Monday, November 15, 2010

Music of 2010

My favourite albums if this year:

First Aid Kit - The Big Black and the Blue
I spent the whole year raving about these Swedish schoolgirls. The idea that these two savants would filter folk and country through the suburbs of Stockholm and the nearby forests is so far out I have to love it... especially when the harmonies are so creative and so perfect. I saw them live in Sydney and they lived up to expectations.

Villagers - Becoming a Jackal
Conor O'Brien's voice is kind of old, kind of high-pitched in a Neil Young-ish way. Then when you see him he's this bug eyed Irish kid with a bowl cut and a too-small acoustic guitar. The hugeness of his ideas and the sound of this album belie the image. Listening to this, I think I can never get enough of songs about love and death.

Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History
Pop songs with two guitars, bass and drums... or drum machine. The nebulous status of the percussion section is just one of the things about this Northern Ireland group which reminds me of my beloved XTC. Great indie pop tunes that are fresh, young and somehow uplifting.

Bombay Bicycle Club - Flaws
Buried somewhere in the megabytes of its online noise, NME can still find me a good group. Like Villagers, this band came to me from the venerable British mag's half-yearly report. I hardly bothered to read the review, just listened to it to decide for myself. It's sad and pretty acoustic pop, just right for the neo-folk boom I am unexpectedly swept up in.

Johnny Flynn - Been Listening
Johnny Flynn was the one who started me on this whole folk trip. Davendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom just didn't do it for me, so it's a revival of my old musical Anglophilia too. Just like his debut, this album takes time to grow, but it gives great rewards, especially the beautiful centrepiece, The Water.

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
Someone on Youtube commented that Laura and Johnny Flynn should have babies. The Water is the musical offspring. Laura also immaculately conceives a couple more saviours here, especially Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), and Rambling Man.

jj - no. 3
Almost, but not quite as good as the sublime dream-pop of their debut. Let Go should waft out from the billowing curtains of every beach house, loud enough to be heard across the sand and down by the water.

Arcade Fire - Suburbs
It was so completely ordained that this would be a massive hit. It's weird when indie steps in to the mainstream of American commercial music, and it seems choreographed. I still don't approve of Kid A and (Gawd help us) The Fat of the Land. Even Modest Mouse had an element of WTF. But this deserves its moment in the Billboard sun. I like them, I like their songs,and their multi-instrumental gang mentality.

Brad Smith - Moon 8
I need only say it's an 8-bit cover version of the entire Dark Side of the Moon album. And yes, it is one of the best things I heard this year.

Emeralds - Does it Look Like I'm Here
It was a bit drone, a bit Krautrock. But all of it is excellent. For so long electronic music's best was to be heard on the dance floor, but these guys feed your head.

LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
Nearly as good as Sound of Silver.

Little Red - Midnight Remember
The joy of classic pop music rediscovered. Unpretentious and individualistic.

Saint Etienne - Foxbase Beta
One of my all time favourite albums gets a brilliant remix treatment.

The Drums The Drums
Pure pop, but kind of raw and stark, with wonderful nods to the likes of New Order.

Walls - Walls
It's a few years now since it seemed like every other great record we released by Cologne's Kompakt label. This year Walls emerge as a distinctive electronic sound.

The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
Take Bob Dylan, add Sweden and better melodies and you get this.

Honourable mentions: Yeasayer - Odd Blood, Teeth of the Sea - Your Mercury, Beach House - Teen Dream Tame Impala - Innerspeaker, Jonsi - Go

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Return to vinyl

2010 is the year I return to vinyl, reviving a passion which began when I received 'The Beatles Greatest Hits Volume 2' as a birthday present in 1973, and faded when digital formats arrived, first with CD, then file-based formats like mp3 and flac.

Yesterday was the most important day in the vinyl revival... the day I bought my first new record in at least 15 years. The record is 'The Big Black and the Blue', a magical collection of songs by the Swediah teenage savants First Aid Kit. Their uncanny mastery of vintage acoustic styles makes them the ideal artists to figure in the plastic comeback. I've already downloaded it as both flac and mp3, but I wanted to appreciate it as a listener, in the way it was made... that is, the old-fashioned way.

