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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Reviews: Caustic and Bing Ji Ling

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Review: Caustic - The Golden Vagina Of Fame And Profit (electro-industrial)
L-Tracks Music LT 007, 2011, CD album, 42m 46s, €14

The difference between the electro-industrial and powernoize genres can sometimes be no more than the degree of distortion involved. Much of this album’s beats and song structures could have sat quite happily on Matt Fanales previous Caustic release ...And You Will Know Me By The Trail Of Vomit, but they have largely been constructed with cleaner, tighter, less brutally devastating sounds. There is distortion, sure (if it’s even valid to talk about an entirely synthetic sound being distorted), and some tunes are still on the powernoize side of the fence, but it’s mostly a bit of spice, a dash of aural vodka stiffening and thickening the mix, rather than its defining feature.
Trail Of Vomit has plenty of tunes that deliver on the dancefloor, but they weren’t aimed at it quite as precisely as the contents of the latest release. Fanale has taken his production work to the next level in terms of making highly focussed, irresistibly thunderous beats, although to my ear its been at the expense of some dynamic range, and some of his creative individuality.
The electro-industrial scene has developed methods and expectations in the last ten years, ones that most listeners and producers are plugged into: in terms of generating immense, floor-filling beats, technical standards have undeniably risen. Creativity on the other hand has taken a back seat: it can be hard to distinguish one act from another, and in fact, one tune can often be distinguished from another solely by the samples it employs. Despite this (or because of it) practitioners of the style have hyped their status as auteurs to comical levels, and often give the impression of having bought into the scene’s stylistic tropes, as though they think they are really vampires, demons, serial killers or commanders of intergalactic warships. Caustic has made a career out of poking holes in all this, using his powerful, snarling vocal delivery and brain-crushing beats to bring us the humour that is often all too lacking in industrial music.
So the crucial question with this album is this: has he effectively continued in this mission with this latest, more commercial, club-orientated release? And if not, what’s he doing instead? Has he compromised on his creative integrity, or just chosen a different avenue for it?
Well, I have to say that a big part of the humour in his earlier work was, for me, the sheer frothing insanity of it, and by taming things somewhat, he steps back from his role as the music’s court jester. The tunes in which his vocal is prominent, such as ‘666 On The Crucifix’ or ‘Hiroshima Burn’ still sound very much like Caustic, but some of the others sound frankly generic. There are also some brilliantly murderous beats, as on ‘Carpe Rectum’ and ‘Darling Nicky’s Gnarly Dicking’, but I don’t feel either track benefits greatly from the slicker production and mastering.
There are four collaborations on the album: ‘White Knuckle Head Fuck’, which features Faderhead, has a classic Faderhead synth riff, and really sounds like a Faderhead tune with Caustic on guest vocals. It’s a fierce electro-industrial clubtrack, but it doesn’t sound very Caustic. ‘Churn The Waters’ is a superb track, and mainly so for the guest vocal from Ned Kirby of Stromkern, which takes the form of a rap that verges on nerdcore in its delivery. ‘Generate Chaos’ features Bitch Brigade, although it’s hard to say in what measure: it’s a stonking beat regardless. Unwoman is a very interesting and creative musician, and I was intrigued to hear what her collaboration with Caustic would sound like: sadly it’s the weakest track on the album, with a pedestrian melody and an undistinguished beat.
Don’t get me wrong: this album is going to be on heavy rotation at Chateau Arditi for a good while. It’s full of juicy, saturated basses and jackhammer kicks, superb samples, insane vocals and beats that brook no standing still. As long as you remember to crank up the volume, it will always be a good listen. DJs will love this record, and Caustic is certain to get more club play than ever before. But to me, this sounds a lot more like other electro-industrial producers’ output, where earlier Caustic was unmistakeably, wonderfully unhinged.

Review: Bing Ji Ling - Shadow To Shine (funk/ soul)
Tummy Touch Records TUCH2025, 2011, CD album, 38m 34s, £6.99

