Monthly Archives: January 2011

Sodcasting

So I’ve made what might well be my last ever visit to Exeter Fopp today. It’s possible I might go back tomorrow, but unlikely. Which means that my final ever purchase in the record store at 191 High Street (I doubt whatever comes next will be another record store), where I’ve been buying records since I was about 13, was London Sessions by LCD Soundsystem. Somehow it strikes me as fitting that it’s both a new record (out last Monday), and an old one (in that it’s live versions of songs any LCD fan already owns).

Before I bought London Sessions I checked the user-reviews on Amazon.co.uk; there’s only one at present, and it’s remarkably erudite. The author uses the marvelous term that titles this post: “An album may be fractured, broken into pieces, ignored by those with short attention spans and mobile phones sodcasting their awful racket all over trains the country wide”. I’ve never seen or heard it used before, though Urban Dictionary tells me it’s been around since 2007. When I used to catch the train from Dawlish to Exeter circa 2003 there was one notable bastard who nearly drove me to homicide through sodcasting Britney Spears and Sugababes from his tinny Sony Ericsson speaker. I like the term a lot.

I was thinking about over-used terms in music reviews the other day, I think inspired by reading yet another writer use the deadening phrase “the [something] is all [something]”, as in “the chorus is all heavenly choirs” or “the guitar solo is all angular electric shocks” or “the intro is all pounding drums” or “the guest rap is all boasts about the size of his penis” or whatever.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that I used to trot out “the [something] is all [something]” like a crutch in reviews where I was otherwise grasping for sonic metaphors, similes, or descriptors or some other kind, and I think this is why I’ve grown to hate it so much. It makes me clench my fists.

But it’s not the phrase I hate the most in music writing. No, the peak of my ire and disgust is saved for the pseudo-objectivity and desperate-clamor-for-authority that runs through the phrase “album of the year”, especially when used in any month other than December and in any context outside of “my favourite album of the year is [something].” My particular least favourite usage is when it’s preceded by the phrase “may just be the”, the definite article adding yet another layer of obnoxiousness. I find something ugly in the desire to crown an album king, in the rush to have your voice be heard as one of the first to canonize.

I also find something stupid in the whole arbitrariness of the end-of-year wiping of the slate within music journalism and music geekdom in general. I do it myself; for the last couple of years I’ve kept new CD acquisitions in a growing pile and only filed them away into the alphabetical stacks on New Year’s Day, where they get almost-forgotten about, their useful lives ending with December whether they were bought 11 months ago or 1 days ago. Those late-in-the-year purchases don’t get a fair crack of the whip.

Because the wiping of the slate makes everyone rush out in January eager for the cool new thing, whether that’s the BBC’s “Sound of” list or whichever opportunistic indie band decided to hold their new record over from a late-autumn release in order to try and catch a conspicuously high chart position in a quiet week. I’ve seen too many contacts on Twitter or Facebook in the last week or so singing the praises of Adele or whoever because they’re desperate to listen to something that’s new and call it good; sod that. Don’t put away last year’s records yet. Or those from the year before, even. Listen to something you know is awesome one more time, and stop hankering for the “album of 2011” already.

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Show me some Skins…

So the fifth season and third cohort of E4’s notorious sex&drug fuelled teen comedy/drama show Skins started last night. So far after one episode none of the new cast had engaged in brazen sexual activity with each other, but we did get to see plenty of girls in just their underwear (as part of a pseudo-Carrie-homage changing room scene, no less – do sixth formers have to do PE these days?) and a gratuitous shot of a naked male bottom in a swimming pool. And, bizarrely, the little girl from The Golden Compass dressed as an androgynous goth animation-wannabe and pushing a replica handgun into a postbox.

But this is Skins, and strangeness is to be expected. Like English Literature teachers revealing tattoos of Charlotte Bronte on their chest and talking about “post-post-modern identity”. Or Chris Addison as a PE teacher. (And was that John Sessions with a mustache playing one of Frankie’s two dads?)

