violent attack by "Islamists".  The event even captured the attention of the members of Radiohead, who were quick to criticize the incident by labeling it as an "act of violent intolerance" and stating that "our hearts go out to those attacked".  Fortunately, not every media outlet fell into the far too easy trap of blaming "Islamists" for the incident,but the overall journalistic trend was still, as a whole, somewhat disturbing.

In the immediate aftermath of such episodes, we have come to expect the usual gamut of reflexive, ill-thought out reactions, which often tend towards outright prejudice toward those accused of perpetrating the event.  But more recently, careful and reasoned analysis is becoming more common.  Following the horrible mass shooting in Orlando one week ago, many commentators were correct to discount the purported influence of the shooter's religion.  It is now widely seen as a purely homegrown American type of crime, seeing how it was carried out by a hateful, racist thug obsessed with guns and violence -- values that have become all too prevalent in American society.  Likewise, the recent mass shooting in Tel Aviv can be best explained via similarly relatable concepts that have become quotable buzzwords among the enlightened -- "frustration", "justice", "occupation", etc. -- instead of resorting to attacks on the suspects' ideologies or religion.  

That is why the reporting on the incident in Istanbul represents a disappointing step backwards in journalistic ethics.  Reporters were quick to condemn the actions of "Islamists" rather than a far more obvious culprit -- indie music fans.  Much like the discourse surrounding the Pulse nightclub shooting was quickly steered away from allegations of radicalism and toward the never more essential debate on gun laws in America, discussion about the Radiohead listening party incident has veered toward a condemnation of "Islamists" rather than a more timely debate about behaviour of entitled indie music fans.  

It is no secret that indie music fans have been known to express their opinions often in a rude, condescending, and even forceful manner.  In the same way that mass shootings have become as American as apple pie and college football, heated objection to the musical tastes of the "other" are as indie as ironic "I hate Pink Floyd" t-shirts and pretending to have lived in Brooklyn before it was cool.  Property damage, screamed threats, and broken merchandise at Istanbul's Velvet IndieGround shop should not be taken lightly, although one must keep in mind that the video footage available on the internet is of low quality and makes it difficult to discern exactly who or what instigated the incident.  This is not to excuse the means of expression by certain indie music fans, which can undoubtedly be boorish and annoying at times, and possibly even threatening.  But one should also appreciate that incidents like these are a natural reaction by an often marginalized sector of indie fans, born out of the frustration of seeing yet another overrated Radiohead album get fawned over by an adoring and insufficiently critical mainstream music press.   

The situation is complex, with plenty of blame to be placed on both sides.  It is true that the rhetoric spread by some indie fans is not conducive to constructive discourse, and can, on occasion, result in destructive behaviour that nonetheless recalls the DIY smash-the-system punk roots of many strains of indie rock.  However, we also cannot ignore the blatant provocations of indie music shops, with their listening parties dedicated to horrifically boring musical sacred cows who were never any good to begin with, who divert needed attention from more deserving artists. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Autechre, "elseq 1-5"

Joe Muggs' interview for RA is hands down the best Autechre interview I've ever read.  Hell, it's the best article of any kind about Autechre that I've read.  And their new album "elseq 1-5" is up there with the best work of their career.

Rather than delving into intense theoretical discussions about the duo's "aesthetic" or delving into the minutiae of how their album was made, the interview turns into the long awaited oral history of the mid-90's "Artificial Intelligence" scene, or rather, the complete lack of a cohesive scene (this is discussed in detail in the interview).

They talk about the old days (not always in a positive light), how programming their music is like a form of artificial intelligence (where the computer runs smart algorithms that predict what their creator wants -- Markov chains make a cameo appearance here), the concept behind releasing a four hour album (you can't exactly plop 20-minute tracks into the middle of a single album without ruining the flow), the possibility working with hip-hop artists (never say never, but it's almost inconceivable that it hasn't happened by now, "Envane" was almost twenty (!) years ago, and I guess their remix of Sensational Meets Kouhei doesn't count?) and so much more, and it's all a must-read.  

