Monthly Archives: March 2011

King Creosote and John Hopkins – Diamond Mine

The new King Creosote album, a collaboration with composer and arranger John Hopkins, is a beautiful, redolent drift of a record. It’s intended to evoke a specific place (a district of northern Scotland), and pulls that strange trick of making me feel that it succeeds, even though I’ve never been to the place in question. Its seven songs are slow, soft, and shrouded in atmosphere, from the ambient sounds of a cafe to slowly disintegrating piano loops, car indicators, plains of synthetic chords, and the feel of tired fingers on banjo strings. I’ve listened to it four times just this evening (easily done, as it lasts barely 32 minutes).

King Creosote, who has released some 30+ albums in the last decade, has said he’s been working on Diamond Mine for seven years; I don’t know his catalogue enough to know if this is true, but apparently Diamond Mine is comprised of reworked songs from his other records, given elongated arrangements courtesy of Hopkins. Again, I don’t know either man’s previous work well at all, but they seem like a good fit for each other.

King Creosote has also said that Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, which I know very well indeed, is his favourite album, and that Diamond Mine is something of an attempt to capture the aura of that legendary record. I can see what he means, and I can understand that Diamond Mine, which I am already very fond of, succeeds in this ambition. To an extent. But there is something missing.

So many artists who profess to aiming for the feel of Spirit Of Eden emulate only one side of that record; its beatific, otherworldly beauty, its gentle washes and becalmed vistas, its ambience and soothing balm. Too often the other side of Spirit Of Eden is ignored, or not noticed, or else out of reach for some reason; the clattering, cathartic noise, the pummelling drums and yowling guitars, the sense that all is not well, that, in fact, something is very, very wrong indeed. Perfect calm juxtaposed with absolute chaos. The beautiful parts made all the more so by falling in relief to the parts that threaten to destroy them.

Diamond Mine doesn’t need absolute chaos; it’s a beautiful record either way. But I wonder what it might have been had it reached for both sides.

The Music Diary Project – listening log

The Music Diary Project is only a week away; way back when I first came up with the idea I promised to produce an Excel spreadsheet for people to fill in as the week goes on, keeping track of everything you listen to. Well, here it is; simply right-click the link below and select ‘save as’, then open it up and type away once we hit the 4th of April.

The spreadsheet is incredibly simple, to make it as usable as possible; a page per day, with space to note down what you listened to, when, where, with whom, and anything else you fancy.

Spread the word!


Screamadelica remastered / revisited

When I bought the remastered 2CD version of Screamadelica on Monday (which comes packaged with the Dixie Narco EP), it was the fourth time that I’d handed money over for Primal Scream’s finest moment. I first bought it on regular CD in the mid 90s, aged about 15 or 16. I still have this copy, and it’s served me so well over the last 15+ years, and still sounds so good, that I was reticent to hand over cash for the new version. I wish I could remember where I got it from, and exactly when, but I can’t.

I can remember the second time I bought Screamadelica vividly, though: in early 1998, just after passing my driving test, I found it on cassette (yes!) for £1 in Woolworths in Dawlish, and bought it to keep in the car (sadly I have no idea where this is now, having not had a cassette deck in a car or anywhere else for at least five years).

Maybe a year or two later I found it on double-gatefold vinyl for £7 in Northampton’s Spinadisc record shop, on the high street. I was at University and had just bought my first proper hi-fi, which included a record player. I snapped up Screamadelica, Stand! by Sly & The Family Stone, and What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye for £7 each.

I think I first heard about Screamadelica from a book in the school library, which seems like a strange place to find out about legendary drug-fueled records, which I discovered while I was in the fifth form. It was something like “The Virgin Guide to Alternative Rock and Indie”, or similar, and I read it ravenously during revision periods (it was better than the prescribed textbooks) and lunchtimes. It was from this tome that I first of albums like Astral Weeks (mentioned in the blurb for A Storm In Heaven by The Verve), and probably dozens of others I’ve since come to know and love.

But it was Primal Scream’s entry, and the blurb for Screamadelica in particular, that excited me most. The idea of this dirty, leather-jacket-clad bunch of rock ‘n’ rollers teaming up with dance music gurus and producing a record that evolved indie or rock or whatever you want to call it into this blissed-out, psychedelic, utopic dance groove seemed like the most enticing thing in the world. I’ve never taken hallucinogens or stimulants (or pretty much any other illegal substance of any kind, to be honest), and the promise of music like this meant I didn’t need to; I was convinced that just by listening to it with an open enough mind I could appreciate the sensations, the euphoria, that others needed narcotics and adrenaline and soundsystems to appreciate. Whether I ever managed this or not is up for debate…

Screamadelica was, along with Björk and Orbital, my gateway drug away from the guitars-and-only-guitars stuff that most of my friends were listening to. I’ve had phases in the last 15 or 16 years when I’ve not listened to it much at all, and when I’ve thought it had aged poorly, dated, and seemed like an early 90s relic rather than the futurist amalgam / evolution it was intended as. But revisiting it in the form of the new remaster (which sounds very good to my ears off a few casual listens – I’ve not compared it directly with my original CD release though), it’s risen back above XTRMNTR in my estimation as Primal Scream’s finest moment.