But the strange caricature cast of adults who surround the primary teen cohort of the show aren’t the main appeal for me, a 30-something man. Nor is the titillation/shock factor of seeing a load of teens get drunk, take drugs, and have sex (all of which are portrayed with much more frequency, drama, and excitement than my own rather staid and dull teenage years, which were much more like those represented by The Inbetweeners, E4’s other great teen show). I’m not even drawn in by the music, by either an impulse to keep up with what’s hip to the kids now or else to reassure my self that I’m still hip myself by seeing how many artists I recognize (last night = 1: British Sea Power).

No, the main pull of Skins is the emotional resonance it sometimes hits. Towards the end of the second cohort’s tenure these moments were becoming fewer and further between, as the production crew mistakely stuck with the Freddie/Effie storyline when both characters paled next to JJ, Cook, Emily, and Naomi. I still maintain, in particular, that the JJ episode in season 3 was one of the most glorious 60-minutes of television I’ve ever seen, a triumph of compassion and sensitivity. The on-again/off-again relationship between Emily and Naomi also produced a number of episodes that had both me and my wife hit hard with emotion. It’s these moments that make it worth trudging through some of the less effective episodes and storylines; when they hit a peak, Skins can become transcendental television. I really mean that.

One thing that disappoints with both the second and third cohort is the move away from untried Bristolian natives as actors; the authentic accents and incredibly natural delivery of the first cohort adding a layer of realism amongst the otherwise surreal adult characters, hyper-bright fashions, and stylized sex&drugs sequences. But, as I said, though the second cohort may not have been locals for the most part they still produced some awesome television. (And some banal rubbish; the final two episodes descended hard and fast.) I’m not bowled over by the new cast from one episode, but who could be? I’m looking forward to getting to know them.

So, Skins is back. I’m glad.

Fopp Off

Stopped off on the way home so I could buy an onion and a nan bread, and also pop into Fopp on Exeter High Street and pick up the new Joan As Police Woman album for Emma. I was on a mission, so hurried straight into the shop and upstairs to where I knew it would be, and then went straight to the till to pay.

It was then and there, at the till, that I noticed the cardboard boxes full of Fopp carrier bags behind the counter. The member of staff was having a conversation with another customer, and I overheard the phrase “we’re sending all the bags up to Bristol”.

Which only means one thing.

“Are you closing?”

“Yeah. On Sunday.”

And that’s that. Fopp lasted two years in its current location, which used to be HMV. The HMV that my brother worked in when I was 12, that I spent an afternoon in the stockroom of one Saturday unpeeling stickers and relabelling sale stock in. The record shop that, over my life, I’ve probably spent the most time and money in. The record shop closest to my current house. The one I can just pop to on a Sunday afternoon if I fancy something.

It was the second incarnation of Fopp in Exeter; the first was at the bottom of Sidwell Street and lasted no time at all; they hadn’t even put out all the point-of-sale branding to replace the old MVC brand before it closed. I’d been so excited when I first recognised the POS branding, because Fopp was the record shop I always searched out in Bristol or London because I knew I’d always find an intriguing bargain.

And now I’m stuck wiht HMV, 2011 version. Which sells lumberjack shirts and computer games and, if you can find it, the new Take That album. There are three or so tiny independents and second-hand shops but none of them have ever really catered to my taste.

Gutted.

The Music Diary Project

I have a memory of having written an article for Stylus many moons ago, back in the site’s early days of 2002 or 2003, which detailed everything I listened to in the space of a week. Sadly the Stylus archive has just migrated to a new server, and accessing all the old content is proving tricky. Google has saved me for numerous of the things I’ve linked to from recent posts here, but despite several attempts I can’t find this particular piece. I remember listening to Elvis Costello as I drove to play 5-a-side football.

I have been pondering doing this again. But with a difference.

One of the things that interests me most about music is its utility; how we use it. What is it for. How do we access it. As music writers the listening process can become, I fear, pretty artificial at points when compared with how “normal people” consume music, and I think that in order to write about music one must, occasionally, touch-base with normal methods of consumption. Or at least be aware that listening to 20 new records a week and passing judgement on all of them to some degree may influence the outcomes of those judgements and thus the relevance of those judgement to people who maybe buy acquire one new record a week.

