Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Mythos of the Mixtape

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You Off My Mind", but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and...oh, there are loads of rules.

Ah, the mixtape. It's the bonkers sort of logic in the above passage that made me really identify with Nick Hornby's High Fidelity with such fervor when I read it for the first time six or seven years ago. As crazy as this detailed, agonized analysis is to regular people and casual music fans, it makes such completely perfect sense to me and has done for at least the past 11 years of my life. Even when my taste was pretty pitiful and the majority of my music was being recorded off the radio, I had a feel for the aesthetic of the mixtape and its "rules." It's precisely why the shuffle function on both my iTunes and iPod can often grate on me (unless by some beautiful serendipity it seems to read my mind or place songs I would never have put together side by side and they work). And it's why I actually got angry at work one morning.

There was a year where I was doing inventory counting every weekday morning from 7 to 10 at the bookstore I was working at. Though the hours were hellish for a night owl like me, the job was actually easy enough and the best part for me was the fact we were allowed to play whatever music we wanted to in the morning (as opposed to bookstore-appropriate fare that had to be played when the store was actually open). I started bringing my own CDs on a regular basis and many of them were carefully crafted mixes (though my three co-counters and I had an informal agreement about equal rights to play whatever we wanted, I fully admit that I monopolized it). Then some time toward the end of my stint as a morning shift person, there was a morning when other co-workers had to come in for some early morning tasks and the music took a revolting turn. It wasn't even that I didn't like what was being played (which I admittedly didn't) because I understand that everyone has their own musical tastes. I was getting increasingly irritated and then irate because the music made no sense in the order it was being played - Michael Jackson played adjacent to some band like Nickelback, which was then followed by Christina Aguilera, and then some mainstream country song. I guess it ran like a Top 40 radio playlist, utterly random. And I felt like I was going mad with a multiple personality disorder.

I started ranting to a co-worker, who had relatively pretentious music tastes, about the abhorrent assortment and order of the music being played. He agreed with me, but neither of us could figure out who would put songs together so haphazardly on the same CD. When he finally went to investigate, he discovered that someone had put several mix CDs on shuffle. Not only were the mixes, as separate entities, incoherent, but they were being remixed by a cold-hearted machine. The last straw came when two of the original co-counters quit and others joined the shift. They felt perfectly all right with putting their CDs in with my mix. On shuffle. Okay, so it's not exactly the reason I quit. But it could have been.

I felt offended on the music's behalf - how could someone treat songs as though they had no meaning in relation to anything else? As though they didn't deserve to be presented artfully? To me, it's the equivalence of a painting with clashing colours or a lack of spatial harmony. Even postmodern paintings, which appear to break all rules, have something behind them trying to be communicated, so if there are clashes or misuses, they are deliberate and still mean something. On some level they should still be aesthetically pleasing. Otherwise you may as well be listening to the hamfisted radio.

There is also something specifically mythological about the mixtape, though. It requires a forethought that CD mixes and computer playlists don't. It requires a thorough knowledge of one's music collection - a knowledge of how a song sounds, what mood it conveys, without actually having to listen to it first. If you make an error, you have to rewind and retape. Sometimes you do this several times before you get it right. If you're taping from vinyl, it requires an even more delicate touch and timing. You have to account for time limitations per side (in my early days of mixtape-making I had several incidents where the tape ran out in the middle of a song). You have to decide whether the second side will differ or change theme or mood. And how you'll manage to transition between tempos and styles.

When I was in high school, I was so obsessed with links between songs that I made a series of about 12 tapes that had a constant link (whether verbally or thematically) from song to song and tape to tape that I took with me on a band trip to Europe. For a group project in English class, I volunteered to make the intro tape to our presentation - the only real criticism our teacher had about the entire project was the fact the tape was too long. I couldn't stop finding lines in songs about the theme of corruption and taping them seamlessly together. To compile it, it took me hours in front of the double cassette deck in our den, but I didn't notice. And this artform extended beyond the music and to the tape cover art. I imitated my dad's habit of cutting images and words out of magazines and making mini-collages to insert in my mixtapes' cases (you can view some of those teenage attempts in the above photo - and, yes, that is a Mind the Gap sign slapped across Britney Spears's head). It was a challenge trying to make something that visually conveyed what the mix was aurally and that also fit within the strict confines of a tape case. But this added DIY element just made the mixtape matter all the more to me.

I miss mixtapes. And I know I'm not the only one because countless other bloggers make "mixtape" posts on a regular basis or treat their entire blog like a mixtape shared with friends, and applications like muxtape and devices like mixas continue to confirm this need for the mixtape ethos. (The unfortunate and unnecessary demise of muxtape is fodder for a different post at a different time.) This sharing aspect is just as signficant as the artform itself. Mixtapes are meant to make connections between music lovers - music is both a way of conveying ideas and emotions and a way of opening up others' musical horizons and exposing them not only to new music, but new thoughts and new feelings. The DIY aesthetic for mixtapes speaks to something beyond the ugly commercialized aspect of music as an industry. It speaks to an indie myth - a myth of making art for the sake of art and for the people who enjoy it, who then create more art because of it.

I don't think I've made an actual mixtape for the past two years (and the only reason I was still making them up til that point was because our car still only has a tape player in it), and I'm sad about this. But now of course I make weekly mixes for download on this blog, and I look forward to it every week with more anticipation than most people would consider healthy - even when I feel a bit stumped as to what my theme will be. I put just as much care into crafting these mixes as I did as a teenager making mixtapes, and whether people actually download all of the songs in each mix, or whether they even notice the fact they're in a particular order, I can never truly know. All I know is that I deliberately put them in that order and that they are meant to be listened to in that order. The method to the madness is in the selection and arrangement, and it's these aspects of the method that keep me tied up in front of the computer for entire afternoons and evenings.

I suppose the art of the mixtape is linked to the ethos of the ultimate fan. Fans not only compulsively collect, but they also arrange. The way a collection, whether it's diecast car models, stamps or sports cards, is organized and displayed is just as important as the collection itself because it's a way of presenting disparate things in relation to each other and making a bigger meaning than any item could have on its own. And isn't that what's at the heart of the mixtape?

**I'm in the process of working on a year-end round-up of all of my weekly mixes, so come December there will be quite the special (and lengthy) edition of Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love.**

It Started With a Mixx - Los Campesinos

DIY - Robots in Disguise

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #36

Because it's been a rather sickly, bedridden week, and also because this theme was received so well the first time I posted a mix for it, I've opted to do a sequel to the synthpop mix from over a month back. Who needs antibiotics when you have music composed on a Fairlight?

Once again, you'll find a mix of old and new, popular and more obscure. And in the cases of Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, Visage and Figures on a Beach, you'll be getting your second dose of them this time round. I also want to note that the track by Bazooka Joe is not by the Bazooka Joe that Adam Ant was in; instead, it's from an equally short-lived band from the UK that produced one album and included Paul Dillon, an ex-founding member of The Cassandra Complex. And you'll be getting a bonus track from Flight of the Conchords, their take on West End Girls, which is called Inner City Pressure. (Completely useless digression: every time I hear West End Girls now I think of Phil Jupitus in a gold lamé shirt yelling "buh-ba-buh-BA!" at Jonathan Ross on an early episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.) This mix is called A Way to Keep My Troubles Distant.

Planet Earth (Night Version) - Duran Duran

In Camera Obscura (12" Dance Mix) - Figures on a Beach

Kelly (Album Version) - Van She

Lights & Music - Cut Copy

The Promise (O.N. Mix) - When in Rome

West End Girls (Dance Mix) - Pet Shop Boys

Nothing Comes to Mind - Cause & Effect

You Spin Me Round (Murder Mix) - Dead or Alive

Get Seduced - The Faint

I Wish - Real Life

The Promise - Visage

Dancing With Tears in My Eyes - Ultravox

In the House - Images in Vogue

Breaking the Boundary - Fiat Lux

Don't You Want Me (Extended Mix) - The Human League

Radio Heart - Radio Heart featuring Gary Numan

Sweet Dreams - Eurythmics

Listening - Pseudo Echo

Billy's Fever - Bazooka Joe

Feel the Silence - Elegant Machinery

Courtship Dating - Crystal Castles

Blue Years - Little Nemo

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye - Soft Cell

Bonus Track:

Inner City Pressure - Flight of the Conchords

Weekly Mix #36 (Megaupload)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Erudite English Eccentricity: Wild Beasts and Simon Bookish

I'm back (after a rather pathetic bout of sinus infection - I'm of the firm belief that I do not have an immune system and should just be confined to a wicker wheelchair with consumption), and this post is about one of the reasons I love English music: English eccentricity. It seems English musicians, and I suppose English artists in general, have the knack for the arcane, the offbeat and the witty. It's why I love Stephen Fry. And why I'm enjoying reading Tristram Shandy right now. It would be perfectly all right to collect both theremins and butterflies in England. The very idea of having something called a folly makes the English seem particuarly eccentric. So, this post will be a bit of a long, double-barrelled one to make up for any wrongs felt by those of you who expected more this week. You get album reviews for both Wild Birds' Limbo Panto and Simon Bookish's Everything/Everything. That should set everything right again.