The two sit well together, XTRMNTR as a noughties inversion of Screamadelica (each features a remixed version of a song from the previous, less successful album, as well as two versions of the same single, the latter take a bone-shaking remix in each case). XTRMNTR foreshadows the bleakness of a decade that was typified by decadent consumerism and an open-ended war on terror, while Screamdelica echoed acid house’s second summer of love and the wide-open potential of the 90s. The greatness of both records is due in no small part to the fact that they’re essentially made by people other than Bobby Gillespie; Weatherall’s influence on Screamadelica cannot be overstated, and XTRMNTR is as much a Kevin Shields / DFA / Chemical Brothers product as the work of the band that debuted with Sonic Flower Groove.

Primal Scream are an awesome band. Their wild oscillations in quality, their entire aesthetic and modus operandi, make them almost immune to normal critical discourse and canonisation. They are both spectacularly great and woefully awful, often within the same album (or even song), and they are both eminently enjoyable, enviable, and mockable. I still think they have about the best band name ever.

At this point I’m compelled to point out that, despite announcements to the contrary, Kevin Shields didn’t “remaster” the new version of Screamadelica; the sleeve proclaims that he merely “approved” the remaster (actually done by a chap called John Davis). So I’m also compelled to post this excellent excerpt from their main thread on ILX, by the awesome Tom D:

Bob: “Holl’ Shieldsy, whit’s the sketch wi’ this fuckin’ remaster here?”
Kev: “Oh ’tis a wonderful piece o’ work, Robert, me boy, yer man Davis has done a simply splendid job, splendid! Sure didn’t I tell him so meself.”
Bob: “I don’t gie a fuck aboot that, who the fuck is this cunt? Ah cannae jist hiv any auld punter in aff the street remixin’ ma fuckin’ CDs, man. Ah need som’dy ah can bum aboot efterwards, some cunt everybody’s heard ah.”
Kev: “Oh but you’re a terrible man for the name droppin’, Robert, terrible!”
Bob: “Could you no’ ha’ done it yerself, ya lazy Irish get? Ah mean, whit’s this “approved by” shite? Ah’ll gie ya a fuckin’ boot up the erse in a minute, see how ye approve o’ that!”
Kev: “But I need me rest, Robert, I’ve only got 10 years to make the next album, so I have.”
Bob: “Don’t gie us that, ya shitebag. Ah’m fuckin’ phonin’ Holger up, see if he cannae dae it… Holger? Get up Holger, ya dozy auld bastard…”
Holger: “… Herr Bobby, it is 10 o’clock of the hour, why are you phoning me at such ein ungottliche uhr already! Gott in himmel, Englander schwein!”
Bob: “Hey calm doon, auld yin, ah’m wahntin’ a favour, that’s a’. Listen, could you dae a cheeky wee remaster o’ fuckin’ Screamadelica?”
Bob: “Hullo? Hullo?”

Why does everybody hate Patrick Wolf?

In the interest of disclosure, I don’t hate Patrick Wolf. I love Patrick Wolf. Back in the days of Stylus, I reviewed his debut album, his third album, and I interviewed him too. I covered his second album for eMusic as well, which I’d completely forgotten about until just now when google reminded me.

Two years ago he provided three of my favourite songs of the year, and my favourite gig-experience, too. In fact he’s provided several memorable gig-going moments over the years, even when he’s been rubbish. I have, after vague moments of trepidation upon first contact, loved both of his recent singles too, and I’m looking forward to Lupercalia, his fifth album, immensely.

But I know a lot of people hate him. Friends of mine, serious music fans, have said pretty foul things about him and his music, things that I don’t understand at all, things that seem as if they’re talking about someone else, some other music. His latest single, The City, is a rollicking, tip-toppermost pop tune, laden with hooks and melody and a barrelling tempo, and it failed to hit the top 100. We regrettably can’t attend his gig in Manchester in a week and are trying to pass off our tickets to friends who can make it, but seemingly no one wants them. I do not understand.

