Monthly Archives: October 2013

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

If you’d told me 16 years ago that one of ‘our’ bands would have a number one album on both sides of the Atlantic, win a Grammy for it (and a BRIT, and a Juno, and a Polaris), and then, for their follow-up, release a double-album referencing disco, dub, Haitian rara music, Black Orpheus, and Kierkegaard, with a Rodin sculpture on the cover, songs about Joan of Arc, lyrics in French, guest vocals from David Bowie, veiled references to Baudrillard, produced by an über-cool dance music legend, with a guerrilla marketing campaign involving arcane-looking symbols being daubed on buildings around the world, and which seems to try and comment on and question god, war, rock ‘n’ roll, imperialism, technology, and the way we live now as human beings, I’d have thought you were describing the greatest album ever made, that ‘we’ had ‘won’, and that the world into which this record was being released must be some kind of utopia.

So why am I only ‘enjoying’ Reflektor rather than worshipping it? And wtf is with all this ‘our’ and ‘we’ and ‘won’ business?

The Suburbs is all about tribalism in music; if you’re 16 and feel a little alienated, then you cling to music as part of your identity, as a definition of who you are and who you aren’t. At 16 I, and my friends, talked about ‘we’ as an amorphous entity comprised of people who preferred Smashing Punpkins and Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses to… whatever it was that other people liked. Which, looking back, was never explicitly understood. That’s adolescence for you. I’m in my 30s now. I don’t feel that tribalism in the same way anymore, but I can recall it.

Here are some petty and meaningless observances about the actual music. There’s an incongruous guest appearances from Jonathan Ross. The yelped titular refrain of “Already Know” sounds more like Win is singing “original” to my ears. Tempo switches as tunes start off fast and then shudder to a crawl seem to be a thing; they happen with the punky switch in “Joan of Arc” and the party switch in “Here Comes The Night Time” (which is amazing, genuinely). On “Normal People” Win asks us if we like rock ‘n’ roll music, and suggests that he doesn’t; I can identify. The second side is spacier, more cosmic. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” really reminds me of something in its grand, ascending chords, and it’s the kind of thing I suspect I ought to feel embarrassed about being familiar with. Like Marillion. Or Bon Jovi. “Supersymmetry”, despite its Muse-alike title, is a genuinely beatific and beautiful moment that doesn’t feel like anything else in the band’s oeuvre thus far. Even if it does end with 6+ minutes of almost-silent, arguably pointless tape wibble ambience. There is almost no reason beyond aesthetics and ego why this record needs to be a double. But I’m glad it is; it seems easier to understand as a double.

Sonically, aesthetically, I’m finding Reflektor by far Arcade Fire’s most enjoyable record so far; James Murphy has helped their sound acquire just the right amount of scuzz and scuff and energy. Although Neon Bible used dynamics as an excellent tool after the levelled bombast of Funeral, their first three records all felt a touch too… hurdy gurdy. They seemed to make efforts on The Suburbs to modernise a little with the likes of “Sprawl II”, but it still sounded “buttoned up” (as someone, I think on ILM, put it rather brilliantly). Here, they often sound genuinely loose and as if they’re having much more fun. A little like U2 on Achtung Baby, as many other people have pointed out. As far as arty arena rock goes, Coldplay aspire to this, dream of being this good. My first listen to Reflektor wasn’t via a screen, but rather on a big hi-fi in the livingroom. Maybe this is because I care too much, or don’t care, or have some self-restraint, or just prefer big speakers and amplifiers and CD players (I think they’re more fun, the way a cinema is more fun than a 14” portable TV). There are a lot of things going on here. It’s often the curse of now that we jam many disparate elements of colour together in the hope of making a rainbow, and end up instead with brown. I think they’ve just about avoided brown here; unlike The National on Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps.

A lot of people are saying Arcade Fire aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘sexy’, which is strange, as two of them presumably have sex with each other reasonably often, and have some physical proof of this to boot. wtf does ‘sexy’ mean in this context anyway? Are these reviewers saying they can’t imagine themselves having sex to an Arcade Fire record? That seems like a strange metric.

Matthew Perpetua shows that Buzzfeed isn’t just for shitty horse listicles, and pulls apart Arcade Fire rather well. Despite being continually obsessed with ‘the kids’, Win Butler is a fogey and always has been, and his efforts to develop and change and take risks are all very safe. As Perpetua points out, lunky dunderheaded stadium bands have been “going dance” for 30+ years. I think these days I want them to go jazz.