Wild Beasts, a band from the Cumbrian market town of Kendal, has been around for the past six years, but has more recently set up base in Leeds and released three demo EPs before ultimately signing a deal with Domino Records. Their debut album, Limbo Panto, was released in June of this year in the UK, but is yet to be officially released in North America. With their extravagant falsetto vocals and style shifts, they fall somewhere between Klaus Nomi, Sparks and Scritti Politti with occasional flashes of the offbeat feel of Orange Juice. Vocalist Hayden Thorpe's voice can pitch between helium-inflected operatics and raspy howls and growls akin to Julian Casablancas, giving the record a schizophrenic atmosphere that somehow works. And I've got to love a band whose lead singer, when asked if he's ever been starstruck, answers no, but adds, "“Although The Horrors came down to one show in London, you could see their hair in the crowd. But that was less a star-struck moment than a 'wanting-to-strike-a-star' moment.”

Album opener Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy is driven by a tom tom drumbeat with a laidback soulfulness that feels retro and permeates the entire record. The lyrics describe a sexual encounter in all its sweaty, clumsy detail. The Club of Fathomless Love rocks like a more violent operetta with dramatic shifts between airy waltz and cabaret as Thorpe desperately sings "I'm not a soft touch and I won't be seen as such, so full with fierce fathomless love." I'm a sucker for apt alliteration, and Wild Beasts use it often. One of my favourite tracks is The Devil's Crayon, which features a tropical beat that verges on tribal in places and which uses clinking guitar and the lower register of Thorpe's vocals, reminding me more of Orange Juice - the tune ends up sounding like an art rock Copa Cabana. Woebegone Wanderers is yet another track that shifts between time signatures and styles, alternating between lazy psychedelic and 3/4 merry-go-round. The Old Dog gives me a feeling of 70's airport lounge music while Thorpe's vocal quavers even more than usual on lines like "We are liberal and we are civil and life is futile." Please Sir is a hilarious tune with 50's style arpeggios akin to Chainless Melody in which the student narrator begs forgiveness from his headmaster:

Please, Sir let me return, if only for a term (how I yearn)
It’s glee, Sir, with your hot breath upon me (gob gurning in fury)
But…I only winded that lad before he bolted
And…I only fumbled that lass, besides, I was revolted

...and eventually offering, "Take these chips with cheese as an offering of peace." His Grinning Skull feels like a surreal twist on speaking to Yorick's skull with brilliant lines like "his skull wears cuckold's horns" (that are pushing through the soil) and "I'll eat this young whelp's heart, I will." It features a punchier rhythm, but a more ominous tone as it seems the corpse will be exhumed in a raid on the grave. She Purred While I Grrrd is a Hawaiian-tinged, yet slinky melody with truly honest words about what the narrator wants his girl for.

Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants, while being fantastically alliterative once again, was their first single released under a deal with Bad Sneakers Records and has a catchy bassline that supports the rapid changes between an inflated preening and a dirty underbelly. It is an atypical youth anthem praising carpe diem in an erudite manner: "Swig the bottle, bottle/Slap the face of Aristotle/Race me, Race me, Race me, Race me/In yer fourth hand jalopy." The album ends with Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye, which sounds like a bizarre public school song and suits the posh but cheeky atmosphere of the record as a whole. The clear love of words and language stays strong right until the end with lyrics like "Be blasted or be lambasted instead/don't render me the sorriest parody."

Simon Bookish (real name: Leo Chadburn) is a classically trained musician, who also works in sound installations and theatre, and who, as his nom de plume suggests, is well-read and equally as erudite as Wild Beasts. His music began with very experimental electronically-based songs, but he then progressed through further experimentalism with Trainwreck/Raincheck, an album which was described as a "surreal electronic radio play" and which has spoken word elements that remind me of Jarvis Cocker's deadpan delivery minus the Yorkshire accent. Simon Bookish's new album, Everything/Everything, isn't due out until October 21 in Canada (according to amazon.ca), but I must impress upon you all that it is worth pre-ordering and waiting for. Though Bookish has released two previous albums and several other EPs/remixes/singles over the past few years, this is his first album for German label Tomlab and it is a multi-instrumental score to accompany humanity's obsession with science and empircal information and the impending overload and self-induced lunacy. There is a definite similarity between Simon Bookish and Patrick Wolf (who has worked with Bookish in the past), especially in terms of experimentalism and English eccentricities, but where Wolf has a rather glam, whimsical persona like Kate Bush or David Bowie, Bookish reminds me more of Talking Heads.

Opening track The Flood, which apparently David Byrne has been promoting, begins with a royal flourish of trumpets which somehow meld perfectly with futuristic chants as persistent as binary code. Bookish's deep, rich voice complements the frenetic music backing him as he sings about humanity's inevitable drowning in the technology it has built. Dumb Terminal, which has been provided for download by Pitchfork, ambles along, but then enters a quicker movement in which clarinet squeaks and squawks in a chaotic cacophony. Portrait of the Artist as a Fountain is a quirky tune about an artist riding off into the sunset with lyrics of an Edward Lear-like nature. The chorus of woodwinds that explode from its core is more evidence of Bookish's classical training and composition abilities. Carbon is a frantic, apocalyptic paean to an element capable of so many uses, and Bookish's smooth, self-assured vocals swoop up and over the choppy music. Victorinox, which is named after a knife manufacturer, begins as a more stately, sure-footed track with muted brass and tinkling glockenspiel accents before veering into yet another unexpected direction with Bookish spitting out brilliantly poetic lyrics about mind control with clinical precision: "better beware the groundswell/better beware the hard sell/what did you hear/a death knell/step on up/kiss farewell/to poverty/for enmity/your sophistry/of your fallacy."

In a dramatic change in both style and tempo, Il Trionfo Del Tempo...(Ridley Road) is a medieval-sounding track with plucked strings and choir-like vocals, but it has discordant moments that interrupt the steady flow of predicted tones. Synchrotron, named for a type of particle accelerator, is a funky, sax-led melody on which Bookish sounds like a Willy Wonka trapped in an astrophysicist's laboratory. Technology is the culprit here, too, as Bookish outlines what it can do to atoms, but also what it cannot do - namely, feed the starving people of the world. The track cycles around itself so quickly that it feels like it's flying apart by the end, breaking into its own neutrinos. A Crack in Larsen C pulls back the insanity into a calmer, contemplative piano piece as Bookish gently muses on how far a person can improve him/herself and compares it to the current man-made disasters, including the melting of the Larsen C iceshelf.

Alsatian Dog takes us back to the funky symphony of Synchrotron (with hints of Sufjan Stevens) and pokes fun at the intellectual arrogance of humanity as Bookish sings, "a juggernaut crashes into the lexicon," which taunts people by saying "you can't define me." The compulsive human need for defining, classifying and labelling that the Enlightenment brought to its apex is mirrored in Bookish's urgent, scattershot vocals that interrogate a specimen until language itself ceases to mean anything. A New Sense of Humour begins as a sleazier, slower track that initially sounds a bit JAMC, but then speeds up and struts as Bookish satirizes the all-consuming effect of the television on people. The narrator of the track doesn't even know him/herself anymore and which category he/she fits into, and the track eventually peters out like the waning attention of an ADHD world. The last track of the album is appropriately titled Colophon and injects the last bit of existential crisis into the record, hoping to re-write the history of humankind, especially its last testament. As Bookish's final analogy plays out, he states that it's "not too late to save ourselves."

Wild Beasts and Simon Bookish push and pull at the possibilities of musical style and structure while equally stretching the limits of thought and imagination. They manage to use Stephen Fry's love of language in all its variety and possibility with musical digression and whimsy on par with Tristram Shandy. Very English indeed.

The Devil's Crayon - Wild Beasts

Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants - Wild Beasts

Synchrotron - Simon Bookish

A New Sense of Humour - Simon Bookish

Monday, September 22, 2008

They're Killing Me: The Killers' New Single

I've just gotten a hold of The Killers' new single Human off of their forthcoming third LP Day and Age. After their sophomore effort of Sam's Town, I was hugely disappointed, but like an abused lover, I keep coming back to Brandon Flowers and Co. Maybe it's because their first album meant so much to me at the time of its release and reminds me of relatively good times. Maybe I can't forget the excitement of seeing and hearing The Killers for the first time on British television in the spring of 2004 and the subsequent excitement when I saw them in a ridiculously tiny venue in Winnipeg that fall. Maybe I'm waiting for another flash of brilliance like All These Things That I've Done. Maybe I'm just a masochist.