I’m in a strange hinterland between being a music writer and a regular fan, and the differences in behaviour intrigue me. One set, to an extent, relies on another for recommendations, when the two sets are very different and the dissonance this may cause could mean that those recommendations are unreliable. But that’s only one tiny aspect.

So I’d like to get a load of people, music writers and non-music writers, but all music lovers, to chronicle not just what they listen to in a given week but how, where, why, and with whom they listen to it. In the name of research.

I’m going to suggest the first full week of April (Monday 4th to Sunday 10th) for this little social experiment, and I want you to join in. If you’re a music fan, writer, lover, maker, or whatever, and you keep a blog or website of any kind, join in. For a full week make a note of everything you listen to, and any contextual details you care to add to it, and throw it up online. You might want stick something on Tumblr every time you listen to something, or you might save up and write a massive missive at the end of the week. You might list every single song in detail, or merely impart in passing that you spent an hour with a dubstep playlist. Just tell us about it.

I intend to do this, and to get as many other people doing it as possible, and I’ll tag all my resultant blog posts with “musicdiaryproject”. If you did the same, that would be awesome.

Who’s in?

Alas, Poor Harry

We’ve quite taken to Silent Witness and its strung-out CSI:London vibe on dark, late-winter Monday & Tuesday evenings over the last couple of years. Last night I even tweeted about sitting down to watch it. I thoroughly enjoy the pathologist-procedural perspective, the slowed pace compared to US equivalents, and the quiet drama of scientific discovery from intense analysis of mutilated cadavers.

After last night it’s apparent that I’ve even grown quite fond of the trio of lead characters, especially Harry. Cheeky, charming, care-free bachelor-pathologist Harry, driving a Golf GTI (a few seasons ago) and living in a swanky London flat, occasionally almost falling for beautiful foreign detectives out to bust girl-trafficking Eastern European mafia gangs, but never quite ready to settle down. Harry, who ended last night’s episode having been shot, several times, at very close range, and then doused in petrol and set alight.

There can be no trick here. Harry is not going to emerge, Commissioner-Gordon-like, from a faked death. Professor Leo Dalton did not arrive in time to save him from a grizzly fate of being chopped & flamed (or whatever the phrase was). There is no misunderstanding. A well-loved character in a high-profile BBC drama series just got offed, and in absolutely unrepentantly brutalist fashion.

Three things struck me. Firstly, my emotional reaction, which I wasn’t expecting. Empathy isn’t the first word I’d associate with my liking of Silent Witness. I like the discovery, the science, the Holmesian logic and unravelling of what happened. But I was upset by Harry’s death.

Second point; I was upset by the sheer brutality and surprise of it. We the audience were tricked into expecting Harry would be saved or escape, that Leo would arrive on time. Heroes don’t die. Harry’s not a hero; this is the point. He’s a pathologist. Harry died. We saw him shot in the leg and incapacitated, which was shocking enough. We saw the killer approach him, stamp on the wounded leg, and level the gun at Harry’s face. Doubly shocking. We saw the petrol can and understood that this foreshadowed a terrible end. We saw the montaged footage of Leo approaching in a taxi, surely to the rescue. We saw the petrol poured and the match lit and Leo arrive seconds too late. I don’t think I’ve ever been as shocked by a death on TV, and I’ve watched a lot of 24. Was it uncalled-for? My office have been chattering about it today. Facebook and Twitter went mad last night. It got a reaction. I don’t read TV magazines or websites so had no inkling that Tom Ward, the actor who plays Harry, was leaving. Brutal.