This is a record drenched in the seventies, literally dripping with honeyed, soulful, in-your-face, grinning disco lurve. I mean, look at the cover. Quinn Luke is a man who lives his creative convictions (or knows exactly how to give his audience the impression that he does).
These songs are full of that wonderful fusion of the sexual and the spiritual that defined the best of the disco era: ‘when I get you alone here’s what I’m gon’ do/ gon’ love all your outsides and your insides too’ he sings in ‘Hypnotized’. Bing Ji Ling has embraced the aesthetic of the cheesy, and confronts us with the uncomfortable truth that we only think it’s cheesy because we are afraid to admit publicly to feeling the things he gives voice to. Like his illustrious predecessors (Barry White, Earth Wind And Fire, Tower Of Power, Al Green, and many more seventies soul and disco lyricists and performers) Luke doesn’t set out to write a specific, analytical description of a relationship, but deals in universals, most notably the positive vibes of deep sexual love, or the sadness of its termination. If he was writing poems or novels it would be empty sentimentality, but this is music, and he has an impressive command of melody and harmony to add depth and nuance to his message.
Does that sound like I’m asking you to re-evaluate disco and seventies soul and find them creatively profound? I hope so, because you should. While much music of that era did indeed peddle empty sentimentality, there was also a great deal that touched something more significant, with its total disregard for coolness, its unmediated joyfulness, and its unrestrained outpouring of positive emotional generosity. This was the era in which peace and love hit the mainstream of black American music, and it left a legacy that has been almost unfeasibly influential, although few artists have had the courage to revisit it in the round as Bing Ji Ling has on this recording. Peace and love is a controversial message: it says ‘fuck you’ to many of the vested interests in our society and economy, and since it proved impossible to stamp out in the late sixties, the cultural mainstream has spared little effort to co-opt and de-radicalise it. Bing Ji Ling reinvests it with meaning, because he makes it unmistakeably clear that he believes in it.
These ten songs are filled with dreamy sunshine and mellow groove, that I anticipate forming a core component of my personal soundtrack this summer. Relaxed but tightly locked-in rhythm section feels are festooned with an array of expertly crafted sonic raiment, from predictably funky, clean guitar, swooping strings and idiomatic brass and woodwind arrangements, to psychedelically burnished noise. On ‘Hold Tight’ there is so much grit on the Hammond organ that the tone wheels sound like grindstones spinning, and ‘Bye Bye’ is dominated by a fuzzed out guitar more reminiscent of ’69 than ’74; but still, both songs are shimmering waterfalls of sincere, groovy soul.
The musicianship throughout this album is top notch, with a fantastic feel and developed technique: Luke himself is an excellent guitarist and vocalist, but he is too much of an all round musician to let those skills become the focus of the album, which is never about the playing, but always about the groove and the vibe. There’s really nothing bad I can think of to say about this recording: it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for those that can listen to it without their cheese alarm ringing, it’s a slice of irresistible summery joy.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Reviews: Eleanor Williams & Tim Oehlers

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Eleanor Williams - Orange Peel And Paper (acoustic/ singer-songwriter)
Naplew Productions, 2010, DD album, 29m 8s, £name your price
(all proceeds donated to the charity Women’s Aid)

I’ve been lucky enough a few times recently to find myself reviewing music that’s motivated by a creative generosity. This is not to say that it involves any expectation of gratitude, but simply that it is presented with total honesty, and a pleasing absence of defensive posing. Eleanor Williams, in her cover art, sits upright, leaning slightly forward, with an open stance that conveys precisely the openness and directness of her music.
In the performances recorded here Williams’ most notable strength is her singing. She is possessed of a voice that ranges from an ethereal fragility, to a resonant strength, with an impressively secure intonation that sees her around some nice ornaments and melismas, and a deeply musical sense of phrasing. Whether performing her own material, or the two Arlen/ Harburg showtunes, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ and ‘If I Only Had A Brain’, she is a thoughtful vocalist, with the understanding and the resources to unify the lyrical and musical texts into a single self-supporting utterance.
As a lyricist she actually bears a certain passing resemblance to the aforementioned Yip Harburg, using wit and playfulness to say things that are frequently profound, without ever imposing her meanings on the listener. Of course Williams is not working in a high stakes commercial environment, which frees her to address her meanings more directly than Harburg, a committed socialist, could when writing the book for The Wizard Of Oz. Stylistically Williams’ own work hovers somewhere between the tonal-chromatic soundworld of the showtune and the modal-diatonic territory of folksong.
The principal accompanimental voice is Williams’ ukulele, but she is joined on a variety of instruments by the ever creative Marley Starskey Butler (whose Sagan Lane project I reviewed recently). The arrangements are mainly simple, with additional parts that do not intrude on the intimate relationship between Williams’ hands on the strings and her vocal cords, but they are highly imaginative, and make as much use of ambient or environmental sounds as they do of conventional harmonic or rhythmic reinforcement.
The album opens with a snippet of conversation and noodling, to position the listener in the session, and immediately destroys the usual separation and distance between performer and audience: obviously, we can’t join the conversation directly, but it feels as though we are invited to, particularly as the opening song is so informal. That engagement continues right through to the end of the epic folksong that closes the album.
This is a very unassuming album. It reads very much like someone playing for their own pleasure: it is chamber rather than stage music, and is ‘amateur’ in the truest sense of the word. But I say it ‘reads’ that way rather than it ‘sounds’ that way, because it is delivered with a great deal of musical skill that is anything but amateurish. I’ve already spoken about the vocal performances, but the instrumental work delivers simple parts played with relaxed precision and a sweet tone. Everything is well suited to its role in the proceedings, doing just enough and no more. The music has an under-the-radar quality, smuggling its accomplishment past the listener’s snoozing faculties. Should you choose to pay it the attention it deserves, but never demands, you’ll find a lot of attention to detail, some lovely melodies, crafty, oblique lyrics, and a warm buoyancy that provokes thought and pleasure in equal measure.

