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Monday, 30 May 2011

Monday Musings: What’s So Good About Music?

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The critic explains.

I’ve been thinking back recently to my abortive attempt to train as a secondary school music teacher, and the furious bout of self-examination it induced. The process, which was not a positive one, but from which I learned a great deal, forced me to question, and explicitly articulate the value that I place on music. This is a very interesting question: most people will not be able to provide you with a coherent response, and there is clearly no single answer, any more than there is one single music. I intend to simply set out my view, and explore what questions are raised by the issue.
I came to realise early in my training that I disagree radically with the way that music is valued by ‘society at large’, and by academic institutions in particular. The ways that music is valued in a British secondary school are basically good ones: it is valued as a creative art form, a cultural artifact, a professional skill set, and an academic discipline. As I began to think through why it all seemed so wrong to me, my first realisation was that it would be very hard to inculcate an enthusiasm for music in most children on any of these bases: so long as music is conceived as ‘cultural’, ‘professional’ or ‘academic’, it will seem to be exclusive and other. Even in the sense of a creative art, most people see music as the exclusive preserve of the ‘talented’. So what is it that I think is so wrong with this picture?
I would contend that music is more than all these things: I believe it is a basic human faculty. It is my belief that music is as fundamental an aspect of our humanity as speech, conceptual reasoning or tool use. Music is the recognition, exploitation, reproduction, manipulation and enjoyment of patterns in sound. Finding and using patterns is what we do: when we learn or analyse anything we are recognising pattern, and this fundamental behaviour as applied to sound is not just expressed in music, but in language, and therefore in thought. Put simply, if we didn’t enjoy playing with sounds, we would not have learned to talk, and without names for things we could not have developed a capacity for abstract thought, or become self-aware in the way that we understand the term.
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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Reviews: Hope and Social & Fresh Like Dexie

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Hope and Social - Sleep Sound (alternative rock)
Alamo Music, 2011, DD album, 42m 50s, £name your price

I remember at school my art teacher exhorting the class to stop drawing tiny pictures in the corner and to cover the page with bold strokes, to step out and give voice to whatever it was we wanted to express. Well, there are no bushels on top of Hope and Social’s light: they fill the canvas; they are bold; they are bright colours and big gestures; and they give every impression of having forgotten where their navels are.
This album is bursting with positivity, not of the sort that pretends bad stuff isn’t happening, or that the world is mainly composed of puppies and flowers, but the kind that celebrates the whole sordid, beautiful complexity of existence. It’s not just what the lyrics are about, but it’s the big, bouncy beats, the enthusiastic delivery, the sweeping orchestrations, and the loose, comfortable feel, that never dwells on the effort that went into recording these carefully crafted and creatively arranged songs.
It may be that this isn’t the sort of thing you like: if so, you won’t like it. If, on the other hand, it’s even anywhere near the fringes of your musical taste, you’ll almost certainly like it within the first few bars. It opens with a choral arrangement, which immediately signals with its vocal timbres that it is neither church music, nor a hastily appropriated pastiche of a township choir; and it quickly launches into an irresistible groove that owes something to ska, but is really an expression of the band’s own magpie rhythmic sensibility. This is a recurring theme: almost everything in this music has some familiarity about it, but you can rarely put your finger on exactly what it is. These players and arrangers have digested their influences thoroughly, and the contents of this album are stylistically their own: it sounds almost traditional, but is highly original without ever pursuing novelty for its own sake.
If there is any style or era that Sleep Sound’s combination of big beats and expansive orchestrations puts me in mind of, it’s the late 1980s, and bands like The Waterboys and Big Country: it’s not that there is an overt influence, but there’s that sense of scale. Like those bands, Hope and Social have found a majestic grandeur in the particular and the ordinary.
The core of the album’s sound is a traditional rock lineup, but the arrangements are a tour de force, with brass, strings and vocal arrangements that always sound exactly right, never out of place. I’m a big fan of keeping it simple, and using the minimum of cleverness to achieve your expressive intentions: while all of these songs would sound just great with an acoustic guitar and a single voice, Hope and Social have done the exact minimum, finding the right arrangement for each song, and showing an admirable objectivity and self-discipline in knowing when to stop. You could hand these songs to any of the world’s top professional arrangers, and I’d be extremely surprised if they released any more of their potential than the band has on this album.
This music has sadness and melancholy in it, and not every song is upbeat, but it is joyful music, and it is also a rare and valuable thing, rock music you can dance to. Rock music that it’s very hard not to dance to, in fact! If you want music that will move you, get you swaying, and then uplift you with a big anthemic chorus; if you want music that taps a real emotional meaning, without sentimentality or kitsch; if you want a studio album that will leave you feeling like you’ve been at a gig, then get this.