Third point; wtf does this say about the Western European, and specifically British, attitude towards Eastern Europe? How many Danny Dyer films have there been with gangs of Bulgarian murderers eating British tourists on stag-dos in Romanian forests? How many Hostel sequels? How many Liam Neeson violent revenge fantasies featuring Albanian mafia? How many incidents like this in “intelligent” primetime drama where awful Eastern European criminal stereotypes commit absolutely dreadful crimes under the watch of corrupt police? In (what seemed like) the middle of a major city? I’ve not been to Eastern Europe but I know friends who have, who’ve had wonderful times, and who’ve managed to completely avoid being shot, raped, set on fire, or cannibalised in forests.

EDIT – He’s alive after all

So then Harry woke up and it was all a dream. Or, rather, a deception. A fake. Who better to fake a death than a pathologist? Harry chipping his crown out while opening a beer bottle with his teeth early in the first part became a ruthless piece of foreshadowing as, with the aid of a little deus ex articulated lorry, he overcame his assailant, causing the attacker’s accidental death, and then did the classic clothing switch and burnt the body. Popping his now-loose crown into the gangster’s mouth served as enough evidence to sway a preliminary identification.

So do I feel silly? Not especially. A little duped perhaps; I, like hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of other people, was tricked into a false period of grieving, and for someone who didn’t even exist. This is the power of television, and especially drama, where, even if they’re cut to look as if they are, things don’t necessarily happen in the order presented.

But the Eastern-European-specific xenophobia continued, as it was revealed that the mafia weren’t just trafficking prostitutes but duping them into falling pregnant and then selling the babies (telling the mothers they were stillborn) to domestic dignitaries or moneyed foreigners. The corrupt police were superceded by corrupt politicians and corrupt doctors.

But, at the crux, the finale, the most corrupt policeman found his conscience, and the most corrupt individual was revealed as the English ambassadorial official. This, alongside numerous references to the fact that a police detective in Budapest earns as much as a burger-flipper in London, helped this story find a layer of sophistication that I was worried had evaporated in the name of shock.

Stand-Alone-Songs

Standing in the living room earlier, eating some pizza, listening to the 90s playlist on the Zeppelin (Madonna to Supergrass to LFO to Skee-Lo), and on comes King Biscuit Time’s I Walk The Earth, a stand-alone solo single by Steve Mason who, at the time, was much better known as the singer in The Beta Band. In fact I think it was his debut solo material; it felt much of a kind to The Beta Band’s own music and so seemed strange that Mason released it solo, but he never did quite follow the rules.

But anyway, the song’s status as Mason’s solo debut isn’t what interested me enough to sit down and type; its status as a stand-alone-song did.

What I mean by stand-alone-song is that it never featured on an album. Nor was it really part of an EP, even though it was accompanied by a handful of (not too shabby) b-sides. It’s contextless. Isolated. Anyone who’s aware of my faint obsession with b-sides knows that I feel a strange compulsion to look after songs that have no home, the ones that are in danger of being forgotten, that I want to celebrate them. So that’s what I’m going to do in this post. I keep a playlist of stand-alone-songs on the iPod that sits in the Zeppelin’s dock. These are my top ten. In no particular order.

Orbital – Satan
Originally released in 1991, this got to stand-alone again when a re-recorded version came out on New Years Eve 1996. Only this time it was a 3CD set (remember those days) composed (bar one studio version of Satan itself) of live tracks. Consider the length of Orbital songs; it’s a live album by the backdoor for the princely sum of £6. The title track, Butthole Surfers sample and all, delights me every time. Sandwiched between Firestarter in 1996 and Come To Daddy in 1997, it made a lot of sense.

The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Of course The Beatles did loads of stand-alone-songs, as did almost every artist in the 60s; it was a different time. This Revolver-era slice of enormous bass, timeless riff, and cheeky backing vocals is probably my favourite, bar We Can Work It Out, which doesn’t qualify because of its double-A status.

The Stone Roses – Fools Gold
Of course Silvertone have done their damndest over the years to relinquish Fools Gold of its stand-alone status, sticking it on a billion compilations and appending it to every rerelease possible, but in my mind this is always the strange, beamed-in-from-another-planet moment that came significantly, decisively after the debut album.