I played his second album a few weeks ago at Devon Record Club, and both Tom and Rob were unsure when I revealed what I’d brought along; both of them found they enjoyed the record despite those misgivings, discovering something much less dramatic and gaudy than they expected. Certainly his debut is shoutier, more priapic, more adolescent, and his later albums are more flamboyant, grander, his stage-show these days a definite show, with costume-changes and mirrorballs and special guests (Florence Welch, Alex Empire), but…

Throughout all the music Patrick Wolf has released so far in his career (four albums with one due soon, and he’s not yet 28), there’s a musicality, a fluidity, a grace, and a melodicism to his songwriting that, for me, would transcend all the electronic splurges, the flamboyant showboating, the love of drama and poetry and passionate commitment to his art that might seem to others to be narcissism, if all those seeming pejoratives weren’t actually just as much a part of the attraction.

Because who wants boring popstars? Wolf, to my eyes and ears, is a far more compelling character than Lady Gaga, more boundary-pushing musically (and just as boundary-pushing personally), more tuneful, just as easily identifiable, as brandable, if perhaps not as consistently dancefloor-friendly.

Maybe it’s that people are still scared of homosexuality, especially when it’s not manifested within strictly delineated and accepted paths. Homosexuality manifested as flamboyant camp is perhaps acceptable when it’s delivered with an undertone of impotence (and thus safety), but it petrifies when the voice is deep and the stride long. Patrick Wolf isn’t gay, but a (thus far) vacillating figure; he’s been involved in long-term relationships with both sexes, and only came-out as being with a man just before his last album (when I’d seen people insist he must be gay because of his music, his lyrics, his dress, from the start of his career, even when he was part of a heterosexual couple).

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s not his character or his sexuality or his aesthetic. Maybe it’s just his music, his voice, which I find delicious and moving and beautiful, but which others find unpleasant. You tell me.

Objectionable music, objectionable you

I bought the Josh T Pearson album yesterday. I’ve loved the Lift to Experience record since buying it after meeting Pearson at a 65daysofstatic gig, being told he made awesome music, and being impressed by both his erudition and his beard. But I hesitated to buy Last of the Country Gentlemen because it’s meant to be a collection of bitter, borderline woman-hating songs about the guilt he feels for being a dirty cheat, and I just don’t know whether I’ve got room in my life to listen to a record like this now.

With faultless timing, a really interesting thread about the ethics / morality of being a music fan (or, perhaps, how one applies one’s own ethics and morality to one’s music fandom) sprang up on ILX over night, and demanded I peruse it during breakfast this morning. (Nabisco on Wagner and fascism later in the thread is his usual wise and erudite self.)

It’s an area that’s been talked about a lot on ILX before, inspiring some posters to whinge that it’s been done to death and shouldn’t be talked about again, but the nature of online communities (and their inherent fluctuating membership) and any debate therein means that the same topics can and do arise naturally from time-to-time and necessitate new debate.

And now definitely seems to be a worthwhile time to resurrect this debate, with the praise being lavished on Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All following SXSW. I’ve not heard Odd Future, but descriptors I’ve seen have intrigued me, and I’m quite keen to investigate. One of the things that’s stopped me is that I barely use a computer for music at all anymore, except to load new stuff onto my iPhone and iPod every so often – the iPad, and the ability it’s given me to browse and communicate via the net in a worthwhile fashion while on the sofa listening to music via the hi-fi, has made the idea of listening to music while sitting at a desk, and consequently downloading music in any way (something I wasn’t keen on anyway), seem even more bizarre and alien than ever – I sit at a desk to type intently, not for leisure. Given that Odd Future’s entire output so far is only available to download (albeit for free), I’ve just not got round to doing it; it seems too much like work.

The other thing stopping me is the knowledge that Odd Future’s lyrics are meant to be… let’s say rambunctious. And by rambunctious I mean disgustingly profane and aspirationally offensive; they seek to confront and confound and confuse on every side, littering lyrics not just with swear words but with the most appalling subject matter. Not least rape jokes. Those two words shouldn’t go together. Likewise, the word “faggot” should only ever be used in reference to a pork dish served with mashed potato, mushy peas, and a pint of real ale, but it apparently gets thrown around Odd Future songs and gigs with abandon, and not as a culinary reference.

Of course, Odd Future are young, and the young are prone to bouts of extreme idiocy. It’s not ridiculous to think that they may grow up, chill out, realise the error of their youthful ways and apologise for their behaviour in the same way as Adam Horowitz of Beastie Boys did with regard to the “shitty and ignorant things” they said on their debut album (specifically in reference to the gay and lesbian communities). Odd Future’s youthful belligerance and energy is a key part of their appeal, is the thing people are raving about. It can certainly be tempered and redirected from negativity as they get older; I hope it does. Some people, however, just get worse as they mature.