Fresh Like Dexie - Step In The Sun (funk rock)
self released, 2011, CD EP, 9m 8s, £3.50

Fresh Like Dexie are funky. Very funky. I’ve been a fan of funk since I first heard Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the Parliafunkadelicment Thang in my late teens, and I devoted a lot of time after that to studying the music, so I have some idea whereof I speak. In the more than two decades since then I’ve heard a lot of bands playing funk, and more than a few of them falling on their faces in the attempt. Funk can sound pretty busy to the uneducated, and it takes some application to strike the right balance, between putting in enough tasty links to make it exciting, and looking after the One. The One is crucial: every little flourish of tricky syncopation is there to emphasise the One. A funk groove is made up of the One, and of all the other stuff that exists to make the One fall as heavily as possible. Fresh Like Dexy are on the One.
The curious thing is that it takes many musicians quite a few years to develop the maturity necessary to understand this. Funk is not an opportunity to display your chops; it’s just that chops are required to play it. This band (whose members look very youthful on their CD artwork) have the chops, and the maturity to know what to do with them.
There are no horns in this, just a four piece rhythm section and some vocals, and the grooves are more of the continuously rolling variety beloved of the early 90s acid jazz scene, than the spatial type practiced by James Brown and his many acolytes. In fact, this band could have slotted in very nicely to the acid jazz scene, had they been born about twenty years earlier (by the look of them).
I can’t think of anything I don’t like about this band: they have an extremely likeable exuberance about them, an enthusiasm that is tempered only by the precision with which they play. Their singer is soulful and technically adept, with a very nice line in phrasing: you can hear that her voice still has room to mature, and open up a little, but that’s no criticism. The material is sophisticated and intelligent, with a good command of harmony, and the arrangements are full of variety and imagination. If they’re half as good live as they are on here they’ll be a kickass party band. I’m impressed.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Monday Musings: Advice For Bands – How To Annoy Me And Lose My Interest

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The critic is hung over AGAIN.

I write this blog; I also write reviews for two excellent websites, the music magazine eBurban and very wonderful independent bands' resource Live Unsigned. Doing these things requires me to find out about various bands and musicians, listen to their music, get a handle on where they're coming from, and communicate with them. None of this makes me an expert on anything: I'm just doing what millions of music enthusiasts globally do for fun every day (and even when I'm getting paid, or fighting sleep to meet an unrealistic self-imposed deadline, I'm doing it for fun too). The only difference is that I do a lot more of it than most people, and more regularly; but the experiences I have when I interact with an act's online presence, and the expectations I bring to the encounter, are the same as anyone's. The sheer number of bands' websites and profiles I visit does mean that I see patterns, however, and get annoyed by the stuff that's annoying a bit more readily. The reason I want to say something about this is not in order to whine about the terrible, arduous burden of the music critic in  a world that blatantly fails to arrange itself for his convenience; it's because the things that act as obstacles to a satisfactory interaction for me, are likely to act in the same way for the important visitors to your electronic shopfronts, your potential audience. Where I will tend to be persistent if I need a specific piece of information for an article, the casual music fan will probably give up a lot more quickly, so I thought I should share some of my more pertinent observations.
4 Ways Not To Capitalise On The Interest Of A Fan
Make it impossible to contact you. This is a biggie for me, hence its place at the top of the list. An email address where people can contact you to request information or press packs, tell you how much they like your work, book you, or in other ways offer you money and exposure should be clearly displayed on your website or profile: not hidden away in a contacts page, not substituted by a webform, but right there on your front page, preferably in the sidebar or footer on every page. That's your email, not a PR or management company's email. If you're so famous that you really can't handle direct enquiries, all well and good, you don't need my advice: if you're not, then no one will be impressed by you pretending to be such a big shot that access to you is controlled. There have been times when I've given up looking for an email address and resorted to a MySpace message, typed it in at some length, entered the captcha, and discovered that the recipient only accepts messages from 'friends': so do I bang off a friend request, wait for it to be accepted, and then have another go? No. I close the window, and forget about the band. What someone wants to tell you may be to your benefit: there's an outside chance they wanted to offer you a million dollars to make a performance video promoting their ethically sourced surfwear; but if you make it seriously difficult for them to talk to you, they won't bother.
Don't tell people how to get hold of your recordings. You may be charging money for your recordings: if so, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to pay you, and place orders. If you don't want to set up a fancy automated front end, you can at least have a PayPal button. If you're letting people download your music for free, then link to the downloads from your profile(s) and make the process painless: what you get from free downloads is worth more than money until you've got a sizeable audience (and even then, in my view). It's exposure, goodwill and people who will give you money in the future. Also, make sure your recordings are available to stream: do not post thirty second excerpts, as it makes you seem like a complete wanker,
Make your music auto play. This is more of a minor niggle than the other points, but it's related to the preceding one, so I put it next. I may be visiting your site to quickly find the catalogue number of a release, or so I can copy the URL from the address bar; a casual music fan may want to find out where your next gig is, or find some other piece of relatively trivial information. We may already be listening to some music. Obviously, we would like our listening pleasure to be disrupted by music coming from a source that may not be very obvious, and that is difficult to stop, except by the expedient of leaving your page. Do not attempt to dictate when people should listen to your music: make your player very obvious and give them the choice. Annoying people doesn't win you fans.
Wittily misrepresent your genre. I know genre labels are annoying: nobody likes to be pigeonholed, and if you are a genuinely creative musician, you may not fit any but the broadest genre description. A lot of time has been wasted on arguing whether band X is in genre Y, but they are still a useful shorthand, that enables music fans to briefly sketch the stylistic location of an act without having to go back to first principles. If you say you play death metal then someone who is looking for some death metal may well check out your music. If it turns out that you said it was death metal in order to highlight the absurdity of genre labels, or the impossibility of classifying your unfeasibly hip folktronica, you will annoy them. They will probably not become a fan, even though their taste might be broad enough that they would have done, had they encountered you in less irritating circumstances. Your genre label is a part of your communications to your audience: treat them with respect, and tell them something that gives them an idea of what to expect from you.
This Week's Interesting Links This guy found a niche, and got picked up on through some totally non-standard promotional channels. The lesson for other DIY musicians? Don't expect this, or waste your life chasing it, but be ready for it, and put yourself out there consistently to create opportunities. Some good ideas to add to your growing list of ways to promote your band. A good brief outline of the principles of free distribution, and how it benefits the producer. Now that is career longevity. It's also a career that has maintained a consistently high standard, in stark contrast to the soon to be 50 Rolling Stones for example. Vinyl continues to grow in popularity: DIYers take note, and remember that physically packaged music is merch now. An LP may have more appeal than a CD: research shows most LP purchasers don't own turntables. In bringing litigation against technologists the traditional recording industry seems to have found its preferred means of capitalising on the new landscape. To me it seems like an attempt to grab what they can while they can, with no sense of engaging with new opportunities and business models. I hope they die soon.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Fernando’s Kitchen at The Junction, Cambridge, 19 May 2011

