Wednesday, 31 October 2012

My First Record

There's been a bit of discussion on twitter about our first records. Here's mine, purchased at 8.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Turn of Phrase?

Great music is more than just a combination of words and music. Sometimes it's all of that and more. Or less, depending on the circumstance.

Good songwriters will often come up with lyrics that will make your head spin; that will make you think; change your perception on something or some issue maybe, or write something that seems such an obvious lyric, but then take a sharp left turn. They'll do it in such a clever way that you often come away from it somehow changed.

So, who are all the great songwriters, particularly those who can turn a phrase better than most? And what are their finest examples? We're not talking about the hacks who trade in "Moon/June/Spoon" style rhyming couplets and cliches of the nature either.

For example, Bob Dylan has written many lyrics that make me sit up and take notice. To get you started, here's one of a long list of my favourites, from "Desolation Row":

"...Yes I received your letter yesterday,
About the time the doorknob broke,
When you asked me how I was doing,
Is that some kind of joke?
All those people that you mentioned,
Yes I know them. They're quite lame.
I've had to rearrange their faces,
and give them all another name..."

Now it's over to you. Post a comment and I'll post more of mine choices later...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Peter Gabriel's "So" turns 25.

Peter Gabriel - So

Coming up shortly is the re-release of one of many landmark albums of the 1980s, the fifth album from Peter Gabriel - "So".

Most people older than me will cite "Solisbury Hill" as the song that they instantly think of when they think Peter Gabriel, if they don't think of something from his time in Genesis. The radio always bashes out "Shock The Monkey" and "Games Without Frontiers". For me, "So" was my first introduction to the man and his music and it remains a powerful statement of intent.

This is an album that was at the vaguard of its time in terms of its use of technology. Peter was never one to shy away from new innovations. (He even used a novel invention on this album for the first time in his solo career: an album title!)

The album is at once a product of it's time, and yet it sounds timeless. Sure it possesses some of the hallmarks of the production techniques of the time, such as huge gated-reverb drum sounds and swathes of synth-washes, but they are tastefully applied by producer Daniel Lanois. Tasteful inasmuch as they don't overpower the strength of the songs...

...and what songs they are. I first heard this album when it came out, around age 9 or so (now I'm showing my age!) and it was as powerful to me then as it is now. The record kicks off with "Red Rain" which is as impassioned as any song he ever wrote. Far from being a straight pop song, its layers continue to reveal themselves the more you listen to it. It's a kaleidoscopic view of the artist's soul.

We then take side-trips through neo-soul and funk ("Sledgehammer", "Big Time"), balladry ("Don't Give Up", "Mercy Street"), charging rockers ("That Voice Again"), world music ("In Your Eyes"), and arty-wierdness ("This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)") all across the album's 9 tracks, although only 8 if you own the vinyl. The Laurie Anderson collaboration "Excellent Birds" has been dropped off on the LP, which is a shame, as it is a real highlight. It is a quirky experiment, but it is compelling to listen to.

Like some of the bigger albums of the day, it could have used a little judicious editing ("Don't Give Up" could use that extended ending being lopped off) but that's nothing major. Hell, even Mark Knopfler would have trimmed down most of the tracks on "Brothers In Arms" to remove the superfluous playouts!

Still, it is a record that is at once mature but with moments of child-like fun; intellectual, but never to the point of being exclusive; clever but not smart-arsed.

Here then is the album for you to check out, on Spotify. The reissue should be out next week. Enjoy.

Did the record industry deliberately kill off the vinyl record?

Recently there was a story on the Music Week website indicating that the record industry sabotaged the vinyl LP to make us all move over to CDs. They made good points about sound and quality , but during the 80s, I only had crap turntables to play records on, so I didn't know the difference.

As a consumer of music, then as now, I can say that I honestly believe this was the case but for different reasons. You can read music week's arguments above, but mine go like this:

1. The record industry seemed to market the CD as more attractive by adding extra tracks and tampering with the content on vinyl.

From the mid-80s onwards, certain albums were marketedly different in their vinyl configurations from the CD. In fact, it was quite common for notes to be on the vinyl sleeve saying "The CD and cassette contain extra tracks not available on vinyl" as it is on the back of John Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" LP.

Other albums would include substantially less music on vinyl than on CD, citing the reduced playing time of the LP as the problem. When daryl Braithwaite had a massive career resurgence in 1988, the first LP he released ("Edge" in 1988) has 10 tracks on vinyl, and 14 on CD. The album wasn't long enough to be a double LP, but then it was probably just long enough to fit on a single LP without compromising sound quality.