We got rid of the last Kanye album not long after buying it. Admittedly this was partly due to the obnoxious sound and boring, overlong, egotistical arrangements, but the rampant misogyny run through the lyrics was a big contributing factor too. Arguments have been proffered that Kanye is satirising, playing a character, lampooning himself, that a sophisticated listener can cut through the rape-and-S&M fantasy lyrics, and appreciate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a grand artistic statement and cultural comment. I don’t buy any of that. I don’t buy it for Kanye anymore than I buy “but it’s great to dance to” protestations from people who excuse ragingly homophobic dancehall MCs. The “it’s just their culture, it’s ingrained, they can’t escape it” excuse strikes me as being just as dangerous as any other kind of “they don’t know any better” patriarchal relativism. In what other context would you tolerate savagery for lols? Skrewdriver don’t get a free pass (although, as posited on the ILX thread, this is partly because, a lot of the time, the abhorrent beliefs override any aesthetic merits the music may have had otherwise, by infecting the aesthetic, by becoming the driving factor behind all the aesthetic choices, rather than just another of the aesthetic choices).

Obviously there is the question of talk versus action, storytelling versus behaviour; Eminem talking about killing people versus Varg Vikernes actually hacking people to death and burning churches. I don’t know how to parse this differential, beyond shrugging and saying that if Varg’s music was worth bothering with I’m sure someone would have said so to me, and until then I’ll continue to ignore it. I loved American Psycho but I’ve never read a Norman Mailer book; I’m pretty sure I never will. Literature and music aren’t analogues though, and the relationship I had with American Psycho aged 20 is not the same as I could have with Kanye West age 31.

Morally objectionable music can lead us to ask questions of ourselves and become better, more tolerant, more caring people. But it can also just be horrible and objectionable. And people are, and should be, capable of coming to those conclusions, capable of making themselves better people, without the aid of rape jokes as a catalyst or aide memoire. Likewise some people are capable of being assholes without listening to Kanye West detail the extent of his own assholism and learning from the master.

The ILX thread reduces the music fan’s response to moral objection to a capital reaction; essentially, as one poster summarised, buy, borrow, steal, or pass. But Lex and Alfred both understand that it’s a more complex reaction than this; each of us applies buy, borrow, steal, or pass arbitrarily across different artists, genres, and moralities depending on our own whims, tastes, and pasts. I have no hard-and-fast code of behaviour for this, no rule for what’s acceptable to me; just a gut instinct.

What about record labels, though, and their parent companies? If one avoids musicians because of the things they sing about, say, or do, then surely one should take into account how releases the music, too? Monstershark said something at Devon Record Club about avoiding shopping in HMV because it was owned by Thorn EMI, and Thorn were arms manufacturers. Likewise I’m pretty sure Sony’s umbrella corporation includes companies manufacturing tanks and bombs. I took money from EMI for a writing job in 2005; I’d like to say I pondered over it, but I wasn’t in a position to turn down £300. I didn’t know that Thorn and EMI had de-merged in 1996; I didn’t know they’d ever merged; I just had a vague sense of unease that something, somewhere, was rotten with EMI. Beyond even the Dirty Vegas album they once sent me a promo copy of. (As a rule I get the idea that Monstershark has both more courage and more convictions than I do; I consider conflicting thoughts, feelings, ideas, and then ignore them and continue regardless.)

There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement from some morally objectionable music (possibly not from the likes of Varg Vikernes), especially to the educated, liberal, white audience; from Lil Kim talking about beating someone, from Eminem’s stalker/killer fantasies, from Odd Future’s profane tirades, from Kanye’s drugs-and-money-and-women-are-all-playthings bravado; we’ve always liked storytellers who push boundaries of taste, decency, and acceptability, be it Bill Hicks or the Marquis De Sade or whoever else. I imagine it’s the same base instinct as the will to drive too fast, drink too much, imbibe too many drugs, or indulge in any other type of devil-may-care hedonism that we know is bad for us but which gets the heart pumping.

Roland Barthes’ idea that “the birth of the reader is at the expense of the death of the author” has appealed to me since I came across it while a student, but I think it needs some degree of caveat. A produced text, be it a book, a record, a film, a painting, or anything else, is not an entirely blank canvas. Even if our experiences and understandings lead to wildly different interpretations in perceived or inferred meaning, we are not creating that meaning entirely from within ourselves, autonomously; we are still reading the same book or listening to the same record, and the form of the thing being consumed must have some influence on what we take from it (otherwise why choose what we consume culturally at all?).

Rather, I see a text as being a set of ingredients, and our experiences as a recipe for what we make with those ingredients, as well as an understanding of what constitutes an ingredient; a rigorous musical understanding helping you to strip the whole carcass of a song the same way as a good cook strips the carcass of a chicken, boils the bones for stock, and so on, rather than just picking at the breast meat and leaving the rest. Some recipes will use all the ingredients; others won’t. All will make a different meal, sometimes almost imperceptibly so, and other times radically so. We each have our own mental spice cupboard with which to flavour things (or not).