Before discussing the new album, let's revisit the 90's, with Sean Booth quoted at length:

The last time we did that [making music aimed at Warp] was Amber [1994]. We thought we'd be a pure fringe act when we signed, but Incunabula [1993] sold like hot cakes, went to indie number one, and Warp were like, "You've got to follow that up, you need to do another album in six months." We went, [shrugs], "Oh, OK," and did this very Warp record for them. Then we never did that again. When we gave them Tri Rep I had half a mind that they were going to say, "Oh, it's not the same, we can't have this." But they went for it, and that gave us the confidence to do what we really wanted, so on Chiastic [Chiastic Slide, 1997] we went all out to be as weird as possible. I think that's when quite a few people jumped ship.

This is the kind of information we'd have killed to have in the 90's (or even five years ago), it might have settled a whole load of debates a lot more quickly.  I've never heard "Amber" as a Warp album, for me it's a lush, encapsulating listen in a way that none of the Artificial Intelligence albums were. But the process of gaining their record label's confidence and trust was all leading to something, and that something was "Chiastic Slide", i.e. Autechre doing what they really wanted to do.

The people who jumped ship with "Chiastic Slide" were back on in time for "LP5" and the peak of IDM's highbrow popularity, but that's for another time.  But "Chiastic Slide" was a challenging album because it relied more heavily on repetition than anything else they'd done to that point.  But that was precisely the reason why I loved it so much (and still do). 

Without having to worry about fitting their ideas into a semi-palatable album type of format, Autechre have finally come back around to making another "Chiastic Slide".  Five of them in fact.  For much of the past decade plus, Autechre records were etudes in rhythmic construction.  Repetition was largely replaced by intricacy.  But on "elseq 1-5", the repetition is finally back in earnest.  Melodically, it's full of echoes from the past -- the heavy reverb of "Quaristice" and "Oversteps", the robotic funk of "Tri Repetae", the ghostly ambience of "Amber", and too many more to mention.  There is no fear of recycling sounds from the past.  Any and all backtracking is sacrificed at the altar of repetition, stretching their ideas well past the ten and even the twenty minute mark in a number of instances.  It's dense, hypnotic, and immersive.  Somehow it seems to fly by much faster than a four hour album should.  Only the second part, dominated by the longest track in the collection (the 27-minute "elyc6 0nset") could use some serious editing, but just about everything else is unmissable.  


Saturday, June 04, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 30

"The single mode mixes reviewed in Chapter 1 were relatively simple" -- 66 minutes

There was no particular grand theme to this mix, just a set of relaxing, late night listening across various genres.  There are some acoustic, unplugged style songs, epic remixes of mid-90's electronica, and one of my very favourite Leonard Cohen songs.  Nothing was planned in advance.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The weird, weird 90's -- Len and Prince

Stereogum spent their week digging through the strange idiosyncrasies of the 90's.  As time passes, the 90's look more and more like the biggest outlier in music industry history. Sales and profits were at a never to be repeated all time high, thanks to overpriced CD's nearly monopolizing the format and consumption of music.  Artists that sold out arenas in the 70's and 80's took the decade off (with few exceptions such as the Rolling Stones and U2), reformed or reconnected with their audience in the 00's and went right back to selling out arenas and stadiums again.  The list goes on.

This conversation with Len's Marc Costanzo is the most honest and refreshing interviews I've seen in a while. We like to think of musicians as creative geniuses who go to great lengths to cultivate their art. But sometimes great songs just happen by complete fluke.  Constanzo gets it, he's under absolutely no illusions about his place in the music business.  He's an ordinary guy who liked writing music and getting wasted with his friends, and not necessarily in that order.  He wrote "Steal My Sunshine" (helped by one of the best ever uses of sampling to really make a pop hit click) and couldn't be more humble about the complete unpredictability of it all.  No marketing strategist could have come up with this path to success.  Nothing could have been planned, not the inspiration for the song (the atmosphere at a rave), not the unthinkable sums of money given to them for filming the video (most of it spent on flying himself and his friends to Daytona to wreck shit while also wrecking their brain cells, filming everything as they went), and not the bonkers (but commendable) decision to fuck off and head home in the middle of their 200-date world tour because they were tired of being stars.