Despite the rather expansive nature and catchiness of When You Were Young, Sam's Town was The Killers doing Bruce Springsteen and consciously shifting from anglophilia to Americana, Colonel Sanders ties and all. This move may have lost them some of their old fans and it may very well have gained them new ones and further visibility. They lost me - not only do I obviously prefer British sensibilities in music, but I also felt the inevitable shift in attitude because of fame. No, I do not want to pay a ridiculous amount of money to become a Victim (what those in The Killers' fan club are called - appropriate in so many ways). No, I don't want to purchase a b-sides album when I was already ripped off for a few of those b-sides when I bought the special edition of Hot Fuss after I already had the original release - that duet with Lou Reed and lukewarm cover of Shadowplay (though at least the cover brought them back to a British sound) didn't entice me. All of it smelled rather strongly of record label interference and money-grabbing. I became so disenchanted that I just began ignoring the band and unsubscribed to their e-newsletter. Then I heard that they would be releasing a new album this year. So, I began hoping again that maybe, just maybe, things would be different this time because they promised.

I downloaded Human as quick as, well, humanly possible and took a listen. Granted this is just my humble first impression. And granted, this single may not reflect the entire album as a whole. But I don't get Human. It feels like a relatively decent electropop track that is spoiled by Flowers' vocals - they're slightly folky/country and limply out of step with the pumping synthesizers. It's like putting Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash on the mic while Cut Copy or Pet Shop Boys plays the background. When I later looked the song up on Wikipedia, it seems that the band was gunning for exactly that effect - in fact Flowers makes the analogy of Johnny Cash meets the Pet Shop Boys, so at least I know my music compass isn't off. And now I also know that The Killers are doing this on purpose, which makes me feel less hopeful about the forthcoming album release. The inexplicable refrain of "Are we human, or are we dancer?" doesn't seem particularly clever even though the song's concept had potential as commentary on the fragility of the human condition.

I'm trying to figure out just what could improve the song and make it more palatable - maybe a different singing style more in line with the staccato style of songs off Hot Fuss; maybe more vocoder; or maybe no vocal at all. The clash of musical styles may have been experimental, so I give The Killers kudos for trying, but the results don't work for me. While the attempt is made for some spiritual searching like that in All These Things That I've Done, it just doesn't edify me in remotely the same way. It's like the band is trying to mash up their first two albums into one style to have the best of both worlds or to have their eyeliner and their moustaches too. That's Freddie Mercury and that's just presumptuousness. Or maybe they're just confused as I am at this moment.

Time will tell whether this song will ever grow on me or whether the next album will actually be better than this song suggests. You can judge Human for yourself by downloading it below. Knowing me, I'll drag my broken body back to them again for more abuse before I completely give up. Maybe The Killers will be kind enough to finish me off this time.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix # 35

This weekly mix was inspired by a comment left by PlasticSmile on my post about Bella Koshka. He mentioned the fact the album cover art reminded him of classic 4AD stuff, and while I'm definitely no expert on the label (which was pretty obvious in the way I made no reference to the similarity myself), I was prompted to do a little more research on 4AD and discovered that I already had quite of few of the 4AD artists in my collection. I also managed to discover other artists that I wasn't so familiar with, including His Name is Alive, which PlasticSmile mentioned. 4AD has produced a tight body of work from a rather incestuous scene, or perhaps a network of satellite scenes (many of the bands on the roster had their side or solo projects released on the label as well). Supposedly, the "classic" period of 4AD ended with the final 4AD Cocteau Twins album in 1990 (debate amongst yourselves), and while 4AD was originally an independent record label funded by Beggars Banquet, it is now part of the larger group that includes Matador Records, Rough Trade and XL Recordings.

Besides the distinct graphic style of 4AD album covers, which was pioneered by 23 Envelope, 4AD has been traditionally associated with acts that can be called ethereal, gothic, post-punk, shoegaze or experimental - of course over the years, 4AD continually moved farther into the American underground, and with more recently signed bands, there have been some shifts to artists that wouldn't be as immediately identified with the "classic" 4AD sound, including folkier artists. Nonetheless, they have still produced a pretty formidable roster past and present, and their artists are consistently critically acclaimed.

Hopefully, this mix is varied enough between more obscure tracks and popular ones and between the "classic" period of 4AD and the present period of the label. From the old school you have Tones on Tail, Pale Saints, Cocteau Twins, The Birthday Party, The Wolfgang Press, The The, Xmal Deutschland, His Name is Alive, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, This Mortal Coil, Pixies, and Bauhaus (in cases like The The and Modern English, you get their debut sounds, which are considerably different from later incarnations - no I Melt With You here); from the newer school, you have Stereolab (more in terms of being recently signed to 4AD rather than new as a band), Blonde Redhead, Beirut, Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio, The Mountain Goats, It Hugs Back and Minotaur Shock. Because I love Cocteau Twins so much, I included two tracks by them, one from their debut album, Garlands, and one that appeared several years later on a 4AD showcase compilation called Lonely Is An Eyesore, and what's beautiful is you can hear the progression from moody and brooding to angelic and dreamy. I'll call this one Forward March.

4AD Web site: http://www.4ad.com/

Go! - Tones on Tail

Small Bones, Small Bodies - Future of the Left

Babymaker - Pale Saints

Working Day - It Hugs Back

The Plague - The Mountain Goats

Muesli - Minotaur Shock

Neon Beanbag - Stereolab

Nantes - Beirut

En Particulier - Blonde Redhead

Crushed - Cocteau Twins

Hours - TV on the Radio

Noam Chomsky Spring Break 2002 - Department of Eagles

Nick the Stripper - The Birthday Party

Controversial Subject - The The

Black Houses - Modern English

Nachtschatten - Xmal Deutschland

Crowds - Bauhaus

Ruddy and Wretched - This Mortal Coil

Ecstasy - The Wolfgang Press

Fond Affections - Rema Rema

Where is My Mind - Pixies

Wax and Wane - Cocteau Twins

How Ghosts Affect Relationships - His Name is Alive

The Song of the Sibyl - Dead Can Dance

Rolling Off the Chaise Longue: Beangrowers' Not in a Million Lovers

Orignally from Malta but now Berlin-based, the trio Beangrowers, who have a continental European following, are releasing their fourth album, Not in a Million Lovers, in the UK soon; however, it is already available via the link to a German retailer on their Web site. I haven't heard their previous albums, so I'll be taking this album at face value and out of context; nonetheless, I highly enjoyed this record with its poppy bits and lounge feel - at its best points, it's like a rich amber that ensnares you in some viscous warmth. Vocalist Alison Galea has one of those sultry but sweet voices akin to Sarah Cracknell or Laetitia Sadier (some of my favourite tracks on this record remind me of Saint Etienne and Stereolab), so I prefer those tracks on the record that feature the softer, buoyant side of Galea's voice. Her vocals work most effectively on those tracks that allow for her voice to lounge about on a chaise longue rather than compete with the rhythm and pace - a natural unfolding rather than forced expression. There is a pervasive feeling of the illicit in both the lyrics and the music, where you can imagined heavy-lidded eyes and languorous limbs beckoning you to bohemian inclinations on a balmy morning.

Opening track Quaint Affair uses electronic elements to pulse beneath the surface of Galea's creamy vocals like a quickened heartbeat in a tilted neck. Untitled Forever is more urgent and choppy, but somehow the chorus still brings me back to the soaring beauty of Galea's voice without too much distraction. The title track is a stand-out track on the album with its insistent bassline and airy synths, combining with Galea's honeyed vocals to create a breezy come-hither atmosphere. Its video is also one of the more creative efforts I've seen in the world of music videos these days. One of my other favourite tracks on the record is Ours is a Small Flat, which takes string sounds and pairs them with Galea's voice as it lazily slides over the notes like a droplet bouncing and rolling from leaf to leaf. Captain Darling is a similarly lovely blend of tinkling keys and lackadaisical guitars while Galea appropriately sings "caress my soul when you go" in a sleepy sibilance. While others may have found the later track Like Ken a more throwaway album filler, I think it's quite a beautiful gem in line with Ours is a Small Flat and Captain Darling, but with a poppier rhythm and bubbly momentum, where Galea's voice coasts effortlessly over the waves of melody.