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There are not many completely independent bands that can pack out a venue the size of The Junction (which is not huge, but it’s a substantial venue); and a smaller subset of those which perform something as commercially challenged as ‘world music’. Fernando’s Kitchen are playing a good game (admittedly with a strong hand), and do all the right things to reach, engage and retain a loyal audience. Interestingly their efforts seem to be focussed on more traditional channels than is usual in these days of social media and digital music sales, but the crucial factor for audience building is to play a blinder every time you get in front of them.

Getting to bask in the glow of Fernando’s Kitchen’s considerable draw were local gypsy jazz quartet Django’s Tiger. I have to admit that my knowledge of this strand of European jazz is limited to the obvious, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, whose culturally specific assimilation of the idiom serves as compelling evidence that jazz was an international, transatlantic music from its early days. It’s good to see this stuff being played, since ‘early jazz’ is usually only taken to mean Dixieland.
This outfit take authenticity seriously, the guitarists using instruments that look and sound close to Reinhardt’s famous Maccaferri, and the entire band nailing the idiom: they swing hard, the blowing has classic antecedent-consequent phrasing, and their tone is spot on. The fiddle player in particular played some sinuous and convincing solos. As performers they seemed perhaps a little studious: not uncomfortable, but rather reserved. A little movement might have engaged the audience more, but they had an attentive and appreciative reception. I certainly enjoyed their set a good deal.

Stylistic authenticity is not really on the agenda for Fernando’s Kitchen, although they certainly show a great deal of respect for the various points they visit on the musical globe. They refer to their music as a ‘nu world fusion’, and it is fusion in the truest, finest sense of the word: they haven’t mashed up any unlikely combinations of styles, which can be an effective strategy, but have blended a number of related musical traditions, using a genuine appreciation of the different musics to forge a new alloy that is specifically their own. It never sounds like a mixture, because they have stirred the pot until they achieved a unity.
‘Nu world fusion’ recalls the various ‘Nu [insert musical tradition]’ compilations released by Manteca through the early noughties, a compilation series that could be very educational in the way that it highlighted similarities between traditions, and showcased artists that could tell you a story about the related musical histories of different countries. Fernando’s Kitchen have a tale to tell about how flamenco links North Africa to South America.
Flamenco is a specifically Andalucian music, and as an indigenous folk music it was not exported to the colonies in any organised way, but its influence can be heard throughout Latin America. It is certainly a strong enough influence, and Flamenco is stylistically robust enough, that the music of the new world can come home to Spain and be readily interpreted by Flamenco musicians. Flamenco is the centre around which Fernando’s Kitchen’s musical adventures revolve.
Sebastian Diez (guitar and vocals) and Heidi Joubert (cajón and vocals), the duo at the core of the band, clearly draw their technical skills from the flamenco tradition, but the band includes distinctly non-flamenco elements, such as double bass and oud, and plays material that draws on Cuba, latin jazz and many other sources.
Every musician (and tonight they performed as a septet) was possessed of their own distinct personality, and, importantly in live performance, their own visual style. Centre stage, Joubert is more or less the perfect front-woman: for one thing she is tall, blond and strikingly beautiful; she is also an extremely accomplished musician, who performs with such visual kinesis, and such an expressive range of facial gestures that her stage presence is among the most commanding I’ve witnessed; she is also a skilled and passionate singer, and articulates all the components of her performance as one. Beside her, Diez is a self-effacing, diffident figure, but a charismatic one: he lets his guitar do the talking, and flamenco guitar techniques are visually arresting in themselves, full of gesture and drama.
The chemistry between all of the players was visible from the off, and irrespective of their individual approach to stagecraft, each gave a committed and passionate performance (although Diez’s commitment was not enough for his bladder to last the whole set!). Individually, all of these musicians are extremely sharp, well practiced, and knowledgeable: as a group, they are telepathically tight. Empty technicalism never makes for a good show, but when the compositions are so good, and the arrangements so right, a display of instrumental skill is highly entertaining.
A recording is all about the band, but a live show is about the audience as well, about the relationship the band has cultivated and the dynamic between the two. Fernando’s Kitchen has cultivated the Cambridge audience in the best possible way: through generosity. They’ve been sharing their music for free by busking regularly in Market Hill (in stripped down configurations), and, in a few months, developed the following to fill Cambridge’s premier venue. It’s an object lesson for independent bands in developing a city: they capitalised only when they had built an audience that could fill a good sized venue, at a ticket price that made it worthwhile for them, but that didn’t undermine any of their goodwill. It was a win-win scenario. The audience in the hall was so supportive, warm and engaged that the band could draw on their energy and reflect it back to them; there is no faking the joy of performing to an appreciative audience, and Fernando’s Kitchen faked nothing. They put on an evening of musical entertainment that any performer would be hard put to equal, and if you get the chance to see them play, you should take it.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Reviews: Alun Vaughan & Big Block 454

