Tuesday, 27 October 2015

100 LPs Shortlist #46: Dire Straits - "Brothers In Arms"

Before we start, let's have a quick show of hands.

Who has played this album to the point where you cannot stand to hear it ever again?

My my, there are a lot of you.

I will confess that I am one of those people who cringe whenever the opening organ phrase of "Walk of Life" appears on the radio, Such is the end product of exposure, self-imposed and external, to one of the most ubiquitous albums of the 1980s.

Now, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, the album has additional dimensions to its legacy as a classic album. What's more interesting than the contents of the album's grooves is how it was used as a marketing tool to bring about a paradigm shift in the music industry; how it can be seen as a symbol of the music industry's greed; and how its principle creator isn't a fan of it.

You see, "Brothers In Arms" was used by the music industry, specifically Dire Straits' parent record label Polygram (now Universal Music) to sell and market a new product known as the Compact Disc. Polygram's sub-company Philips, in league with tech giant Sony, had invested millions of dollars in developing a new product that would improve sound quality and create a more durable format than the existing vinyl and cassette formats.

The CD as a format was released in 1982. However, sales were still quite sluggish and so anticipating one of the biggest albums of 1985, "Brothers In Arms" was used as a carrot to lure the consumer into changing their listening habits towards the new technology. This was considered a high-stakes game. In previous years the industry had seen innovations such as consumer grade reel-to-reel tape, 8-track tape, quadraphonic vinyl and AM stereo radio die in the marketplace. With so much gambled on R&D for this new product, commercial failure wasn't an option, nor was a status tag of "novelty".

And so the original album (in Australia at least) was issued on vinyl in a standard, non-gatefold sleeve with a wraparound marketing brochure spruiking the merits of the new CD format. It wasn't going to change the fact that you've already laid out your hard-earned for a vinyl copy, but in the hope that maybe you just might buy something else on CD.

Like any new technology, on first release it was hideously expensive. CD players were twice the price, if not more, than a VHS video recorder and the discs themselves were exorbitant in cost. Single disc CDs in the 1980s were at least $10 more expensive than their vinyl counterparts, and for double albums, they could be as much as $30 dollars dearer (To wit: a copy of Bruce Springsteen's "The River" on vinyl in 1986 was around $16.99 whereby on double CD it was $48).

When vinyl sales dropped to the point necessitating the cessation of production in 1991, consumers were told the price of CDs would drop from the standard $28 dollars. By the end of the decade they were over $30. Despite this, people threw out vinyl and replaced everything on CDs that, in some cases, sounded worse than their old vinyl.

Clearly the marketing worked, but to the detriment of people who bought vinyl. "Brothers in Arms" had a track listing that was identical on CD and vinyl, but the devil was in the details. The CD states that the album is 54 minutes long. On vinyl, the album was almost 11 minutes shorter in length, with four out of the first five tracks considerably shorter than on CD (up to three minutes shorter for "Why Worry"). The argument was that vinyl had time space limitations, when in fact many albums of similar length sound perfectly fine on vinyl ("Dirt" by Alice in Chains being an example). It was a case of corporate dishonesty, less a case of outright lying than not quite telling the entire truth.

Since the sales of the CD version outstripped the vinyl sales, this was used as evidence to move an argument for the discontinuation of vinyl. It was also part of the ploy used in the 1980s for loading up CDs with bonus tracks not available on vinyl. Consumers swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Almost 25 years later, after file-sharing brought the music industry to its knees, vinyl is back on the shelves.

"Brothers in Arms" has been re-issued on vinyl in 2014 as a double LP with the full, unedited mix in the album as CD buyers have known it for the past 30 years. This no doubt aggrieves Mark Knopfler, who, in an BBC radio documentary in the late 1980s, thought the extended outros of the songs were too long and preferred them to be edited out. He also cited "One World" as a song he wouldn't release again if he had the choice.

Hindsight is always 20:20, isn't it? For what it's worth, after the first three songs, the rest of the record is incredibly slow going. Perfect for a very low noise audio format of CD, with all the languid quiet passages. It still features some of the best songs Knopfler has ever written, even if they are slightly too long in parts.

Take another listen below.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Cold Chisel - The Perfect Crime

Hot on the heels of a lavish vinyl reissue of their back catalog comes the promised new material from Australian Pub-Rock stalwarts Cold Chisel.

Arriving three years after their last "comeback" album "No Plans", "The Perfect Crime" could almost be a companion piece to the previous album. To the band's credit, they're still pushing the same musical stylings, with songs about the average Aussie bloke and the effects of the human condition on them, delivered with frenetic pace and sung in Barnesy's vodka-battered growl.

But do I detect a lot more of an Alt-Country feel to these new songs? Not an overwhelming one, mind you. Deviating too much from the tried-and-true Chisel formula would upset their constituency too much. Whether it's the more plodding basslines of Phil Small or the rolling snare drum groove that Charley Drayton may have borrowed from a Slim Dusty record or two, I don't know. But it's in there.

