Monthly Archives: July 2007

Objectivity

The comments boxes tailcoating Stylus reviews have raised some interesting ideas lately; specifically those for Ian Cohen’s recent Editors review, my New Young Pony Club and Simian Mobile Disco reviews, and Alfred’s Interpol review, all predominantly negative reviews of records that certain sections of Stylus’ readership evidently feel should have received positive reviews.

Firstly, I take direct issue with Stylus reviews “ALWAYS” being the most negative on Metacritic as one reader claimed – for a start this is simply not statistically true or even remotely close, but more importantly than this, if one looks at the relative grade curves for film scores and music scores on Metacritic one will notice very quickly that music scores are massively top-heavy, meaning that the majority of music reviews are far more positive than the majority of film reviews.

Now while I have a much greater interest in music than in film, both personally and professionally, and prefer it as an art form generally, I do not accept that music is a consistently better or more qualitatively effective art form than film – I think across most areas of the arts there is probably a similar distribution of brilliant, good, OK, poor and abominable work, whether that be literature, music, film, painting, sculpture or any other area you care to name. Obviously the subjective nature which governs how we judge art means that this is debatable at best and wildly incomprehensible at worst, but in the scheme of things I don’t think it’s too outrageous to posit that there are proportionally as many great albums as films, as many average albums as films, and as many rubbish albums as films.

If we accept this idea of distribution of quality, then obviously the grade curve for music reviews offered by Metacritic becomes problematic because it suggests that music critics aren’t actually critical, and that many of them are far too happy to praise mediocre or bad art for some reason. Why? Possibly because popular music has never experienced the kind of rigorous academic study which film has, meaning it is still viewed as mere entertainment rather than as art, and anything which entertains must necessarily be good because it is effective, no matter how it entertains. Does the subjectivity which governs our interface with music becomes, in the hands of some critics who strive towards objectivity, a projected solipsism which says “someone might like it, so it can’t be that bad”, rather than “I dislike it, so I shall explain why”?

Unfortunately the tools to really get to grips with a record seem to be hugely underdeveloped in many music writers, possibly because there’s such scant tradition of them being used due to the lack of a proper academic approach to pop music (not that that is the only or best approach); an awful lot of people don’t seem to know how or why a record is bad or good, don’t understand how or why they are reacting to a record the way they are, emotionally, aesthetically, culturally or physically. Sometimes this wrestling with uncertainty can read with great poetry and passion, which is a problem because the mythology that has built up around popular music automatically places emphasis on this approach being the right approach, and then everyone follows this lead regardless of their talent or insight. In most cases this seems to lead to asinine fence-sitting or directionless invective, as many music critics end up over-estimating that which they should be criticising, or else hurling abuse at straw men.

This is to say nothing of the insidious nature of the capitalist music industry, careerist writers, lazy writers, nepotism across the media industry as a whole, or any other of a whole slew of issues which can cause poor music writing. Many people are happy to rewrite a press release and call it a ‘review’, just as many people are happy to compose knee-jerk tirades or ad hominem attacks based on received wisdom, because it’s easier than actually engaging with and thinking about a record.

But let’s be honest; most readers of music reviews don’t want engaged thought anyway, or don’t think they want it. Music journalism is often little more than a glorified catalogue, and often a lot less than that too. Dwindling sales and folding magazines are commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic, and one consistent reaction to this is to cut word counts for reviews – how can one say anything more than “this is OK, if you like that sort of thing” in an 80-word capsule review?

People think they want shortcuts to stuff that they can buy or download that will say or do something about or for their lives. Tumbling sales of physical formats suggest that people aren’t willing to pay for these items and services though, which in turn suggests to me that the effectiveness of these items and services is unacceptable. Which is to say that people get burned by bad music and aren’t willing to take financial or emotional risks in the future in case they get burned again. If reviewers dislike, say, Kaiser Chiefs’ latest album and know they wont listen to it again once they’ve reviewed it, but give it a decent score nevertheless because it’s catchy, fits an aesthetic, and is expected to shift substantial units, and people buy it hoping for more than moronic third-hand tunes, bad production, uninspired arrangements and uncomfortably shouted choruses, then it stands to reason that the trust that a reader has in a writer, in a whole publication, and in the music industry in general, should be eroded.

Which is why I’m glad that Stylus reviews probably do average at a lower score than those of other publications, even if they’re not “ALWAYS” the lowest – I think that a lot of the time the writers here are just being more realistic than those elsewhere. I doubt Ian’s planning on putting on the Editors record for pleasure again anytime soon, anymore than I’m intending to play Yours Truly, Angry Mob or the Simian Mobile Disco album; I think they’re poor, even bad, records, and I got nothing positive from listening to them. In fact, knowing that I’ll never listen to Attack Decay Sustain Release or Kaiser Chiefs again actually suggests to me that I should have been harder on them, even if they do superficially fit some kind of remit of what’s acceptable to praise according to some music fans. (Interestingly, Ricky Wilson from Kaiser Chiefs is interviewed in this month’s GQ magazine and, when asked what the worst thing written about him in a review has been, seems to mention my review in a slightly forlorn manner.)