There are faster, rockier tunes like Love Can Do You No Harm, Available, Depths of Bavaria, and Good Band, Bad Name, which showcase jangly guitars and driving rhythms, but which tend to overshadow and compress Galea's vocal performance. Another track called Machine begins with promise of a rather heavy, dark mood and more of that rock feel, but when the vocals kick into higher registers, the song takes an ethereal turn into golden registers. The record ends with Life's a Bitch and Then She Sings in Your Band, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Waiting for the Man, but with a different vocal melody that actually works out in some strange counterpoint that softens the chunky feel of the original. It's a cheeky move in line with the title, and I actually quite like it.

I'm sufficiently intrigued to check out Beangrowers' back catalogue of three albums (I guess I've been out of some loop in the past), and I hope to hear more of the sound I loved on this record - the songs where music and voice fit together in some slowly unfurling wantonness.

Beangrowers MySpace: www.myspace.com/beangrowers

Not in a Million Lovers - Beangrowers

Captain Darling - Beangrowers

Thursday, September 18, 2008

If a Gallagher Falls in the Forest, and No One is There to Film It...

By now the entire world has likely seen this clip of Noel Gallagher being pushed into his own monitors at the Virgin Festival in Toronto (I myself have viewed it at least six times - usually just the bit where Noel goes down like a tree and then Liam postures like a hard man once his adversary is fully restrained). Besides being a lovely little piece of schadenfreude, especially for all of us who despise the Gallaghers and their brand of working class stereotype confirmation, this clip demonstrates several different things about music and media.

Firstly, isn't this exactly what Oasis ostensibly thrives on? They paint themselves as hardened working class Mancunians, who fight each other just to prove their testosterone is in good working order and who, as rock stars, live dangerously on the edge. It appears Noel doesn't like falling off the edge, though. And it appears that Liam's first reaction when confronted with danger is running away and shielding himself. Oasis has continued to have some preposterous mythical status, especially in the UK (where they are currently all over NME and its Web site and where, almost without fail, they would grace the cover of Q magazine every spring - I know because I was in the UK for several different springs and every time I looked at the newsstand the Gallaghers were on the cover). Even Oasis fans admit that they haven't had anything worth listening to since What's the Story Morning Glory, so why the constant attention when so many of their peers never get press anymore? Because they never stop slagging off everyone else, especially those with higher intelligence? Because they constantly give grandiose promises without ever fulfilling them? Because they wrote a few feel-good anthems for the yob? Because the music press has turned into strictly tabloid press? In which case, the more outrageous the Gallaghers' behaviour or performance venue is, the more press they get.

To me, Oasis represent bloated stadium rock taken to its logical conclusion - they are U2 without the social conscience. That "legendary" performance at Knebworth (that gets rehashed and reminisced over every so many years) blew out any notion of quality over quantity or connection with your audience. I suppose that in many ways Oasis appeals to so many people because they are supposed to be the quintessential rockers - living an extravagant lifestyle with sex, drugs, and violence, posturing like the Stones, but without the history of solid music to back it up. They do and have things as big as they can to compensate for a back catalogue that isn't so impressive. If you separate yourself so far from the audience, you can maintain some sort of charade that you, as the artist, are special by virtue of spatial relations. Had someone attacked Noel in a pub setting, it would have been taken as par for the course; the fan-artist divide wouldn't have been accentuated by tons of security and a massive canyon between the front row of punters and the stage. Fame and physical distance changes the situation into a media circus and a viral video.

Thus far, it seems the only source that claims that the attacker was a "blog commenter" is Stereogum, which implies that the attack was provoked because Noel Gallagher had previously insulted Radiohead. There's no back-up for this assertion as far as I can tell, but I would assume a lot of people wouldn't need a specific reason to attack the Gallaghers. While the idea of an angry blogger taking Gallagher down in the name of Thom Yorke is hugely funny, the fact anyone would posit that it could be an irate blogger implies a certain opinionated and subversive milieu for bloggers, which I suppose is correct to an extent. The attacker's subversive involvement on stage points to not only a breach in security, but also a breach in the established artist/fan division. It also points out that fans or anti-fans are becoming just as visible as the artists themselves.

The fact someone was there filming the concert, so that there could be a viral clip circulating, is of interest in this capacity. It's become increasingly easier to film live concerts, whether with a crappy function on a mobile phone or with an actual digital video camera, and this has become both useful and frustrating. It can be useful if something rather unexpected or momentous happens (as shown with Noel Gallagher) and if you were at that concert and just wanted a souvenir; however, at the same time, having that souvenir can almost cheapen the experience by altering the bits you actually remember and the way you remember experiencing them firsthand (I've had this happen to me a couple of times). I wonder about what kind of experience the people filming are having of the show - isn't it a bit of a secondhand one? In which case, are they there for the actual music and the experience of the show, or for some bizarre mediated version through which they can prove that they were there? To get a bit Baudrillard, the simulacrum is more important than the reality.

I also think filming concerts in a venue that doesn't allow for decent acoustics or a remotely clear picture is an exercise in futility - YouTube is cluttered with these types of videos. Why would I want to watch ten seconds of a gig tipped horizontally? I suppose this type of video clip just reasserts the increasingly solipsistic online society that assumes that others will want to experience another's life, including which shows he/she attended, in all its grainy, distorted glory. Or these videos become proof of your own activities and your own attempt at popularity and fame. The person who posts a video bootleg can become just as popular as the artist featured on the bootleg. So the recorder/poster of the Noel Gallagher clip has their week of fame while gifting the Gallaghers with some free publicity in some skewed universe of media symbiosis.

And I'm really no better than the attacker or the video clip poster by writing this piece, drawing more unneccessary attention to the Gallaghers. However, I will say the attacker's strategy was all wrong. He should have gone for Liam first.

Falling and Laughing - Orange Juice

All Fall Down - The Sound

The Fallen - Franz Ferdinand

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I ♥ Mother Mother: Mother Mother's O My Heart

Oddly enough, the first time I heard of the Vancouver band, Mother Mother, was late last year when one of my professors, who was teaching us media studies, mentioned them (well, actually gushed about them). I didn't check them out at the time (I hadn't been in the habit of taking musical recommendations from my professors), and then sort of forgot about them. Then I heard they were playing Winnipeg during the Jazz Festival, and I ignored them again without any real reason for doing so, opting not to see them live. I really had no idea what they sounded like, and so had no basis for any attitude, indifferent or otherwise. Now that their sophomore album, O My Heart, is being released today, I realize the error of my ways, and will attempt to rectify it a bit through this post. In an attempt to put O My Heart into some sort of context, I listened to their first album, Touch Up, and I discovered there's a sweet schizophrenia to their style, which spins between folk and soul and pop and indie rock like a child full of new ideas, playing make believe outdoors, pairing airy, innocent-sounding male and female voices with lyrics that are archly witty. They're like a less theatrical Bodies of Water with some slight hints of New Pornographers, Pop Levi and Sarah Slean, and this new album delivers more of their gentle, melodic brand of wryness.

The title track opens the record and falls less on the folk side of the fence, but more on the powerpop side with its driving rhythms and hiccuping melody, utilizing as many metaphors for a heart as they could fit into one song. Burning Pile builds upon an oscillating guitar for a catchy pendulum-like tune, which gallops along to a vaudeville melody in unexpected places. Their voices meld and soar while still maintaining a sort of earthiness and frankness. The album takes yet another turn as Body of Years begins like a more straightforward rock song with synthy elements as vocalist Ryan Guldemond uses his idiosyncratic unhinged style to quirk out lyrical lines into little curliques. Try to Change tones the mood down into a moodier acoustic number with beautfiul brass accompaniment, burnishing the mournfulness into something much warmer and soulful. Wisdom continues this more mellow, muted brass sound, but kicks it up with drums as it seems to revel in the blissful ignorance of youth and the avoidance of advice. Body slides and wiggles all over the strings of violins in a folkier version of Sparks while the tempo fluctuates with a mind of its own, or perhaps with the narrator's mind which seems prone to change and might be the last piece of his/her body surrendered in the song.

I was so impressed with the song Ghosting that I included it in my autumn weekly mix this week; with its plucked guitars, it definitely evokes a hazy, mellow autumn day for me and had me singing the chorus after only one listen. The mood shifts back to urgent as Hay Loft kicks into a speedy gear with almost a hip hop aesthetic for the verses - rather than gangstas with guns it's just Papa creeping through the hay loft in his longjohns, toting a gun. Wrecking Ball takes gentle banjo to a Deconstructionist/Dada approach to art while Arms Tonite stomps about in a glam posture, putting a new offbeat spin on the classic "dying in your arms" theme. Miles drifts along to piano and acoustic guitar in a pure dream of escapism, lulling you in a hammock of . The album concludes with Sleep Awake, a subtle song of childlike vocals, which has a lullaby feel at odds with the lyrics which convey the epitome of the expression "sleeping with one eye open."

So, we've all learned a little something from this post. Don't ignore a band without even having listened to them at all. And professors sometimes actually have decent taste in music.