More and more these days I find myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to muster the effort to deal with stripping the metaphorical carcass of music that I find morally… let’s say repugnant, rather than objectionable (is being a dickhead morally objectionable? If so, most of the record collection goes out of the window). There is more than enough great music to spend my time with out there that doesn’t require leaving my morals at the door; even stuff that gives me that frisson of danger when I still need or want it. I suspect I get that frisson less from a wince-inducing lyric than a squalling saxophone or savage guitar these days; a similar visceral reaction but without the moral dilemma.

What the Fukushima are the media doing?

I was just about to get out of the car to go and talk to an old schoolteacher about the memorial service for a friend who had just died when someone on FiveLive said something about a plane crashing into a building in New York. I assumed it was a microlite breaking an office block window, a stunt gone wrong, and I went and talked about death for 45 minutes. When I got back in the car and turned the radio on again, it became very apparent, very quickly, that the world was changing. I spent the next four hours or so glued to the television.

Since then I’ve barely watched television news. I don’t want to. I’ve seen very little footage of what has happened in Japan over the last 6 days. I get my news from the radio when I wake up and before I go to bed, and, during the day, increasingly from Twitter, be it the news feeds I subscribe to, or breaking trending topics, or friends, acquaintances, and others I follow discussing world events and affairs. I’d rather not see the terror, the horror, the chaos.

When I’ve caught Channel 4 News, or BBC News at 10, I’ve seen live reports from journalists in Japan delivered against anonymous night-time cityscape backgrounds that may as well be Sunderland as Sendai, the reporters deferring back to rabbit-in-headlights academic experts from choice UK universities for comment, and they are sitting, safe and secure, in regional TV studios, away from the terror, the horror, the chaos.

How much did the world media spend on chartering flights to Japan at short notice in order to send film crews, editors, reporters, and producers to the scene; could and should that money have been spent on sending aid instead of rubberneckers-by-proxy? Japan is a developed country with a pretty ravenous media infrastructure; it’s not as if we need to send cameras there like we did to Haiti or the Thai islands.

Why do these people need to be there at all? What if something dreadful happens, if the word Fukushima does attain the same level of associative dread as the word Chernobyl or, heaven forbid, Hiroshima? What if, as posited in conversation with friends last night, Shelagh Fogerty comes back to FiveLive with leukaemia from exposure to nuclear disaster? Is that an acceptable cost of on-the-scene reporting? No. Not in any reality is that acceptable.

I feel like the media are desperate for Fukushima to turn into a new Chernobyl, for the horror to ramp up to unbelievable, nightmarish levels. Desperate to report on it. Desperate for people thousands of miles away to be united in absolute abject terror. I do not want this to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But watching Twitter I see people nowhere near Japan, who aren’t journalists, feverishly tweeting links to updates about the situation in Fukushima as if they too are hoping for the worst potential outcome to become the inevitable outcome, and I wonder, frankly, what the fuck we’ve come to. I don’t know much about nuclear power but I know Chernobyl was very nearly 25 years ago, and that the lessons we learnt from it must surely mean that every step has been made to make sure it never happens again. The Japanese are not stupid. Their architecture, their culture, is earthquake-ready (if not quite tsunami-ready; what can be?). Their nuclear reactors are not going to have been forgotten. It can’t get that bad? Surely? We know too much, we’ve seen too much, to let it happen again. Surely?

Who is Rebecca Black?

I first saw the video for Friday by Rebecca Black at about 7am on Monday morning. The joy of mobile internet meant that a link posted on the world’s largest social network site by Australian music writer Tim Finney just before he went to bed (presumably) was pre-breakfast fodder for my half-awake brain. Such is life.

I had no idea, on first viewing, who Rebecca Black was or where Friday had come from. I still don’t. I don’t want to know. Viewed on a tiny screen with the volume turned down so low as to not disturb my sleeping wife, only the melody and a smattering of the words were perceptible. It was obvious straight away that this was a strange song, but it wasn’t until after breakfast, when I watched it again on the iPad, with volume enough to take it all in, that it was apparent quite how strange.

When I first saw it, Friday had approximately a million views. By the time I showed it to work colleagues mid-morning on Tuesday, it was up to 4 million. Now, Wednesday morning, it’s at just under 8 million. I’m adding another notch to that tally right now.