Which brings me to something else; the idea that Stylus approaches ‘pop’ in a different way to how it approaches ‘indie rock’, and further to that, the question of what ‘pop’ and ‘indie rock’ actually are and how they relate to each other, and further to that, the question of whether Stylus has a wider raison d’être or ulterior motive in its reviews policy.

To answer the last question first, because it’s most succinct; we don’t. We can’t afford one in terms of the time and effort involved in establishing one, as much as anything else.

To answer the other questions, I’m gonna need some more time to ruminate and write. And make curry.

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Umbrella

Rihanna has been at #1 in the singles chart for nine weeks now with “Umbrella”, equalling Gnarls Barkley’s record for longest #1 this decade when “Crazy” ruled the airwaves last spring. The interesting thing is that while I heard “Crazy” loads, I’ve not even heard “Umbrella” once, to the best of my knowledge.

Part of this may be down to the fact that we got a new car last August, which has both AM radio and a CD player – the car I drove before that had only FM and a cassette deck, which meant I listened to a lot of Radio 1 while driving. These days it’s FiveLive, or sometimes an album, and as a result my handle on what’s in the charts and on the radio at any given time has dissolved almost completely.

The sad thing, if you’re at all inclined to think that it may be sad, is that I don’t really care that my link to the nation’s airwaves has died. Perhaps it’s that this whole ‘war against compression’ has driven me underground, so to speak, in terms of my taste, or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and being distracted by other matters and thus keeping current with the charts seems like less of a necessity than it used to; circa 2003/2004/2005 I was hiving the charts regularly, both in an effort to be up on everything that was happening musically and also, later on, in order to keep tabs on how Embrace were faring during their comeback, but now…

The last time I listened to Radio 1 was just over a month ago when a friend alerted me that they were going to feature the story about dynamic range compression on Newsbeat that I mentioned a few posts ago. Thinking back, the Newsbeat piece was a haemorrhaged opportunity. In their infinite wisdom, Radio 1 played two versions of an acoustic-based track by a singer-songwriter so memorable that I forget who it was; one compressed, one uncompressed. They sounded, of course, practically identical – either no one in the Newsbeat research team realised that Radio 1 applies insane levels of compression to all its signals pre-broadcast anyway, or they thought it simply didn’t matter. I’ve not tuned in since.

To digress (only not really) for a moment; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga has been my first contact with Spoon, who despite their profile in the US are utterly anonymous over here, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Trying to couch why I like the record makes it sound unremarkable though, because it literally just comes down to it being a collection of interesting songs played well; good arrangements, good melodies, good lyrics. I have a slight sense of reservation about it, however, which is down to one thing – “mastered by Howie Weinberg”. Now Weinberg’s not a butcher exactly, but he is fond of making things loud and flat these days, probably mostly due to the requests of people he’s mastered for, who fit snugly for the most part into what one might call ‘leftfield mainstream’ – PJ Harvey, Modest Mouse, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gorillaz, Billy Corgan, Muse; all people with a vested interest in radio and TV rotation.

Now the Spoon album is interesting sonically, firstly because it’s incredibly well-engineered, with tones and timbres of instruments caught beautifully, and also because of the minimalist approach to many of the songs in terms of both composition and arrangement – much of it seems to be one guitar, one piano, bass, drums and a vocal, with occasional touches of brass and the odd overdub or multi-track. As such, you can pump up each of the elements reasonably far without them starting to obscure each other, especially given the way many of the constituent instrumental parts interlink, drums falling into holes left between guitar notes or chords, basslines existing in space between the two, etcetera. Also, there’s an amount of between-song studio chatter, adding to a sense of dynamics even if the songs themselves are mostly pretty consistent – saying that, “The Ghost of You Lingers” is just a piano & vocal arrangement, and is noticeably (and wisely) quieter than the preceding or following songs, adding intimacy. Because of these factors, the absolute volume and flatness thereof isn’t too much of an issue; still, though, the kickdrum occasionally gets lost in a wall of sound, which is disappointing. I hammered Repeater + 3 Songs by Fugazi on Sunday morning, and no matter how loud I pushed it nothing ever got obscured. Likewise the 65daysofstatic album, which grows in stature in my mind every time I play it, and which couldn’t ever be described as sounding out of date, which I imagine is a consideration for many people who pump things too loud at the mixing and mastering stage.

Almost everything I’ve just said about Spoon could also apply to The National, except that their arrangements are generally that bit busier, causing an ounce more disorientation at climactic moments. Boxer is a good record, but compared to Spoon or Menomena I’m not getting nearly as excited about it as everyone else seems to be.