Tim Oehlers - Guitarisms (acoustic/ improvisation)
Bro Tee, 2011, CD album, 34m 31s, $8

It is a common axiom that you should never judge a book by its cover: I don’t know what Tim Oehlers’ earlier recordings sound like, but the discography page on his website shows the covers of five previous albums, and they all look pretty amateurish. Either represented by sub-professional pencil drawings or slightly dodgy Photoshop work, these recordings are not sold to me effectively. There’s nothing about the way they look that makes me want to hear them; and then there’s Guitarisms.
This bold, confidently gestural and slightly glitchy visual design seems to represent in a very appropriate way the sounds it promotes: even the title perfectly evokes the assembly of phrases that the album contains, and with it’s echo of ‘truisms’, its creative intentions, if I read them right. Contrast this with Lucky Brother or Low Profile, as two earlier works are titled, and it seems that in his presentation at least, Oehlers has arrived at a new place of focussed coherence. So while I doubt very much whether the other recordings sound remotely as bad as they look, judging this one by its cover is not a bad thing to do.
All of the recordings on Guitarisms were freely improvised in a single three hour session, and although they have been edited and mastered, there is a great sense of spontaneity and enquiry to them. There is furthermore, and to my mind more importantly, a specificity to them: they represent the impression of this particular (highly individual) musician, in a specific place, at a specific time, and of all the unpredictable aleatory processes that came together in him in that moment. On his MySpace, but, curiously, not on the website linked to above, Oehlers is very clear about his religious convictions, describing himself as a ‘Christian guitarist/composer/recording artist/teacher’: although I don’t share his beliefs, I can certainly hear the spiritual in his work, the sense of music using him as a channel. The idea of the specific and unique human self is important to this album, or at least to my understanding of it, both conceptually and sonically.
‘Free improvisation’, a term Oehlers applies to his own work, is a pretty nebulous term. It has been used to describe a great variety of approaches to music, in which freedom has been sought from a great variety of constraints. It is common for free improvisers to seek freedom from tonality and metronomic time: some have gone to great lengths to avoid the use of any received musical structures, seeing some form of ‘originality’ or novelty as the acme of creativity. Others have simply felt the freedom to depart from tonality or strict tempo when the muse moves them to do so. Yet others have sought to disrupt a received vocabulary with sonic gestures usually considered extramusical, such as scrapes and knocks on their instruments, environmental noises or other interventions.
Tim Oehlers is satisfied mainly to escape the constraints of musical structure, but the building blocks of harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre and an acoustic guitar phraseology (or to put it another way, ‘guitarisms’) are the very things he wants to be free to work with. This makes his album as accessible as it is possible for free improvisation to be, with its combination of a mainly uncontroversial vocabulary and a predominantly gentle and welcoming mood. Some disruptive elements were introduced at the editing stage, in the form of some abrupt and unexpected silences, that stop the musical thought in mid flow for several seconds, before it continues relatively unperturbed. What his intention is with these interventions is ambiguous, but the effect is certainly to provoke thought, and to render the listener’s engagement with the music more serious, because it becomes more difficult. Perhaps he’s asking us to stop letting it all drift by and pay some attention, because easy to listen to as this music may be, it would do it a profound disservice to treat it as easy listening.
The eight pieces collected in Guitarisms consist of statements of simple melody and harmonies that are mainly in a minor and chromatic vein; the vocabulary is hard to define stylistically, although there are occasional elements of blues, but could fall under the broadest rubric of the term ‘folk guitar’. For the most part the rhythms are consistent and ongoing, with rubato passages or tempo changes occurring for clear reasons in relation to the melodic narrative, and although he goes where his ears lead him harmonically, Oehlers eschews any jarringly extreme changes of direction. Indeed, one of the areas he explores throughout is voice leading, an approach that depends on a relatively stable tonal or modal context. There are minor uses of aleatory elements, string noises, environmental sounds and so forth, but this is a player content to restrict himself largely to the mainstream range of the sounds that an acoustic guitar can make. There are, after all, infinite possibilities within a far smaller scope than he employs, and you don’t get any sense that he is banging against the edges or running out of territories to explore.
The willing, sympathetic listener will find that Oehlers does not abuse their trust, but takes them on a journey through a fertile, though far from febrile, melodic and harmonic imagination: this album is a contemplative, pastoral meditation, a courageous artistic endeavour, and a very rewarding, meaningful musical experience. There’s a moment in ‘Feace’ where Oehlers’ voice rises unbidden in the back of his throat to support his guitar melody, before it dies away again, but once you’ve heard it, you can hear it everywhere. He’s singing out his musical meanings with more than just his guitar, and it is well worth the effort of listening hard enough to hear them.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Monday Musings: My Report And Frothing Rant From MusicConnex