Chisel have always been a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll, so it's not a criticism. But after Ryan Adams' turn at covering Taylor Swift he would make an absolute fist of these songs.

The lyrics from the pen of Don Walker again lack the wry humour and wit of their 80s prime. Though far from generic, the observational writing sounds phoned in. And while the band, all across their career, has slipped in an F-bomb occasionally in an album, these days it is getting gratuitous and tawdry. Granted on this album, it's tucked away on track 9 "Shoot The Moon". It was in the opening bars of the "No Plans" album. I just wonder why they they bother. Are they trying to relevant to a younger crowd? Are they trying to appear edgy as they continue to age? It just makes me want to tap Don on the shoulder and tell him that his energies would be better served by shaking his fist while barking at some young people to get off his lawn.

Mossy's guitar playing is on fire and his honey-soaked vocals don't make as much of a presence here as they deserve. On a few songs, Barnesy pulls back to reveal he still has the ability to sing with subtlety (a quality he lacked that ruined many of the pretty songs on "The Last Wave of Summer" in 1998). When he's let off the chain he sounds more the seagull-with-laryngitis we all know him to be.

While the band haven't necessarily tarnished their legacy with this album (they did that well enough on the deplorable title track to "No Plans"), what you have is a record that will please the faithful while not necessarily one to convert the haters.

Take a listen below and make up your own mind:

Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: "Straight Outta Compton"

The recent biopic of the rise of L.A. gangsta-rappers NWA had me thinking.

If art imitates life, what, then has happened to American society for a group like N.W.A and a song like "F*** Tha Police" to exist?

The film does little to answer the question, as I suspected it would. However it does a good job at least of depicting the symptoms of the problem: the underclass of working poor; the allure of crime as a way to escape the aforementioned underclass, police harassment, limited hope and limited opportunity.

So what does one do to get ahead in such an environment? Get a steady job that doesn't cover all your bills, join a criminal gang, or turn to music. Band member of NWA Easy-E in this case, chose both the latter two.

Easy-E is the only one depicted as having associations with crime on any level. If the rest of the group were involved at any point, it was certainly airbrushed out of this version of the story. There's been plenty of media around to discuss the inconsistencies with this account of the events, so I will not go over them here. But let's just say that the victors write history.  Album sales aside, N.W.A.'s legacy is assured, with or without this film.

N.W.A. started at a time whereby rap was a burgeoning style of music in the 1980s. It was party music, devoid of social commentary. Grandmaster Flash touched on it with his anti-drug single "White Lines (Don't Do It)" earlier in the decade, but LL Cool J and Run DMC weren't in the business of promoting causes. And certainly not the Beastie Boys! Public Enemy started to take a more socially conscious approach with the view to empowering and bettering the inner city urban dwellers, in a similar but ultimately more militant way that James Brown or Stevie Wonder had tried a decade earlier.

With that in mind, N.W.A. tried to create a style of "reality rap" not too dissimilar to South Central LA rapper Ice-T. Rapping about life in Compton meant talking about being harassed by police, hassled by street gangs and trying to find some kind of success in your future. And to do so in the most direct and confronting way.

If "reality rap" was the mission, then an ugly reality requires some ugly music. And it certainly is. Hearing N.W.A. for the first time is something that one tends to remember for a long time: it sure as hell is NOT "easy listening" and nor should it be. There is real danger in this music: it is a danger that is "lived in", first hand. There was a real scare that if you were to cross these guys on a bad day, it wouldn't end well  Then of course was the threat of your parents losing their shit at you for buying the music! Despite this, people of all races and creeds lapped it up, because it is sometimes better to be an observer of the action than to be a participant.

"Straight Outta Compton" reaffirms what we've known about the music industry for years: when confronted with ground-breaking music, record labels would rather play it safe and stick with what they know is going to sell: "When you think you've found the next Bon Jovi, call me" one executive remarks during the band's showcase gig. Another one for the Dick Rowe "Beat groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein" file.

That said, N.W.A. established the template for what we now know as Rap music. A lot of teenagers today seem to be unaware of the significance of N.W.A. and the need for this film, despite really wanting to see it. This film depicts a time whereby Rap wasn't mainstream. It wasn't accessible, and it certainly wasn't dangerous as this is. To be fair, if things were different, the members of N.W.A. could've make rap music a la Run DMC and do a fantastic job at it. However they chose to push it closer reality as they knew it, making pieces of art that are still as confronting and as relevant today, even if some of the in-fighting and diss tracks that were created during the ensuing years make them look cartoonish.

With the band having raging parties and getting letters from the FBI, it always makes me wonder if they knew the controversy that went down in Sydney in 1989 when Triple J started playing "F*** Tha Police" on air. That tale is a story for another time...

This is a film that is as forthright and as confronting as the bands music was. You wouldn't expect any less.

I'm back!

Ok well I'm back!

I never intended to leave, but then again, I never intended to fracture two bones in my left hand either. This made typing on a keyboard more of a chore than is necessary.

And now, back to writing about all things music. And to start getting on (virtual) paper the stuff in my head, such as that article on NWA I've been thinking about...