He doesn't complain about getting labeled a one hit wonder whose art wasn't appreciated in its time.  In fact it's the opposite -- "when it goes that fast off one single, and you have no other singles -- we knew there was no other single.  We were surprised there was even one single."  It feels like almost anybody could have written this, one of the best singles of the past 25 years.  Maybe anybody could have, but Constanzo actually did it.  Sometimes that's enough.  Sometimes it's not about being the most talented, or the most consistent, or the most business savvy, it's about dumb luck timing and doing one good thing before anyone else thinks of it.

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So how did Len fall ass backwards into one of the most fondly remembered singles of the decade, and the infinitely more ... everything really ... Prince struggle to sell records after 1991?

I've been thinking about this a lot since Prince's death last month. I'd long since assumed that Prince's commercial appeal went downhill for the same reasons that other 80's mega-icons' careers did -- failure to adapt his music to the changing tastes of music fans.  Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna all remained superstars until 1991-1992.  Each new music video was an event, and their albums still sold well.  By 1995, they all seemed like relics from a long forgotten time.  In Prince's case, he lost the rock crowd because his glitzy persona and outlandish costumes and stage performances seemed shallow next to the dour seriousness of 90's grunge and alt-rock.  He lost the hip-hip and R&B crowds because he never really embraced hip hop, and insisted on forcing 20 minute funk jams down people's throats rather than court the R&B fans that adored him in the 80's.

Is that really correct however?  Listening again to "Gett Off", "Cream", and "Diamonds and Pearls", I was reminded of not only how massive those songs were on video music channels and radio, but also of how much they sounded like the R&B and New Jack Swing that remained popular well into the mid-90's.  He recorded plenty of R&B cuts later in the decade that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Boyz II Men album.  Prince was one of the most versatile superstars ever -- could he really have failed to recognize and adapt to the changing tastes of his fans?

This 1998 interview with Prince (in his "The Artist" phase) from BET finds him speaking with a clear head about his problems with Warners, in language that sounds far more reasonable today than it did then.  He spoke of wanting to market his music directly to his fans via the internet.  Who else had that kind of foresight in the 90's?  He spoke passionately about corporations increasing their control over him and his art, and needing to break with his record company (and his past identity!) in order to harness his creative potential.  At the time many people thought he was setting fire to his career and biting the hand that fed him, but in a post-Occupy world, his sentiments would be met with a lot more sympathy.

This wonderful oral history of Prince in the 90's, from David Brown writing in Rolling Stone, gets closest to the truth.  Prince's fans didn't get bored of him and start listening to G-funk instead.  Rather, he stopped trying to market himself (and cut off contact with record companies and managers that would have been happy to do it for him) and dared his fans to follow his lead.  He recorded albums with women he picked up at clubs.  He eschewed most of his best known hits and channeled his inner James Brown, becoming a ruthlessly strict bandleader.  Writing "SLAVE" on his forehead and changing his name to a symbol was kind of the last straw. He could have been ghostwriting slow jams for every major R&B act in the 90's, but he no longer wanted that kind of career.  His anti-corporate actions prevented people from appreciating his music based on its merit alone.  Casual fans could have taken to his new material, but Prince the man had become too much of an oddball to take seriously.  It would actually be another ten years before he became comfortable with his legacy and went back to playing all his old hits again.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Stone Roses, "All For One"; Radiohead, "Daydreaming"

AKA two big comebacks that broke the internet ... with cynicism and snark!  To the music!

The first new Stone Roses track in twenty years is lovably stupid, and contrary to most of the reactions I've seen, it's very difficult to hate.  If a bunch of teenagers followed up their "Battle of the Bands" upset win with a simplistic song about positivity for their upcoming graduation ceremony, it might sound like "All For One".  It's an absurdly simple song that sounds like it was written in less than ten minutes, but perhaps that's the point.  Remember this?  Songs like these are too dumb and innocent to truly hate.