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The critic smirks.
I was lucky enough to spend three days of last week representing the fantastic DIY musicians’ resource Live Unsigned at the MusicConnex conference in central London. This was an event targeted primarily towards musical artists seeking to develop their careers through the use of digital resources. This covers a lot of ground, and the conference included masterclasses on technical subjects such as audio mastering, but the focus, understandably, was on social media and making money.
The headline description on the website is of an ‘event for artists, music industry professionals, and digital media experts to come together and explore new and exciting DIY routes to market’. That, for me, raises a lot of questions. Surely routes to market are plentiful, and open: will the conference have anything useful to say about what to do there when you get there? What do the organisers mean by DIY, and is it the same thing that I mean?
Essentially, the widespread assumption was that the DIY route was pursued by people who are ‘looking for a deal’. This to me is a fundamental misapprehension: obviously anyone who takes responsibility for generating their own income is always looking for deals, but for DIY musicians, it’s a case of looking for a deal with each individual audience member. Like my stuff? Help me make more.
The really exciting, empowering thing about the new digital environment, is that there is a living to be made for artists going the DIY route: the (anecdotal) evidence is that if you do the right things to connect with an audience, they will put some of their capital your way, in the interests of supporting something they value. That may be in the form of CD or download sales, investment and pledges, merchandising sales, gig tickets, direct donations or whatever. What’s needed to motivate that kind of generosity is a sense of engagement: it’s about having a relatively deep and specific relationship with a certain number of fans, rather than a superficial relationship with a certain (larger) number.
I attended the conference with my usual open mind, but not without an agenda: my primary interest in each session was to see exactly what its usefulness was to the independent musician, intending to build, keep and capitalise on their own audience.
The first session I attended at MusicConnex was entitled ‘Meet The New Platforms’. This was ostensibly an opportunity for a variety of emerging digital platforms to make a pitch, and for artists to find some new channels for reaching an audience. There were some interesting tools on offer. Buy My Playlist offers a new way to structure download purchases, with site users assembling playlists, the contents of which they can buy for a certain sum, and other users can buy for a slightly larger sum. The usefulness of this depends, obviously, on the music you want to use being on the site: I searched for a few of my favourite things released in the last year, and found none. The reason for this is clear: they’re on tiny labels, or no label, and the site gets its music through big licensing deals. The relevance of this to a truly DIY musician is difficult to see.
StreamJam is a genuinely interesting platform, which takes video streaming technology, and contextualises it in a 3D virtuality. Video streaming in itself is a pretty empowering thing, enabling musicians to perform live from their studio/ kitchen/ local venue/ bedroom/ wherever, for a global and potentially huge audience. The wonderful Cafe Noodle integrates this with a chatroom, so the audience can interact, but StreamJam goes one step further and integrates a browser based 3D venue, where audience avatars can mingle. I’ve experienced a similar set up in the virtual world Second Life, but the difference there is that the technology is continually on the edge of failure, and the learning curve is as steep as the north face of the Eiger. This is the first implementation I’ve seen that anyone can just jump into, and it’s actually the only time during the conference that I felt I was looking at the future.
There was some other interesting stuff, including a communications and workflow tool for bands, BandCentral, but the majority of the pitches were predicated on bringing some properly hoary old models into new media. The prevalent assumption seems to be that the best way to make money from a creative endeavour is to reach a very large audience, and then skim a tiny percentage off the revenue stream that enables. Some pitches were really from middlemen who wanted to interpose themselves between artists and their audience, with no appreciable benefit to either, but one particularly hilarious example was a service which offered to aggregate demographically weighted reviews to help artists produce the most generic music possible. 
Almost everyone assumed that musicians aspire to reach a huge audience, and their business models were based on their already having done so, or being on the brink of it. While many people do have those aspirations, and there will always be a number of performers who do reach those large numbers by one route or another, this is a bit like putting a lottery win on the income side of a business plan. Musicians are doing music because they love it, and if they can make a living at it they will live a happy life (all things being equal). Making a living entails having a certain level of income, but also having a certain sense of security, and here’s the rub: it’s better to get £1000 by persuading 100 people to pay you £10 each, than by getting £1 each from 1000 people.
Even famous acts get their career longevity from the minority of fans that spend a lot of their money on them, rather than the big numbers that give them an income spike around a major release. A fundamental engagement with a small number of people will give you an audience that will stick with you, will want to hear everything you put out, and will feel inclined to pay for it. Unless you become insanely famous, the industry’s traditional big numbers route will furnish you with a following that will buy a lot of product for a while, and then move on to something else.
This was a dichotomy that I saw repeated throughout the three days of MusicConnex: DIY musicians need to earn a high percentage of a relatively small revenue stream, but the industry predicates everything on a lot of parties skimming a few points off much larger numbers.
This disjuncture between industry assumptions and DIY musicians’ realities was most pronounced in the panel discussion ‘Artists & Brands’, where we heard from a panel of experts from the world of brand synergy. These were people who spend their days putting artists together with brands for their mutual promotional benefit, or to put it another way, associating musical brands with other sorts of brands. The panel’s view was that this was not something artists without a public profile should be looking at, as none of the major brands they represented would be interested in working with unknown artists. This was later directly contradicted in a seminar led by Eric Sheinkop of the Music Dealers licensing agency, who regularly places unsigned, unknown indie acts in major campaigns, and gave one of the most honest and enlightening presentations I saw.
One of the panelists in the ‘Artists & Brands’ session, while discussing the potential negatives of an act’s association with a brand, questioned whether it was still valid to talk about an artist ‘selling out’. This was a question I saw repeated in the Twitter feed, and seemed to be a little bit of a theme. We live in a commercial world, the argument seemed to run, therefore it is necessary to engage with the players in that world, in order to make a living: it’s unrealistic to resist that, and naive to question its morality. This pissed me off, to be honest. It’s one thing to say that it’s ok to make money, and another entirely to deny that there is an ethical dimension to the decisions you might make. So I’m going to spell it out for anyone who might not be clear on this: if you associate yourself with a brand that exploits child labour, you are endorsing child labour. If you associate yourself with a brand that uses environmentally destructive manufacturing processes you are endorsing those processes. If you associate yourself with a brand that climbs into bed with an authoritarian regime, you are endorsing that regime.
I’m not preaching to anybody: I wear clothes and buy products without looking into the ethical record of the companies that make them, and I’m well aware that the stuff I get is so cheap for a reason. The difference is, that I at least know this: I’m not denying that there is an ethical dimension to my purchasing decisions, and also I’m not advertising anything by any means beyond wearing its logos on my obscure and un-influential ass. Whenever this sort of issue became uncomfortably close to being even near the fringes of the agenda, the response was a frankly sickening denial of responsibility. Now I’m not about to claim a scoop for noticing that there’s a moral and ethical vacuum at the heart of the music industry, but seriously! It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone to acknowledge that these issues exist.
I sat in a lot of panels and seminars over the three days, and made a lot of pithy notes, enough to write an entire blog post about each session in fact, but obviously I need to summarise things. That I am so overflowing with material when I look back at my notes is a tribute to the organisers, and the interesting group of people they brought together. Given the ostensible DIY focus of the event it would have been nice to see some more DIY artists on the panels, people like Zoe Keating, Steve Lawson, She Makes War or Matt Stevens, who could actually speak from experience about the process of building an audience through social media and making a living through self-released music. There was however, an eye-opening session from Mike Rosenthal, who handles ‘Digital and Online Strategy’ for OK Go, a band which is well known for having gone DIY after some years with a major label. His insights and experiences will certainly inform what I do if I end up seriously pursuing any musical project in the future.
Much of what I’ve written may seem critical, but this was a well run and very interesting event. My principal reservation is that it is unlikely to have discouraged any young artists in attendance from pinning their hopes on getting picked up by a major player and promoted into stardom. There was, however, a lot of informative and often inspiring material, that will be of great use to any attendee that is actually serious about building an audience for themselves, and it was also a fascinating snapshot into the state and psychology of the industry in this exciting transitional era.
I think it’s worth remembering that DIY is not a new thing: it’s just that in the past it was something of a counterculture thing. Bands like Black Flag and Cardiacs went this route before there was an internet, let alone Facebook. They did it, and those that are doing it today do it, on a shoestring; they accept a low income as a fair exchange for spending their time doing what they love under nobody’s control but their own; they don’t need to be able to buy a lot of stuff, because their art gives them far more fulfillment than a nice house full of nice things ever could. These people are not about to spend £199 on a ticket to an event like this: they might stretch to £50 if it was jam packed with genuinely, specifically relevant material, about how to mobilise your audience through pledges, or how to improvise a replacement head gasket for a Ford Transit. Fascinating as it was, the main thing that MusicConnex highlighted for me was a gap in the market.