Interestingly, I believe Weinberg mastered both Rid Of Me and Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea by PJ Harvey, some seven years apart. Playing them back-to-back it’s interesting noting the difference between the staggering, frightening dynamic leaps in the title track of the former, and the easy consistency of the latter, which for a long time I’d thought of as the ‘better’ record. Now I’m not so sure. How much did Polly change between 1993 and 2000? I need to investigate Uh Huh Her. I suspect Stories… was partly an exercise in seeing what was possible if Polly unwound and pout some slap on. It worked, clearly.

To get back on track, perhaps… if my tastes are turning away from the mainstream it’s not because I’m after some kind of obscurantist’s cache, not trying to bask in the ennui of elitism; I just want music that’s alive and musical and exciting, that doesn’t exist purely to… well I don’t know. Let’s talk positives rather than negatives. Music that exists for the sake of being music is what I’m after, perhaps; to see what can be done, and to be musical because music is wonderful. Major labels don’t seem to have a clue how to produce or market an album today (look at the Ash album), and neither do the major music retailers (look at HMV’s dwindling profits). Looking at the Prince farrago, artists don’t either – a new album in a tatty card sleeve given away free with a Sunday newspaper that has a reputation for knee-jerk conservative bigotry only marginally lesser than its weekly incarnation is hardly the best artistic move the purple one has ever made, even if it has made him a nice sum of money.

Which is why it’s good that Fopp might survive, or at the least be resurrected, and is why I think that, if the music business is going to make it through this currently unsettling time (look at the Happy Mondays review, linked right), then it’s not going to be the gigantic behemoths that are going to lead the way, but rather the minnows that can change direction and surf the tides. This is nothing that hasn’t been said before, of course, and countless times in countless places. Fopp’s business model, it’s ethos of being slightly left-of-centre, a touch discerning and specialist in its stock, probably bodes well because they’re not underestimating their audience’s intelligence (that much). I’m fed up of walking into HMV or Virgin and not being able to find… anything even slightly out of the ordinary. I’m not even talking esoteric, just simple stuff. If you have The Tuss’ album in stock and sell some, get the EP too. As well as a couple of copies of the new Spoon album, get one each of a smattering of their back catalogue in, in case anyone has their interest piqued to investigate further. Or you could keep dozens of copies of OK Computer in, just in case Q do another ‘100 best albums ever’ issue and any of their readers don’t already own it yet.

Speaking of which… there were two (mid-to-late) teenage boys on the train when I was going home from work the other day, and one of them had an HMV bag which looked to contain a lone compact disc. I had my walkman on so couldn’t hear them, but they were chatting (even though one of them had earphones in). Eventually the one with the HMV bag took out the contents to investigate the sleeve and peel off stickers. The album? OK Computer.

Record shop musings

I’ve been involved in a small handful of amusing incidents in record shops over the last week or so; normally I wouldn’t think they were worth writing about but it struck me this morning that actually there might not be many record shops soon, and that I should therefore record these moments for posterity, lest my future children, brainfucked on hypermedia till they have attention only for nanosecond bursts of white noise, ever ask me what it was like to communicate in public with another human being while purchasing music, rather than… whatever it is that they’ll be doing.

First up, I mistakenly bought two copies of the new Queens Of The Stone Age album – I ordered a copy via Amazon one lunchtime, had a phone call from the mortgage advisor shortly afterwards and had to clear out my bank account on surveyor’s fees or searches or suchlike at short notice, so cancelled the order. Or so I thought. The next day, after my dad transferred me some money he owed me, I picked up the QOTSA in HMV for a tenner. A few days later and the Amazon copy arrived.

So a few days further on I took the unplayed copy back to HMV with the receipt, and exchanged it for The Tuss. The assistant manager served me.

“I’d like to swap this for this, please. They’re the same price. I have my receipt.”

“Can I ask if there’s anything wrong with [the Queens Of The Stone Age album]?”

“Well there’s nothing wrong with it per se-”

“I’m not gonna argue with you…”

“- it’s just really badly produced-”

“Oh I agree totally.”

“- too compressed, and apart from a few tracks I can’t listen to it.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Are you really called Spartacus?”

“Yes.”

“Wow.”

“I’m lying. I got fed-up on Saturday and wanted to be anonymous, so made myself a Spartacus nametag.”

I felt like asking him if he’d read any articles about compression on the internet, and if he’d heard of notorious internet music journalist and anti-compression campaigner Nick Southall, but, despite him being called Spartacus (however temporarily), I reasoned that he’d probably consider that kind of behaviour to be moderately insane.

