Monday, 27 February 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #19: "Free Peace Sweet" by Dodgy

Dodgy - Free Peace Sweet

1995 - the height of the Oasis-dominated Britpop scene. It hardly rated a mention on commercial radio at the time, but it was huge on Triple J, the station that I was an avid listener of at the time.

At the time, I just didn't get it. I thought Oasis were mediocre and I couldn't understand why they were Britain's biggest band. I didn't get "Wonderwall" and I couldn't believe it was voted #1 on Triple J's Hottest 100 that year. I've since been told, by people who were living in England then that the song "captured the mood of the time". So what was the mood of the time? No-one seems to be able to tell me...

Fast forward to mid-1996, and a song came blasting out of the airwaves beginning with heavily strummed acoustic guitars, drum rolls that would make Keith Moon proud and rich vocal harmonies I hadn't heard since I sat at the foot of my parents record player listening to the Hollies. This was a track that captured the best elements (IMHO) of British pop of days gone by, and it was captivating. I fell in love with (Beatle-styled) pop music again.

The song was "In A Room" by Dodgy. A brit-pop band, a three-piece who had a sound that, as far as I was concerned, was far richer and more enthralling than Oasis' laddish pouting. It changed my view on songcraft - gone was my mentality that the riff was everything. There's far more that can be woven into a piece to make it more than the sum of its parts.

I ordered the album that featured "In A Room" on double vinyl. It was brilliant - the sound, the songs, the arrangements, the packaging. In retrospect, the music by some of the lesser-known Britpop bands, like Dodgy, Cast, The Bluetones, Supergrass, Gene, Ocean Colour Scene, and many others, has worn far better than "Definitely Maybe"...

...and yet, so unloved were Dodgy in Australia that, two whole years after I purchased that LP by special import order, the stock copy the store ordered at the same time was still on the shelf, reduced to $10. I bought that one too.

Here, for your listening pleasure, is "Free Peace Sweet", by Dodgy. Enjoy.

Dodgy - Free Peace Sweet by David Kowalski on Grooveshark

Monday, 13 February 2012

Whitney Houston, R.I.P.

By now we've all heard of the passing of Whitney Houston. My initial thoughts on the matter were about how history would record her legacy.

Would she be remembered for having an amazing voice, schooled in Gospel but with an almost operatic quality?

Would she be remembered for her questionable song selections or the tinny synth-washed production all her music received?

Or would she be remembered for the train-wreck on legs that she was in her last few years?

A point I picked up from a story online today makes a lot of sense.

When we mourn the loss of Whitney Houston, we don't mourn the loss of talent, because the talent was already gone.

Her performances in Sydney in 2010 were such a shambles that they could almost be used as drug education films for high school students, with the tagline: "This is what drugs will do to you if you abuse them".

Sure it's sad she has passed away. But it's also sad that things got so bad that she needed to resort to measures such as illegal drugs to cope with the stress of fame and life in general. C'est la vie, I guess...

Analogue vs Digital, part 2

...Just further to the previous post. A quote from the article from one of the people in the story says:

"I don't want the digitally remastered stuff," he says. "That's not the way [the artist] would have heard or wanted it."

Rubbish. If better quality technology was available years ago, it would have been used.

There is a few reasons why "digital remastering" happens. Firstly, older, analog tape degrades after a while sitting in vaults. If it is not properly stored or cared for, it can be unusable. If this happens, it is mostly un-recoverable. Digital files do not degrade, so it makes sense to preserve music digitally at the highest quality bit-rate available. Not only that, it is a process that is used to clear out blemishes such as tape hiss and to improve fidelity that can be eroded by using copies from copies (see below).

Secondly, the original tapes have the best quality, so they need to be looked after. Subsequent copies from copies from copies sound worse than the original version. But what happens when the master go missing? The original multi-tracks for the first Led Zeppelin LP went missing from Olympic Studios years ago and have never been found, so the nearest copy away from the master was sourced in Japan, and that was the basis for the current remaster of the album.

I think that dgital remastering is a good long as it is done well. Initial digital transfers of classic albums from analogue tape were so poorly done they were almost unlistenable. Personally, I've gotten better sound from copying a vinyl LP onto a computer and then burning a CD from that recording. Conversely, great sounding LPs can be made from digital recordings. However, music needs to be preserved and looked after for future generations to enjoy. If digital is the way to ensure that, then so be it.