(Thanks to Matt Stevens for the sanity maintaining convo throughout, and for any good turns of phrase or bits of analysis I may have unwittingly stolen)

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Reviews: Diane Marie Kloba, The Little Unsaid, Magari & Echo Rain

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Review: Diane Marie Kloba - I Am An Unknown Artist (avant pop)
Striped Shirt Records STS105, 2011, CD album, 42m 51s, $10
(also available as DD, $name your price)

‘Avant pop’ is a term that has been bandied about at various times, in various contexts, and it is one that Diane Marie Kloba has applied to her own work, although there is no consensus as to what it describes. Regardless of whether her work has similar stylistic features to other artists who have been similarly labelled (and it has often been applied to electronic music), it is a good description of what she does. This is pretty avant-garde stuff, which, despite the prominence of electric guitar in its instrumental textures doesn’t sound like rock; and despite its experimentalism, there is a sense that it’s all about the songs, which are short and self-contained in the manner of pop songs.
The arrangements are built up from the core elements of Kloba’s voice and guitar with various articles of hand percussion, most manufactured, but some of it found. Sometimes there are some drums, bass, synthesiser, organ, another guitarist, but the texture feels very consistent: although it is quite varied, it’s stylistically coherent. This is Kloba’s fourth album, and although I’m not familiar with her earlier work, it’s clear that she’s arrived at an effective creative method and a mature artistic practice: the impression I get is that she knows exactly how to say what she wants to say, if only because her various meanings are conveyed in a similar manner across these thirteen songs.
There’s a very strong relationship between the way Kloba sings and the way she plays guitar. If singing is to speaking as running is to walking, then she walks fast, sometimes skipping or jogging, but never sprinting: at times this sort of melodic speech reminds me somewhat of Laurie Anderson, particularly on ‘It Rained’. She also reminds me of Anderson in her lyrics: not in the specific tenor of her language, but in the way she uses thoughts and ideas as big compositional blocks, like giant bricks of conceptual lego. I don’t believe that Kloba is in any way tentative, but the wavering character of her voice, and the power of her delivery, just short of full voiced, give the impression that she is feeling her way forward carefully, and there is a similar feel to her guitar work.
I’ve rarely heard a distorted electric guitar riff, like the one on ‘Diane Has Words’, delivered with so much rhythm and conviction, and yet so little of rock’s clichéd swagger. There is no posing in the playing, no milking of received gestures, but a back-to-first-principles approach that seems to find the instrument’s capacities afresh, as though it had shed its history and associations.
There is sometimes a roughness in the overall approach, which I read as a desire to avoid the automatic responses to received notions of musical competence: in a way it’s punky, inasmuch as the music is always in time and in tune, but it’s a different kind of rawness, one not deriving from an excess of energy like punk’s emotional overdrive. If there’s one thing that drives and saturates this music it’s sincerity.
Much avant-garde music shares with this album a cultivated naïveté in the way it presents its materials, thrust directly at the listener like the gifts of a child: the crucial difference is that in most cases this is a mediated and ironic strategy, a knowing and fundamentally defensive measure. In Kloba’s case her approach represents a committed and heartfelt search for the best expression of her endearingly positive meanings. The fact that her music doesn’t pander to our well developed conditioned expectations of what a nice pop song should sound like is a consequence of her desire to express precisely her own meanings, not the generic ones that are contained by the conventional vocabulary of pop and rock.
It may take some listeners a while to hear past the somewhat challenging surface of this music. Once they do they will find a probing, enquiring creativity that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, but also sweet natured, and motivated by a generosity of spirit. Kloba puts it better than I can in the lyric to ‘Ace The Place’: ‘I come from humble mumbling to bring you what I worked to find.’