Electrelane – I Want To Be The President
A single that fell between debut and sophomore album, this marked an important turning point in Electrelane’s career. Because it’s where they started to sing. Produced by Echoboy (him from The Hybirds), it also propels them into markedly different sonic territory, escaping postrock instrumentalism for electronic discopostpunk. The final third is irresistible. And oh that analogue burping to open…

Bark Psychosis – Blue
The swansong of Bark Psychosis mk1, even though they’d actually already become Bark Psychosis mk2 (by dint of just being Graham Sutton on his own), this is how I always wanted New Order to sound. It’s a slice of surreal dancepop, existing at the edges. There’s a glockenspiel or xylophone or maybe just a plain old keyboard chiming single notes at the end while tiny glistens of sound trip up and down on either side. It’s beautiful. I found the 12” white label of this in the corner of my office after working in the room for 2 years. Strange.

Spoon – My First Time Volume 3
So stand-alone that there’s no physical version at all, this 2005-download-only single is cut from the same cloth as Gimme Fiction and just as good as any cut actually on that record. But barely anyone’s heard it.

Blur – Music Is My Radar
Damon Albarn said before each new Blur record that it was inspired by Pavement and CAN. This single, released to coincide with their Best Of, is the only time they ever actually have sounded even remotely like CAN. But of course, ‘inspired by’ and ‘sounds like’ are massively different concepts. The mumbled vocals, the scratchy guitar, the weird sideways drumbeat; whenever I think of this, I want to play it. But I don’t think of it often enough.

LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge
I feel vaguely like a cheat for including this, given that a bonus disc with LCD’s debut means that pretty much everyone has it on what might as well be an album, but in spirit this is most definitely one of a kind.

King Biscuit Time – I Walk The Earth
Enormous bass drum, hi-hats that jerk you upwards; until the vocal comes in this could almost be Got Your Money by ODB and Kelis; it’s certainly Mason’s most overtly hip-hop moment, I think. It’s also blessed with some fuzzing, buzzing guitars (are they guitars?), an irresistible but understated chorus, and Mason’s voice. No matter what he sings, with whatever backing, when he layers over himself, sings harmony lines with lyrics you can’t quite make out, it breaks my heart every single time.

Aphex Twin – Windowlicker
This is 12 years old and still absolutely, completely, utterly insane. I think it’s going to destroy either my speakers or my brain every time I hear it. And yet, basically, it’s a really catchy piece of r’n’b. But twisted. So twisted. An album of stuff like this would be impossible to negotiate.

Genius to fall asleep to your tape last night

The guy over at Monster Shark (he’s my boss, and also my Record Club co-conspirator and alternate-universe co-radio-host) got some new headphones the other week, a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ES55s, which he said probably weren’t “worth fishing out of a bin for a soundophile such as yourself” but which he was enjoying very much. I don’t actually think I am all that much of a soundophile; certainly not an audiophile. I just like sound.

Actually he didn’t say he was enjoying them; if anything he was a little freaked out by them, and tweeted: “Just bought decent headphones. All the music I thought was simple and minimalist turns out to be full of loads of sounds. Don’t like it.”

This is a pretty common reaction, I think. I remember an article in a hi-fi magazine many years ago where decent mini-systems were pitched against hi-fi separates systems with general music fans, as opposed to audiogeeks, giving their opinions, and several of them found the space and detail wrung out of (if I recall correctly) Ladies & Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael (of all things) by the separates systems to be really weird and off-putting. I’ve gotta say, run Fast Love through a good system, and it is pretty damn awesome sonically, whatever you think of old George as a singer / popstar / songwriter.

It’s fair to say that I’ve been a pretty serious headphone geek at times. Currently I own four different pairs, all for different purposes:

• Sennheiser PMX80s for running and cycling
• Koss Portapros for using with the iPhone when I’m walking around
Alessandro MS1s (basically retuned Grado SR80s) for indoors when I want something raw, rocking, exciting
• AKG K601s for when I want space, detail, and full-on absorbent listening

I also own a Meier Audio Corda dedicated headphone amplifier, which most people think is insane. All this was bought 4-5 years ago, pre-mortgage. The MS1s and K601s were traded-up to from other headphones that I sold. I spent far too much time hanging out on Head-Fi, which is dangerous. Insane, actually. I’ve not been back there in years and doubt I ever will again.