Secondly, on Saturday I had some time to kill in town after a haircut (ideally I wanted a Victorinox ‘tomato knife’, but the kitchen shop didn’t have any) and popped into HMV. Despite my better judgement I had a quick look in the dance section to see if, by chance, they had the debut EP by The Tuss from earlier this year, enamoured as I am with the album proper. They didn’t obviously; record shops don’t stock records people want to buy anymore, which is why they’re going bust – more of that later, though.

There was a guy wistfully and worriedly handling a copy of Rushup Edge, obviously completely indecisive about whether to part with his hard-earned £9.95. Having just reviewed it (eyes right), I felt qualified to pass comment.

“That’s very good, by the way.”

“It is?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And is it… really Aphex Twin?”

“I certainly think so. Sounds like him. It’s his publisher and stuff.”

“Thanks. I think I might buy it.”

He seemed very worried about his potential purchase of The Tuss. Even if it isn’t Aphex Twin, Richard D. James isn’t going to come round your house and throw eggs at you and laugh. And besides, it’s good!

But the fact that it may or may not be Aphex Twin probably wasn’t the root cause of the guy’s trepidation. I get the feeling that for a lot of people buying a record in 2007 is a psychologically worrying thing, and I’m not sure why.

[Having been back in HMV today though, I’m pretty sure they had the same amount of copies left as they did on Saturday – suggesting that he didn’t buy it in the end.]

Perhaps (and this is serious wishful thinking) it’s because people suspect subliminally that they’re not going to enjoy their purchase as much as they might have enjoyed records in the past, and that the cause of this is hideous modern production trends.

But that’s not ever going to be the whole story. There’s something, some issue with private cultural investment. Debord would no doubt say something about spectacle, how it’s useless to listen to music unless people see you listening – i.e. with an iPod or at a gig – that people are loathe to invest capital on private cultural goods that work on a non-visual axis. Hence the popularity of DVDs, which people seem to buy as ornaments. The complete triumph of visual culture over… any other culture. Which means music. But how and why has this happened?

Let’s talk record shops again.

Exeter has one each of the two big chains, both on the High Street. Branson’s is due to move into a new shopping centre this autumn, I gather. The other desperately needs new premises, as it is small, cramped, and cannot hold enough stock. My brother used to work there. (Emma used to work in Branson’s.) I regularly play them off against each other for new releases, which I still prefer to get in a shop on day of release.

There is a smattering of independents, too. First up is Martian Records on Gandy Street; formerly second-hand only and a perpetual hangout for Goths and metallers, it now deals in cheap other-territory imports, a la CDWow, plus a huge array of minutely varied black hoodies with words like Rammstein across the chest, piles of cheap DVDs, and a leftover smattering of second hand stuff. I pop in occasionally but rarely pick anything up. The last thing I bought there was the Jarvis album.

Across the road and into the Guildhall centre is Solo. Fifteen months ago I detailed the start of its demise. Things have not got better since; sparse stock of new releases and no replenishment of back catalogue stock has been order of the day as the lower floor prepares for closure, which will just leave upstairs, which previously housed the ticket shop and ‘specialist’ (jazz, country, world, etc) sections. Whether they will become just a specialist shop is unclear; I just hope they lose the clothing, which they appeared to sell none of over the last year and a half, and which must have been a contributory nail to the coffin. In my late teens and early twenties this was my store of choice. The 3 for £20 section used to be terrific.
Somewhere in town (currently Fore Street) is Reckless and/or Reform Records, which changes name and premises often. I think it used to be a dance vinyl specialist; whether it is anymore, I don’t know. I may have bought one album in there, years ago, when it was by Timepiece; I honestly can’t remember.

And then there is MVC, which a year or so ago became Music Zone, and then a few weeks ago started becoming a Fopp – the sign above the door didn’t change, but the stock and all the point-of-sale and merchandising did; even the chip & pin reader said Fopp. Fopp has of course now gone bust, largely due to over-stretching itself in acquiring the bankrupt Music Zone’s stores. Staff were not paid for last month’s work. If the situation is the same at the rest of the chain’s stores, then they are standing unmanned and unlit, but full of stock.

Beyond these ‘dedicated’ record shops, there are or course the usual other places where you can buy the week’s big releases – WHSmith, Woolworths, Tesco, Sainsburys, etc.

I had a vague plan for where this was going, but I’ve lost my mental destination somewhat since I started writing this over the weekend. Essentially the future doesn’t look bright for physical record stores. Even Berwick Street in London has taken a heavy hit in recent months.

Anyway… In other news: I’ve been using earplugs at gigs for quite a while, specifically this kind of thing. Again, if I was as obsessed as I seem, I’d work in something about how everything is too loud, competing for attention, badly recorded, etc., and how if, say, Simian Mobile Disco records actually had real bass frequencies to start with, you wouldn’t need to turn them so loud in a club to get some kick into the bottom-end.

Also, Imogen Millais-Scott, in Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance, looks just like Björk.