Monthly Archives: August 2012

Four Tet, and some thoughts on music as content

I feel like my musical life divides semi-neatly (but almost completely arbitrarily) into three chunks thus far: pre-university (adolescence, I guess); university; and post-university. The post-university phase starts in summer 2001 (when I finished university, oddly enough), and is the longest, richest phase so far, maybe. It’s also the phase I think of as belonging to the internet, when online resources completely eclipsed print media as a means of finding and investigating new music, gorging on ILM discourse, writing for Stylus, scouring the archives of AllMusic, discovering music by the likes of Talk Talk and LCD Soundsystem that would become some of my absolute favourite music ever.

If there’s one artist that encapsulates… no, not encapsulates… if there’s a single artist who’s soundtracked this third phase more than any other, it’s probably Four Tet. Everything Is Alright was one of the first songs I downloaded using Audiogalaxy at my parents’ house back in 2001 (when it took ten minutes to download a two and a half minute song), and Pause was one of the first albums I bought after graduating, as well as being one of the first albums I bought after meeting Emma – in fact I think she sold it to me whilst she worked in Virgin Megastore. Since then I’ve bought each album as it’s come out, seen him live a couple of times, and investigated a load of other music that he’s been associated with, including Caribou, whose debut album as Manitoba I bought on Amazon’s recommendation after telling them I owned and loved Pause.

So I’m currently enthusiastically devouring Pink, Four Tet’s latest offering; not an album so much as a compendium of DJing-derived singles from the last couple of years, completing his move towards the dancefloor since 2008’s Ringer EP nicely. It perhaps doesn’t have the gestalt of There Is Love In You, although my perception of this may be compromised by knowing the music’s origins, but it’s pretty wonderful nonetheless, his music still looping and spiraling and layering in on itself like it always has done, but now more controlled, more purposeful, less given to happy accidents and tangential detours. Some other artists move from one location to another with their music, but he almost seems to spin in place, whilst maintaining a sense of momentum, of travelling. I like to listen to him whilst on trains, or cycling (only on cyclepaths, kids; no headphones on the roads).

Three of my most-listened records from this year (which feels pretty fallow to me thus far compared to the last three) are very utility-driven in their construction. Which is to say that the three in question – Pink, Wonky by Orbital, and ƒin by John Talabot – were all very definitely conceived for the dancefloor, or feel that way. Not that this should be at all surprising; all three are by dance artists who regularly DJ / have vast experience of getting fields of ravers going. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this as a motivation for music making – we’ve been doing it since the dawn of humankind, and it’s resulted in oodles of stuff that I absolutely adore and hold very dear to me.

But I’m just not quite feeling the love here with these three, even though I’m enjoying them all a lot. With the Four Tet this may just be a matter of time and familiarity; I heard several of the tracks live last December and loved them all, and Pinnacles was a favourite of last year too. The Talabot feels slightly lacking in personality and texture to me; it feels (and this is purely gut feeling, not any technical knowledge) as if every sound used on ƒin came straight out of Ableton or whatever software it was recorded on. There’s little in the way of grit or dust or blood in there, which leaves me feeling at a slight remove from it. This may be different had I ever danced on a Balearic beach, and compositionally its tight as hell in the build and release, but it just feels too focused on dancing to me to really make me love it as a listening experience.

I described Wonky the other day as feeling “like content rather than music”, which, understandably, prompted someone to say it was a meaningless comment. Ironically, the person who said it was a meaningless comment also said, a few months earlier, that New France was “so obviously there for the radio”, which may not have been meant pejoratively, but which I took as being such, from the context of the discussion

Back in April I reviewed Wonky for The Quietus, and included this comment: “Opener ‘One Big Moment’ starts with layers of quiet, sampled voices, a little like ‘Forever’ from Snivilisation, before dropping a beat and a reverberating synth riff and a slowly developing melodic topline that will have a Pavlovian effect on tens of thousands of people of a certain age. You could interpret that cynically, or you could put your hands in the air.” It’s that feeling, coupled with the idea that Wonky exists more as a way of providing new material to play live than as a record in its own right, that makes me think of it as a content rather than music.

I feel like I recognise content because I “produce content” for a day job; I’m a copywriter, a communications officer, and I know that, whilst what I write might be good, and fulfill its purpose, and have a desired effect, it’s done for a reason outside of itself. A brochure or website exists not because I was desperate to produce a brochure or website, but because we wanted it for a reason, and even if I had great fun interviewing researchers or taking photographs and feel proud of said brochure or website, it’s status is forever tied into its purpose. And I think great art, which is what pop music can be, transcends its purpose (and its status as a commodity, too).

Wonky, ƒin, and Pink (at the moment) all feel just a little too closely tied in to their purposes, which is a barrier to me, as listener, from falling hopelessly, desperately in love with them, and thinking of them as a great. What strange characteristic they’d need to possess in order to transcend their purpose, I don’t know – that’s part of the magic of art, of music, arguably – and there are, of course, huge and unanswerable questions about why we do things, about purpose and intention and the death of the author and the birth of the listener / reader / viewer / audience (once I buy a record the artist has no right to tell me how to use it; but how much should I respect their intentions?), about what music is for, both for the listener and the music maker.

It’s wrong to dismiss the idea of making music to make money, for instance, because the notion of the “sell-out” is a dangerous, disempowering one for many people, I suspect, but it’s also wrong to go too far the other way, into utility, and to dismiss the idea of art for art’s sake, music for music’s sake, the ancient human instinct to create beautiful things simply because they are beautiful. The former philosophy makes you a crippled idealist; the latter makes you David Cameron.

So Wonky feels to me like content for a setlist rather than, necessarily, as an album in its own right; likewise Pink, especially when thrown into relief against There Is Love In You, feels like content for a DJ set. But does that mean that This Unfolds, from Four Tet’s last album, is just content for an album? Maybe it is. Does this mean I don’t like Wonky, or Pink? Not at all; I just don’t find myself overcome by them the way I do by In Sides or There Is Love In You. Which could just mean that they’re not as good; or it could mean that they’re for different purposes, as much as any music is for any purpose.

But now I’m going in circles. Fin.

Am I a racist sexist scumbag (when it comes to being a music fan)?

Following debate on the ILM thread, I’ve been thinking about the gender and race make-up of my Pitchfork People’s List.

I’ve been conscious that I don’t listen to much music ‘involving women’ (for want of a better phrase) since I was about 15, and it’s something which bugs me. When I was 15 there were literally no female vocalists in my collection at all. There’s probably only 10% now, and that’s even after Emma and I amalgamated our record collections. Emma didn’t like music with female vocals until her late teens / early twenties either, which is something we’ve talked about many times.

Depending how you count, there are between 12 and 20ish albums with female musicians / voices (ranging from Electrelane at one end of the scale to Massive Attack / Patrick Wolf with guest female vocalists at the other, and possibly including things like Four Tet which have samples of female vocalists somewhere on the continuum) on my ballot.

There are also somewhere between 12 and 20ish albums that are either completely instrumental or which feature barely any vocals at all (which includes the last Four Tet album, which, obviously, could also be counted as having female vocals as described above, and also includes things like Venice by Fennesz, which has one song with vocals and none anywhere else).

There are probably only six albums which could really be described as being hip hop / rap / r’n’b, and perhaps only a dozen which feature black musicians.

Without checking sleeve credits, I think there’s only one record produced by a female producer – Kate Bush.

So it’d be pretty easy to read my list as being racist and sexist (which I hope it isn’t, on any conscious level), as being the product of straight white male privilege (which it undoubtedly is, because I’m a straight white male).

There are some 25+ albums which I’d count as ‘duplicates’, i.e. which are by artists who have multiple albums selected: so 3 Caribou records, 4 Four Tet, 4 SFA, 2 PJ Harvey, 2 Electrelane, 2 St Vincent, 3 Spoon. This skews ratios slightly – just those artists skew from 4:3 to 7:3 from multiples. Not that, if I’d gone for one-per-artist, that the rest of my choices would all have been female-counting records, but it definitely changes the ratio from male-artist:female-artist to male-album:female-album.

Had I had more time, and been able to consult my actual record collection (currently in boxes waiting for us to move house next week) and check dates and so on, then I’d almost certainly have included Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch, Is This Desire by PJ Harvey, Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor, but probably also a load of other albums by men, too. So who knows what more time would have done.

This huge gender / racial / genre bias/weighting does concern me to some extent and if I think about it and ask ‘why’ on an ontological, socio-cultural level, I don’t really know the answer, beyond “I’m a white male 30-something and I mostly listen to music made by people like me”; when couched in that terminology, it doesn’t seem outrageous at all. But if I were to say “I only think one album by a black women is worth including in the top 100 of the last 16 years”, however, it sounds pretty awful. In my ‘defence’, my list isn’t about ‘best’ or objectivity in any way; it’s about the stuff I like the most, and I had to be honest about that.

This is something we’ve discussed at Devon Record Club, too, where choices are massively, massively weighted in favour of white male musicians, to the extent that we’ve had themed evenings where one had to bring a record by a woman (again, there’s the problematic issue of defining ‘by a woman’) and where we’ve asked our wives to choose the records instead of us (which resulted in a 3:1 ratio of women-to-men choices that evening) in a pathetic attempt to try and redress this imbalance, if only for one or two evenings. I asked Emma to replace Tom at our last meeting because he was on holiday, and she politely declined, despite the fact that she knows as much about music, and loves music, at least as much as any of us, and I can’t help but think that the boys-club atmosphere (and fear of being judged upon your choice) probably made her say no. We are boys, and we do compete, even when we’re not competing.

I don’t know how one can ‘solve’ this, or if it’s solvable at all, or even if it needs solving. ‘Solution’ is probably the wrong word. Does it need addressing? Do our music tastes reflect who we are and the attitudes we hold (consciously or subconsciously), or do they just reflect what we like? Does what we like reflect who we are and the attitudes we hold (consciously or subconsciously)? I recall a philosophy seminar from a dozen or more years ago, where we were asked to consider how one ties one’s shoelaces, and if tying shoelaces was a form of self-expression; I was the only person to say ‘yes’ (using Run DMC as an example, if I recall), and from there to conclude that everything you do is an act of self-expression, because it is you doing it. So yeah, I probably am a racist, sexist scumbag. I’m trying not to be. Are you?

Saying “So yeah, I probably am a racist, sexist scumbag” at the end wasn’t really helpful to this discourse. Not liking “enough” music by female or black musicians doesn’t make you sexist or racist. But it does raise interesting questions about subconscious taste biases and social privileges, which point towards all sorts of contributory factors, which we might not fully understand the interactions and origins of. Only a crazy person would say that someone’s music taste indicated they were racist (unless they liked Skrewdriver etc). Refusing to listen to or engage with Chris Brown’s music because he hit Rihanna, whilst happily listening to John Lennon (or any of a number of other women-hitting white rock stars through time) might suggest conflicting and hypocritical attitudes, though, and the question of where they come from seems to have some of the same underlying biases as answers.

I caught an interesting moment on BBC 5live this morning where Nick Hancock was talking with guests about the different perceptions of Olympic athletes and professional football players, and who you’d rather have over for dinner, or something (I only caught some of it), and the subject of class bias was raised as a motivator for how people responded (the insinuation being that you’d rather have an Olympian over, presumably because they’d be more polite, better company, more engaging conversationalists, whereas a professional football player would be a classless, self-centred, drunken idiot). This got me thinking about whether the make-up of my Pitchfork People’s List is subconsciously influenced by class issues as much as race / gender ones, and even whether this broad sphere we call ‘pop music’ can be coded on a class basis at all – it’s harder to determine if someone’s music is “middle class” or “upper class” or “working class” than it is to determine if a musician is white or male. Which is to say that it’s complicated, and incredibly difficult to unravel, and, possibly, not all that important.

When I put this list together, like any list, I picked first-to-mind favourites initially, and then perused old lists to jog my memory of other things that may not have been at the front of my mind (and to remind myself of what fell within the chronological barriers); there was no conscious rule to not pick music by any given demographic, or to privilege any other demographic. My motivation was “these are records that I like”. The nuance comes in wondering why most of the music I like seems be the product of similar demographics, even if it’s superficially aesthetically quite different. Of course there’s also the idea that if we like one thing, we may well like other, similar things, and that these other, similar things will quite possibly be the product of similar types of people. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the list and seen other people talking about the gender composition of some lists that I thought to look at how mine counted out.

Of course there’s the genre music which is most explicitly the product of white male privilege of them all, and which I have almost absolutely no time for: metal.

The Pitchfork People’s List

So Pitchfork have put together a little list thingamajig where you can very easily put together a visual list of your favourite albums of the last 15/16 years (since P4K itself started, essentially). If you submit between 20 and 100 albums, then your list will be thrown into a poll of readers’ favourite albums. Which is fair enough.

I put one together myself just here. The ordering is pretty arbitrary, especially once you get past the first 30 or so, but I think it’s pretty representative of my tastes over the last 15/16 years.

Edit. I’ve been tweaking my entry slightly, using old NME lists and other things to prompt my memory. It’s causing some serious cognitive dissonance having to put late 90s albums alongside stuff from the last 18 months – the world is a very different place, and I am a very different person, and Wild Beasts sit very oddly next to Michael Head & The Strands, at least in my mind.

So the London 2012 Olympics are over…

Just over two weeks ago I wrote about Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, how it moved me and made me both suddenly interested in the Olympics and also understand patriotism, in my own funny way at least. For the last 16 days I’ve been glued to the BBC’s coverage, whether on our TV, on my computer at work, or, on several occasions, on the TV and iPad at the same time.

I’ve been as glued to Twitter as the TV, keeping up with the events, the emotions, and the reactions to it all from friends and contacts and people involved. It’s been, frankly, amazing. I never thought I’d be that interested in the Olympics, but I’ve been caught up in it and it’s been wonderful. If anything I feel a little twinge of regret at not being actually present at any of the events or even just at the Olympic Park itself.

I’ve witnessed so many amazing moments, had so many awesome memories of these games, and they’ve all been centered on people. Messy, glorious, flawed, driven, wonderful people. Here is a completely subjective, non-exhaustive list of the people who have made the Olympics awesome.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning – for winning our first gold and, suddenly, shattering the cynicism and air of curmudgeonly disappointment that so often settles over Britain. We thought we were going to be shit at the Olympics when the men’s road race didn’t go the way we expected, and we were settling in to love being shit. They proved that we could win, and, actually, that winning is awesome.

David Rudisha – for running the most forthright and honest and amazing race to break the 800m world record and drag every other athlete in that race along with him, to personal bests, national records, and reflected glory. That one performance seemed to sum up the Olympic spirit, of doing your best and pushing yourself beyond your limits, more perfectly than any other.

The BBC – their coverage has been wonderful, fascinating, moving, and comprehensive, from the programme titles to the iPhone app to the montages and beyond. Particular mentions for Claire Balding, who’s been especially great, the human warmth at the centre of the Olympic furore; Ian Thorpe, who took it upon himself to drive the legacy of the games personally by coaching kids to swim this morning and who we ought to adopt as an ambassador for sport; Michael Johnson, who is as fiercely intelligent as an analyst as he was astonishingly fast as a runner; and Steve Cram and Brendan Foster, who were marvelous in the athletics’ commentary box – when Cram exploded as Mo Farah crossed the line in the 5000m it was amazing, as was Foster’s crazed exclamation that “this is my favourite stadium in the world: every Saturday night I come here and every Saturday night Mo Farah wins a gold medal!”

Mo Farah himself, born in Mogadishu, made in London, was magical – I’ve never seen a face like Mo’s when he crossed the line for a second time.

Galen Rupp, Mo’s training partner; when Rupp stepped up in the penultimate lap of the 5000m and guarded Mo’s shoulder against his rivals, it made my heart swell to see the power of friendship laid bare in front of us.

Gemma Gibbons, for missing her mum.

Katherine Grainger (ably assisted and more by Anna Watkins) for persevering and triumphing in the end.

Tom Daley diving into the pool, whether it was choreographed and spectacular, or off the cuff celebration. I’ve been vocal about finding him annoying in the past; not anymore.

The gamesmakers, for coming from all over the world to help out of nothing more (nothing less!) than extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Everyone I follow on Twitter, for galvanizing every moment and every emotion, and making me feel not alone when, by appearances, I watched large chunks of the action in a room alone with my wife 100 miles away.

Andy Murray, who I’ve kept tabs on for years since I realised we share the same birthday, and who finally stepped up and took charge in a final at Wimbledon.

Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy, Laura Trott, Danielle King, Jo Rowsell, Jason Kenny, and the rest of the track cycling team, for being scintillating and ruthless and inspirational. And Chris Hoy’s mum and dad, for reminding me of every proud mum and dad.

Ben Ainsley, for getting angry, and then getting more than even.

Nicola Adams for making me care about boxing for a split second.

The Brownlee brothers, for extraordinary stamina and determination.

Danny Boyle for that awesome opening ceremony, which seemed, in retrospect, to set the spiritual tone for the whole thing.

Usain Bolt, for being astonishing and extraordinary and fast.

Greg Rutherford for overcoming injuries and unexpectedly adding

Charlotte Dujardin for making me care about horses dancing.

Samantha Murray, for rounding things off beautifully.

Every British medal winner has affected and inspired me; to name them all would, amazingly, take too long, because there were so many – 65 medals in all, and counting team members, I think over 100 amazing people have walked away with medals. Many more people behind the scenes need mentioning too. Just amazing.

I’ve done a lot of welling-up over the last fortnight. Everyone has been talking about crying, from athletes to presenters to random people on the internet. Crying is all too easily seen as a signifier of sadness in our culture, but it’s more than that. It isn’t weakness, isn’t about being soft; it’s about empathy and pride and joy in human achievement. Awesome, inspirational, amazing human achievement. Which is what the Olympics have been about. And they’ve been astonishing.