So what makes Friday so weird? Yes, the lyrics are asinine in the extreme (“yesterday was Thursday Thursday / today is Friday Friday / tomorrow is Saturday / and Sunday comes afterwards” only eclipsed by the existential pain of “fun fun fun fun” and the identity crisis of “which seat shall I take?” in reference to where one should sit in your friend’s car) and open to massive potential intentional comedy misreading (she smokes a bowl before breakfast?!), but they’re no worse than Saturday Night by Whigfield, arguably (crossed with Phil Daniels’ lines from Parklife, perhaps, or even Paul’s “woke up, got out of bed” lines from A Day In The Life…). Yes, the vocals are autotuned beyond the point of being recognisable as a human voice, resulting in the entire song seemingly being composed of just one note (and aiding the remarkable rhyming of ‘bowl’ and ‘cereal’). Yes the arrangement is perfunctory in the extreme. Yes, the middle eight is borderline psychedelic in its oddness (lyrically and musically) and sub-Sesame Street days-of-the-week elucidation. Yes, the sudden emergence of an anonymous rapper cruising the night-time cityscape in his car looking for a party attended by 13-year-old girls is creepy and anachronous. Yes, the image of a gaggle of 13-year-olds green-screened into a soft-top Mercedes (or similar) on the highway is slightly alarming.

But the weirdest thing about Friday is its ontology, the fact that this isn’t a popstar, seemingly (yet), but a real teenage girl, the way that, when you look into it, it seems to explode the way that popstars are formed more than Simon Cowell could ever hope to do. Friday is the product of Ark Music Factory, an LA company who seemingly make music videos (and possibly write the songs to build those videos around) for anyone who comes and pays them enough money. I can’t find any convincing proof (and I’m not really looking, because I don’t really want to know), but it seems like Rebecca Black might just be a relatively well-off teenage girl whose parents bought her an expensive present; only instead of a nice car, or a helicopter ride to take her to the prom, they bought her a music video (and 8 million YouTube hits as a BOGOF bonus). But amidst the fuss about the song and the attention, we have to remember that this is a real person, and a very young one at that, who almost certainly didn’t expect this level of attention. She looks nervous throughout the video, as people who aren’t natural performers tend to, but she seems to be having fun despite this, playing at being popstar the way every girl does, only this time she has a video memory of it, and it’s been shared with the world.

Is Friday pop? Yes, in that its nagging hooks are thoroughly lodged inside my head. Yes, in that it’s popular. Analytics don’t register irony. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the dozens of covers, lip-synchs, slowed-down-to-sound-like-Sigur-Ros-versions, and dubstep remixes suggest that people want to gain a little reflected glory from the Rebecca Black phenomenon. Hell, what’s this blog post doing?

Maybe, given what’s happening in Japan, the world needed some frivolous, meaningless, bubblegum nonsense to distract from repeated viewings of tidal waves destroying cities and whirlpools sucking ocean-going vessels into the abyss. But 8 million views is far from the whole world, even if it might seem like everyone is talking about Rebecca Black if you look at Twitter trends. I just hope that Rebecca is able to treat the explosion of exposure for her video, and therefore herself, with the same nervous sense of fun she seems to display while actually singing. If we can call it singing.

A brief history of side-chaining

In (seemingly perpetually) thinking about and discussing rewriting Imperfect Sound Forever, the issue of side-chaining came up in relation to the last Flying Lotus album, which, from a superficial reading of the signifiers (Aphex Twin does jazz, perhaps?), ought to be right up my street but which I can barely stand to listen to.

I was batting emails back and forth with Graham Sutton regarding the loudness war thing again, and asked about side-chaining. This is what he said: “Side-chaining a compressor to key its gain reduction from a secondary external input is pretty standard stuff – it actually dates back to the 1930s. Doug Shearer first developed the idea while working at MGM Studios at the birth of film sound. Originally it was developed to ‘De-ess’ sibilant voices which were problematic to record as they could easily overload the electronics of the day.”

What that first bit means, is that side-chaining as a technique works by tying a compressor on one element in a mix to a separate element; so when the second element comes in, the first one goes away (it’s almost literally pulled to the side, and thus out of prominence in the mix). If this sounds complicated, you’ll probably recognise its basic effect from what’s referred to as “ducking” on the radio: i.e. when the DJ starts talking and the music gets turned down. It’s not someone with fast fingers twitching a volume knob; a side-chained compressor takes care of the work.

In dance music “side-chaining” is normally applied to a kick drum in order to get that pumping, beat-driven sound. In order to get the kick drum as prominent as possible while still keeping the mix as loud as it can be, every time the drum hits, the rest of the mix effectively moves to the side in order to make room. This results in a weird “sucking” sound as basslines, synthesizers, guitars, vocals, and everything else gets squished aside to let the kick drum through.

Graham expanded: “SSL were the first to introduce desks that featured built-in side-chaining compressors, as opposed to external units, at the turn of the 80s. Techniques like ducking bass by kicks became pretty common. By the 90s/00s side-chaining was everywhere club music wise – the whole track now being pumped by the kick more and more as the years drew on.”