2. They made crappy sounding vinyl by squeezing too much onto the LP.

On that note, the more music on a record, the poorer the sound quality. 27 minutes at the absolute tops per side before the sound quality decreases too much. Neil Young's "Ragged Glory" LP is 63 minutes long, and it was crammed onto a single LP. My second hand vinyl copy was slightly worn when I got it, and the music was in danger of being drowned out by the surface noise of the vinyl. Ditto the first "Mr Bungle" LP, which stands at just over 70 minutes.

Then at the other end of the spectrum, you had "Beyond Salvation" by The Angels, a solid 49 minute album on 2LPs! You had to change sides every 10-12 minutes! A waste!

3. Quality control standards slipped markedly.

The amount of defects in the vinyl, little pieces of junk being pressed into the vinyl that can't be cleaned away causing a permanent skip on the record, were commonplace in the late 1980s. I have a few records that suffer this unfortunate condition and there's little you can do about it.

4. In some cases, vinyl editions just weren't pressed at all.

Around 1990 you started to see some albums just weren't pressed on vinyl at all. The marketing on TV and in magazines would just say "Available on CD and Cassette". Any vinyl you were able to buy of certain records wasn't even pressed domestically - it was imported. My copies of Guns 'n Roses' "Use Your Illusion" were both purchased when they were released, but they were both pressed in Germany for export.

5. After 1991, they just stopped pressing vinyl altogether in Australia.

At this stage, you were forced to buy a CD or cassette - these were the only two formats available and for an album there was at least a $10 price difference between the two (the CD being the more expensive). This left only indie labels and dance DJs making vinyl - the domestic mainstream industry did away with it. Small labels like Phantom and Red Eye in sydney kept pressing vinyl until about 1993, but they outsourced their work to the major label pressing plants. Eventually the majors pulled the plug on their pressing plants...

You could still get imports, but only specialist shops dealt with them. In rural NSW where I grew up, local record stores didn't even bother with vinyl - they'd give you strange looks and tell you either "don't bother" or "it'll be too expensive and it will take 6 months to get here from overseas".

6. Price-gouging for singles, and the introduction of multi-formats for collectors

Buying singles in the early 1990s meant that singles were around $5 on vinyl, cassette singles likewise and CD singles were $7.95. All of a sudden, you could then buy CD singles of (then) new bands like Pearl Jam for $1.95 - why would you wanna buy a $5 vinyl equivalent then? As well as releasing singles on a variety of different formats and loading extra content onto them. At one point, a single would be released by a major band on 7" plain stock sleeve, 7" picture sleeve, 12" with bonus tracks, Cassette, CD, sometimes coloured vinyl. The companies expected the hardcore fans to buy them all, and some did. Not all of us had that luxury of course.

These days the prices have all but turned around. I can get the latest Green Day album "Uno!" on CD for $15, but the same store will supply an imported vinyl copy of the same album for $38. Go figure...

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

James Blunt in Retirement

James Blunt

James Blunt has recently made a statement to the press that he is retiring from music. Twitter went nuts at the news, generally saying "he won't be missed". It's always a bit harsh to criticise someone quite like that, but when you consider the crimes against music he committed (in my opinion), who can blame them?

He had an unusual career, inasmuch as he was first solider in the British Army, serving in Kosovo in 1999 and then turned his hand to music later in life.

If one was to trade on stereotypes, ex-army types should make music like this:

well, that's how we do in in Australia anyway. God bless The Mark of Cain. But this ex-army guy chose to go all "Sensitive New-Age Guy" on us.

Personally, I don't blame James Blunt entirely for songs like "You're Beautiful". I blame Coldplay for opening up the music industry to all these sissy bloke bands who sing in really high voices, trying to be sensitive but doing so in such an emotionally detached way that it just rings hollow. James wrote music to fit in with the Snow Patrols and Maroon 5's of the world and their fans.

His first single "You're Beautiful" was the earworm from hell. It was everywhere and it lodged itself in your brain and you couldn't get rid of it. Then the follow-up "Goodbye My Lover", which was as hideous a song as you could possibly get. My standard response to the song was "no wonder she left you, when you sing crap like that".

Thankfully, he followed up that record with a soulful second LP called "All the Lost Souls", which avoided the pitfalls of the first record - in short, it was almost as wussy, but at least the first single from the LP "1973" wasn't altogether cringeworthy.