The prelude to this watershed event was the dusting-off of the turntable, rewiring its faulty RCA connectors, adding a preamp, and connecting it to the analog input of my surround sound system. It may seem incongruous to amplify ye olde records with such a digital-era amplifier and speakers, but early tests proved to my not-very-discerning ears, that vinyl responds well to my modest subwoofer and satellites.

808 State, PWEI, Dead Can Dance, and the Dukes of Stratosphear were among my 80s favourites in these early trials. The mellotron-laden Kraut-sounds of Peter Baumann emerge as I type this. Sadly, the grit and damage on some of my old records, including my precious Frank Sidebottom collection, is all too evident.

But the modern record seems to be a quality product. 'The Big Black and the Blue' is pressed on high-grade vinyl, and it looks, feels and sounds terrific. It also comes with a douwnload code so you can get an mp3 copy of the album if you like. Such features seem to be fairly common for vinyl now.

My next purchase will be 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' by Neutral Milk Hotel.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Tenfold Increase in People Power

I have blu-ray. The acquisition of a new generation of storage has, in the past, prompted excited realisation of the power this gives me. The blue laser variant of optical storage comes as online storage, cloud computing, a supermassive hard drives threaten to outshine its glamour. But let's welcome this new gadget anyway.

In doing so, it's time once again to chart the transition of information from a kind of commodity to a kind of natural resource. It used to be coal, now it's air. How thick and heavy is coal and how light is air? Let's revisit some numbers.

I like to think of the audio CD as a standard for data... one album's worth of music, around 700 megabytes. CD-R and compression meant you could actually fit ten albums on that medium. DVD took it up to 4, can get 80 albums on one of them. Double layer DVD made it about 9,000, (160 albums) although for the most part I only used single layer discs. Blu-ray double layer is 50 GB, more than 10 times my previous main medium (OK, I admit I'm spinning it a bit here as I will probably only afford single layer discs for a while, but for the sake of the exercise let's say we're going for DL discs). That's 1,600 albums on a single disc, of identical dimensions to that one album on the old school CD-R.

Friday, June 04, 2010

2010 Music - half-yearly report

First Aid Kit's album The Big Black and the Blue is an early contender for album of the year. The spine-tingling harmonies of the Soderburg sisters hit you hard from the opening seconds and never let up. It sounds like it's on the country end of the neo-folk spectrum, but somehow the Swedishness and remarkable youth of the duo strip it of all the baggage carried by any genre label. The tunes are melancholy but somehow the music leaves you on a total high.

Apparently Teen Dream is the third album by Beach House, but they're new to me. At first I thought the singer was male, so deep and husky is her voice. But it's totally alluring, along with the guitarist who stole Kevin Shields's whammy bar.

jj - no. 3. More Swedish goodness. Happily, it's a continuation of the afro-reggae tripped-out, mellow, electro-acoustic lounge pop of its predecessor, no. 2. Despite the lazy calm this music exudes, there is a homeopathic hint of badness to this group. It's looking like the first half of the year is owned by duos.

Go Do is a solo album by the falsetto-voiced guitarist of Sigur Ros, Jonsi. He looks bonkers in the videos, but it's OK because he's Icelandic. I absolutely loved Sven g Englar by his old band, but somehow they got ponderous and tired pretty quickly. Jonsi ups the tempo and makes a joyful noise here.

Laura Marling's second album, I Speak Because I Can is more consistent that her debut, and contains one of my favourite songs of the year, Rambling Man. It's a close cousin to Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, but it's also reminiscent of the very 21st century wave of folk being wonderfully woven by her buddies like Johnny Flynn.

This Is Happenning by LCD Soundsystem is pumping party music for the feet and the brain. Don't expect it to depart much from the last outing Sound of Silver. Once again you will be amazed how brilliantly he filters Eno/Talking Heads through a modern digital production filter.

Surfer Blood are just one of a zillion new indie ands, but somehow their album Astro Coast stands out from the pack. Cavernous reverb, great hooks, and youth on their side made it a keeper.

Aside from the reverb, I could say the same things about Two Door Cinema Club as Surfer Blood. Being young and nerdy looking, and coming from Northern Ireland also make them interesting. The songs on Tourist History are super-catchy. I have a gland that exudes endorphins when I hear XTC. These lads also stimulate it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Beatles Rock Band

When I was a kid I always had a Beatles Christmas, getting an album or an EP I didn't already own. A few decades later, I bought myself The Beatles Rock Band, and felt nostalgic because it turned 2009 into another Beatles Christmas.