Body of Years - Mother Mother

Arms Tonite - Mother Mother

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #34

Although the weather hasn't quite made the definitive switch to autumn over here, I decided to anticipate it a little bit with this week's mix. There are many who hate fall because the fun of summer holidays is over or because it is the messenger that indicates winter is coming. All I can say is don't shoot the messenger. I quite love autumn. It is a season of perfect temperatures and beautiful colours, delicious foods and Halloween, harvest and abundance. Being a nerd, I also associate the autumn with returning to school, which was a rather exciting time in anticipation of learning new things, especially when I was in university. I like the crisp air and the smoky smell of fields burning mixed with the spicy scent of the leaves drifting from branch to puddle. Cozy indoor living interspersed with brisk walks suits me much more than outdoor barbeque/beach weather. There's a magic and hush to the fall season that weaves its way through corn mazes and the famous mist that Puff the Magic Dragon frolicked in. It's the same place the headless horseman rides through gnarled trees with moribund leaves.

The following mix has a few directly related "autumn" songs (apparently I'm in the minority of autumn lovers as songs seem to celebrate summer far more, and when musicians do write about autumn they often associate it with death and a profound sense of loss - go figure...I like melancholic music). I sacrificed a few of the autumn titles I had, including Malcolm Middleton's Autumn and Die Mannequin's Autumn Cannibalist (which shares its name with one of my favourite Dali paintings), for the sake of the mix's feel. In addition to autumn songs, this compilation also includes some songs that just give me that autumny feeling without any relation to autumn at all. Grab a bowl of butternut squash soup and light the fireplace. This mix is called Thou Hast Thy Music Too.

Harvest Home - Big Country

Applebush - Josef K

Autumn - Bombay Bicycle Club

Brothers & Sisters - Duels

Autumnsong - Manic Street Preachers

No Winter, No Autumn - Moscow Olympics

Autumn Almanac - The Kinks

Trumpets and Violins - Suburban Kids With Biblical Names

September Lady - Felt

Bedroom Scene - The Delays

Unshakable - Autumn's Grey Solace

Vanilla Scent - Six Red Carpets

Summer Gave Us Sweets But Autumn Wrought Division - The Strange Death of Liberal England

In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction - Idlewild

Autumn is Your Last Chance (Acoustic) - Robyn Hitchcock

We Coughed Up Honey - Bodies of Water

Ghosting - Mother Mother

The Blower's Daughter - Damien Rice

Autumn - Kingfishers Catch Fire

Augustine - Patrick Wolf

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Pirate's Dilemma: Selling Out is the New Cool

I recently finished reading Matt Mason's book The Pirate's Dilemma and I was struck by the positive tone of his analysis of the act of the piracy. He looks at piracy at various points in history, but with most of the focus on the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and he views it not as an anti-establishment act but as a fantastic capitalistic force. Mason is very careful to reiterate time and again that he is not proposing a digital communism (you wouldn't want to be blacklisted by McCarthy now would you?); instead, he views pirates and their acts as business opportunities and sources of healthy competition for the capitalist system. Naturally, I have several problems with his argument.

While Mason's subtitle is How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism, I would argue that capitalism isn't reinvented in this case - it is merely sped up. Ideas are just moving about the world at a faster rate and we're cycling through from one to the other at hyperspeed. We as the human race are not nearly as novel and progressive as we like to think. The way I see it we're going around in circles but the circles are getting slightly larger every time, encompassing more cultural objects and practices for market exploitation. Subcultures are being snapped up by profiteers at a breakneck speed, but thankfully, it seems there will always be some truly innovative, interesting people who will keep abreast of it and give the best chase they can. Just as media conglomerates buy up popular web applications and sites, new ones spring up to fulfill the needs of those avoiding the trappings of a financial consumer-based system. This reinvented capitalism is merely pushing youth culture further and further underground until it pops up the other side in China, where it can be mass-manufactured by children.

It's the classic case of coopting the cool kids, which has gone on for as long as there have been cool kids. Coolhunting kills what it finds, and is thus self-perpetuating, but hardly revolutionary. Reinvention implies creativity and innovation, which are exactly what is relinquished when subcultural activities go corporate and depend on advertising dollars. Capitalism at its very core has always been based upon creative and innovative people with the ultimate goal of making financial profit; you can't reinvent the wheel, and you can't reinvent capitalism.

Mason contends that piracy is good for the market because it demonstrates what people really want, and thus what can be most profited by, and then forces the bigger corporations to alter the way they operate to regain the market share they overlooked or misestimated in the first place. It's a rather utopian attitude that ignores the disgusting hypocrisy in branding a revolution. We've always liked to be inspired by renegade heroes from Robin Hood to Captain Jack Sparrow, and Mason plays off this warm and fuzzy feeling of DIY pirates fighting the system, but in his version, the best heroes end up just as corporate as their enemies - Robin Hood trades in his jerkin for a business suit and becomes an executive. Success is still only measured in dollars, not in strengthened community, not in ethical improvement, not in intellectual stimulation.

Another issue that needs to be explored in relation to this book's case is that of value. Most of the time, especially as capitalism grows older, value is an artificial concept. Money itself is a primary example of artificial worth - there is no inherent worth in the bits of metal and paper in our wallets. It is a universally agreed upon semiotic system that is no better or no more sophisticated than a game of Monopoly. Rules create value. Mason is rather excited by the idea of a 3D printer, which he mentions several times throughout his book and which is a machine which can basically produce anything you program it to - for example, you could print yourself your own pair of sneakers. Mason appears to see this invention, which can even replicate itself, as a boon for third world countries and those who don't have access to the expensive means of production. Does he not see the potential disaster for the very capitalist system he's championing? If anyone can print any object indefinitely, including the means of production itself, what worth will anything have in the current system based on artificial value assigned according to supply and demand? Does he not remember the financial inflation disaster of the Weimar Republic that ultimately led to Hitler? You can't just print more money to make everyone richer; unfortunately, our system doesn't work that way. And hasn't this easy self-replication and self-distribution already proven its own results in the arena of MP3 filesharing?

People are increasingly less willing to pay for music, movies, etc. that can be available for free. This phenomenon is displaying in a rather palpable way the value placed on art and cultural objects in this time period. There's no denying that art is subjective and its very worth is bound up in that subjectivity. What makes Damien Hirst's pieces of art worth millions? An agreement by the elite (those with the capital and power to sway the masses) that it is valuable. Are we moving into an era in which we all realize this artificial worth? Will we end up only paying for those things with immediate practical worth like food, shelter or fuel? What kind of society will it be if art is perceived as public property and not a commodity? Without patronage, artists may cease creation in favour of actually making money doing something more profitable to survive. Or art may end up as strictly a hobby or career sideline, as it is for several artists already. Honestly, I don't know if either of these options are good ones or not. All I know is that a world without art of any kind would be one without value, artificial or otherwise.

Mason notably uses several examples from the music world for his argument, including the musical styles/subcultures of punk, disco, house, dub, and hip hop, and musical issues like that of pirate radio, fanzines, and filesharing. Though I didn't have too much of a problem with Mason's writing style for the most part, I did feel cheapened by his little tutorial sessions at the end of many of these sections in which he "teaches" you how use these subcultural concepts to become a successful capitalist. For example, he takes you through how to use the DJ concept of the remix to "remix" your own business idea, comparing your target market audience to a dancefloor crowd. These rather useless "lessons" read like those crappy business how-to books that use ridiculous analogies to sell simple ideas to businesspeople (Ping the Frog, anyone?). Even more revolting is the "game theory" portion at the end of the book. No wonder Seth Godin provides the pull quote on the cover of the book.

Summing up the crux of Mason's flawed argument, his entire chapter on hip hop seems completely contradictory - Mason maintains hip hop is the perfect subculture because it is both underground and market savvy. These two ideas don't gel for me. Either you're anti-establishment or you're not, and that's the true pirate's dilemma if there is one in this argument. If DIY start-up FUBU (which stands for "for us, by us") needs massive hip hop celebrity LL Cool J to give it the kick in visibility it needed to become a multi-million company, how is it escaping the celebrity endorsement that GAP used him for at the exact same time. Can you punk a system by using the same system that you initially refused to do so? And who is "us" in FUBU's context now that the creators and owners of it are clearly not in the same position they were in when they began the enterprise? Would FUBU be okay with someone selling knock-offs of its products in the name of "punk capitalism"?

Selling out becomes an inevitability in a system where seemingly impractical goods and services depend on those in power to bestow worth upon them. Different audiences have different value systems. Once Pete Tong and Trevor Nelson made the move from pirate radio to BBC radio, the audience changed along with the artificial value in terms of subcultural capital - once everyone can access the same music and the underground moves up a floor, the original value disappears in favour of a general market value. We're dealing in meaning, not numbers. Selling out becomes subculturally bankrupt in order to be financially successful.