The Little Unsaid - Into The Faceless Night (folk/ alternative rock)
self released, 2011, DD EP, 13m 23s, £free

Original songs in the style of folksong aren’t ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘traditional music’, and nor in fact do they actually sound like any traditional music ever did: this is really a modern style that grew out of the 1950s folk club movement, where I imagine singer-songwriters wanted to find a sound that fit with their own enthusiasms, and was palatable to the notably purist (well, frankly bigoted) folk club audiences.
All such conceptual musings aside, this is a collection of finely crafted songs in a style that draws heavily on that tradition, with some rock elements, in the form of some bass and percussion, and some very tasteful, and sonically imaginative electric guitar. It lacks any of his nasally hey-nonny tendencies, but I found myself wondering whether Nic Jones might have sounded like this if he’d been working today: the guitar playing sits somewhere between his intricate fingerpicking and the textural ostinatos of latter day indie and post-rock.
The arrangements are gently kinetic, and not afraid to exploit the dramatic potential of putting the brakes on from time to time, while the writing presents some beautiful melodies with a strong (and visual) feel for language: ‘and I write this down fast/ ’cause the truth’s on the move.’ I know how he feels! Writer/ singer John Elliott has a voice that moves backwards and forwards in his throat to find the right timbre, as well as the right volume, and engages the listener completely in the world of the songs. This is highly creative stuff, and realised with all the skill required by something so subtly ambitious.

Magari - A Crescent Dream (progressive rock/ post-rock)
self released, 2011, DD EP, 20m 13s, $3

Sometimes possessed of the dramatic bombast of its prog roots, and drawing its stylistic features from all over, this music mainly takes the textural approach characteristic of post-rock. It most resembles the traditional sounds of progressive rock on ‘Oceans Away’, the third movement of this three part composition, particularly in the lead keyboard parts. There are also elements of metal throughout, with some crunchy, rhythmic riff-craft, but curiously it never sounds heavy, so much as propulsive. I think that’s characteristic of this band: they employ a variety of recognisable stylistic features, but not in an obvious way, and without necessarily buying into the assumptions that come with them. This music is never about showing off, never about being a guitar hero, never in fact about anything except arranging a set of musical materials to develop an involving long form narrative.
I suspect this discipline, and the almost reticent approach to performance, is the reason for the music’s resemblance to post-rock, rather than any intention or direct influence. Prog rock is associated with noodling, and many of its fans enjoy a good, long chops-fest of a guitar solo, but there is no noodling here whatsoever. The album is introduced by what I take to be a synthesizer string sound, droning on a low note, from which emerges the first guitar texture; after the whole of its dramatic narrative, its huge range of dynamics, textures, sounds, melodies, vocals, its wide ranging journey, it returns to the same place. Some might find that circularity depressing, or indicative of a lack of creative progress, but to me this music tells a story (even without having listened closely to the lyrics), and it’s a story that like so many real stories, and so many real journeys, ends at home. This sense of cyclicity can be heard in the details of the music as well as its overarching structure.
There are some very engaging melodies and chord progressions in this recording, which frequently take unexpected turns in a way that is never jarring, but almost always moving, with a sense of warmth, if somewhat melancholy as well. In fact, that’s just the impression this record left me with: one of warmth. It has an enveloping and quite densely mixed soundstage, where nothing is unduly prominent; I take that as another token of the lack of ego that informs the EP. Much progressive rock is built, to my ear, on an empty technicalism, a creatively bankrupt obsession with musical cleverness: this is motivated by Magari’s sincere desire to share the great sounds they have found.