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Alun Vaughan - The Kindness Of Strangers (solo bass)
self released, 2010, DD album, 35m 12s, £4.50 or more
all proceeds donated to the MS Society

The long standing association between the solo bass release and a meaningless display of rippling technical muscularity is thankfully receding into history. It’s reasonable that it should have come about: to play something that is more agile and melodic than the traditional low thump of a bassline requires rather more application on a bass than on a guitar, and there was also, I think, a sense that if the bass player wasn’t displaying some extraordinary chops, why didn’t they stay at the back next to the drummer? The other thing of course, is that an album of any one instrument needs something to keep the listener’s attention, and even the most musical of players can make good use of some pyrotechnics to vary the texture.
However, there is no longer any need to make that stuff the primary focus (and since Victor Wooten released A Show Of Hands any attempt to do so looks a bit laughable). My favourite solo bass album remains Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears, which consists entirely of unaccompanied melodic improvisation, much of it in the lower register: Alun Vaughan doesn’t restrict himself to that degree, but The Kindness Of Strangers is recorded without overdubs, and live looping, which has become a popular technique for solo bassists, features on only one track (and there he plays the loop on a guitar).
What Alun Vaughan does is to use the upper register of his six string bass more or less as a guitar (and it is a species of guitar), and play some songs on it. They don’t have any singing, but they are beautiful, melodic, soulful, harmonically sophisticated, engaging and varied songs nevertheless. The girth of bass strings imparts a warmth and gravity to the tone that the same notes would not possess had they been played on a guitar, but to most intents and purposes this could be an album of fingerpicking guitar; the configuration of a fretted stringed instrument imposes certain preconditions on the music, but within those it really doesn’t matter what Vaughan is playing his music on. He is just playing the music.
Vaughan is unusual among players from the jazz and popular music traditions, in that left to his own devices he has the confidence to use tempo expressively. This is of course part and parcel of learning to interpret a composer’s work for a classical musician, but for those on the other side of the fence so much work is put into learning to play metronomically, and to developing your own internal clock, that it can be hard to let go of that. Tempo variations can be seen as a token of incompetence, but Vaughan has the courage of his convictions, and displays an ability to let the music find its own tempo, its natural pace, from phrase to phrase, and even note to note, that is hugely beneficial to the emotional impact of his work, and that I found extremely engaging.
The material on this album includes some haunting chord melodies (‘Waves’, ‘Closing Time’ and the title track), which Vaughan writes simply and economically, and performs with an understated calm that belies the considerable technique required to execute them as cleanly as he does. The way he combines C string licks with basslines and voice leading makes these thoughtfully orchestrated tunes more than simple instrumental compositions. The tune he wrote for Jimi Hendrix (on my 40th birthday, also the 40th anniversary of Hendrix’s death) is full of the lush harmonised melody lines in thirds that Hendrix was so keen on himself, and sounds a lot like ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. There is also a creative re-interpretation of a tune by the excellent Matt Stevens (who you should check out here if you don’t know his work), and a jaw-dropping rapid-fire bluegrass piece, that reminds me very much of the amazing Colin Hodgkinson, who pioneered Vaughan’s approach of playing bass like an acoustic guitar in the early 1970s (on a four string Precision!). For Bandcamp purchasers only, there is also a short bonus track of ridiculous technical wizardry, just for fun.
The Kindness Of Strangers is a pretty rare beast, a solo, instrumental album, of bass guitar no less, that I can imagine having a pretty broad appeal. It’s easy on the ears, but varied and intricate enough to keep them twitching, and the pieces it collects are performed with an audible degree of passion and commitment. This album does, to return to my initial discussion, display a considerable degree of instrumental technique, but it wears it lightly, and places it entirely at the disposal of a generous and creative musicality.

Big Block 454 - Bells & Proclamations (folk-funk/ psychedelic rock)
self released, 2011, DD album, 48m 10s, £name your price

Big Block 454, named for a 1970 Chevrolet engine, are one of the oddest bands I’ve encountered in a while. They are creatively out there, full of weird sounds and transgressive stylistic collisions, and yet they are, to me at least, accessible, pleasing, and decidedly danceable. Apparently they’ve been around a long while: well, it’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of them, because as good as they are, I can’t imagine any record label monkey having the first clue how to sell this stuff!
The opener’s funky groove, its amusing title (‘Pyjamageddon’), its evocatively strange lyrics (‘her eyes were filled with dust’), its borderline atonal, Belew-esque guitar textures and its theatrically unhinged vocal delivery serve notice that this is a band with its own ideas about how to do things. The track that follows it starts out sounding funky, so you might think you’re starting to get a handle on them: but the vocal is in the style of English folksong, and much of the instrumental content is in the form of a chaotic, psychedelic jam. Despite the almost random seeming mish-mash of musical elements, the album does in fact have a strong stylistic identity and coherence.
It’s far from easy to take a bunch of disconnected stylistic features and shove them together into something that sounds like itself, but Big Block 454 have succeeded in admirable style: it’s a tribute to the clarity of artistic vision that informs this album, that it achieves a genuine fusion, where each sonic constituent is employed for its expressive effect, and there is nothing contrived about the bringing together of what might seem fundamentally incompatible musical traditions. Of course the tradition in which this music is actually located is that proud succession of stylistically diverse hallucinatory experimentalists, that leads by winding paths from the likes Henry Cow and Can, through Cardiacs and Throbbing Gristle, to the myriad strangenesses that the internet makes easier to seek out today. I’m disappointed not to have been aware of Big Block 454 for more of their history, but pleased to have found them now, and it is a wonderful thing that it is so easy to find their ilk from the louche comfort of my own chaise longue.
This is some truly alert, wakeful, questioningly creative music. It is also very funny: humour has often been an element of the most creatively adventurous music, as recorded by Gong for instance, or Frank Zappa. I tend to take it as a token of intellectual authenticity, in as much as self-importance tends to accompany pretentious contrivances, which have staked too much on their authors’ uncertainties to ever stop being defensive and just have a good laugh. This is the work of people who are comfortable with what they do, and are not motivated by a concern for whether or not others will think they’re clever. It flits from the daft to the profound like a coin spinning in mid air, and whichever side it lands on at the conclusion of a song, you’ve always had a good look at the obverse.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Monday Musings: What’s The Use Of Critical Theory?