As sad as it is to admit, human beings are greedy and self-centred and haven't shown any growth or progress in overcoming this problem. It is why communism failed. It is why capitalism hurts more people than it helps. Overall, Mason's book is a fairytale story of cooptation, not of beating the system. Don't pretend that being a renegade can coincide with being a profit-driven mogul - you haven't bucked the system, you haven't even changed or reinvented it. There isn't much of a leap between DIY pirate to corporate pirate. Piracy just seems to be a method of putting a neon sign around the loopholes in the system, so that those in power can continue to bulk up the regulations and stitch these holes shut. It seems the only dilemma in sight is a false one in which our only two real choices seem to be exploitation for profit or a largely ignored labour of love. Perhaps it's not so false after all.

See The Pirate's Dilemma Web site for more of Matt Mason's "punk capitalism."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Does NME even know what a music blog is?: The rhetoric and social meaning of MP3 blogs

Well, here's the fruit of my four hardcore months of labour: my MA thesis on MP3 blogs. I had a few qualms about posting it here for download, not for intellectual property rights (because that would be rather ironic given the content of the thesis), but because I still feel there's so much more to be done and I know I could potentially have more reactions and responses than I can handle. For those who download and read it, bear in mind, I needed to make an argument of some sort, so I can understand there will be counterarguments and/or disputes with what I came up with, especially from those bloggers who have far more experience in the actual act of blogging than I do. Having said that, I will appreciate any and all comments and criticisms (unless of course you all pick up your pitchforks and run me out of the blogosphere). At any rate, it seems the powers that be have signed off on this thesis (thankfully, without any requests for revisions), and I think I'm in the clear to graduate with my MA degree. What comes next is anyone's guess...

Does NME even know what a music blog is?: The rhetoric and social meaning of MP3 blogs (Megaupload)

And some song treats to help the academia go down:

College - Johnny Boy

A Strange Education - The Cinematics

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rusty Tears and Malfunctioning Heart Parts: Stars' Sad Robots EP

Largely unbeknownst to me (I've really been doing well keeping abreast of new music lately), Stars released an EP entitled Sad Robots EP on September 1, which can be sampled and purchased via their beautifully crafted Sad Robots site. The site asks you if you are indeed a sad robot upon entry, and its fantastic Victorian industrial revolution aesthetic makes me very happy to be a sad robot. As stated before on this blog, I really love Stars because of their bittersweet lyrics and brilliant pop melodies, but I think I was also ready for this return to some of their original electronic impulses, and this return may cause more recent fans of Stars and their last two albums to look into Stars' earlier work.

The opening track, Maintenance Hall, 4AM, hums with the steam of mechanized industry as a piano plays out a melancholic melody and a robotic voice creeps in periodically. Listening to the music, I can just imagine the space where robots are repaired, where a heart is just another part to be replaced. The following track is a sparkling song called A Thread Cut With a Carving Knife, which along with the rest of the EP, recalls the electronic influences more apparent on Stars first album, Nightsongs. As per their characteristic style, Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan's gentle voices narrate a love affair and its resulting heartbreak, and the song seems to swell and surge about them like a dirigible balloon only to burst around them in ribbons of feedback and white noise. On the track Undertow, Milan's lovely voice converses with itself as the vodcoderized refrain of "When will it stop?" pulses against the rest of the verses like legs kicking against the tide. It also features that laidback groovy beat that several of Stars' earlier songs did, but with augmentation by expansive synths.

The track Going, Going, Gone is an older song (actually off Nightsongs), but is listed as being a live track (despite its non-live sound) on this EP and it is the one song available for free download off the Sad Robots Web site. It has been modified from a rather sparse arrangement into a crystalline synthy piece, and Campbell takes on a few more lines. While the original version of track feels lonelier, this new incarnation feels like more of an emotional struggle with its stuttering drum machines; the narrator hasn't completely surrendered yet. 14 Forever is one of those fantastic paeans to the bliss and promise of youth and features the most joyful music on the EP, adding the sweet balance to the bitter tears shed in the other tracks. The EP ends appropriately with Sad Robot, which repeats the couplet "Il pleut, je pleure" that uses the wordplay to full effect against a background littered with bleeps and bloops as though a circuitboard is slowly being corrupted by water and going under.

This EP is a beautiful concept and I look forward to see and hear whether the next full-length album will take any cues from this shift in direction. All of us melancholic automatons would be so happy.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I Don't Want My MTV. The Tweens Can Have It.

Against my better judgment, I watched (well, half-watched) the 25th MTV Video Music Awards last night. The only reason I did so was because Russell Brand was hosting and I was curious about what kind of reaction he would receive in front of whoever actually cares about MTV these days (and I also think I had a perverse curiosity about what was passing for music now, especially since I've refrained from watching music television and listening to mainstream radio for the past few years). The show was a train wreck beyond my wildest nightmares beginning and ending with pop tart, Britney Spears (I can only thank whoever put the show together that she wasn't actually performing that night). Russell Brand was rather brilliant, lambasting the current American administration (calling Bush a "retarded cowboy") and the Republican teen pregnancy debacle, and mocking the Jonas Brothers and their promise rings, treading all over political correctness and hypocrisy with his characteristic charming blend of verbosity and extensive vocabulary. And of course, most either sat in shock or politely applauded without seemingly having a clue how to react or perhaps not even understanding what he was on about. Despite the fact Brand used to have his own ridiculous show on MTV in the UK and has hosted any number of stupid programs, he was still too intelligent and witty for the likes of this kind of awards show.

The kicker for me was when Jordin Sparks, some vapid pop idol who appears to be surrounded by an aura of holier-than-thou inauthenticity, defended promise rings by essentially calling Brand a slut. Yes, Russell Brand is a slut, but at the very least he's completely honest about it. To attempt to preach virtue and abstinence at a show such as the VMAs where three awards can be won by a woman who is basically glorified trailer trash and whose genitals overshadowed her one single this past year (but who still kept thanking God for her awards) is absolutely ludicrous. Also, Sparks obviously didn't know who she was up against - like Simon Amstell told Donny Tourette about taking on Bill Bailey on an episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, "you won't win." Brand came back with a mocking apology to the newest incarnation of Hanson and to those who believe in promise rings (with one of my favourite lines, which to my memory went like this: "I don't want to piss off teenagers, quite the opposite actually. Well, not quite the opposite, I don't want to piss on teenagers. There's been enough of that in the past.")

Contrary to initial appearances, I would rather not rant extensively on how physically ill I felt watching the pieces of the VMAs I did while flicking back to the Canadian Walk of Fame show that was giving a star to one of my earlier obsessions, Michael J. Fox. Instead, I will choose to rant about the state of MTV and/or "music television" in general. What struck me even harder in the face than the fact I hated every artist performing at the VMAs was the fact these awards were supposed to be about videos. Because this was supposedly a special 25th anniversary VMAs, presenters kept paying lip service to the early days of MTV and the VMAs, reminding the audience of who won some of the first ones - names like David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince came up. And I would be in agreement that, like them or not, these artists deserved to win for attempting to create proper videos that were an art in their own right. You would think that at a 25th anniversary show of Video Music Awards that there would be some attempt to incorporate videos into the actual show. This attempt wasn't made at all. Perhaps in their paranoia to stay painfully youthful and relevant, MTV opted to ignore the past entirely. (Who is MTV's target audience anyway? Judging by the appearances by Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and the cast of High School Musical, I would guess twelve-year-olds.) Maybe it wasn't in the budget to make creative performance pieces in tribute to older music videos. What all of this points to for me is the fact that most artists don't make great music videos anymore. And that MTV is no longer music television - a duly noted observation for the past ten years.

Rather than broadcast a stream of music videos, MTV, and its Canadian counterparts MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic, are now built on programming. MTV-made shows like Pimp My Ride, Punk'd, Jackass, and a plethora of other horrid reality/competition shows dominate music television with usually no link to music whatsoever aside from the music played in the background of these shows or the fact these shows may follow music stars around in their daily (usually inane) lives. Last night I turned on MuchMoreMusic (the Canadian VH1) and saw Party of Five. I know I'm too young to have really watched the old style of music television during its heyday in the 80s, but I'm old enough to remember still seeing actual music videos when I was teenager. I also like to think VJs used to know something about music rather than just have the ability to flap their lips. I still recall the days when MuchMusic used to run weekend-long video marathons with themes like the 80s. That would never happen again. And one of the big reasons why is you can get streams of older videos on both the specialty cable channel MuchRetro and even more easily on YouTube. If video killed the radio star, narrowcasting and YouTube killed the video channel.