Apparently, and I’m pretty sure my ears concur, Flying Lotus makes plenty of use of side-chaining in order to get his tracks as loud and pumping as possible, in a Daft Punk style. Which is a totally OK artistic choice to make. Except that, for me, the type of music that Flying Lotus is applying this technique to doesn’t suit it; one track of vocodered vocals and a minimal synth line being squeezed aside to make room for a kick drum is one thing, but layers and layers of harps and jazzy trumpets and Squarepusher-esque bass runs and distracted digital effects squishing sideways, even if stuff isn’t clipped, and the overall volume never dipping away from intense, means that even sub-2-minute tracks become really, really difficult for me to listen to all the way through (never mind a 45-minute album). Even if the grooves are otherwise awesome (and they often are).

Why I love Devon Record Club

Apologies in advance if this post rambles a little; I tend to send myself emails with prompts of topics I want to write about, and there are about three backed-up which are all going to feed into here because I can’t be bothered to flesh any of them out into a full-length post on their own terms. Such is life.

Anyway. Last night I popped out in the car and took Valhalla Dancehall by British Sea Power with me. I hadn’t listened to it in a few weeks, having had the PJ Harvey and Radiohead albums arrive in the meantime and thrown a shadow over it. I worried perhaps I’d gone off it after an initial surge of interest and attention; that perhaps it had claimed that January spot where unworthy records curry favour by seizing the context of nothing else new being around.

But, after a break of a few weeks without listening at all, I thoroughly enjoyed it; recognising the contours of songs and enjoying this familiarity, while hearing new details, new emotions, new corners and nuances, and finding the songs easier to identify with, the album’s flow more effective. To be honest, I should have expected this; my favourite BSP album, Open Season, took several months to wind its way into my affections, but once it was there, it stayed. I had worried that perhaps Valhalla Dancehall’s songs and sequencing wouldn’t be able to pull the same trick; it seems I was hasty. I’ll judge it’s longevity in the future.

This got me thinking about the format of Devon Record Club, which the three of us who take part have discussed at some length. DRC requires us to listen to an album blind, soak it in and discuss it there and then. This may be the first time we’ve listened to (or even heard of) a record, or, if we pick something the others know, it might be the thousandth – but I think we’re all making at least some effort to pick things the others wont know, by and large.

Initially we had considered formatting DRC like any typical book club, where we are each assigned a record (or three) to consume in the week(s) prior to our get-togethers, so we can listen together and have educated ears and poised comments. But this seemed to erode from the spirit of discovery a little, from the happenstance of last-minute choices. Also, it requires organisation and planning beyond picking a date and choosing a takeaway; I know at least one of my picks has only been decided on as I was about to walk out of the door.

But listening to a record blind, for the first time, is difficult, especially if there is curry, company, and conversation to distract. And Devon Record Club is nothing if not loquacious. And hungry.

There have been a number of albums in my lifetime that I can remember loving the very first time I listened to them. But it’s a very small number, relatively. I can remember where I was and how I felt with alarming alacrity and detail when I first heard In Sides by Orbital (as I’ve mentioned before), and Up In Flames by Manitoba. I can remember being spellbound the first time I heard Grace by Jeff Buckley (but not where I was – though I can remember where I bought it; Our Price in Newton Abbot).

Other records I have the impression of loving from the off (Spirit Of Eden; Drawn From Memory) but not where I was with any kind of certainty enough to convince me I’m not misremembering. Equally there are records I can remember specific instances of listening to and experiencing epiphanies with, but I’m sure that it wasn’t a first listen.

Most of the records I truly love are ones that I’ve come to be familiar with over time, and I imagine this is true for many, many people. But when does one love a record most? When does one have the best relationship with it? In the first flush of lust, the “getting to know you” phase? When you revisit after that initial rush and lull and familiarity allows you to explore aspects previously unnoticed (as with These New Puritans, perhaps)? When you know its contours and details and the emotions it inspires in you intimately? When you can hum and ride every note and rhythm? I don’t know. I do know that there are times when I’ve wished I could go back to a record I know inside-out and revisit it with fresh ears, as if for the first time. Sadly I suspect this is impossible without the help of dementia.

I’ve tweeted about Devon Record Club a few times; Mark Richardson from Pitchfork has tweeted back at me asking about it, and saying it sounds like great fun. (This would tickle Tom and Rob, I suspect, who are both PFM readers, though maybe not to the extent that they’d recognise bylines) It is fun, tremendously so; I look forward to it for about 10 days of every 14 (the other 4 I’m either attending or putting off writing my blurb, as a rule). It’s a little resurrection for communal listening, for teenage friends sitting in a loft playing each other records. The conversation is a little (but only a little) more sophisticated now, the records played much better (so far; if anyone brings something by The Levellers I may reconsider), and we’re in our 30s and 40s rather than our teens.