Subsequent albums came out to an ever decreasing fan base, so the cynic in me would suggest that this announcement is a ploy to boost sales for a few months in the run-up to christmas. Maybe he was feeding the online trolls. Whatever the reason, he's had his day in the sun and he gave it his best, even if I didn't always like his work. I respect the man for bowing out gracefully, even if it's probably the most un-rock'n'roll way to end a rock'n'roll career. Enjoy your retirement, man.

Vale Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy

Most people can remember the first time something significant happened in their lives - your first kiss, your first concert, your first car. Occasionally people even remember the first time they heard a person sing or a band they particularly love and they remember the emotion and the impact it had on them. Eva Cassidy is one of those artists that has such a massive emotional impact on people the first time they hear her sing that it is rarely forgotten.

...although it wasn't for me. I heard a piece of hers on a recording of the late night ABC music program Rage in the late 1990s. She sang a solo, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar version of "Over The Rainbow". I was unmoved at the time. I thought it was pleasant enough, but not enough to stop me fast-forwarding through the clip.

A few years later (circa 2003), I had occasion to come across a CD by Eva, called "Songbird". I found it in my mother-in-law's collection and I thought it was an odd CD for her to own, given Eva's stature in the indie/alternative music world. I borrowed it and listened...

Context is everything and nothing all at once. I can still remember where I was, what I was doing, what the weather was like, what car I was driving, and what I had to do after I first put that "Songbird" CD in the Cd player in my car and heard her version of Sting's "Fields of Gold". The wave of emotions that I had contained during that turbulent period of my life came flooding out. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and weep. The impact was cataclysmic. The emotional reaction I had was so strong that I couldn't contain it. I became a fan of Eva Cassidy that very day.

To this day I can't listen to Sting's version of "Fields of Gold". Yeah ok, he wrote it. But his recording feels like a publishing demo next to Eva's pure, siren-like delivery.

Eva's story is a sad one. She was a struggling independent musician, capable of performing many varied genres who never saw the success she clearly deserved in her lifetime. She died too young (age 33) of Melanoma, before the world at large had a chance to appreciate her beautiful music. Her music causes such a powerful emotional response from listeners that everyone who hears it for the first time can remember that profound experience.

Although my first time wasn't memorable, the second time was. The anniversary of Eva's passing occurs next week. I'm getting in early by sharing this with you: her sublime version of "Fields of Gold".

Vale, Eva.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Are Classic albums really Classics?

As per usual I have been reading a collection of music lists online over the break, and my curiosity was drawn to a rather interesting list over at the Faster Louder website called The Most Overrated Albums of All Time. Clearly this was a list designed to be contentious and outrageous all in one go, but I did find it rather thought provoking.

It says in the disclaimer of the list that
Your favourite album may appear here.

Sure enough, a few of mine did. To be objective, on some albums they made a valid case that the greatness is overstated, such as Metallica's Black album, the Chili Peppers' "Californication" and anything by Bon Iver. I'm also glad that somebody agrees with me that Kanye's "Dark Twisted Fantasy", anything by Silverchair and U2's Joshua Tree (while a good record, it's not a great one) are so overrated that it's beyond a joke.

However, this is not an article to discuss the pors and cons of the choices on this list. One point, made by Darren Levin in his critique of The Clash's "London Calling" LP (a sacred cow of a lot of rock critics) caught my eye and I thought it was worth discussing: something really such a classic if you're constantly hitting skip? – Darren Levin

Think about how many albums you have listened to in your time. Think about your favourites, your desert island discs, if you will. While they may contain some stellar music, how often do you skip over tracks? How often do you listen to most of the album and then turn it off halfway through side 2?

I confess there are many of my favourite albums where I find a few flat spots that I skip, but does that make them any less classic?

I must confess that while I regularly cite The Beatles "White Album" as a favourite of mine, I also have a habit of playing the LP all the way through and then turning it off in the middle of side 4...funnily enough that's right about the time "Revolution 9" starts.

Still, I reckon it's a classic. I just don't necessarily like Ringo's custom written lullaby at the end, nor John's most pretentious attempt at musique concrete. (I prefer Frank Zappa's attempts on "Freak Out!" and "We're Only In It For The Money"). That leaves me with 28 out of 30 songs that are killer tunes. That's enough in my opinion to justify it a classic.

Often times, we get bored, so we move on to a new album quickly. Sometimes, in our opinion, the band makes a call to include a track that disrupts the flow of the album, like on "Return To Earth" by Tumbleweed, when track 8 "Meanwhile" throws the entire album off course. Or when "Free Form Guitar" turns up in the middle of the first Chicago LP - they're interesting diversions, but were they really necessary?

What albums can you listen to from start to finish without reaching for the skip button? Add a comment below or Tweet me @sound_fury_pod.