Granted, the Roses are supposed to be 50-something professionals with a century of music biz experience between them, and instead of trying to live up to their legacy, they took the quickest route to writing a new sing along for their festival appearances this summer.  Of course they could have done better.

On the other hand, after more than twenty five years, the Stone Roses finally sound almost exactly like the La's!  I never could hear the ressemblance back in the day, even between "Sally Cinnamon"-era Roses.  Tell me that "All For One"doesn't capture the banal jauntiness of The La's "IOU"!

Those first ten seconds (the guitar fade in, that first unmistakable John Squire lick) sure had people anticipating another "I Wanna Be Adored", didn't it?

On the bright side, at least the Roses had the good sense to get to the point with their new song -- after the first thirty seconds, you've heard all the song has to offer and can pretty much fill in the next three minutes in your head.  On the other hand, Radiohead's "Daydreaming" starts with a few intruiging sounds and textures that could potentially go somewhere but ends up building to absolutely nothing that's the least bit interesting.  Hey, it's a microcosm of Radiohead's entire career!

In the video, Thom Yorke walks around doing nothing.  He walks through a laundromat and walks up a snow covered hill, to name just two examples.  Somebody please hold on to me before I fall off the edge of my seat!  One of many takeaways from Prince's death is the lost art of rock stars carrying themselves like rock stars.  Prince never looked like a slob in public, and he didn't take promo shots for his albums that looked like black and white mug shots. Actually, even common criminals spend more on hair care than Radiohead. Replace comotose Thom Yorke in this video with any random down on his luck goof and what do you get?  You get exactly the same turd of a video.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince RIP

In the 1980's you couldn't help but be a fan of Prince unless you hated contemporary music altogether.  He was a sensation on record, on stage, and on screen.  He had countless proteges who swarmed the charts under his guidance.  He even appeared in the least obvious places -- it was only today that I learned he played keyboards on Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back".

A run of the mill, good-to-great artist's influence can be measured by the number of imitators they help spawn.  Those rules don't apply to the legends though.  They don't have imitators because they're too good to imitate.  Nobody can even come close to duplicating what they do, and most don't even bother trying.  Prince had plenty of clones in the 80's but that was because he was writing their music for them.

The first album I ever bought was "Purple Rain".  I can't say I was ever a huge fan of Prince -- others will write about him from a more personal perspective much better than I can.  But I loved "Let's Go Crazy".  I saw it as fun, chaotic, immediate party music.  I didn't care much for "When Doves Cry" in those days, and wouldn't really appreciate it for another ten or fifteen years.

Many artists feed off their own myths, leaving even their most devoted fans to helplessly sort through the blurred lines separating fact from fiction.  Aphex Twin is one of those artists, with an origin story similar to Prince's.  Self taught boy genius spends years honing his craft in relative solitude, apparently oblivious to what his contemporaries are doing, emerges with a fully formed sound that's light years ahead of what others can manage, continues living as a semi-recluse even at the height of their fame, hidden behind masks and head scratching aliases.  All the while they record prolifically and amass a catalogue of music (including god knows how many unreleased albums) that takes decades to fully sift through.

At some point the artist has no choice but to perpetuate the myth because so much of their identity is wrapped up in it.  Aphex Twin had collaborators in the early days.  He was influenced by plenty of artists that he wouldn't admit to in interviews during the 90's.  After enough time has passed they sometimes let their guard down.  If you're lucky, the stuff that was too good to be true remains true (Aphex did buy that tank in the 90's and IIRC, he still has it).

Will the real story of the famously private Prince ever be known?  Will anybody dominate a decade the way he did in the 80's, as arguably the top multi-instrumentalist, producer, writer, and performer? Today, the likes of Max Martin or Pharrell can claim maybe two or those four.   Even Prince's tossed off junk -- such as "Nothing Compares 2 U", written for The Family but never released as a single -- became mega-hits in the hands of other artists.

It's a shocking, far too sudden loss for the music world.  "He will be missed" can't even begin to cover it.  Like him or not, Prince is irreplaceable, and we'll never see the likes of him again.