My wife laughs at me a little, asks why we need rules and strictures and a blog and a schedule, why we can’t just listen to records with friends off the cuff, but I think boys of any age like forming secret societies, imposing (and not really enforcing) rules. Plus, we’re busy people (a parent in one case), and we need to plan these frivolous things!

I think that’s all the bases I wanted to cover.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The artwork for Elbow’s new album, Build a Rocket Boys!, left me disappointed when I first saw it. Disenfranchised, perhaps. Maybe even upset. Not because I dislike it on any kind of aesthetic level – I’ve almost been unable to consider its aesthetics – but because of what it signifies, potentially, to me, someone who’s bought every album since their debut on the day it was released (I got the debut about a month after its release).

This is because Build A Rocket Boys! (which I’ll refer to as BARB from now on) continues the design scheme established on The Seldom Seen Kid (TSSK), which we now have to refer to as “Elbow’s breakthrough album”. Not only does BARB feature another painting by Oliver East, it uses the same font, the same text arrangement, the same strike to either side of the band’s name on the cover. The colour palette, though shifted to blues from browns, is muted, watercoloured blues, the way that TSSK’s browns were muted, watercoloured browns. (Partly of course this is due to East’s style and mediums of choice.)

What this means, of course, is that BARB is recognisably another Elbow album in the visual vein of TSSK. What this means, of course, is that Elbow have, several years down the line, recognised that a consistent visual identity (fonts, colour schemes, design motifs, photography styles) is a necessary requirement for any band that understands its status as a brand.

Which is fine and dandy, and necessary. Liking a band reinforces identity. Liking a band acts as a shortcut signifier that tells people a little bit about who you are, especially in your youth. I spend increasing amounts of my time talking about brands and branding and saying things like “white space defines who we are”. I may have, in the past, got upset when a record label used Arial in bold instead of Arial Bold (or vice versa) (or something) for the font of a band’s name on a particular record sleeve. Because these things matter. Massively. That record, in a line with all the others, using the correct font consistently, suddenly looks and feels wrong, inauthentic, like a dodgy market knock-off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why, and as a result, regardless of the music contained therein, gets pulled out and played less. These things matter. Design affects us.

So bands, or record labels, or incompetent designers, suddenly changing tack, offends me greatly, and not only me. Remember when Oasis picked a new logo for Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and people went mental? That was a rebranding exercise, and Oasis’ fanbase didn’t respond to it very well at all. Sometimes you can manage it – Ash change their logo for every album – but if you establish something consistent and then change it, it raises doubts, asks questions, prompts uncertainty.

Doubts, questions, and uncertainty all being key constituent parts of Elbow’s music up till now. And reflected in their artwork, their font choices, their branding, by that artwork, those font choices, and that branding being inconsistent from album to album. Sometimes similar, usually recognisable as Elbow, always kept unified across the singles that surround an LP, but changing, evolving. BARB maintaining the exact same stylebook as TSSK says, in no uncertain terms, that the Elbow brand is established.

Given that Elbow are now in their late 30s, and making music that speaks to people of a similar age by and large (music of regrets, of passion shorn of aggression but imbued with affection, of location, of friendship, of missed chances and seized moments and remembered feelings), they don’t need to establish a brand in the way that a young band does. They don’t need to appeal to the reinforcement of anybody’s adolescent identity. Establishing a brand four or five albums into a career doesn’t proudly command “believe in this” but rather timidly asks “more of the same, please”.

Doesn’t it?

And the music must surely pander to that request, mustn’t it? Play it safe, give the public what they want, see what got airplay and incidental TV usage from the last one? I mean, they’ve roped in a choir, haven’t they?

This is still Elbow. Guy Garvey still has the same voice. The band, broadly speaking, still play the same instruments and make the same kind of noises. But no album that features such a minimalist, elongated opening pair of songs, that twitch and squirm and swell and swoon, is playing it all that safe. If you liked Elbow’s other albums, you’ll like this one. If you were hoping for 11 slices of anthemic rock, you’ll be disappointed. If you soak it in on its own terms, you’ll be rewarded. At a guess. I’ve had the album for 3 hours, listened to it twice. It might radically change with familiarity. But I doubt it.

Quick impressions. No stompers; no squalls of noise; no sinister scratching and no burn wounds. One big singalong chorus. Astonishingly detailed sound; huge dynamic range. Minimalism; some songs barely there at all, but still oceanic and full of detail. A choir; deployed in interesting ways rather than for bombast. Bits and pieces throughout the record that could easily be seen as redolent of other moments from across their whole career, from the crawling grooves and shattering glass of the debut to the melodic circles of the TSSK, the delicate second half of Leaders Of The Free World, the slowly defeated triumph of Cast Of Thousands. Nothing new; nothing exactly the same.