The Beatles video game is a great product in itself, but it also marks a new phase in the Fab Four's long tail.

When I saw a Beatles beach towel and velcro wallet set in K-Mart some years ago, it seemed the transition from sanctified and protected brand to fully exploited cash cow had been completed. The reaction against the crassness of Beatle wigs from the 1960s was forgotten. The Fab 4 were back in the trash market in a big way.

The release of the Anthology CDs was another departure. The Beatles had left this type of thing to the bootlegers for years, the accepted wisdom being that all the good stuff was released in the 60s. The value of the Anthologies was as a kind of "making of" documentary, rather than a revelation of unreleased classics. It was good to hear a professionally mastered copy of That Means A Lot, touted by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn as the closest thing there was to a lost gem in the archive. But it also proved the Beatles had been telling the truth in the decades between their split and the release of the Anthologies. Finding other reasons to open the vaults was also a new phase in the Beatles extended story.

The anthology project seemed to be officially sanctioned and tightly controlled by the Beatles themselves. The Love mash-up album saw the next generation take a hand in creative interpretation, with the involvement of Giles Martin, son of producer George. He has also overseen the production of the music in The Beatles Rock Band, and the Cirque du Soleil show which was tied in with the Love album. I have read that Dhani Harrison, George's son, was instrumental in getting the Rock Band project going, making the leap into the world of video games another generational shift.

The TV documentary about the circus show had one telling moment, when Yoko Ono complained to the producer, that what she had seen was contrary to the spirit of what the Beatles were about. I applaud her for that, because she was right. It was a shite concept that should never have been approved. Mixing the Beatles with a circus failed, and that made it interesting to see whether the video game experiment would succeed for the gen X members of the Beatles dynasties.

It does succeed, about as well as could be expected. The basic idea of the gameplay is not substantially different from previous music games. The software scores the players on how well they can sing and synchronise the playing of instrument-shaped controllers along with Beatles music. In one major respect it improves on previous music games: it offers the chance for multiple singers to compete by singing harmonies, which removes some of the disappointment that The Beatles Rock Band has the same fundamental gameplay mechanics as do Singstar Abba and Guitar Hero, to name but two.

Of course the extraordinary quality of the music lifts it above those previous games. You can be guaranteed that every song on The Beatles Rock Band will be a killer.

The other big plus is the supporting material: the eye candy loaded with treats for the lifelong Beatles tragic. I couldn't afford the custom controllers, shaped like Paul's Hofner violin bass, George's Gretsch or John's Rickenbacker guitar. But the graphics on the screen have many more touches of authenticity mixed in with the Beatles fantasy.

The songs from the first part of the Beatles' career are illustrated with graphics based on concert footage from the Cavern, the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium, and the Budokan. The game designers take liberties with this, using the settings for songs which were never played at these venues. But they were recorded around that time, and the contemporaneity is laudable. The animators had other opportunities to pay fastidious attention to detail. I've read, for example, that George Harrison played a light blue Fender Stratocaster on Nowhere Man... and there's his CGI version, with the correct guitar in the game. I also knew that Paul played some of the lead breaks, e.g. on Taxman, and that the three guitarists took turns to solo in The End. All that is rendered in the game. I even learned a bit more Beatle lore from the game, that George played 6-string bass in several songs, when Paul was playing piano or guitar.

The game's fantasy sequences draw on other visual material: the Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour films, and the Sgt Pepper packaging. At times the original graphic ideas are great too, like the hazy visual distortions during an imaginary Apple rooftop rendition of I Want You (She's So Heavy), and the blooming of giant flowers over London at the conclusion of The End. But there are glaring inaccuracies too, like George playing Eric Clapton's parts in While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Billy Preston being airbrushed out - or more accurately not rendered - in the Let It Be rooftop sequence. And the stylised rendition of the Beatles and other people in the game might not be to everyone's taste, but it's grown on me.

The extra features - photos, videos, the Christmas fan club records etc. - are all worthwhile. They can be viewed as one progresses through the game. If you know the songs, then vocals in particular, are easy to perform to the game's seemingly low standard. You can get a five-star rating warbling roughly in tune, if you select the least challenging mode, and that lets you unlock the bonus media.

So the young Beatle Princes have done well.