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The critic is hung over.
I pay a certain amount of attention to critical theory, which is to say, I think about the ins and outs of what I do, as someone who makes statements in one medium that are responses to someone else’s statements in another. I also mean that I read what some other people have said on the subject, although not in a very organised way. I’m certainly not an expert on the critical theory of music, but I do think it’s important.
The critical theory of a field is more than just a theorisation of critical practice, in the way that say, music theory is a description of musical practice. It is also of necessity, a theorisation of the subject. Which might seem a bit strange in my case, since music already has music theory to account for it.
Some light is shed by a comparison with the visual arts. Art theory is the critical theory of art; the visual arts’ equivalents of music theory are things like colour theory, or indeed the expositions likely to be found in books with titles like ‘How To Draw Manga Vehicles And Mecha’. In other words, art theory and music theory, as the terms are usually used, describe different things: the first theorises meaning, and the second theorises technique. This difference exists because traditional musicology looked for the meaning of classical works (the only music worth theorising) in a close technical analysis of the harmony and melody, while art critics have tended to look at the narrative or conceptual content of works.
Art theory is common currency: artists use it to describe their work, and reviewers in non-specialist publications use its terms in their writing. No funding application would succeed without some kind of theory-speak, however cursory or incoherent. There is an appreciation that self-examination and analysis are important parts of artistic practice. The contrast is stark: in the world of music, most practitioners and critics have never even considered that there is a critical theory of music, much less consciously applied one to their activities.
I don’t usually presume to tell my readers what a piece of music means, since I believe that musical meaning is in the experience of listening, but I often talk extensively (particularly with regard to avant-garde or experimental work) about how it means, and where it means. These sorts of issues, irrespective of what you might want to say, or whether you consider them to be important or interesting, are ill-served by the language of traditional music theory. If you want to say anything more interesting than ‘I liked this’ and ‘I didn’t like that’ you are going to need some kind of theorisation of meaning and value in music, which for a critic, also amounts to a theorisation of their own practice.
I would also argue that theorising what you do is a prerequisite to competence in any field: composers need music theory to work effectively; ceramicists need to understand the behaviours of different materials at specific firing temperatures; experimental physicists need theory to explain their results; even carpenters need an abstract understanding of the relationship between the things they do and the results they achieve. It’s easy to test if someone has theorised their practice: ask them to explain what they’re doing. You may not understand their response, but if they’re able to talk about it, they have a theory. Theory is not an abstruse intellectual concept, it’s simply a word for the complex of ideas that enables us to say what we are doing, and why and how we are doing it.
What I’m not saying is that all critics should use difficult technical terms in their work, or spend their word count explicating high fallutin’ ideas: what readers want is to know whether they will like something or not, but to adequately describe music the critic needs to be able to understand and interpret it to some degree. If they can do that, they’ll have some way of talking about it; and if they can do it well, they will almost certainly have spent some time thinking seriously about how they do their thing.
Sadly, there are an awful lot of ‘music writers’ around who are not making use of any critical theory, because they are not actually writing about the music. There are a lot of ways to approach this task, and I don’t wish to claim any special status for my methods: spinning a good tale about your personal response to the music can be as valid as any pretended objectivity (we all occupy a subject position, even when blethering on as self-importantly as I am now). I self-consciously employ critical theory to get at the meanings of conceptually difficult work, but just checking your thinking when writing a straightforward valuation of a recording in a mainstream genre amounts to the same thing. The point I’d like to make, is that critical theory is a reality, a part of what critics do, and if they want to be good at their work, they should think about it.

How ironic that the majors should turn to open source software. Meanwhile, I hope as many people as possible will turn to open source music.
It’s a shame that such a hugely important figure in popular music history plans to retire from performing but I can understand why: what he has to do to go to work must be incredibly demanding, and he has certainly earned his rest.
If these remasters are good it will be very interesting to hear the difference. On the other hand, am I willing to pay some very wealthy people for having done some work a long time ago? No. I appeal to everyone not to spend money on this stuff.
Kevin Spacey is an idiot and the law is an ass. If you put your name out there, and happily reap the rewards of fame (whatever they may be), you have absolutely no right to object when people bandy said monicker about.
I almost feel a bit sorry for MySpace. Meanwhile, other platforms exist which are founded on a genuine desire to empower musicians, and on business models that are fair and unintrusive.
The majors love blaming technologies for destroying their business model: and in fact, they’re right. The world has changed, and they should stop whining: $105 million from Limewire is peanuts, and prosecuting technologists is a really short term business model. They should try selling something useful, or maybe providing a service that people want. Something shockingly innovative like that.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Reviews: Knifeworld and Archangel