Echo Rain - ‘Hold On’ and ‘Bad Guys’ (alternative pop-rock)
self released, 2010, DD tracks, free
Echo Rain picked two tracks to send me, although there are several more on their Facebook page: one of the two reviewed here, ‘Hold On’, has a download button. The first thing I’ll say is that this is beautifully recorded and mixed, with some really juicy instrumental sounds: there’s a bass fill in ‘Hold On’ at around 2:20 where the tone fairly sings. The songs are very melodic with a sing-song quality, and the band texture is pretty heavy, although not brutally so; the arrangements are varied and creative, with passages of counterpoint vocal, and a dramatic use of dynamics. There’s a discipline here, with a good awareness of how to project the material to best effect. The sound is all about high energy and heartfelt emotion: to my ear it’s not hugely distinctive, but the technical standards are remarkably high, from songwriting, through instrumental and vocal performances, to production. Without something a little more controversial or quirky about their approach I think they’ll need the support of a label or brand to find an audience, but this stuff is radio ready, so they could definitely look into licensing and synchronisation. My conclusion? A bit generic, but highly accomplished.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Reviews: Dusty Curtain Face Records & Raising Maisie

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Review: VA - Dusty Curtain Face Sampler (various styles)
Dusty Curtain Face Records DCF-001, 2011, CD album, 73m 8s, £?

Dusty Curtain Face Records are about as DIY and low key as a label can be, based on their founder/ producer/ engineer Paul Rhodes’ realisation that he could use some cheap, semi-functional equipment in bands’ rehearsal spaces to make better recordings than often come out of major commercial studios. You see, the big studios want you to think there’s some kind of voodoo to the recording process, which to be fair there is, and I wouldn’t deny the enormous expertise that exists in the world of the professional engineer: but the voodoo is not in the highly tuned ears of the mixing and mastering engineers. It’s in an appreciation of the creative intentions of the musicians, and in the key understanding that a recording is constructed, not captured: every artist understands that they need to work creatively with the materials at hand, and it’s the same with recording. A recording is built from the sounds your equipment can commit to hard disk, and if those sounds include hiss, hum or other artifacts you can still make good use of them.
Not that these recordings are at all noisy or low-fi; but using cheap equipment in untreated spaces predetermines the sound in particular ways, and Rhodes’ response is to let his bands do their thing in their usual way, and focus the entire production around the music’s specific creative agendas. These are the right sounds for these acts, and they would be very lucky indeed to get better results by throwing money at the problem.
The only band that could benefit from a different approach is Cuckoo Hill, whose acoustic guitars have the distinctive sound of amplified piezo-electric pickups, which while pleasant enough, will never hold a candle to the instruments’ acoustic voices. The performance is beautifully conveyed however, with a mellow, relaxed vibe and a warm vocal sound: there’s more of a trick to this than you might imagine, as few musicians play with the same freedom under the studio microscope as they do live, and the way they and Rhodes nail it is exceptional.
The same goes for every track on the sampler: some cuts have a bit of recording hiss, but rather than topping and tailing it Rhodes has left it in the mix, framing tracks like Ed Ache’s ‘Phone Box’ with white noise that stands in for the silence into which the performance is dropped. Every performance is natural, relaxed and committed.
The actual material is incredibly varied, with seventeen tracks from seven artists, ranging from Cuckoo Hill and Tough Lover’s acoustic folk, through Ed Ache’s acoustic punk, to Rhodes’ own Hobopope And The Goldfish Cathedral’s pronk, via Meadows’ sludge metal and hardcore, Cockdaughter’s post-rock or noise rock, and Lemonparty’s utterly unique perverted funk rock. Every act has a distinct and well defined artistic vision and pursues it creatively: this is very much local music, the product of a small scene in a specific area, but this sampler is an example of just how much creativity and expertise goes under the radar, and all of these musicians deserve wider exposure and recognition.
Naturally there are some stand out tracks: Ed Ache’s unremittingly grim murder tale ‘Spooky Woods’ really sticks with me, as does the curiously catchy atonality of Cockdaughter’s ‘Pig Tipper’, and the sordid sexuality of Lemonparty’s ‘Zoo Sex’. There’s no filler, though, no tracks I want to skip: this is a properly satisfying listening record from the opening blast of Meadows’ ‘The Head Of Henry Grey’ to the final confrontational valediction of Ed Ache’s ‘Goodbye’, of which I’ll leave you with a sample:
‘All right then boys, I’m off/ suffice to say I’ve had enough/ I’ve had a proper think about it/ I think that you’re all cunts/ I’d like to say that it’s been fun/ but I’d be telling lies/ life’s a bitch and then you say goodbye.’

Review: Raising Maisie - “Etc, Etc” (indie pop)
Studio Dog Records, 2010, CD album, 34m 38s, £7

Raising Maisie are not badass, intimidating or scary in any way. Neither are most hardcore, extreme metal or gangsta rap artists, but Raising Maisie aren’t pretending. Pretension is no part of their uncomplicated, well crafted, concise and extremely entertaining pop-rock.
Regular readers of my reviews will be well aware that I have tastes that encompass the experimental and the extreme, but what I really appreciate is the creativity and artistic integrity that takes musicians to those places. It takes an equal measure of those things to achieve a disciplined slice of joyful pop precision like this.
Piano is featured as prominently as guitar on this album, if not more so, which lends a more structured feel to the arrangements than is the norm in indie circles. Chord progressions are well written, with a strong sense of forward motion, and some real care has gone into charting a melodic path through them: this is proper, grown-up musicianship, in a band which I’m guessing is young and relatively inexperienced.
Instrumental resources are creatively exploited to develop a range of textures, creating pleasing variety within a consistent band sound: acoustic and electric guitar, both clean and overdriven, and a variety of keyboard sounds (including some juicy analogue noises) all find their place. The playing is very song focussed, rhythmically tight and dynamically controlled, with little or no showing off, although the guitarist pulls out some tasty licks occasionally. From a nerdy muso perspective the drummer is the star of the show, and not just for his volcanic solo in ‘Jump Out’. They say a band is never better than its drummer: on this album every drum part is perfectly judged with a light feel that makes the grooves lift propulsively, and a precise execution that provides an unshakeable foundation for band and dancers alike.
The songs don’t attempt to tackle any big themes: they deal with the experience of being young, energetic and horny in a way that eschews cleverness or analysis, and simply presents observations with wit, amusement and sincerity. Although there are plenty of romantic disappointments in these lyrics, you get the impression the characters in the songs will bounce back pretty much unscathed: a wistful optimism is the predominant mood.
The vocal delivery is charismatic and committed, with a strong sense of sincerity and engagement, and a marked lack of bombast or rock ‘n’ roll swagger. It will be too self-consciously fey for some tastes, but those are probably not the tastes this music is aimed at in any case. As with the instrumental work there is a commendable dynamic control and sense of dramatic narrative, that pulls the listener into the songs, and engages their attention by doing interesting but uncontroversial things for three minutes or so (and there’s no song on the album as long as four minutes long).
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Raising Maisie getting some widespread attention with this well produced album. They fit quite easily into a marketing bracket without being at all generic, which is to say it’s clear they haven’t set out to make their music to a blueprint, or to address a demographic. These musicians love pop music, and that love comes across in every note they play.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Monday Musings: Exciting Times In Music & The Week’s News Roundup

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The critic lounges.
It’s definitely an exciting time to be active in music, for a host of reasons. The industry is in flux, and it’s fascinating to watch its convulsions as the market works out what sort of distribution mechanisms it’s going to support. There are new technologies for musicians springing up on a daily basis that are useful, accessible and easy, in both production and marketing/ distribution. The channels of communication are open: artists are now at liberty to make their pitch on their own terms, and millions of people are listening. The DIY route has yielded dividends for many bands from the 1970s to the present, particularly in underground styles, but now it’s a very real possibility for acts who for one reason or another would have found it impractical in the past. Things are changing, fast and fundamentally.
Of course there are a ton of new pitfalls to go with the new opportunities. With universal access to recording technologies that very recently required a huge financial investment, it seems all too easy for bands to reproduce the sounds of their heroes, or of the bands that are shifting units. There is a huge wave of slickly produced, interchangeable generic product in a variety of popular styles, the majority of which will never go anywhere, but could perfectly well stand in for any of the bands that are making serious money. Many of the new technologies are rubbish, and it’s easy to overstretch yourself trying to stay on top of several too many social networking/ profile hosting solutions. With the channels of communication so wide open, the millions of listening music fans are hearing a million voices, and it’s very hard to get enough attention to make people appreciate your unique gifts. In some ways it’s more possible to earn a crust as a musician, and in some ways it’s harder than ever.
For me the most exciting thing about the times is the possibility of bypassing the music ‘industry’ altogether. There was a time when this vast global conspiracy served a useful purpose: it enabled you to hear music that wasn’t being performed by bands in your local small venues. No more. I can now hear music from a virtually unknown band in Kuala Lumpur at a moment’s notice, thanks to the new, less interfering, industry giants like Bandcamp or Soundcloud. The arrogant shits that used to think they knew something about music because they prospered in a monopoly, have seen their certainties crumble, and are now running very scared. I could get into a philosophical discussion about the whole basis of intellectual property, and the practical feasibility of ‘owning’ a sound, but that’s a topic for another day. The fact is that we are still right in the middle of the storm, and what the landscape will look like when the pace of technological change slackens off is anyone’s guess. But it will likely be a far more democratic and open environment than before everything went haywire, and I’m pretty sure that the authors of original, creative music will be far more able to make a living from it. And if people find it harder to make millions off of a release? Fuck ‘em. No one needs to make that much money.
This is an extremely interesting and articulate article on just these factors, looking at dance music in Germany. I take issue with its apparent assumption that we’ve arrived at the endpoint, but it has to be said that electronic dance music leads the field in its engagement with the new technological context. I especially like the conclusion, that you may as well be creative and original.
MySpace is being sold because it’s toxic, and isn’t going to make any money. The last line of the first story is priceless: it should be obvious to anyone who visits MySpace why it’s in trouble, because it offers a totally crap user experience.
It seems that Amazon are claiming that their cloud based music storage and playback service is no different than a local storage based solution, and that they don’t need licenses. I agree.
An interesting article on the role of bloggers in music marketing, that ties in with a short piece I’m thinking of writing on how to avoid annoying us.
Here’s some nice pictures of special editions that were released for Record Store Day.
An amusing account of the changes so far, told via the changing job descriptions of music industry insiders.
My heavy rotation albums at the time of writing are:
Fernando's Kitchen - Calle Compás
Konono Nº1 - Congotronics
Russ Sargeant - The Last And The First
Superspirit - Permission To Come Aboard
VA - The 405 Heroes of January & February