Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2017

Honorable mentions


Tape Loop Orchestra, Held Against The Light (Tape Loop Orchestra)




This stunning, long flowing piece is nearly as good as last year's "The Invisibles", which placed at #3 on my list last year.  So why did it barely miss the list this year?  Like Tim Hecker, TLO has hit on a formula that is so magical, it almost can't not be good.  And yet somehow this felt like more of a continuation of "The Invisibles" rather than a new stand-alone album. But of course it is a stand-alone album, and so are the other six or so albums and EP's released by Andrew Hargreaves in 2017.  Basically there are no fixed rules here.  Other artists needed their turn this year.



Godspeed You Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers (Constellation)   


Another long flowing piece, and you almost have to wonder why it took them so long to dedicate an entire album to the concept.  It might be the most grandiose statement they've ever committed to record, especially since the magnificent "Motherfucker=redeemer" seems to be have written out of GYBE history at least as far as live shows go (although it's certainly possible that they don't have the time or patience to play it anymore).  But I couldn't get around the idea of this album as a retread of past glories, of GYBE churning through the hits out of habit, as if they're making music these days born out of some obligation to stay relevant politically, rather than due to inspiration or passion for being in the music business.  I find myself thinking these things while listening to the album, even as I marvel at how outstanding it is.  It doesn't make sense.  Especially since the top ten is full of artists doing other forms of retreads of their past work.  



10.  Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Diaries and Documents 2006-2010 (Adversary Electronics)




Compilations of recordings from a band's early days often turn out to be curiosities for superfans only.  But this one is different.   A sense of calming strangeness seeps through each phase of these minimalist experiments, it's soothing and unnerving in equal parts.



9.  Radio Slave, Feel The Same (REKIDS)


Radio Slave's music is best enjoyed in the 12" single format, where he's been hypnotizing listeners with ten minute techno epics and remixes for well over a decade.  In the album format (Radio Slave's first in nine years) he can branch out a bit and experiment with ambient bits and quirky electronica that's not necessarily material made for the dance floor.  Some listeners may prefer the "classic" sound of "Trans" and "Axis" but I personally enjoyed the odd, exotic feel of "101" and "Gaikokujin" more. 


8.  Conforce, Autonomous (Delsin)



Conforce consistently finds a way to delicately straddle the boundaries of retro and modern sounds, borrowing liberally from early 90's AI-era Warp Records electronica and 21st century watery dub techno.  



7.  New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works)



Has any band ever done so much with so little?  So many great indie pop songs, so little variation?  Adding a dose of Stereolab's motorik swagger is what passes for innovation on this album, but make no mistake, it's classic New Pornographers through and through and there's been nothing wrong with that going on seventeen years.  



6.  Daniel Menche, Sleeper (SIGE)


The title suggests an album of gently pulsating drones for drifting off to sleep.  That description more accurately describes the follow-up (companion?) album "Slumber".  But "Sleeper" is twelve tracks of grinding drones cycling through different degrees of savagery over a mammoth three hour run time.  Although not as caustic as some of Menche's other works, it's an effective medicine for those who insist on total sound immersion for relaxation.



5.  The National, Sleep Well Beast (4AD)



When I was 15, The Rolling Stones and The Who had reunited with a lot of fanfare and hit the road for wildly successful tours.  They're the first bands that come to mind when I think about "old" classic rock bands maintaining their relevance for a new audience from an altogether different generation.  The scary thing is that the members of the National (technically just frontman Matt Berninger but the other members aren't too far behind) are about the same age as the Who and Stones were then.  Doesn't that make you feel damn old?  

But The Who and the Stones never really got old, musically speaking.  Their successes, especially as license-to-print-money touring outfits, was based on the ability to get away with playing the same songs they played when they were younger.  The National are a different sort that I think is more specific to bands grew up in the last century but have remained active throughout the current century.  They're old, and they make it cool to be old.  They're not like the Bob Dylans and Nick Caves who are extraordinary figures turned elder statesmen, who earned their status in their early days and continued to add to their legacy for a long time afterward.   The National are ordinary people who make songs about ordinary things that only fortysomething married people care about.  But they sound cool doing it.  There are plenty of precursors to this -- I compare The National to Tindersticks all the time, and Yo La Tengo circa "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out" is another good example (those bands were much younger than The National are right now, but always sounded much older than they were).  For The National, the more they try to not fit in, the more popular they get.  



4.  Carl Craig, Versus (Infine, Planet E)



No techno + orchestral music hybrid has ever lived up to its billing (with the exception of a track from this EP).  Until now.  Carl Craig spent years meticulously mixing and editing this album, not settling for anything less than a complete reimagination of many of his most famous tracks.  Every earlier effort (even by greats like Jeff Mills) seems like techno with cheap strings patches clumsily laid on top.   



3.  Clark, Death Peak (Warp)


Clark is a Warp act through and through -- there's no better example of an artist who grew up listening to the "Artificial Intelligence" compilations and went on to make his own music inspired by the label.  For me he'll always be "mid-90's Autechre with prettier melodies", which is a formula that slays when it works, and is as hopelessly derivative as it sounds when it doesn't.  If you insist on your favourite music carrying some contemporary significance, this was the only album of 2017 that captured the "chaos and uncertainty of the times" for me.



2.  Slowdive, Slowdive (Dead Oceans)



Slowdive's self-titled effort stands apart as the best the all the comeback albums by first wave shoegaze acts.  Some may vote for 2011's "mbv", and there's a strong point to be made there, but even it's biggest boosters won't claim it as an equal to MBV's best work.  "Slowdive" comes closest to reaching their peak while still sounding modern and somehow not completely ignoring the twenty years of alt-country music they've been making since their original breakup.  One could quibble about details but this is essentially the best case scenario for a Slowdive reunion album.   



1.  The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time - Stage 2 (History Always Favours the Winners)



The Caretaker's terrifying six part journey into the chaotic hell of dementia started fully taking hold on this, the second album in the series.  The third album (also released in 2017) made a brief left turn, cycling through lost memories at double the frequency, alternating between perfect clarity and sluggish confusion.  The second album was even better, with a gloomy outlook throughout and a constant sense of something being terribly wrong and you're never entirely sure what it is.  The memories are all there, but only 80% intact, and they don't always piece themselves together fluidly. It's one of the most challenging albums to I've ever had the pleasure to listen to, the uneasy sonic foretelling of a future too difficult to contemplate.   



Friday, December 15, 2017

The Last List

I love lists.  I've been ranking my favourite music of the year for over a quarter of a century.  I always look forward to reading the flood of year-end lists come December, and using them as a springboard to discovering music I missed out on during the previous twelve months.  I write about "Best of [decade][genre]" lists featured in major publications all the time.  And yet, I'd been feeling a sort of apathy toward these lists recently, which is something I wrote about in last year's Top Ten post.  I still love the idea of lists, but wasn't enjoying compiling them like I once had.  My brain was committed, my heart was not. 

Resident Advisor published an editorial a few weeks ago that had a profound effect on me.  They announced the immediate cancellation of all their year end polls -- readers and staff polls, top DJ's, songs, albums, mixes, everything.  You should read the whole thing, but the essence is that they felt the polls didn't represent what was really going on in the scenes they were covering.  They provide a number of examples (underrepresentation of women and LGBTQ performers, many of the same artists appearing in some of the rankings every year) but it goes deeper than a slight of any particular artist, scene, group, or gender.  The end of year lists weren't providing a true synopsis or additional insight into the year that was.  They weren't effectively communicating what it felt like to live through the highs (and lows) of the year's music.  They reinforced stereotypes in a scene that prides itself on constantly driving creativity forward and not conforming to stereotypes.  The day-to-day reality is one thing, end-of-year lists had become something else entirely.

I have experienced the same thing in my own music fandom.  I listen to music all the time.  I love discovering new music and reconnecting with older music.  I like reading about music and discussing music, contextualizing music.  Like I wrote last year, I love music but I don't like following music, at least not like I used to.  End of year lists are about fighting to stay current, remodeling and adding to the canon one year at a time, connecting with the musical heroes of today and securing their spots on the pedestals next to the heroes of yesterday.  That's all very noble work.  But it doesn't represent how I see myself as a music fan, at least not right now.  And it gets harder to put together a top ten list every year. 

I spend less and less time cumulatively listening to my "top" albums each year.  No single album takes over and dominates my listening and my personality anymore (the last one that did was probably "Bloom", or maybe "Trouble Will Find Me" if I'm feeling generous).  I connect to albums over shorter periods of time.  Over the past week, I connected to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (I think I understand this album now, it's the album 21st century FM fans listen to when they think they've gotten bored of "Rumours") and Junkie XL's "Radio JXL: A Broadcast From the Computer Hell Cabin".  Next week I'll cycle through other albums, and maybe I'll come back to those two, or maybe I won't.  And there will be some contemporary albums mixed in the rotation somewhere, but chances are they'll be cycled out at about the same rate as the older ones.

I will post a Top Ten of 2017 list this year ... but it might be my last one.  Chances are it won't be, much like the Last CD probably won't be the last, despite my prognostications.  But it could be.  Both would have been unthinkable not too long ago,

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Happy Mondays, "Bummed" (2007 collector's edition)

If this does turn out to be "The Last CD", I figured I should write something about it.  And oddly enough, it's the only Happy Mondays album (pre-reunion) that I've never heard (in particular, "Happy Mondays Live" is the one I used to play endlessly).

I can scarcely imagine what a first time listener would think of Happy Mondays nearly thirty years on.  The earlier generation had their prized west coast psych bands to lionize, bands that burned brightly and burned out.  If you couldn't understand the reasons for all the mania by listening to the records (which now sound tame) well then you had to be there.  My generation has bands like Happy Mondays, who were also more like a scene than a band.  Their main foils The Stone Roses' music was rooted in classic rock staples (Byrds, Zeppelin) and can be enjoyed without reference to Madchester catchphrases or gossip tidbits from issues of NME from 1989.  For anyone under the age of 35, watching or re-watching the second half of "24 Hour Party People" will acclimate you to the Monday's appeal faster than listening to any of their albums will.

"Bummed" turns out to be a major disappointment.  John Cale was the perfect producer for the pre-Madchester version of the Mondays.  On their debut, he knew how to polish their minimal grind-funk into a listenable product despite (and even highlighting) the rough edges.  A wasted Martin Hannett adding echo and reverb at 4 AM before rushing out to join the party in the next room (most likely) doesn't pass the grade.  Most of "Bummed" sounds like an extension of their debut, it's clear they were running out of ideas and were carrying on because they could, and getting away with everything because their label actively encouraged their notoriety.  Early Joy Division could come off as amateurish and full of errors as well, but they were driven, stayed driven, and improved immensely.  Early Mondays was sloppy rock with a purpose, but on "Bummed", the main purpose was to stick to the formula and apply just enough effort to keep the party going as long as possible. 

However, the bonus tracks and remixes on the reissue still sound groovy and inspired. Listening to both discs together really accentuates to which degree these remixes transformed everything Mondays were about (at least on record), turning them from just another forgotten late 80's UK indie band into a fresh, dance-rock monster for the 90's.  Remixes of "Hallelujah" and "Wrote For Luck" became the standard radio-friendly versions, and were more well known than the originals.  This studio dressup game worked for a short while.  Unlike Primal Scream, who also never requested their image makeover but were able to run with it in the long term once it happened, once the Mondays had to actually become that dance-rock band (rather than a ramshackle rock band getting the all-star remix treatment), they fell apart rather quickly.  Paul Oakenfold turned the follow-up, "Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches" into a near classic, but in retrospect it was undoubtedly their "New Jersey".     

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Last CD

I recently organized my CDs for the first time in years.  Everything I bought since the last major reorganization effort came out of the jewel cases and has been filed away in CD wallets.  At this point I don't bother trying to have a complete alphabetical filing system that covers the entire collection.  I have way too many discs, and it would be a logistical nightmare to merge and refile them all.  Not to mention that I have hundreds of "missing" discs I left behind in T.O.

The birth of our son has forced us to clear out the clutter in the apartment and be more efficient with how we store our belongings, not like it wasn't a good thing to do regardless.  Going forward, that means being more frugal with buying stuff for ourselves as well.  Among other things, it means that digging through second hand CD racks and grabbing twelve bargain discs for twenty bucks or thereabouts probably won't be happening as often.  These curiosity/"deals too good to pass up" purchases have been tailing off for some time anyway, since I'm essentially a suburban husband these days.  My mini-windfall from Munich and Vienna from earlier this year (the New Order Be Music box set, a collection of rare 80's electronic music from Dusseldorf, the "Rumours" 2CD reissue, and plenty more goodies) may have been my last gasp of combined new and second hand CDs for a while.

Or maybe forever?  There's a distinct possibility that I have bought my last CD.  Twenty years ago, such a concept seemed nearly unthinkable.  The CD was looking like the final chapter in music collection.  They were small (smaller than vinyl), reliable (more so than cassettes), and sounded as good as music could get for a non-audiophile hardcore fan (or so I thought, until I became a vinyl collector).  I've probably bought about two thousand of them since 1994, and I could never bring myself to sell a single one.  It defies all common sense but I could never imagine getting rid of any of them, it seemed like the antithesis of what collecting was about and I honestly couldn't say there were any I regretted buying.

At one point, I didn't think I'd stop buying cassettes either.  Until one day I did.  Even though I'd planned to continue buying less expensive cassettes and save my CD buying for the less readily available import purchases, I ended up buying my final new cassette around the fall of 1994.  There was no indicator that it was the last cassette, so there was no fanfare, no philosophical musing about the end of that mini-era.  Save for blank cassettes and mixed tapes, which I continued with for almost another decade, I stopped buying them.  There was nothing to mark the occasion (and there was no way to know there was even an "occasion") and so I'm not even sure what my last cassette purchase even was.  It very well may have been "Definitely Maybe" by Oasis.  Perhaps I picked up a couple of used cassettes later on, like an old Cure album ("Paris", for instance) but Oasis' debut album may have been the final, newly released album I ever bought on the format.  Or maybe Suede's "Dog Man Star"?  And around the same time, Pulp's "His N Hers"? 

Same goes for vinyl.  Starting in 2000, my vinyl collection ballooned from a couple of dozen records to several hundred by 2006.  By 2002 it was my most purchased format, obviously thanks to techno.  I bought new albums on vinyl specifically for the superior sound, for instance, I bought nearly everything I own by GYBE on vinyl.  Later on, when second hand shops started popping up everywhere, I took full advantage of being able to find catalogue album on vinyl for a fraction of the cost of even a used CD.  I bought old Gordon Lightfoot and Walker Brothers albums for a dollar.  It felt like if you looked hard enough in Toronto, you could buy just about anything released before 1987 on vinyl for less than five dollars.  But I moved away in 2006, didn't bring my turntables, and never bought a replacement.  I love my vinyl, but who has space for it all?  Thinking about the situation breaks my heart every time.  In the meantime, vinyl sales have taken off in the last decade, no thanks to me.  It's looking quite likely that I've bought my last vinyl record, but what was it?  I really haven't a clue.  Probably some 60's or 70's rock thing I bought for a dollar.  As for new records, I bought Low's "The Great Destroyer" and Animal Collective's "Feels" in 2005.  They were the only two vinyl purchases out of my top albums from that year.

How about CD's?  I'm not 100% certain, even though my last purchase was only a couple of months ago.  I kept some of my CD's, especially the ones I hadn't yet listened to, in their original bags from the store with their receipts. But after filing everything away, those rough groupings have been lost, and it was only later on that I realized that I may have bought my final CD.  However, I believe my most recent purchase was at Third Ear Records, where I bought the 3 CD collection "Luna" by Stephan Bodzin vs Marc Romboy, bought together with the 2 CD collectors edition of "Bummed" by Happy Mondays.  However, for new releases, I'm quite certain it was Carl Craig's "Versus", bought with Nathan Fake's "Providence" at a Saturn store in Munich.

Friday, November 17, 2017

There are always amazing things out there you can learn about music: two examples

I had no idea that Phil Collins basically invented the gated drum sound, and with it, the entire damned 1980's.  I can't count the number of times that I heard "In the Air Tonight" but in all those listens, I never once thought of whether I could name an earlier song that used the same drum sounds.  Maybe it's because I never liked the song very much, and never bothered to enter into deep thinking about a song I've long been sick of. But the drums quite obviously are the star of the song.  There aren't any flashy solo parts or even a vocal melody that works outside of the context of the recording.  It's all about paranoia of the first half, and the drums crashing in for the second half.  This was never really the case for any of the countless 80's hits that followed, where the huge, gated drums were buried under maximalist keyboards and FX-laden guitars.

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There's been no more sobering realization of the speed that time flies (musically speaking) than the spate of 10th anniversary tributes to Burial's "Untrue".  Has it really been ten years?  Typing it out does nothing to make it seem less impossible. 

I can't argue with those who have called it the most influential electronic music record of the past decade either.  Nothing sounded like it when it was released, and nothing sounds like it today.  Much like the Caretaker, or the early Aphex Twin records, Burial's style is a lo-fi, reclusive personal studio production that seems like it'd be very easy to copy, and yet nobody has ever managed to do it.

Resident Advisor's digital essay on "Untrue" (a first for them!) dives into the origin of some of ghostly, alien samples on the album, and it turns out that some of them are Beyonce and Usher samples that have been staring me in the face all this time.  I suppose I would have known this if I had listened to a complete Beyonce or Usher album or ever browsed an online thread dedicated to sniffing out Burial's samples.  But I never did, and learning how the sausage got made only makes me appreciate his work even more.  Anyone can be a hero by sampling something that nobody else can find, but a genius takes what's in plain sight and makes art that nobody else thought about doing.   

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gord Downie RIP

Between the "Man Machine Poem" album and tour, his political activism, various public honours, and new solo albums, Downie had been so active over the past 18 months that one could almost forget that his death was going to happen sooner rather than later. 

The Tragically Hip story has been told countless times, and it's always the same: huge in Canada, but never broke through anywhere else.  In Canada, just to be clear, they were as big as a band can possibly be in the music industry.  They sold out arenas and headlined festivals for over two decades.  Almost every one of their albums were certified platinum, and three were certified diamond (the equivalent of selling ten million copies in the US).  Yes, they sang about uniquely Canadian places, people, and events, which may have limited their appear for international audiences.  But for a diverse array of major artists, from British classic rock bands to LA-based rappers, such introspection wasn't a hindrance in their rise to prominence. 

Downie was Michael Stipe's everyman poet mixed with the manic unpredictability of an Iggy Pop.  He was a unique visionary fronting a band of ordinary looking dudes who were content to let him hog the spotlight.  It was not unlike the role that Jarvis Cocker played as the frontman and main creative and lyrical force behind Pulp. 

Tragically Hip were hugely popular but not necessarily influential.  They didn't spawn a slate of copycat bands.  They were a hard working bar band that struck gold, which was improbable even while it was happening.  How do you copy a formula that had already been copied in hundreds of dives across multiple countries?  There's little doubt that Downie was the spark that made them different from all the other bands who never got out of playing a twice weekly residence at a small bar in their hometown.  But now that he's gone, the remaining members can take the Grateful Dead route if they want it, and play "Tragically Hip and Friends" gigs all across Canada for the rest of their working lives.   

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 39

"whatintheworldisthisnoisemix" -- 68 minutes

This mix is totally unlike any of the others I've done.

The backstory: a few months ago, I set about ripping some of my hundreds of CD's that are stored at my parents' house.  These are kept in several large, album cases with the discs and liner notes.

But some discs don't have liner notes.  Perhaps there was a printed back cover of the jewel case that has since been lost.  And some discs have little or no information printed on them, and aren't recognized by CD naming software.  In the years 2003-2006, I bought a lot of noise and experimental music CDs on my many visits to Berlin, but haven't heard some of them since that time, and can't remember anything about them (e.g. artist name, album title, etc.)

That brings us back to the mix ... I don't have a clue what any of this music is.  I have a vague recollection of buying this album (a two CD set with 34 total tracks) but can't remember a things about it besides that.  I haven't the slightest idea who the artist(s) could be.  Perhaps a time track search could turn something up?

I probably never listened to the entire two plus hour collection even when I bought it.  So after quickly skipping through all 34 tracks to categorize them roughly in order of noisiness, I recorded this mix.  One take, no redos, no edits, just instinct. 

Even after distilling this music from 130 minutes down to a little less than 70, it's still a rough, chaotic, disorienting listen.  But I think it's something you can get lost in -- provided you like noise. 

   

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Hit Parade Podcast: the war against the single edition

Chris Molanphy's latest edition of the Hit Parade podcast on Slate is a must for anyone who grew up listening to and buying music in the 90's.  Predictably, I ended up getting lost down the rabbit hole of 90's rock playlist on Youtube in the days after I listened to it.  I've heard more Collective Soul in the past week than I had in the previous ten years. 

I've always appreciated the mix of sentiment and hard data that Molanphy brings to his columns.  He always strives to analyze the social reasons behind what makes a hit into a hit, while supporting his ideas with data from the charts.  In any era, the chart narrative can be far different from the memories of the "people who were there".  That was never more true in the mid to late 1990's, and that's precisely what this podcast is about. 

I didn't know that MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was the genesis of the trend, the "experiment" (as Molanphy termed it several times) that turned into a smashing, absurdly profitable success for Hammer and (later in the decade) dozens of other artists.  This podcast is as good an analysis as you'll find on the subject, but I want to turn over a few more stones:

1) By the end of the 90's, the album had largely supplanted the single.  I felt this wasn't emphasized enough.  The marketing of a hit hadn't changed in decades -- push a song to radio (and later MTV) by any means necessary, drive up demand, and make the product available in stores.  The strategy was identical, but the product was different.  Instead of running to the store to buy the single, you bought the album.  It didn't matter if you were a one hit wonder or a career artist.  The default format -- in fact, the only format in most cases -- you could buy in the store was the CD album. 

This is why so many shitty bands with minor hits earned multiplatinum sales that only the top end superstar acts can rack up these days.  The first act that always comes to mind for me in this respect is Smashmouth. 

2) The airplay charts were a better indicator of the "real" number one song in the country.  But they still don't give us anything close to the real story.  In looking at the list of songs that spent the most time at number one on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, there are a few anomalies.  You have the chart topping mega-smash hits from the first half of the decade ("I Will Always Love You", "One Sweet Day", "The Sign"), and the 21st century "iTunes" era smashes ("We Belong Together", "Uptown Funk", "Shape of You").  The first group were undoubtedly huge sellers (singles and albums), and the Airplay chart clearly corroborates what the sales charts already tell you.  The second group come from the current era when airplay, Youtube views, and streaming is king, again, no surprises here.  The anomalies happened in the intervening years.   

"Don't Speak" was #1 in Airplay for 16 weeks.  Yes, the song and video were everywhere.  This translated into huge album sales, about sixteen million worldwide.  That all makes sense.  But the longest running Airplay hit of all time, a record that has incredibly stood for nearly twenty years, is "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls.  Yes, that song was inescapable in 1998.  But their record breaking success in airplay translated to only four million in album sales.  And it's not like Goo Goo Dolls vanished from the radio after their one huge hit like Los Del Rio did.  They were radio staples for years.  Similarly, take Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", which ruled Airplay for 11 weeks.  Her sales were good (seven million worldwide) but not spectacular for the 1990's.  The hit single was a number one Airplay smash, but the album didn't reach number one anywhere other than her native Australia. 

So for some artists, Airplay was a predictor of strong album sales, as you'd expect.  But for others the connection is far from clear.  The confusion applies in the other direction too, for instance, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" is one of the top selling albums ever, but only "You Learn" (hardly the most popular or well remembered song from the album) topped the Airplay chart. 

Those years from about 1995-1998 are easily the haziest, most impossible to interpret years for hit songs in chart history. 

3) When the "experiment" of not releasing singles in the early 90's started, CD sales were still rather modest.  There was a two year period between vinyl sales collapsing (or rather, being killed off intentionally by the industry) and CD sales exploding where cassettes were the top selling format.  Personal note: I loved cassettes.  I was a very late convert to CD's.  Most of my new album length purchases were on cassette up until the fall of 1994.   Whatever I couldn't get on cassette I bought on vinyl, in particular because a lot of the techno I liked wasn't easily available in any other format.  And the "mix tape" is still one of the most perfect creations ever.  The "mix CD" (unless mixed by a professional dance DJ) was never a thing, and the mp3 playlist holds no sentimental value for anyone whatsoever. 

The master plan of the record companies only went into overdrive once the CD has almost completely ground every other format into dust.  Vinyl is more expensive to produce, slower to manufacture, and more difficult to transport.  Cassettes sold for about the same amount as CD, but had higher profit margins.  However everyone knew it was a buggy format.  The sound was inferior to vinyl, and the tapes could tear or wear out.  CD's were looked upon as magic silver disks with perfect sound forever, which justified the much higher sales price.  It was all bullshit.  It was the cheapest medium to produce (this wasn't well understood in the days before CD read/write drives in every computer) and could be sold at an artificially high price point (despite having inferior sound compared to vinyl) with stratospheric profit margins.  The plan was test driven in the days of the cassette.  Only once the CD was the only medium left standing, could the industry proceed full steam ahead with their "one hit song = $18" plan.  This is why so many years elapsed between the primordial days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, and the full flowering of profitmaking evil days where even nothing artists like Chumbawamba and Marcy Playground could sell millions of albums. 


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Tom Petty RIP

Perhaps more than anyone with his longevity in the music business, Tom Petty got the most out of his talent.  The Heartbreakers started their career in an era of larger than life arena rock bands.  "Larger than life" couldn't possibly be a less fitting description.  Petty was an average looking rocker dude from Florida, who fronted a band of similarly average looking dudes.  You could say the same about Springsteen and the E Street Band, but come on ... they had the Spectorian glamour from day one. They were always a stadium band stuck playing clubs until they got big enough.  The Heartbreakers where straight ahead, nose to the grind, professional rockers.  In another life (say, if Petty had been born fifteen years later), he might have had a career the likes of Jon Spencer -- essentially that of a pub rocker with a strong cult following, who occasionally sniffs major label success via short-lived collaborations with a hip producer, but always ends up retreating back to the underground.  Most musicians would kill to have Jon Spencer's career, but Jon Spencer never played the Superbowl halftime show. 

Forty years ago, could anyone have predicted how Petty's career would turn out?  As the 70's rolled on, he timed his album releases perfectly with the rise of punk.  Petty was rootsy enough to be liked by the classic rock crowd, and no frills enough to be liked by the new wave crowd.  That dual cred was still sustaining him in the early 90's, when the previous generation of 70's and 80's rockers had been cleared out by the younger, filthier grunge and alternative stars, with the exception of Neil Young and Tom Petty. 

At the end of the 80's, he looked out of place as the youngest Travelling Wilbury by far.  Musically, he blended in just fine, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this would mark the beginning of the Stones/Who never ending nostalgia tour phase of his career.  But the next year he released his most successful album, "Full Moon Fever".  And a few years later, Petty's videos were in heavy rotation in MTV and remained so throughout the early and mid 90's, long after many of his earlier contemporaries were no longer considered relevant to the Gen-X and Y crowd. 

Petty had a lot of great songs, but the most special one for me is "Learning To Fly", which essentially kicked off my mini-obsession with "repetitively strummed acoustic guitar" songs such as Kristin Hersh's "Me and My Charms", James' "Laid", and countless others.  Plus it has one of the best "coming of age" lyrics ever written.

   

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Mogwai, "Every Country's Sun"; The National, "Sleep Well Beast"

This post will be more about the stylistic choices made by these bands, rather than focusing on the qualities of the albums themselves.

Each new Mogwai album over the past ten years makes a solid first impression.  But they never seem to grow on me -- each listen brings diminishing returns, and seldom reveal any new, unexpected levels of detail.  A couple of tracks might stand out, but the rest fades into the background, not to be revisited once the next album cycle begins.

I searched my archives and had another look at what I wrote about "The Hawk Is Howling" nine (!!) years ago.   Nothing has changed!  Their albums still fill a "halfway gray area between loud and soft, between epic and succinct, between melodic and freeform".  The ideas and clever melodies are there, but the payoffs aren't.  Mogwai used to be all about building to the climax.

Creatively, I can't think of another formerly great band that's more in need of a complete reset.  I keep coming back to "Rock Action", where every track seemed to announce it's own new microgenre, particularly the guitar noise/industrial slam opening track "Sine Wave". "Zidane -- A 21st Century Portrait" wasn't a classic but it took their music in a more blissed out direction that they had not fully explored to that point, and applied it to soundtracking the high drama of sport.  That fresh approach is what drew me to the album. 

---------------

In contrast, The National's latest album is a grower.  At first I was disappointed at the lack of a standout powerhouse rock track such as "Graceless" from "Trouble Will Find Me".  It's a quieter, more intimate album than its predecessor, with enough soft electronic embellishments to avoid repeating their earlier work, but not nearly enough to signify any kind of stylistic change.  Previously, they would serve up maudlin with a wink and a style, treading that fine line between sad and humorous in a drunken pub rock package in a way that few bands other than Tindersticks have ever been able to master.  Here, there's something more didactic about the lyrics, although I might soften that stance after additional listens.  But "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" (what a title!) and "Day I Die" are tremendous singles, and the tension and urgency that the music needs is maintained from start to finish.  There's a real buzz about an indie rock album made by forty somethings about relationship problems , which is weird and cool and confusing all at the same time.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 38

"A spontaneous techno mix to celebrate the fall leaves", 39 minutes

No quote-inspired title this time, the title simply means what it says.  I selected the tracks and mixed them surprisingly quickly, with virtually no testing to see how they'd flow together.  Sometimes you just get lucky and things pan out.  These bite-sized mixed are a hell of a lot easier than the longer ones to compile and mix, and easier to listen to as well.  On days like these, I feel like there should almost never be a need to make a mix longer than an hour.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Slowdive, Vaadat Charigim live at Barby, Tel Aviv

It's appropriate that this is likely my last non-(cool) Dad gig.  Shoegaze was the genre that should have been a passing fad like so many other 80's and 90's rock-based microgenres.  Yet it somehow stuck around thanks to a small number of passionately devoted fans (half of which formed their shoegazing bands, or so it might seem).  Much like the West Coast psychedelia scene of the late 60's, the bands were relative footnotes in the grand scheme of rock at the time and flamed out quickly, but became counterculture, forever cool touchstones -- especially once their fans grew up to be music critics and couldn't stop writing about them.  Now we're the crusty stoners in our 40's who can't get enough of the music we grew up with.  Are there any new shoegaze fans jumping on ship during the past few years.  Based on the look of the crowd in the Barby, it seems not.

But at the very least, Vaadat Charigim won themselves at least one new fan (me).  They may be the best rock band in Israel.  These guys just get it.  Formed only five years, they look like grizzled fans who finally said fuck it and decided to go for it and form the shoegaze band they'd always dreamed of forming after letting life get in the way for far too many years.  Their music is like the Spirit of '88 MBV with the tempos slowed down by 25%, full of searing transitions and loaded with pop hooks.

The first wave of shoegaze largely passed me by at the time.  I knew about the bands but wasn't a big fan and hardly owned any records until years later.  I didn't see any of them live either -- until now.  Yes, this was my (depending on how you'd classify bands like Catherine Wheel) *first* "first wave" shoegazing gig.  

Two things about Slowdive, who are still magnificent after all these years.  First, the new songs are great and fit it seamlessly with the old ones.  Someone new to their music who dropped in on this show would be hard pressed, I think, to tell the old and new songs apart based on style and even based on crowd reactions.  Second, the gig was mellow.  Really mellow.  So mellow that after 20 years, the overlap between Slowdive and Mojave 3 was finally revealed to me in perfect clarity.  Slowdive on this night were Mojave 3 with mountains of reverb (which to be fair, is exactly what I always wanted out of Mojave 3 ... I even saw them live once in the blind hope that they might become that live).  Everything from the smooth, laid back tempos to the twangy guitars (encased in feedback and reverb) to Neil Halstead's trucker hat was dedicated to providing listeners with the alt-country experience at a much higher volume.    

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 37

"Mistakes and misbehaving - the Harvey mix" (87 minutes)

This mix was inspired by the likes of DJ Harvey's RA300 mix -- eclectic, unpredictable, and unafraid to break all the "conventional" rules of DJ'ing.  At least that's how I'd describe DJ Harvey's mix, mine in comparison is obviously a poor imitation.  After editing this mix a bit and filing it away for months I finally decided to ignore any lingering mistakes.  It was never meant to sound perfect anyhow.

 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Waiting for the next Spiritualized album

In this new interview for The Quietus, Jason Pierce reveals that:

-- The new Spiritualized album is taking longer than expected to record (just like all the others)
-- It could be the last Spiritualized record (another comment he's made before, it's his set reaction to being stuck in recording and mixing hell)
-- He's not nostalgic about the 20th anniversary of "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" (can't fault him here, the rash of anniversary shows and re-releases from every pre-millenial band are transparent marketing ploys)
-- Playing live gave him a different feel for the new songs so he went back in the studio to sing them all again (once more, the endless cycle of re-recording/re-arranging songs live and in the studio that has been characteristic of Pierce's post-S3 career.  He never settles on a definitive version of anything which is why live and recorded versions of many of his songs sound so different.  This is also one of the things that makes him a genius).
-- He didn't take the money for a S3 reunion because "I don't see the point of playing through the things I played when I was 19 or 20" (you couldn't possibly make this up ... he's been playing S3 songs live with Spiritualized since the earliest incarnations of the band and has never stopped.  Not to mention the rerecorded versions of S3 songs that have appeared on his albums.

All in all, it's an interview filled with fluff where Jason talks but says nothing of consequence. Don't bother looking for cryptic clues about the new album, there aren't any, we've been down this road countless times over the past 25 years.  This has been the longest time gap between Spiritualized albums, and patience is a requirement for long time fans.  This eye popping setlist from Australia last week makes that easier said than done though (AFAIK they haven't played "If I Were With Her Now" since 1992!!).


Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Negative reviews

There's a lot to unpack in Luke Turner's short essay about the decline of the negative review.  I see exactly where he's coming from, because I've been complaining about perfunctory 7/10 reviews in print and online media for ages.  When a veteran band with an established sound and a loyal following release a new album, I can visualize the review and the rating from many publications before even reading it.  All of "us" (= people who love music criticism) have an interest in reading genuine criticism that breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the music in a fair, not belittling way, like Jeremy Larson just did in his review of the new Arcade Fire album for Pitchfork.  In principle, that is what "we" want. 

But who is served by these negative reviews?  In the mid '00's, when everyone and their brother started a music blog, everybody fought to establish their tiny niche in a competitive field.  The large print publications and websites dominated the coverage of the most popular, enduring bands -- at the end of the day, this is what attracted eyeballs to their product and made them money.  Small websites and blogs couldn't compete with their coverage, so they worked on becoming tastemakers.  Who could be the first to write about an up and coming band?  The first to post their mp3's?  Writing about the most newsworthy bands and keeping up with the evolving canon wasn't as important as becoming a "trusted source" for music and opinion.  However that largely meant writing about and promoting the bands you liked.  The glory was in being the first to hop on to an emerging bandwagon, not in being the one to spoil the party by burning it down. 

These days, print magazines, blogs and online music crit websites are dead or dying and the casual fans' exposure to music criticism begins and ends with auto-recommendations via Google or Facebook.  Purists might be put off the advertising money being funneled through megacorporations rather than the small, struggling publications, but it's been all about positive reinforcement for a long time anyway.  Mp3 blogs were predicated on the idea of building a brand and earning the readers' trust.  If you liked that song, then maybe you'll like this, etc.  Google has algorithms for that now.  The selection churned out by Youtube's autoplay has more overlap with my tastes than any single publication online or otherwise.

Plenty of people might be in favour of the concept of reading more negative reviews, but nobody has been interested in writing them for some time, and that was true long before the tech giants took over. This is where Turner and I disagree, and it gets me back to the question I asked earlier -- who is served by the negative reviews?  Writers don't want to write them because it's better for their careers to discover and build up bands, rather than breaking them down.  Is there a serious demand for taking popular whipping posts like U2 to the woodshed one more time?  Who is willing to pay money to read snarky comments about a band they don't even like, besides Melody Maker readers of the 80's and 90's? In the 00's and '10 we can troll and be trolled on message boards for free, and the jokes about Bono's pomposity have worn thin over the years and decades (and I'm a U2 fan).  

The democratization of music criticism via the internet means has crushed the influence of the individual writer.  Consumers don't follow writers, they follow brands.  In sports, ESPN is a brand that can (and has) easily weathered the loss of many a flagship individual writer or TV personality.  So it goes with music journalism as well.  People are trained to consume music via a particular outlet, which makes the individual writers, unfortunately, expendable.  In that sense, why would a publisher or editor side with a writer who pitches or writes a negative review?  Striking the wrong tone in a review might cost them -- a loss in ad revenue or access to artists.  Losing a writer who stands up for his or her principles costs them nearly nothing because it won't damage their brand.  So why not play along and write positive reviews all the time?  It's by far the most risk averse choice.   

Friday, July 28, 2017

New Order Presents Be Music

After reading Peter Hook's New Order bio, hearing this collection of tracks produced by members of the band is like uncovering a time capsule from the early 80's, and one can almost revisualize the atmosphere in the studio at the time thanks to Hook's painstakingly constructed timelines throughout his book.

Lord only knows how the people at Factory Benelux managed to secure the cooperation of the original New Order lineup in order to make this three disc set happen.  Factory Benelux did license and release many of these tracks in their original run, but maybe this was their way of paying tribute to label founder Annik Honore after her death in 2014.

The liner notes (which are worth the price by themselves -- painstakingly detailed and filled with entertaining stories) imply that they took on these jobs to allow for experimentation outside of the boundaries of New Order.  Experimentation here not only meant taking sounds that worked so well on New Order records and bringing them to other people's records.  It also meant messing around in the studio and making mistakes on their friend's records that they'd be reluctant to do with their own music.

The collection is a microcosm of New Order itself -- together but separate.  Disc 1 is dominated by Bernard Sumner's work.  It's mostly him trying to land a big New York club hit via various takes on the hard electro sound of "Confusion".  The cool, club-ready sounds are there, and the slick production couldn't have been better for the time.  That extra spark of inspiration that made New Order songs into classics are missing through.  Sometimes it's because the attempt to copy a specific song's aura is too blatant.  Paul Haig's "The Only Truth" is a perfectly serviceable dance rock tune, but it's not "Love Vigilantes", and it's trying too hard to be "Love Vigilantes" to not suffer by the comparison.

Disc 2 is dominated by Steve Morris' work, which turns out to be the most timeless stuff on here.  52nd Street's "Can't Afford (To Let You Go) is the electro funk stomper with a strong whiff of "Let The Music Play" that basically trumps all of Barney's attempts to produce the same.  In more recent productions such as his remix of Section 25's "Another Hilltop", and original productions and remixes for Factory Floor and Ladytron's Helen Marnie, he settles into a streamlined club pop formula that could fill floors equally well in the 90's, 00's and 10's.

Disc 3 is the most heterogeneous of the bunch, with Peter Hook's experiments in rhythm, the lone Ian Curtis/Rob Gretton production pairing (!), and the amazing "Video 5-8-6" that I'm thrilled to finally own on CD instead of in bootleg form (yes, I know it received its first official release a few years ago).

The full collection, spanning over thirty years of Be Music productions, offers a cutting room floor version of New Order as they evolved over the same time period, that is, if New Order had retreated from big rock star tours and singles entirely and decided to focus solely on their favourite club scene of the moment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Radiohead in Israel

Radiohead played a gig in Park HaYarkon last night in front of 50 000 people.  It was the second shockingly huge crowd to pack the park in a week, following the GnR show that drew over 60 000.  Both of them outdrew the Rolling Stones' obsessively promoted gig from a couple of years ago.  The suffocating heat and humidity by all accounts couldn't put a damper on the spirits or endurance of the band or the audience.

For whatever reason, this particular gig drew more bile and insults from the haters.  Nobody bothered to stop the Britney Spears concert on July 3 from happening, presumably because they felt that she and her fans were too stupid and vacuous to appreciate the issues involved.

The lesson, as always: don't acknowledge the haters, don't feed the trolls.  Over the years I've read interviews with plenty of bands, big and small, declare that they're playing the gig and everyone who doesn't like it can fuck off.  The haters love dragging everything down to their level -- a pseudo academic grandstanding debate, where they can spout their bigotry and lies to an easily duped and misled public.  When they don't get the chance to launch the debate, they get pissed off and complain to their small cache of hardcore followers.  Thom Yorke's interview in Rolling Stone could have defused the situation in a perfect world.  His words were too well thought out, too well considered, too eloquently stated.  It kicked off the "he said, she said" portion of the debate that had now been given the green light to truly get underway.  Less talk, more telling your opponents to eat their own shit is the best defense.  It's not the most mature defense, but when hypocrites accuses you of moral failure despite being perfectly happy to make money anywhere HE can, the time for feigning politeness is over.  In short, the haters and bigots bully artists like Radiohead and piggyback on their fame to inflict their ignorance and bile on a much larger audience.  They rely on the cultural cache of others to broadcast their audience that they're not capable of reaching otherwise.

A NY Post article detailed Radiohead's connection to their Israeli fans going back nearly a quarter of a century.  Why hasn't the band tried to make that point themselves?  I hate to pick on Radiohead here because they are clearly the good guys in this story .  But why not say "we've been there, we like playing there, we have loyal fans there", end of debate? 

Thom Yorke inadvertently (I think) spoke to the essence of the entire phenomenon of anti-factual Israel-related reporting when he said, in his RS interview, "there are people I admire … who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think" and "they talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It's extraordinary."

If you respect a person then you respect their judgement and their opinions, even if you disagree.  Celebrities who work toward social justice issues are usually afforded a lot of leeway on this, i.e. "if you respect my work as an artist and agree with my stance on these political issues, then I want to introduce you to this other cause that you may not have thought about but that is very important to me personally".  Here we have a list of artists/bullies who are happy to enlist in a mutual admiration society with Radiohead when it benefits them.  Radiohead then announce a gig in Tel Aviv and suddenly the same people are yelling "don't listen to Radiohead, they're uninformed and ignorant!"  If this ever happens to you, then they never respected your opinions to begin with.  Israel is one of the few political issues that creates this type of ugly, self-interested arrogance in people.  "We were happy to agree with you about these ten other things, but on *that* particular thing, you're wrong, and it makes you a terrible human being."   

Jonny Greenwood is married to an Israeli artist (I have never known any Mizrahi Jews to self identify as an "Arab Jew", which is how the media have consistently reported it.  But  I'd bet that 95% of the people reading these articles in Western liberal media have never heard of a Mizrachi Jew.  Baby steps toward properly educating the public, I suppose).  Can you imagine any of these so-called "enlightened" artists lecturing a colleague about making a visit to their spouse's birthplace?  It's almost impossible to contemplate.  Would they talk down to a Westerner with a Chinese-born wife in this way?  "Are you aware that there are human rights abuses in China -- how dare you and your wife travel to China and engage with people there?  Are you aware that you are enabling the oppressors?"  How much of a prick do you have do be to belittle a man and his family in that way?  

I would estimate that Radiohead sold at least 20K more tickets than they would have if the "controversy" had not existed.  Their fans were disproportionally exposed to the entire sordid affair and it created additional interest in their show that might not have existed otherwise.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Peter Hook, "Substance" (book)

Peter Hook's lengthy recollection of his twenty seven years in New Order is far from a traditional biography.  It's more of a "conversations with Peter Hook" serial than a thorough retelling of the New Order story.  The closest comparison in my library would be Chris Heath's "Feel".  It's the only other bio I can think of that contains so many bizarre road stories and random minutiae, and almost completely ignores the usual meat and potatoes explanations of the creative process and the how's and why's of the band's popularity growth.  In both cases, the book isn't really about the man, but about the man and his entourage of colourful characters.  Everyone and everything seems real and tangible, as if the laughter and debauchery is happening right in front of your face.  Often you're left wondering how this bunch of misfits ever got around to making such brilliant music.  

Hook wanders off script a lot, but in a good way.  He'll flash back to an older story to provide context, and offer a preview of events to come (sometimes years later).  Stories about time spent in the studio are punctuated by "geek alerts" with detailed yet accessible descriptions of the recording process and the then state of the art equipment New Order were using.  He'll provide an overview of a tour, mostly filled with tales of excess you're used to hearing from hair metal bands rather than the famously reclusive New Order.  After covering one calendar year of their goings on (or longer once you reach the 90's and the band's activities become less structured and more volatile), there's a timeline that includes nearly every setlist from every gig they played, and additional commentary from Hook for many entries, peeling back additional layers "behind the music".  

Eventually I'll likely buy his Hacienda and Joy Division books as well, but for now I need a break from the world of Peter Hook.  Did I mention how long this book is?  Then again, twenty seven years should cover a lot of ground, and you the fan probably want the journey to feel long.  Hook even says so in the book, and trashes Barney Sumner for ripping off his fans by devoting only 100 pages to New Order in his book (among the many, many, MANY shots taken at Sumner liberally from the start of the book until the end).  

Even though New Order were famously private in interviews, and almost always left their personal and professional lives shrouded in mystery, in a way there's nothing surprising in Hook's book.  Factory were hellaciously bad with money, most of it earned by New Order.  We knew that.  The band somehow stuck with the label until the bitter end for reasons that were never entirely clear.  And they're still not clear, even to Hook, today!  One theme of the book is how important issues were almost always swept under the rug. Critical decisions were postponed or avoided again and again.  Everyone involved only has themselves to blame.  Even at their peak, the band members kind of hated each other and formed three distinct camps -- Hook, Sumner, and The Other Two.  The best example of this is in the 1993 documentary "Neworderstory", which is sadly almost impossible to find on the usual streaming sites (I can't remember what I did with my old VHS copy).  It is kind of shocking how little is said about Steve Morris and Gillian Gilbert, particularly Gillian, who Hook hardly ever interacted with. 

Hook wears his heart on his sleeve, when the subject matter is inspiring, the writing is inspiring.  He doesn't go through with a track-by-track review of "Republic" (unlike every other New Order album) because the recording process was too frustrating and painful and he finds he just can't go through with it (i.e. the track by track review).  Toward the end of the book, the apathy and frustration comes across in his writing.  In the early 80's recording was a pleasure and Hook found his niche behind the soundboard, hence the frequent "geek alerts" and other cool little details.  By the end of the book, recording is a costly chore that alienated the band members from each other even more.  Hook's alcoholism didn't help (caused by the problems in the band or a symptom of them?) and it's clear that the creative spark is gone.  The fact that "Waiting For the Sirens Call" was so strong looks now like a minor miracle.          

Saturday, June 24, 2017

First thoughts on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"

Like many casual fans of Fleetwood Mac, there was a time when I hadn't the slightest clue what the band had been doing between "Rumours" and "Mirage".   Then I bought the famous "Unknown Pleasures" edition of Melody Maker in 1995 (I still have the book, of course).  In his chapter on "Tusk", Simon Reynolds deviated from the style of the rest of the book and didn't really try to make a strong case for the album as a whole.  He mostly wrote about how blindingly great "Sara" is.  

Since that time, "Tusk" has gone on to become one of the most successfully critically rehabilitated albums of all time (has anyone put together a top ten list of those?).  But I'd never heard any of it, outside of "Sara" and the title track, until I bought the 2004 remastered and expanded edition at Scout Records in Vienna.  

When an album goes from being a curiosity for superfans and completists to minor classic in such a relatively short time (especially for a band as well known as FM), you need to be particularly careful in weighing out the hyperbole surrounding it.  Unfortunately, I haven't tried digging through interviews from the time to find out what Lindsey Buckingham was really striving for with his contributions to this album.  I can believe that he was influenced by punk and new wave, and was determined to challenge himself and not play it safe by writing a "Rumours II". I can't believe, as the liner notes imply, that he was struggling with his own sense of relevance and was worried about being swept aside by the new generation.  As Reynolds wrote in "Unknown Pleasures", "Rumours" was what happened in the US in place of punk.  It had minimal cultural and commercial relevance in 1979, when "Tusk" was released.  It strains the imagination to think that Buckingham was having a crisis of confidence while bathing in cocaine in his LA megamansion, thinking about whether the kids dying their hair pink in far away cities thought he was washed up or not.  

The Buckingham songs don't sound like "Rumours II".  The hallmarks of classic LB are still there -- gossamer guitars, intricate picking, cryptic and impassioned lyrics about dysfunctional relationships -- but have been warped through a Feelies-lite type of rhythmic lens.  But in Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie's, songs, I do hear fairly clear attempts to produce a "Rumours" sequel.  The songs are good, maybe even great, but they're not "Rumours"-level great, which isn't a fair comparison because nothing could be.  Even with LB's production polish, nobody in 1979 would have been even close to satisfied with them as the most expensive follow-up album to the then biggest selling album ever.  So in that sense, Mick Fleetwood's (paraphrased) comment about how "Tusk" saved them as a band may be true.  Without the Buckingham songs and oddities, "Tusk" is a "Waterworld"-sized waste of money and effort.  Maybe the fallout from that failure, piled onto the band breakups and mistrust, makes them go from kings and queens of music to oblivion in record time, like ABBA did. With them, it's at worst the hugely ambitious and slightly misunderstood epic double album.   

I also have to mention the oodles of weirdness to be found on the second disc, including the sprawling nine minute take on "Sara".  Much of this disc reminds me of the sloppy but enthralling takes on the second disc of the expanded Velvet Underground's "Loaded".  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Music in Austria(n vacation 2017)

1.  We alternated between Radio Salzburg and Hitradio O3 (broadcasting out of Vienna) during the multi-day scenic drive from the former to the latter.  O3 features mostly international (i.e. American) top 40 pop hits and German language songs done in the same style, whereas Radio Salzburg has more of a local, Austrian feel.

2.  At one point, David Hasselhoff appeared in a pre-taped segment to recommend a song, urging listeners to pay attention to it's powerful, emotional lyrics.  I am not making this up.  It's hard to believe this was an isolated incident either, i.e. we can conclude that an endorsement from David Hasselhoff is meaningful in the contemporary Austrian music scene. Speaking of stuff I couldn't possibly make up:


This was on display in a downtown Vienna subway station.

3.  It didn't take long for "Rock Me Amadeus" to come on the radio while I was in the car.  Falco is back in a big way, although in reality he probably left really left (much like Tupac Shakur in American culture, his post-death career has probably outshone the career he had while living, and he has the multiple greatest hits/live/rarities collections to prove it).  The latest is the Falco 60 compilation, released earlier this year to commemorate what would have been his 60th birthday.  There's also Falco: The Musical, with posters all over Vienna (even in the hipster neighborhoods) reminding you to buy tickets for 2018.

4.  Speaking of Amadeus, Salzburg is more or less a big Mozart shrine.  You have the Mozarteum (an academy of Mozart studies).  There's the Mozart museum housed in the former Mozart family residence (which we toured).  There's Mozart's birthplace (which we started at from outside).  You can attend Mozart concerts staged several times per week in churches, castles, and concert halls.  However, the displays in the Mozart museum reminded me of how miserable he was living in Salzburg, trying to eke out a living in the Salzburg court before finally bailing and heading to Vienna for considerably greater fame and fortune (the latter of which he squandered of course).  But technically Salzburg is his hometown and these days they're thrilled to claim him as such, even if he wasn't properly appreciated there while he was alive (a narrative that remains true of many young talents who flame out early even today).

5.  While music shopping in Vienna, I managed to keep my "Fennesz streak" alive (I think I've bought a Fennesz CD each time I've been in Vienna, which is all of three times, but I'll still call it a streak) by getting the Ozmotic/Fennesz collab from the always wonderful Substance store.  I also picked up La Dusseldorff's "Viva" at Scout Records, my second favourite music shop in the city.  They're so old school they don't even have a web page, just an unofficial Facebook fan page.  Is "Viva" better than any of the three NEU! albums?  I think it's close.

New to me on this trip was Moses Records, which has a collection of used CD's that would have seemed quaint and esoteric even in the late 90's at the peak of the used (and new) CD industry.  I was repeatedly flabbergasted seeing CD's that I never knew existed or hadn't seen anywhere in years.  For example:


Did you know that you could buy the final (pre-comeback) studio album from Saskatchewan's The Northern Pikes for two euros in Vienna?  Did you know that Senser recorded an album with Arthur Baker in 1998?  (bonus points for even remembering who they are).  Moses records was a fascinating trip back in time.  It's mostly a store for rock and jazz vinyl, but there are plenty of deals to be had on CD as well.  Such as:


This was a Germany-only release.  I haven't  a clue what the connection is to Alf, but before you laugh, check out the tracklist.  I didn't buy this, but that's about as good of a commercial 1990 compilation as you'll find.

5. The best thing happening in Austria while we were there was the Heart of Noise Festival, which we didn't attend but oh man, if it wouldn't have required a complete redesign of our route and significant flight rescheduling, I would have loved to be there for even one day.  Gas. Fennesz. Monolake.  Psychic TV.  Samuel Kerridge.  William Basinski.  

Gas!

How disappointing ...  


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell RIP

First of all, a hearty FU to "news" sites like CNN for sticking the "people we've lost in 2017" graphic at the top of every tragic story such as this.  Screw them for turning death into a meme.

I was never a Soundgarden fan, but there was no denying Cornell's talent and stage presence.  As opposed to the other star frontmen from the grunge era (who don't need to be named here), whose deaths were not entirely a surprise when they happened, Cornell seemed to have grown into the elder statesman role, and I assumed he'd have another two decades (at least) of steady touring and soundtrack work, not unlike Trent Reznor these days.

Unlike many rock stars who have to disappear before making their comebacks, Cornell stood apart from so many of this 90's contemporaries by staying relevant for the past two decades with Audioslave and his solo work.  Much like Dave Grohl, he stuck to making uncompromising rock music during the uncool days of rock when Nickelback and Creed were inexplicably kings.

And he hung himself on the same day (give or take a few hours) as Ian Curtis.  Damn.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sigur Ros live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic Association; Carl Craig, "Versus"

I'm on Sigur Ros' mailing list and news of this concert certainly got my attention.  Even the band admitted to being a bit nervous.

The full concert features a one hour set with a huge LA orchestra, and a second one hour set with just the band. It was streamed live worldwide and can be viewed here.  But I almost always find that these band + orchestra in a classical music setting collaborations never live up to their promise.  Any band that aspires to this kind of performance already has a cinematic majesty to their music, and adding the orchestra then fails to amplify the magic that is present in the bulk of their recordings.  That's essentially the case with this performance.  Sigur Ros fans will certainly want to check it out, but there's hardly anything resembling a definitive version of these songs.

I enjoyed the second half of the show more, because it was my first time seriously checking out the stripped down, three piece version of Sigur Ros -- with no backing musicians, and no backing tapes (none that I could see).  When a band loses an multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist, the bass becomes more of a lead instrument to fill the space, but in this case it can't come close to filling it completely, nor does the band even try.  What's left over is raw, airy (well, more so than before) and sparse, like the home demo recordings version of Sigur Ros.  Nobody gets to hide behind a wall of feedback or a string loop, and for me it's a refreshing change to see this severely stripped down version of the band.

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And then there's Carl Craig's "Versus".  This isn't Jeff Mills banging out techno with real strings instead of synthesized ones.  It may be Carl Craig's best album.  It's undoubtedly his most challenging one.

"Versus" is uncategorizable, because nobody's pulled off a techno/classical hybrid quite like this before.  This is the furthest thing from a techno album with added strings to give it extra flair for the dramatic.  It's also not a classical music score that attempts to capture the rhythmic pulse of the clubs (which reads like a horrible idea anyway).  Carl Craig deconstructed his most famous tracks and remixes and has rebuilt them from scratch.  The pacing, instrumentation, and mood of each track has been completely re-envisioned.  The border between acoustic and electronic elements has been erased, thanks to nine years of painstaking effort in the studio to meld everything together just right.

Many contemporary artists see the orchestra an opportunity to lend sophistication to their comparatively simple compositions. Carl Craig and Francesco Tristano looked at each other's respective domains and see a vast space into which they can expand their palate of sounds.  If it was as simple as it sounds, everyone would already be doing it.  But Craig and Tristano have basically claimed an entire genre for themselves.  If the genre lives and dies with them because they're the only ones capable of pulling it off, more power to them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time - Stage 2"

In one of last year's best interview pieces, Leland James Kirby laid out his plans for the Caretaker persona's six part slip into dementia.

"The interesting thing is the switch between the first and second album. The second one is a massive difference between the moods. The second one is the point where you realise that something is wrong. You’re seeing doctors. You’re still coherent enough to say, “Right, I’ve got dementia…” You know this thing is coming. There’s a bit of disbelief."

There are way too many great quotes from that interview to list here, but it's rare to see an artist's vision translate so vividly into the finished product.  "Stage 2" is exactly what Kirby promised and more.  If anything it's even more nerve-wrackingly beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

The first album didn't stray very far from much of his prior work as The Caretaker.  His gently distorted ballroom ballads conveyed a type of nostalgia that could either be sad (crushing realizations that the old days are gone and never coming back) or wistful and peaceful (happy remembrances of how simple and fun those old days were).

True to his words, the transition to the second album is brutal.  Parts of the old memories are still there.  The crackling static is more pervasive, and yet the mind perseveres and sometimes can retain its focus throughout one of the old standards.  But at other times it increasingly becomes clear that important parts are missing.  The tone of the instruments becomes so distorted that there's some doubt about who or what is playing (is that a saxophone?  clarinet?  bassoon?)   The solos are still there, floating through the haze, perceptibly stretched in time, and are no longer anchored to anything in particular (where is the bass line?  where are the verses?  are these parts even from the same song?)

There's a functioning human being in there who can still hum the choruses to plenty of long forgotten tunes, but 20-30% of the time he's humming on autopilot, recalling without thinking, feeling empty and confused as to why things don't make sense like they used to.  It's a horrifying feeling, really, to fully understand what's happening to you, powerless to do anything except grip your memories tightly before they disappear forever.

At the time of the interview, Kirby had just started working on the third album.  He acknowledged that his patient was degrading fast and that he was unsure what the last three albums would entail.  "How do you make complete confusion a good listen?", he wondered aloud.  Can it really get more depressing than this album is?  

Friday, April 07, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 36

So important was this mix that this mode of consciousness became an instinct - 54 minutes


It's been so long since my last mix that Mixcloud sent me an email about this week.  I've been sitting on this mix for nearly three months.  Inspired by Dan Selzer's New York Endless Mix (which I wrote about here), I had been thinking to myself, "why can't my mixes be as fun as this?"  Nothing too challenging, no downer experimental interludes, don't be afraid to make abrupt transitions as long as the sequencing works, always think about how it would sound on the dancefloor, and don't wear out anyone's patience.  Get in and out in about an hour.  

All that, and I managed to span twenty years of techno too.