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Knifeworld - Dear Lord, No Deal (psychedelic rock)
Believers Roast, 2011, DD EP, 19m 14s, £TBA

Kavus Torabi, Cardiacs guitarist, among many other things, originally pursued Knifeworld as a solo endeavour, but this EP marks the beginning of the project’s recorded life as a six piece band with a permanent membership. The initial release, Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat, had a particular sound, and a coherent one, from which this release is quite distinct, texturally at least. Dear Lord, No Deal has a denser, fuller sound, but it still pursues the same general aesthetic and formal agenda.
There is certainly some resemblance to Cardiacs, in terms of the complex arrangements, with contrasting sections, intricate rhythms and unexpected melodies, even in tunes less than three minutes long. The sound is very much its own however: despite obvious similarities of approach, and a decidedly avant-garde attitude, Knifeworld has a more accessible sound to my ear. It would be fair to place both acts in the same genre, but they are both pretty genre-defying, and the most striking similarity is a commitment to continual creative alertness, and a refusal to deal in clichés or unexamined stylistic gestures.
The instrumental sound is led by the guitar, with keyboards and woodwinds fattening it up, and for the most part it moves as a whole with the bass and drums, nailing off-kilter accents, tempo and feel changes, and dynamic transformations with casual aplomb. This is the work of some extremely accomplished musicians, to say nothing of the attention to detail and constant invention in the compositions and arrangements. All of which may be making you think it sounds dead clever, and possibly a bit much like hard work to listen to, but this is eminently listenable music, and all of its intricacies, are employed in the service of the tales it spins, and the plumes of atmosphere it emits. This music goes places, never outstaying its welcome, or milking a hook, though there is plenty of catchy melody.
The EP contains three tracks, two ludicrously short (below three minutes) and one ludicrously long (over fourteen minutes). The short ones are crammed with incident, and highly involving combinations of melody and harmony: ‘Pilot Her’ is a high energy affair, driven along by rapid fire guitar crunch, while ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ harks back to an early phase of musical psychedelia, with its faintly mischievous minor melody and its processed vocals. The long one, ‘HMS Washout’, makes good use of its epic scope, and although I wasn’t sure what story I’d been told, it made me feel like I was watching a play, with its sequence of dramatic expositions, each with its own dynamic and instrumental character, from melodic rock to rapid atonal saxophone improvisation. Don’t expect too much of a singalong, or conventional song structures: just follow the musical narrative as it unfolds. I promise you won’t be bored.
Dear Lord, No Deal has most bases covered, in combining musical sophistication, highly developed instrumental skill, and a demanding standard of creativity with artistic integrity: there will be those for whom it’s just a little too out there, or demands a little too much attention, but for anyone willing to approach it with open ears it represents a deeply satisfying listen, that reveals a little more detail with each return visit.

Archangel - Project Rave (8-bit/ IDM/ techno)
self released, 2011, DD album, 31m 38s, $free

It’s unclear how much of this album might have been created using the genuinely simple digital resources it seems to utilise, and how much use was made of rather more sophisticated plugins standing in for them, but either way, there’s a lot more processing than would be permissible on purist chiptunes (i.e. some). The 8-bit vibe is convincingly nailed regardless, and I for one have very little time for purisms of any sort. This music’s agenda is to celebrate its digitalism, which it manages to present in a way that is surprisingly organic.
The artwork depicts what I suspect to be a frame from the original 1970s Star Wars comic (my introduction to the franchise, since illicit copies preceded the movie to these shores), and it is redolent of the first phase of mass geek culture. Odd for something so modern to inspire so much nostalgia, but it is perhaps the defining characteristic of post-modernity that culture is filled with a reflexive, contemporaneous self-nostalgia. 8-bit as a musical form is probably practised and enjoyed as much by those too young to remember a time when game soundtracks sounded that way, as by greying second-gen geeks like myself. And just as their sophisticated tastes made a digital remastering of the Star Wars franchise worthwhile, there is a real need in audio culture for updated chiptunes like these.
Irrespective of the means by which Archangel generates these sounds, there is a layering of properly 8 bit voices with more sophisticated synth sounds, and both are processed in various ways. A judicious use of reverb or delay can make these pure sines sing out in a decidedly musical way, and also creates a useful sense of distance: unprocessed, such voices can sound as though they are going off inside your skull, especially if you listen on headphones. Compositionally, the same circle is squared, in roughly the same way, combining the sing-song simplicity of 8-bit with the denser rhythms of techno and even electro-industrial.
Truly 8-bit music lacks percussion sounds by definition, although primitive sampling was used in gaming hardware from the late 80s onwards: Archangel ignores such constraints on beat-making, I’m glad to say, although some tunes either eschew, or downplay drum voices. ‘Part Two’ is dominated in the mix by an analogue sounding synth sound, but it has a driving techno beat submerged in its complex, layered soundstage. The three tunes that follow it, however, have a distinctly electro-industrial flavour, verging on powernoize, not in the sounds they employ, so much as in the way the beats are constructed. There is some serious, fist-pumping, dancefloor stomp potential in this album, and I could easily envisage dropping ‘Pel The Power Robot’, for example, into a set of rather less thoughtful or intelligent tunes.
A considerable creative effort has gone into making this music: its artistic focus is more on its specificities of timbre, and the precise manipulation of its stylistic vocabulary, than on any compositional complexities. 8-bit is a genre whose central characteristic is its simplicity, but Project: Rave retains the value of that while manipulating its materials to create a relatively nuanced statement. Generating atmospheres that are spooky or amusing by turns, this album gives great geeky satisfaction, without sacrificing on kinetic energy, and while I doubt I’ll have it on heavy rotation for long, it’s undoubtedly catchy enough to bear repeated listening. A very fun and individual project.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Reviews: Cutleri and Marley Butler