Where I have an issue is when the remasters become superseded after a few years by issuing new remasters. There's little evidence that a new remaster released today will sound much better than one done 5 years ago. I've lost count how many time the Rolling Stones have remastered their back catalog, but it seems to be once every 5 years or so. They must change record distributors for their own label every few years, thus maybe justifying why they need to "reissue" their albums over and over again.

Pink Floyd have just done their entire back catalogue again, for at least the fourth time. I just don't get why I need to buy yet another release of an album I already have? I don't get why I need to buy an album I already have just to get a handful of bonus tracks? Or why they have to be so expensive sometimes?

Analogue vs Digital, part 1

Here again is presented the ongoing argument of analogue versus digital sound, in today's Sydney Morning Herald. The battle between vinyl and CD/MP3 and all that kind of thing.

My thoughts? The argument is far more complex than anything.

MP3s are far from perfect. They're convenient. That's why they're popular. They sound acceptable, but the hardcore audiophile will not accept them as a substitute for anything.

In the recording studio, the music is recorded on state-of-the-art technology. No matter what format you listen to your music on, the audio quality if down-graded in order to be transferred onto the format of choice. Music may be recorded at 96kHz sample rate and 24-bit quality, but it is downgraded to 44.1kHz 16-bit quality for CD. Filter that through a lossy compression algorithm like the MPEG-1 encoder and you get a sound that may be significantly less desirable than what was originally recorded. Couple this with the poor mastering of music over the last 20 years, with the use of brick-wall limiters and extremely loud CDs with audible distortion in the top end, and you are even further away from what was originally created.

Vinyl is even worse. In order to cut music into vinyl, a ridiculous amount of signal processing needs to be done in order to make a good quality record. The dynamic range is compressed. As well, all bass frequencies need to be cut by up to 20dB and treble frequencies need to be boosted up to 20dB, thus making a frequency difference of almost 40dB. (This is called the RIAA cutting curve). This explains why, when you plug a regular, non-pre-amped turntable into a Line-In socket of an amplifier or sound card, you get a horribly bright and hissy sound with absolutely no bottom end. The amplifier needs to process the signal from the record by applying an inverse of the original cutting curve to get the audio to sound like something worth listening to.

CDs, being digital, contain audio data that cannot be heard by the human ear. The data on the disc needs to be processed with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) before you can hear it. MP3s need to be decoded in a similar way.

In short, what you get in a studio is always going to sound different in a domestic setting. It will all depend on the time you listen, what's going on at the time (like kids running around) and the equipment you have. It's highly unlikely you'll have professional studio quality audio in your home, unless there is a recording studio in your home! We need to deal with the best we have available to us.

My format of choice is vinyl. I've always loved it, and it's always more fun having the album covers available to you and the coloured vinyl. I prefer that, because I've found that some CDs are mastered poorly. The original issues of many classic LPs on CD was so poorly done that the only real option was to seek out a good, clean copy of the original vinyl. "Harvest" by Neil Young and "Pearl" by Janis Joplin are two albums I can think of that sounded absolutely horrendous in their first releases on CD. The vinyl in both cases sounds way better!

The fact of the matter is that consumer recorded formats are highly unlikely to EVER be able to reproduce audio bit-for-bit as it was mixed and mastered in the studio. The only format that comes close is Blu-Ray, and I don't see many albums being released in that format.

Vinyl happens to be cheaper than CDs (in some cases) and is less prone to the brick-wall limiting and poor mastering of CDs, so I'd opt for that. CDs as a second option, especially if they're priced right....

more on this later...

Friday, 10 February 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #18: "Tapestry" - Carole King

Look, i really do not care if you call me a sap, or think I'm less of a man because of this choice of record. I'm going to put it out there once and for all - this is one of the best damn records ever recorded, BY ANYONE ANYWHERE!!!

Peerless songwriting, coupled with subtle arrangements that don't overcrowd the music. Raw emotions, wrapped up in pop songs, expressing real feelings and asking real questions.

By the time this record was released in 1971, many of the songs on it were not new. "Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?" is a daring song to write even by today's standards, let alone in 1960 when it was first recorded by the Shirelles. Aretha Franklin may have recorded the definitive "You Make me Feel Like A Natural Woman", but here, the sparse and naked arrangement makes it clear who owns the song - Carole King.

There are so many great songs on this record that it would be unfair to single out any. "So Far Away", "Home Again" and "Tapestry" have to be my favourites.

Kick back and enjoy it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Kings of the Sun

Whatever happened to Kings of the Sun?

The Kings started off as a Sydney pub band in the mid 1980s, riding the wave of Hair metal around the time. The proved themselves to be less of the poser-types that Motley Crue and Poison tended to be more of the harder rocking type, like The Angels and AC/DC.

Grimy inner city types, they apparently put on a great live show, with Jeremy Coad Jeffery Hoad being a particularly wild front man. They signed to Mushroom in Australia and released a great self titled debut album in 1988, before signing with RCA in the US and releasing Full Frontal Attack, another great record. Their final LP Resurrection in 1993 was a flop. Nothing has been heard from them since.

STOP PRESS!! Corrections need to be made to this entry, inasmuch as "Resurrection" was only released in Australia, after a falling out with their local record label only 1000 copies were released. They have kept on making music and have now done 8 albums in total. Check them out here at the Kings of the Sun website. (Thanks Lisa!)

I thought I'd post a couple of their great singles from back in the day. Serpentine, from 1987, which is a killer tune, and Drop The Gun from their second lp in 1990.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

10 of the most overrated bands, IMHO.

I have spent a lot of time listening to music. Probably too much time. I would like to consider myself as having an open mind when it comes to music that is foreign to me and I try hard to appreciate new music by researching and digging deeper than the surface to find new information to deepen my appreciation of what I'm listening to. However, there are still a few acts that I just cannot stomach. I guess you really cannot like everything, but not without justification, or so i think! Here's a handful of bands and artists that I just don't get.

1. U2
Heaps of people love this band. I'm not one of them. Well, in fact the last record of theirs I really liked was "Rattle and Hum" in 1988. The records before that were quite good too. From "Achtung Baby" forwards I have found them to be boring, bland and overplayed.

2. Coldplay
This is a band that I have just never gotten into. I always thought they were "Radiohead-lite". "A Rush of Blood To The Head" is not a bad record, but too much of a good thing ceases to be a good thing. I really haven't liked much of their work since. Hearing the whiny vocal on "Fix You" from the X&Y Lp makes me want to punch something.

3. Jet
Normally I hate ragging on Australian bands, but when they're as bland, derivative and unoriginal as Jet, I wish to be excused.

4. Bon Iver
Ok so his girlfriend left him, he retreats to a wooden hut for a few months to make his debut record. Heartache can make a great muse, so I get where he is coming from in that regard. The record is a triumph of studio craft in terms of overdubbing and other recording tricks, considering he recorded it mostly on his own. It's too bad his voice is hard to stomach, like a whiny 5 year old who can't have another cookie. That's the first barrier to his music. His second LP is stylistically all over the place like a mad woman's shit, but that's another story...

5. Kanye West
I've never really liked rap. Ok I can take Run DMC and Public Enemy, but that's about where the love ends. I especially don't like gangsta rap. I've never gotten the love for Kanye. I heard "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" from beginning to end. I listened with fresh ears. I tried hard, I really did. I didn't fail to appreciate it the record - it just sucked.

6. The Strokes
Saviours of rock and roll? Hardly. How strumming a C5 chord on every crotchet and singing in a voice that was compressed and had all the frequencies EQ'ed out of it except for the mid-range (making it sound like it was phoned in from a mobile/cell phone) equates to saving rock music is beyond me. I've heard 9th graders write better songs. (see here for proof)

7. Florence & The Machine
I just can't get her voice, or the neo-psychedelic dream pop they create.

8. Fleet Foxes
I just can't see what's so great about this band! Somebody tell me please! Surely I'm missing something, but I just can't see anything but blandness in this music!

9. Spiritualized
"Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" is guitarist Jason Pearce's motto...

...I don't do drugs. Maybe that's why Spiritualized and I don't get along. Dense, meandering boredom is what I felt as I waded through all 70+ minutes of their supposed masterpiece "Ladies and Gentlemen we are now floating in space"...

10. Evanescence
Thank heavens we haven't heard much from this band for a while. Such a confusing image they put forward, and then their ubiquity on radio and TV killed them for me. Hearing "My Immortal" makes me ever so glad that I own a copy of "Trout Mask Replica" - a record that is difficult and uncomfortable to listen to, but soooo much more rewarding than stomaching 4 minutes of drivel from this band.

I'm sure this post will attract a whole host of derogatory comments, so bring them on. These are purely my view on things.