The rest of the hi-fi is pretty serious stuff, too; that’s it at the top of the post, sans speakers (Bowers & Wilkins). Actually that’s only one hi-fi. There’s a NAD / Q Acoustics CD/amp/speaker trio set-up in the backroom too (which I’m listening to Fennesz on now, as I type). There’s a Denon minisystem in the bedroom. And a B&W Zeppelin iPod dock in the livingroom too, for when we just want to jukebox stuff.

Which probably makes me sound like the most anal audiogeek in the world, but all that stuff isn’t so I can focus on the realism of Norah Jones’ hi-hat sound or whatever. It’s about… pursuing the psychedelic? Perhaps. Both that and also the idea of climbing inside a song or a piece of music. Which I guess is a pretty psychedelic impulse. I’ve always been too much of a scaredy-cat to try actual psychedelic or hallucinogenic substances of any kind (an older, wiser friend at university suggested I was already psychedelic enough; I took his word for it happily), but ever since I was about 15 music has been more about finding a gateway into other places than emotional resonance, as a rule; although of course the two very much go together (likewise my enjoyment of Kurt Vonnegut or Phillip Pullman is as much down to the characters and emotions as it is the ideas on display.)

I interviewed Graham Sutton for Stylus many moons ago, and he said the following:

“I agonise over years and years about a piece of music, fiddle and fiddle with it. It’s like getting a shape in my head, it’s not about a tune or about expressing a feeling; I’m not interested in ‘expressing myself’. I’m trying to build something that works and functions by itself and that I can wander around in, that’s solid and changes my mood and draws me through things, changes me, radically or violently or imperceptibly. I want to end up at a different point, a completely different point than you were at a few minutes ago, but not quite sure how you got there, or even noticed the change happening.”

That sense of sonic architecture has appealed to me since I sat down to do some homework (a rare occurrence) aged 15 and put on some headphones to listen to The Stone Roses’ debut album while I did it. As I Am The Resurrection’s pseudo-funk coda unfurled I noticed sounds in there that I’d never heard before, layers of depth and noise and physicality that drew me in and fascinated me (it’s not even a particularly intricate recording). The same thing happened with In Sides by Orbital a couple of years later, just before my seventeenth birthday, my first exposure to full-on techno (Screamadelica and Björk’s Post as teasers and this as the full-on event), and even on a weedy CD boombox the way layers unfurled and sound unraveled completely entranced me and cast a spell I’ve been hooked into ever since.

Songs and emotions matter massively, of course (although the architectural analogy can be applied to songwriting, too – I recall Martin Carr saying he wanted songs to be like “rooms with many doors”, choices wherein stepping through each one offered a new direction to go in), and sound qua sound for the sake of it is pointless to me. The other night I had a little freakout to Kate Bush’s Aerial and then Electrelane’s The Power Out. It wasn’t that I was only involved in the quality of the sound as an abstract entity, it was that the quality of the sound allowed the suspension of disbelief, as it were, enabled me to forgo pretty much everything else (although not quite – I could still tweet from the iPad, clearly) and just listen and get swept away. It helps to absorb me. Enthrall me.

But this isn’t for everyone; it’s not even for me, all the time – I’ve not spent much time listening via either pair of the serious headphones for a long, long time, and sometimes (now, for instance) I just want to have something nice playing in the room with me so I can absorb it via osmosis rather than submersion. But then comes the moment when I here a new layer of melody and texture in Out There Somewhere Part 2, a song I must have heard dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the last 15 years, or I notice a new subtlety in the mix of a Caribou song, or a drum sound hits me harder and purer than before, and the love and fascination I have for a piece of music gets reinvigorated. I want to be able to sit down in front of a massive pair of speakers and be blown away by music, have it consume me. That’s all.