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Cutleri - Let Me Show You My Sweater (folk/ Americana)
self released, 2011, DD album, 33m 55s, $free

Production standards for self released music have become so generically polished and exact, that it has almost ceased to be meaningful or valuable to release a well recorded album. I’m being facetious, obviously, and of course I like to hear music I like sounding good, but sometimes the slickness of everything becomes incredibly desolate; some noise, some artifacts, and the boxy sound of cheaper equipment can serve as a welcome reminder that a recording embodies something real. Recordings are artistic constructions, and it’s a fallacy to think they represent an impression of something else, but sometimes their impact rests on the sensation that they do.
I’m not accusing Cutleri of recording badly, deliberately or otherwise, and nor am I suggesting they’ve taken a self-consciously constructivist approach to making this album. It’s very simply a collection of demos and live recordings, assembled with minimal (if any) mastering and made available for free in advance of their forthcoming debut. But the fact that it is full of noises off, hisses and crackles, uncontrollable giggling and general tomfoolery paints a far more detailed and revealing portrait of the band than a glossy studio recording might; it may not be an accurate portrait, and it may indeed be a contrived one, but it gives the listener the impression they are genuinely getting to know the band, and they’ll want to believe it, because the impression it gives is so damn’ charming!
The ingredients here (as far as I can make out) are banjo, ukulele, harmonica, three female voices in harmony, and a variety of percussion and wind instruments. The material ranges from the traditional to the bizarre, by way of Broadway: there’s a Brian Jonestown Massacre cover, the eighteenth century song ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Moon River’, a sparse improvisation populated with vocal saxophone impressions (‘Let Me Show You My Sweater’), a song one of the members wrote to sing to her cat (‘Weasel Goose’) and… well, you get the idea.
I expect their upcoming studio release will be more polished and finished: Cutleri are not about to upturn any applecarts with their technical skills, but they are able players with a good command of their instruments’ and voices’ dramatic and expressive potential. They perform their songs with such humour and casual diffidence that it’s obvious a technically polished performance is not their central aim, and nor is entertainment, though they are certainly entertaining. This is music performed for the performers’ pleasure: not in an exclusive way, but with an invitation to the listener to join the party, and you can hear these three women are having so much fun that it’s a party you want to join.

Marley Butler - Procras The Sample (ambient/ electronica)
Naplew Productions, 2011, DD EP, 19m 45s, £free

Marley Butler had something to do; but, he also had a new software sampler he’d downloaded for free. The something didn’t get done: but he did record this EP, which strikes me as some pretty darn constructive procrastination. Each tune was written, recorded and mixed in a single evening, and two of them were embellished by Jamie Osborne, who wrote and recorded vocals under similar time constraints. A third has Butler’s own self-effacing and reflective rhyming.
There is a short coda, a mellow elaboration of some brass samples, before which the three tunes are presented in instrumental and vocal versions. Exactly what Butler’s reasoning is in doing this is unclear, although it pays homage to certain practices involving two sides of a piece of vinyl, and the tunes are short enough that it almost plays like an extended song structure when listening to the EP as a whole.
Taking such a programmatic approach to the working process, rather than tweaking the product endlessly, has not, curiously, made the result sound unfinished or ragged; how much to read into the creative method when listening is moot. Clearly the EP is presented as a record of a process, which in a way gives it more in common with instrumental than other electronic recordings, and in a way it could even be regarded as a live session, or a species of field recording. These things only matter if you know how it was made however; an insight into the making of a work is always an insight into its meaning, but there is little, if anything, in the sound that can be directly ascribed to Butler’s self imposed restraints, and nothing in it to suggest them.
These tunes have a soft and ethereal atmosphere, abetted by the relatively organic drum samples, and they are ambient in the sense of ambient dance music, not in the sense of the stuff that gets filed next to drone, in the imaginary record shop that actually stocks that sort of thing. They are pretty experimental in character nevertheless, with oblique and pleasingly strange lyrics. Sounds are treated much like pigment, and fitted into rhythmic structures that resemble drawn lines, to create something very visual, in a way that puts me more in mind of illustration than painting.
The sound is gently involving, intriguing and thought provoking, and shows a great deal of creativity. More than that though, it shows a real clarity of artistic vision, in identifying the potential of his process, and having the conviction to carry it through and share what it generates. Butler has a very interesting compositional voice, and a sophisticated approach to the business of making art from sounds: I’ll be interested to hear what he comes up with next.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Monday Musings: Information Wants To Be Free, or How Do You Own A Sound?

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The critic wants breakfast.