Win Butler’s band are also obsessed with the idea of being a band, of releasing records, of having fans, of being fans, of being friends. Win or Regine have asked, presumably the audience, if we can be friends several times now. Edwin Farnham Butler III is, lest we forget, the expensively educated son of an oilman, a teenage Radiohead fan from California via Texas who didn’t fit in there or in Boston, and who moved to Montreal and had an epiphany amongst the arts and culture kids. When he sang “if the businessmen drink my blood / like the kids at art school said they would”, he might be singing about his dad. His wife, Regine Chassagne, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier ‘s regime in the 60s.

A third obsession, linked to the first: with being on the outside and not invited in, a very adolescent sense of alienation by the cooler kids. And heaven! Win has a degree in religious studies, and he wants to get into heaven, too, even though he doesn’t believe in it. Neither do I. Arcade Fire have been supporting U2, playing arenas, since 2005. They’re as ‘in’ as you can get, surely? They’ve gota Grammy? But something clearly still smarts Win; and, you know, even if he did go to a famously posh school, you can feel like a misfit weirdo anywhere. People have been telling me my whole life that I’m odd or weird; they’ve probably been telling Win that, too. It’s just that my granddad machined steel tools in a factory rather than invented the pedal steel guitar.

“We’re a weird band in a mainstream context,” says Win in an NME interview this week, talking about winning a Grammy. And they are kind of weird, but they’re also not that weird at all. Springsteen, U2, disco, reggae; these are not weird musics to be influenced by. They’re not Gnaw Their Tongues or The Necks or Ornette Coleman or Coil or Whitehouse. Compared to The Fratellis, though, Arcade Fire are fucking crazy intellectual boho motherfuckers. Compared to his classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy, who are probably working in international banking and corporate law, Win Butler is some kind of creative genius freakazoid. Compared to Merzbow? Maybe not so much. Weird like Nirvana or The Cure. Those weirdo freaks who sold millions of records. I feel like Win needs a lot of affirmation. Fair enough. So do lots of people; especially popular rock musicians. Rock would be boring if they didn’t.

“They heard me singing and they told me to stop / ‘Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock’.” Some people do think that liking music, and liking making music, is outrageously pretentious. That creativity is for weirdos.

Irony of ironies, given that I don’t much like it, I probably owned Funeral before you did; I bought it on import in late 2004 before it was properly available over here. Because, back then, I was hot shit with the indie buzz bands. Thanks to all the American kids going crazy for it at Stylus, who gave it a rave in September 2004. Let’s not forget that “Rebellion (Lies)” always had a none-more U2 bassline, genetically engineered to get stadiums excited, even if much of the rest of the aesthetic was in line with Neutral Milk Hotel’s hurdy gurdy shouting.

I used to like anthemic rock a lot. I have little room for it in my life now. I’ve been playing “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers to death over the last few weeks, and it’s left me feeling as if today’s stadium shakers are just lacking in the kind of melody that feels like it’s squeezing my heart inside a fist, as if today’s kids are being short-changed by their arty stadium rockers. But it’s probably just that I’m older now.

An alternative Mercury Music Prize Shortlist

Because there really aren’t enough of these already, are there? (BBC. DiS. The Guardian. Dead Albatross?) And not enough of them feature These New Puritans or Steve Mason. (All of them feature These New Puritans or Steve Mason.)

Anyway, this year’s Mercury Music Prize winner is announced tomorrow night, so expect Twitter to be absolutely set alight with indignation that Jake Bugg has won it. The Mercury Prize in 2013 sucks, but let’s not forget that Sting used to get nominated and M People won it one year, so it’s actually always been crap; genuinely awesome records like Let England Shake winning is a fluke. Even so, this year’s list doesn’t even include any jazz, and the jazz on the shortlist was usually my favourite bit.

So here’s my alternative to the Mercury Prize Shortlist. Let’s call it the Uranus Prize. The winner gets invited to my house for dinner.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
You’ve probably read about this record in all those other alternative lists. If you want to read more, check out my words here and here, if you must, but really, you’d be better off just buying and then listening to this awesome record, which seems like the kind of record the Mercury Prize is for, and yet which was ignored.

Holden – The Inheritors
I waxed lyrical about this at some length the other month, and have been playing it over and over all year; the Jon Hopkins record is about my favourite on the actual list, but this does everything that does, and then some, on a mystic, elemental, pagan level. It’s landscape-electronica or topography-techno or stargazing-synth-something, and it’s amazing.

Sons of Kemet – Burn
This is jazz; a four-piece lead by Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet or saxophone, plus a tuba player and two drummers (one of whom is Seb Roachford). It might be the most purely enjoyable album I’ve heard all year; the tuba does weird, almost acid-house things playing basslines, as if it wants to be a 303, while the two drummers out-barmy each other a lot of the time. Shabaka allegedly has an “African-Caribbean melodic sensibility” according to people who know better than me; I just know that I like the melodies as much as the rhythms.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down
More jazz! And Shabaka Hutchings plays on this too. I reviewed it a while ago, and its appeal hasn’t faded one iota. Probably the most exciting rock record I’ve heard all year. Only it’s not rock.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Switch out David Bowie’s ‘return to form’ for this, which is a much more impressive achievement as far as I’m concerned. Kevin Shields thinks MBV are so independent “it’s practically illegal”, and that they weren’t allowed to be nominated because you couldn’t get this via iTunes. He might be right; it seems insane that Jake Bugg’s retro skiffle blues Oasis tribute gets the nod when this doesn’t. 48 hours after hearing I scribbled this; I’m no more to grips with it then I was then, but I still think it’s awesome.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
You could very easily accuse Boards of Canada of making music that’s little more than emperor’s new clothes, such is the low-key reality of it after the rapid, slathering fanboy hype; I know people who think Geogaddi is one of the greatest creations of modern times, when to me it’s basically just slightly spooky ambient music that reminds you of what it felt like to be a bit scared as a child.

Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Actual dance music, for dancing to, and which might fill a space left feeling neglected if you wanted The Knife to make something a little more direct and interested in getting people moving, but which is still weird enough and creative enough to make you question what’s going on. I’m sure Disclosure and Rudimental are alright, and maybe I’m just a bit old now, but this is what I’m interested in.

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
A love-letter to the memory of listening to pirate dance radio stations in the mid-90s, quite possibly; the little faux-jungle rushes that fade in and out of some moments as if the signal strength is dipping due to inclement weather. Like I said, the Jon Hopkins record is good and pretty and enjoyable, but something like “Unicorn” is just next-level in terms of being beautiful, up there with Aphex Twin’s most beatific and beguiling moments. The rest of the record deceives,

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain
This is the kind of strange little oddity of a record that I like to see sneak in under the radar via the Mercury – unlike the choices this year, all of which debuted in the top 10 (many of them at number 1) I believe. Samples of old public service broadcasts welded onto krauty instrumentals full of vintage-feeling riffs and patterns, everything about this record is enjoyable and commendable, even if it’s not anything to make world-changing claims about.

Primal Scream – More Light
Their new record is, amazingly, not terrible. It has a song called “2013” which has wailing 70s Bowie sax and Kevin Shields playing guitar and a Neu! groove and lasts for 10 minutes. There’s another song called “Turn Each Other Inside Out” which is amazing, intricate riffing guitars locking together, and you can barely tell Bobby Gillespie is there. Yes, it’s faintly embarrassing, and there are some so-so tracks in the middle, bug given that they’ve been rubbish for a decade this is an unexpected treat.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
Hands-up, I’ve only heard this once, and I don’t own it yet, but it was an awesome psychedelic soup of a record, the kind of thing that deserves some attention, the type of indie rock record that I was afraid Mumford & Sons might have made extinct. Thankfully they haven’t. And I needed more guitars in this list, because the Mercury love guitars.

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
If you cross James Blake and Dean Blunt you don’t get James Blunt. But you would get a better record than James Blake has made, because Dean Blunt has made a better record. What the hell is it? It’s everything; he’s a post-dubstep noise guy or something, and this is some weird post-folk, piano-embellished, found-sound, pseudo-foley deconstructionism, amazingly musical and utterly baffling. I bought it in HMV. HMV!

Addendum: on the lack of women

It’s been pointed out, quite rightly, that there aren’t really any women on this list. Well, that’s not entirely true, as 1/2 of My Bloody Valentine, 1/3 of Factory Floor, 1/4 of These New Puritans, 1/4 of Melt Yourself Down, 1/n (where n = whoever’s in the studio) of Primal Scream are women, and the Dean Blunt album may or may not feature Inga Copeland (finding information on it isn’t easy).

But even so, the women on this list are supporting characters to male agents. There’s not really any excuse for this, except to say that if it wasn’t only comprised of British artists then The Knife and Julia Holter would be featuring, and if I wasn’t eschewing the actual nominees then Laura Marling might be there too.

I’m sorry about this; it does indeed show an inherent gender bias on my part. Several female artists – Ikonika, Emika, Maya Jane Coles, amongst others – have been recommended to me off the back of it, and I’ll be checking them out.

The result

A total of 22 votes were cast across various platforms, and the results are as follows…

In joint 7th place, with 1 vote each, are Public Service Broadcasting, Factory Floor, Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine, and Emika (who got a write-in).

In joint 5th place, with 2 votes each, are Dean Blunt and Sons of Kemet.

In joint 2nd place, with 3 votes each, are Hookworms, Melt Yourself Down, and Holden!

Which means that the winner, with 4 votes (and who would probably have got mine if I’d remembered to count my own opinion), is…

These New Puritans.

They are officially invited around for dinner if they ever pass through Exeter. Graham Sutton can come too.

On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds, in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.