I'm not naive enough to think all music videos in the past were spectacular and creative - in many cases, earlier music videos suffered from filmmakers wanting to try too much at once. And after all, MTV was/is primarily an advertising channel. A large chunk of 80s videos are hugely cheesy rather than high art, but even with some of the cheese, these videos were memorable. Even with their postcolonial, imperialistic missteps, Duran Duran videos can still spring to mind rather quickly when the songs are played. Music videos used to be iconic. They used to push the envelope. How many videos made in the last ten years can be said to be iconic? OK Go's YouTube success story in the form of the treadmill video for Here It Goes Again. Maybe The White Stripes' video for Seven Nation Army. Then there are those videos that only fans would seek out and see - I personally find the videos for IAMX's President and Song of Imaginary Beings rather visually stunning, but you'll only ever see them online. Like every other facet of society that's being transformed by a digital/download society, music videos can now be manufactured by anyone with access to software and the Internet and everyone can customize their own music television via computer playlists. In this process, creativity and artist independence have likely increased, but now you have to know where to look to find these quality videos as the more mainstream media like MTV have effectively squeezed out their original purpose and homogenized the music video. MTV, which used to be characterized by its slogan "I Want My MTV," connoting some sort of youthful, subcultural choice, is now the place where you will find the least amount of choice and individuality.

And so, for who knows how long, the MTV VMAs have not celebrated videos, but merely the music itself or the flavour-of-the-year artists in some sort of disgusting Top 40 popularity contest. The Video Music Awards should just be called Music Awards and MTV should drop the "music" from its name. In which case, you'd just be watching the TV Music Awards. And I think those are called the Grammys.

Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles

Seen the Future - Lloyd Cole

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #33

I've been realizing that within the past few years my music collection is not only growing in the anglophilic way but in a Scandinavian (scandinavilic?) way as well. I've been amassing music from all four corners of Scandinavia, especially in the genres of electro and jangle pop. Oddly enough, as much travelling as I've done in Europe, I've never been to any of the Scandinavian countries, but I always have this image in my mind of clean, progressive places where post-secondary education is free and society is more open. And everything would be . Up until about four years ago, I hadn't really thought of Scandinavian music at all. Sure, I liked the Danish Raveonettes and Norwegian Sondre Lerche, and I didn't like the Swedish Hives, and I was well aware of the disco behemoth ABBA, the music video prowess of a-ha, and the fact a lot of pop tarts and boy bands had their songs written by Swedes, but I didn't really think about how many truly exceptional bands and artists come from the Nordic countries.

Sweden, especially Gothenburg, seems to dominate the music scene in what would seem a rather disproportionate way. In fact, it's such a prolific scene that there's an MP3 blog dedicated just to Swedish music: Swedesplease. The sheer amount of material coming out of that country deserves its own IKEA storage system, and I will not attempt to give any comprehensive look at Swedish music, let alone all Norwegian, Danish and Finnish music as well. For a start, you can visit specific record labels that focus specifically on Scandinavian artists (at the moment Labrador, Despotz and Cosy Den come to mind). Scandinavian artists pillage older genres like Motown, surf rock, synthpop, and jangle pop to come up with some of the tweest and memorable pop tunes. At the other end of the spectrum, Scandinavian countries also seem to produce a lot of death metal. I don't like death metal.

(Relatively Random Tangent: I also think Scandinavians have created the patent for visually striking blonde-brunette duos, starting with ABBA, but continuing through The Raveonettes and The Deer Tracks.)

Because I had so many Scandinavian artists, I decided to make this mix a bit of a megamix with 28 tracks. Of course Sweden has the lion's share of artists featured (The Knife, Alice in Videoland, Zeigeist, The Tough Alliance, Air France, The Radio Dept., The Deer Tracks, The Cardigans, Twig, Peter, Bjorn and John, Elenette, Blind Terry, Irene, Pelle Carlberg, The Mary Onettes, The Sound of Arrows, El Perro Del Mar, Club 8), but there are also bands from Norway (Don Juan Dracula, Lorraine, a-ha, Bedroom Eyes, Sondre Lerche), Finland (Viola, Cats on Fire) and Denmark (The Raveonettes, Mew, Windermere). You get your electropop from the likes of The Knife, Alice in Videoland and The Tough Alliance while you get some truly airy and pretty tunes from The Deer Tracks, The Radio Dept. and Mew and some wonderful C86 from Blind Terry, Bedroom Eyes, El Perro Del Mar and Irene. And check out the Edwyn Collinsesque vocals of Twig. So put on your cultural stereotype hat, grab some meatballs, quickly assemble a chair to sit on and take a listen. I'll call this mix No Death Metal.

You Take My Breath Away - The Knife

Candy - Alice in Videoland

Sad Eyed Disco Dancers - Viola

No Control - Don Juan Dracula

Pressurized Chamber - Zeigeist

Touch Me - Lorraine

Living a Boy's Adventure Tale - a-ha

1981 - The Tough Alliance

Collapsing at Your Doorstep - Air France

Pulling Our Weight - The Radio Dept.

Slow Collision - The Deer Tracks

Am I Wry? No - Mew

Here Comes Mary - The Raveonettes

Lovefool - The Cardigans

Indigo - Twig

There's a Sun - Windermere

(Here's One For You) Underdog - Bedroom Eyes

The Chills - Peter, Bjorn and John

Jag hatar män - Elenette

The White Mantled King - Cats on Fire

When Prefab Sprout Wrecked My Mind - Blind Terry

Baby I Love Your Way - Irene

1983 (Pelle and Sebastian) - Pelle Carlberg

Void - The Mary Onettes

A Very Sad Song - The Sound of Arrows

People - El Perro Del Mar

Track You Down - Sondre Lerche

The Girl With the Northern Soul Collection - Club 8

Weekly Mix #33 (Megaupload)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Antipodean Parisians: Van She's V

I've been waiting for a proper Van She album for what seems like forever. They released an EP a couple of years ago, which seemed also to take a fair bit of time to come out, especially since I had enjoyed the singles I had heard prior to the EP's release. It seems Van She's debut album V dropped at the beginning of August, but from what I can tell, it hasn't been made available for North America yet aside from imported copies. Along with Cut Copy, MSTRKRFT, The Presets, The Tough Alliance and Ladyhawke, Van She is yet another fantastic band on the Modular roster and I think that they and Cut Copy are my favourite Modular artists. The Australian electro outfit seemed to have a bit of an 80s post-punk/synthpop vibe on their self-titled EP with songs like Kelly, Mission, and Sex City, but V takes them into a slightly different vein. Overall, V feels lighter and even more laidback while giving me a sense of French atmosphere and influences, including those of Phoenix and Air.

The record's first track, Memory Man, retains some of the synthy sounds of the songs found on the earlier EP while the vocals take the song into a more mournful direction before cycling into the next song, Cat & the Eye, which is the first single released from V and is a hissing explosion of technicolour steam and psychedelic flourishes. The following track Changes, which has also been recently released as a single, takes the band in a less electro, but more mellow retro direction akin to Phoenix and gives me that distinct feeling of Parisian partying. Strangers is equally as mellow and has an anthemic chorus riding along a cascade of synths. It Could Be the Same veers off into a more twee-electro direction as its opening revs into a video game-like melody, but then turns into a more minimal rock song before heading into screaming high registers of guitars. The next couple of tracks, The Sea and Virgin Suicide, turn back into the dreamier, laidback tone presented in Changes and Strangers, and Virgin Suicide has one of the album's catchier indie-rock choruses. After the dark but brief electronic instrumental, Temps Mort, Talkin' blows in with driving, bouncy guitars, which feel like they're bumping up and down an underlay of electro elements as vocals flip between soaring highes and lower levels. Kelly, the only track to migrate from the EP to the debut LP, gets a more textured makeover, but still fits nicely in this newer context, allowing its fist-pumping 80s chorus to sit alongside the airy indie of the other tracks. So High is a soulful tune perfect for a morning comedown as it bops along to a shimmery little synth line and the Thomas Mars-like flourishes on the vocals. Concluding track, A Sharp Knife, is a subtle finish with its steady drumbeat taking a prominent position before the song explodes with the lovely higher countermelody over top of the lower primary vocal.

It was definitely worth the wait for Van She's full-length debut - it gives me that same slightly bohemian, café-dwelling, club-hopping-with-hipster-kids feeling I like to dream Paris would give me (despite the fact I didn't experience Paris that way the one and only time I visited there). Hopefully it won't take as long for Van She to release a second LP as it took for them to get their EP and debut album into the fans' hands and ears. Vive l'Australie.

Cat & the Eye - Van She

Changes - Van She

Virgin Suicide - Van She

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ghost in the Gramophone: Bella Koshka's Slow Dancing on the Ocean Floor

Minneapolis-based band Bella Koshka has the honour of being my 100th post, and I'm quite glad my 100th post is a truly independent band of this calibre. Dreamily describing themselves as "A dusty violin and the diary of a girl. A tale of two dreamers and their stories lost in time," consists of violinist Hilary Davis, vocalist Laura Boland, drummer Matte Franklin, guitarist Matt Vannelli and bassist Tim Ritter. Their influences include Danny Elfman, Bat For Lashes, Patrick Wolf, Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, IAMX and M83, and I can definitely hear the darker, ethereal moments of all these artists in their sound. They are like the ghost trapped in the gramophone.

First track, Compass, is an instrumental with an organ and violin backed by shadowy noises and accented by bells that twinkle like fairylights in the darkness. The subsequent track, Relic, begins with rock guitars, but takes an unexpected turn with Boland's whispering but slightly operatic vocals and Davis's droning violin, becoming a romantic lament; then electronic elements kick in to create the feeling of a dusty attic crackling with supernatural static. Fiction definitely could have been a Patrick Wolf track with its fusing of lonely violin and electronic surges, expressing an elegant elegy for longing and forming an image of a windswept moor or beach in my mind. With a shift into trickling arpeggios, Paint the Sky is a briefer track that lilts along like a antique doll coming to life and finding its legs. Coma showcases the Kate Bush aspect of Boland's voice as it ebbs and flows, and the guitars add a sense of urgency to the delicious melancholy of the violin. Replicant tells the story of someone wilting and turning cold, splintering into his/her lover's arms, and the electronic buzzes, the sliding of the violin bow, and the light drums emphasize this icy fragility as the narrator disintegrates.

Home begins with a reverby organ and violin combination that evokes a cavernous gothic cathedral and all those decadent, wicked impulses associated with Catholicism and its deliberate obfuscations and pertinent sense of guilt. The song continues with breathy vocals overlaid on each other and reverby rhythms that envelop you in a hypnotic haze. Echo starts with discordant violin strains that persist to pulse beneath an interchange of lines Boland has with herself while the following track, Treasure, is a more dramatic affair with angry downbeats which sometimes dissipate to reveal a more languid style as Boland's voice arches its back like a contented cat. Stitches is an airier, fluttering song like an old wind-up butterfly flying about in the dust motes of a shaft of light. The album closes with Anchor, which begins with piano and pregnant pauses and moves into Tori Amos-like pairing of the keys and vocals. Anchor enchants and cradles you like a lover as it propels you in a slow dance embrace across a ballroom floor in Miss Havisham's house, ending in a phantom-like crackle.

Overall, Slow Dancing on the Ocean Floor is a theatrical but delicate debut, expressing both longing and despair, dreams and escape. As its apt title suggests, the record does feel like it has held you to the sea floor, where all motions are graceful, even those of the drowning. Bella Koshka is currently doing shows in and around their hometown, including a support slot for Cruxshadows, so if you're nearby, find yourself some tickets. Their music has an antiquated beauty about it while fusing the old with elements of the electrical age, reminding me of the magic of the first, turn-of-the-century industrial music.

Bella Koshka's MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/bellakoshka
Bella Koshka's Web site: http://www.bellakoshka.com/

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Greek Chorus of Relationship Guilt: Bloc Party's Intimacy

Released in digital format on August 21 (and to be released on physical format with some bonus tracks at the much later date of October 27), Bloc Party's latest album, Intimacy, had become one of those albums I forgot to anticipate or expect. Its release blindsided me a bit. I've been a fan of Bloc Party since before the release of their first album, Silent Alarm (which was released considerably later in Canada than in the UK) - I consider them the best of the bunch that all seemed to appear on the music scene at the same time (Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park, Franz Ferdinand). Their jagged, jerky post-punk guitars and windmilling drums paired with often vicious and/or political lyrics stood out from the rest of the pack, and I took them far more seriously than their contemporaries. And despite their sophomore album, A Weekend in the City, being a bit of directional change (more electronics and more personal lyrics), I still really enjoyed them - the commentary on life in London in the 21st century was just as political and meaningful as direct commentary on broader global themes. With Intimacy, it seems Bloc Party have taken the next logical step in evolution: even more electronic influences (which was hinted at with non-album single Flux) and even more personal lyrics ostensibly about singer Kele Okereke's recent breakup. If Silent Alarm was an abstract comment on a global situation and A Weekend in the City was a more localized remark on 21st century youth in the English capital, Intimacy brings the focus down even closer as it comments on Okereke's personal situation of a fraught relationship - the album often brings the microscope down so forcefully it shows the spidery cracks of the slide of Okereke's personal life. Though Bloc Party have strayed considerably from their commentary on world politics, they have still found a way to discuss politics - in this case, relationship and sexual politics, which I think can be seen as world power struggles and politics in microcosm.

Bloc Party has always been exceptional at presenting a dark, intelligent vulnerability rather than the cheeky bravado of their contemporaries and with Intimacy, they have opened up even further while filling out the rattly skeletal frame of their Gang of Four guitars with bigger electronics. It is also readily apparent that this record features numerous Greek mythology references, giving the piece a feeling of overarching theme. Appropriately titled after the god of war, album opener, Ares, is an aural assault of one of the most violating kinds with shredding guitars and electronic noise grating up and down your spine. It feels like a catharsis of frustration expelling your insides onto an anonymous dancefloor Bacchanalia where it will be trampled into something more intoxicating. Mercury, which is the only single to be officially released as of yet, takes Bloc Party's former jagged angles and refashions them into an electro angularity with its skipping, clipped chorus of "mercury's in retrograde"; this chorus is also a lovely metaphorical one that can be read in a variety of ways, including in the astrological sense, in a temperature sense, or of course in a Greek mythological sense. The skipping, synchopated style of the chorus gives a sense of slipping and sliding backwards like a jittery Sisyphus. Halo is more rock-based, hearkening back to Bloc Party's debut, but perhaps is a little too reminiscent of Helicopter, although its interlude of raucous guitars and cymbal crashes is still quite good. Its lyrics hint at infatuation at first sight tempered by a knowledge that it's just too good to last.

The album takes a softer turn with Biko, which seems to be both about Steve Biko, a noted black South African anti-apartheid activist who died from injuries suffered during interrogation and a personal relationship with someone who is slipping away. Biko begins with a lone(ly) guitar before blooming into a more frenetic pleading as Okereke returns once again to Greek mythology by invoking a crossing of the River Styx. Trojan Horse is one of my favourite tracks on the album with the beautiful lines "You used to take your watch off before we made love/You didn't want to share our time with anyone." Amidst the squeaks and squawks of feedback and sound effects, Okereke manages to smuggle in a core of tenderness and disillusionment. Signs reins in the rocking pace with tinkling chimes and glockenspiel while building beyond the childlike music box atmosphere as the lyrics once more linger over the death of a loved one.

One Month Off swings back to an angry tone as heavy drums join even heavier guitars, which remind me of Klaxons' Atlantis to Interzone. It also features some of Okereke's best lyrics, dripping with vindictiveness: "I can be as cruel as you/Fighting fire with firewood/I can be as cruel as you/Fighting lies with lies." The idea of fighting fire with the futility of firewood is a brilliant image, and this chorus just seems to shortcircuit itself with stuttered fury by the finale. Zephyrus, which is named for the Greek god of the west wind, features a Prayer-like drumbeat and lyrics which reference the fact Zephyrus abducted Chloris and made her goddess of flowers: "And your face is still wet from the fight before/As your tears hit the ground, blue flowers spring from them." There is also an eerie choir in the background, seemingly acting like a Greek chorus of guilt as the narrator seems to be feeling the guilt of falling out of love with someone. Better Than Heaven uses a bouncier beat and toned-down melodies for Okereke's attack on the concept of original sin and the danger of knowledge until a firestorm of guitars whips the song apart like a volcano of desire. Final track, Ion Square, features lines from E.E. Cummings' poem I Carry Your Heart With Me and uses an insistent piano and rippling wistfulness similar to LCD Soundsystem's All My Friends to convey a desperate grasp at preserving the initial heady feeling of love and attraction. The gentle vocals and baby's breath sprays of electronic sound meld into a hopeful tribute to whatever could pass as undying love in a mortal world.

I'm still pretty bitter about not being able to see Bloc Party during their North American tour, but hey, if you live somewhere other than Winnipeg, you likely have a good chance of going to see them. Enough complaining. I think Intimacy is exactly where Bloc Party should be right now - translating age-old quandaries of the human condition into a "postmodern" theatre where people still wear masks when loving each other.

Ares - Bloc Party

Trojan Horse - Bloc Party

Ion Square - Bloc Party