There’s a lot of thought being given, in all quarters, to how to turn music into money in the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves. What is music worth? What is it about music that is tradeable? What parts of the traditional commercial landscape are worth defending? To what extent do people and organisations need to throw up their hands and just go with the new situation? What, ultimately, is the best way to derive revenue from making music? What, ethically and legally, is it that creators, licensors and licensees can be said to ‘own’?
In many cases these questions are engaged with, not through legal debate, business plans, philosophical discourse, or the market: they are engaged with through the appearance of new technologies, for the production and distribution of music.
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Stewart Brand, 1984
Stewart Brand is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, a project designed to promote the positive, empowering, accessible, local and DIY potential of technology; he was speaking at the first Hackers’ Conference, a gathering of computer industry tech-heads which (by its name) is predicated on the value of stretching a system’s intended use, or using it in unintended ways. While he was talking about data at a time when that meant very little other than computer code, he might easily have been talking about music right now, when similar conditions have come to apply.
Music is certainly valuable: to me, and many others, it is one of the most valued things in our lives. It can, has, and continues to change my life in unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable, but always rewarding ways. The ease and low cost of its distribution doesn’t need to be re-hashed here. So in my opinion, the dialectic that Brand identified, in an era of newly affordable removeable media, and a new awareness of the personal and commercial value of code and data, is equally applicable to music today.
I would argue that the new media, and the digital music revolution, do not simply represent a new way of handling recordings, but expose a long-standing misapprehension about what recorded music is, and how it should be thought about. Music became a reproducible, tradeable commodity with the advent of sheet music printing, which really took off in the early nineteenth century, and with it certain ideas, such as copyright, and territorial licensing. When sound recordings began to be commercially exploited a context already existed where music was conceived as a physical thing: ‘the music’ had come to mean a piece of paper with notation printed on it, and in many quarters it still does.
Now most people will agree that if someone makes an object, and someone else wants it, they have to accept the terms the maker sets on giving it to them: conventionally this involves some money changing hands. After all, it costs money to have a CD pressed and packaged, and no one would expect that to be done as an act of charity. For roughly 80 years, until the widespread adoption of the cassette, the only way to get access to a sound recording for your own use was to buy a record. For obvious enough reasons, the cost of producing the recording was summed with the manufacturing cost of the final package: as businesses, record companies, had their costs, and largely realised their revenue through retail sales (although licensing was important as well). A consequence of this was that ultimately no distinction was made between a record and the sound that was on it.
I can understand how recording artists and labels must have felt when the cassette appeared: why should it have looked any different to them than if someone had simply taken a copy of their record to a pressing plant, or stolen a copy of it from a shop? They lived in a world in which a song was a thing, and could be traded as such: you knew whether you owned it or not, because you could see it and feel it. Nowadays there a re a good number of people who would stand to make a lot of money if they could only persuade the world that a musical recording is a physical object, or should be treated as such. So let’s just go back to Stewart Brand for a moment.
What exactly is it about music that’s valuable? Is it the physical package? Well to many people, myself included, that’s a part of it. I pay for a lot of music on CD, because I like having a thing to go with the sound, and enhance my experience of it: but I’m aware that what I’m buying is actually merchandise, like a tee shirt or a keyring. It’s the same as a souvenir concert program. Let me repeat myself: merchandise enhances my experience of the sound.
The valuable thing is the experience: what people pay for is access to the experience. Serious music fans will always pay out for all sorts of things, but the vast majority of people who have paid out for music historically, have done so for the right to control their experience, rather than hoping the song they like will happen to come up on the radio. If you give them the choice, they are never going to pay: and right now, from now on, they have the choice. And there’s Brand’s competing force: it costs nothing to get music, and nothing to share it, not even a cassette.
Owners of large music catalogues are quick to point out, quite reasonably, that just because it’s easy to steal something, doesn’t make it right. So let’s get to the point here (because I’ve gone on long enough, and there’s at least one book in this topic): what they own is the copyright. The right to copy. The right to make and sell a physical package that encodes the recording. The important, valuable thing, the experience, the sound, is something they never owned, never could and never will. You can’t own a sound. It’s absolutely ludicrous to suggest than you can.
From now on, every time anyone looks at my nose I’m going to charge them a fiver. And if they should take a photo of it, I’m going to prosecute them. And I’m going to apply these principles most of all to those that bear me the greatest goodwill. Or perhaps, just maybe, I’ll let everyone look at it, and if the experience is wonderful enough somebody might make a donation to assist with its upkeep.
Morally, if you have devoted your valuable time to making a beautiful work of art, that other people are going to benefit from, you have the right to be the one that gets remunerated (whether you are a person or an organisation). Nobody else should make any money off your work without your permission. But once you publish something, it’s out there: you can’t control it. You can’t decide what (non-commercial) use people will make of it, or who they will share it with; and why would you want to? Surely you want the word to get out: the creation of stars to generate scarcity value used to be the important commercial mechanism: there is still financial value in star making, but there will never be scarcity again.
There’s a spurious similarity between copying a data file and reproducing a wax cylinder, which has confused some parties. To the listener, it’s completely irrelevant: it doesn’t matter to me whether the data from which my audio device constructs a sound resides on a CD, my HD, or someone else’s HD. When there’s no physical package, who cares where it isn’t? Remember that the next time a record company executive accuses you of stealing an imaginary LP.
Of course I want musicians to be well remunerated for their work. But it’s obvious that restricting access to their recordings is not how that’s going to happen. There are a million ways to capitalise on a fanbase: there are a myriad of physical objects a fan will buy, and there are many points at which they might be persuaded to make a donation to an artist, including, but not limited to, the moment at which they download a recording. It is a donation though, not a purchase price: for centuries professional musicians, who unlike painters did not make anything physical, were supported by the patronage of wealthy individuals. Now it’s all about the cloud and the crowd, but the patronage principle remains a sound one: if people love something, they will often be happy to pay just for the knowledge that they have helped to support it, that their contribution helped to make it happen. The mechanical reproduction age is over, and with it a whole raft of ideology. You can’t own a sound: if you disagree, or don’t believe me, that’s fine. Just go ahead and try.
I haven’t paid much attention to the news this week, but there have been some great blog posts full of sound advice for DIY musicians: