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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Tape deck solos and slam poems!?

  • Reflections on Okkervil River's growing discography. NB: since I first published this a lot more promotional material for Okkervil River's upcoming album The Silver Gymnasium has been released, pretty much confirming all my thematic speculations. For a particularly cool promo, check out this illustrated, interactive map.

I regularly make the mistake of recommending my favourite bands to friends and acquaintances. It seems like an excellent opportunity to share music; a great chance to debate with informed individuals whose varying opinions can enhance our mutual experience.  In reality, however, every time I am simultaneously bitchy, overbearing, sensitive and aggressive. Even if new listeners agree with my taste, I tend to get over-protective and jealous, or terrified that I'm being lied  to in order to spare my feelings. So, rather than start a blog in which I attempt to spread musical love, I started one in which in which I belittle the opinions of others.  

This time, however, I'm going to expose myself and my taste. I want to share my thoughts on the first track released from Okkervil River's latest album, The Silver Gymnasium. The track is called It Was My Season and a promo video for it has recently gone online. Now, I get particularly aggressive about Okkervil River. The band's leader, Will Sheff, is our generation's greatest lyricist and I'll block my ears and hum obscure early Okkervil River b-sides if anyone tries to tell me otherwise. The Silver Gymanisum is set to be released on the 3rd of September. My birthday. It's pretty much for me.

I have to admit, however, that I was a little apprehensive when I first heard the track and read the lyrics. The Silver Gymnasium will be the band's 7th LP, and their 6th - I Am Very Far - was a dangerous record.  It was the first of the band's albums to be produced solely by Sheff. The man had a fucking field day. In an interview with Spin, Sheff explained that Piratess features ripping paper and peeling rolls of duct tape as percussive sound effects. Sheff went on to say that for White Shadow Waltz "Recording the song was fun though. File cabinets were thrown across the room, there was screaming, things breaking". I'm not even going to attempt to summarise Sheff's explanation of how Piratess' "guitar" solo was constructed:

"In the middle of the song there's a solo that I created by fast-forwarding and rewinding a cassette back and forth in a big cheap boombox.

It took awhile to figure out how to "play" the boombox to the point where it felt vaguely melodious. Once I was done, I had Brian Cassidy -- our ex-guitarist who still works with us pretty regularly -- sit down and chart out the cassette "solo" on sheet music -- as if it was this carefully written piece -- and then exactly double it on electric guitar. It was hard for him to do, because there are all these pitch-bends that come from the irregularity of a boombox, and he had to match them by bending his guitar strings exactly in time with the cassette."

I don't know if the track grew on me or in the end my love for the band caused me to be willfully blind to the goddamn pretentiousness of it all. Whatever it may be, I'd highly recommend I Am Very Far. I would never advise that a newcomer to the band starts here, but it's definitely a compelling addition to Okkervil River's catalogue. When a band is at album number 6 and year 13, it's important to try new things. I have increasingly less time for the "the first album is always the best album" contingent. It's boring to treat an artist's albums as if they're in competition somehow, or to rate them against each other all the time.

Dull album comparisons have been going on for decades. People lost their shit when Bob Dylan went electric. Titus Andronicus went a little classic rock for 2012's Local Business and the album was branded one of the biggest let downs of 2012 by Pitchfork readers. I enjoy a musical debate as much as the next guy (unless it's about Okkervil River), but constantly putting album's down for not being as good as their predecessors isn't healthy for music or for its listeners. It's okay not to like an album like Titus' Local Business. It's okay to think it's not quite as good as their second album, The Monitor. It is not, however, okay to dislike it simply because it isn't The Monitor. Both are independent projects to be enjoyed separately for what they are.

In this way, I like that I Am Very Far is Okkervil's batshitmakesnosense production-wise album. It sits nicely in a large discography next to other albums which also represent specific, interesting things. Albums 4 and 5 - The Stage Names and The Stand Ins - are, broadly speaking, a double concept record dealing with the collateral damage caused by fame and the culture of celebrity. Black Sheep Boy, album number 3, surrounds the misadventures of its titular character. The album has a warped, fairy tale style, almost like a Tim Burton movie. Recurring themes include the likes of child abuse and kidnap. Rather than force these album's fight against one another, I like to view them as separate entities to be visited when the time is right.

So now at album number 7 and year 15, I think it'll be interesting to see where Okkervil River go next. I didn't really know I was expecting when I turned to It Was My Season. Despite my above moral crusade, I won't deny that I Am Very Far had left me with a vague fear gently prickling in the back of my mind. While it's important not to compare albums against each other too much, a bad album is still a bad album. Would The Silver Gymnasium see Sheff hurtle over the self-indulgent-production cliff? Would there be auto tuned dog barking? Gunshots for percussion (where you actually hear the victim die for, y'know, added authenticity), or worse still, slam poetry?

Despite all that, I was pleasantly surprised by the approachability of It Was My Season. The song is based on a jaunty piano riff, with Sheff singing pretty high up in his register, but in a comfortable way. Not in the borderline insane screamy way heard in albums like Black Sheep Boy. While both styles have their own merits, I think soaring  piano rock suits the maturing Sheff quite well, as was displayed on I Am Very Far's We Need a Myth.

Something that did catch my attention, however, was the simplicity of the track's subject matter. The song seems to be about a teenage love affair. The references to an Atari games console place us in the late 80s/early 90s when Sheff himself was a teenager. On Sheff's website he explains "The Silver Gymnasium takes place in 1986, in a small town in New Hampshire." It all seems like a bit of a thematic step down for a band who can pull off a song entitled "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel 1979" without a trace of irony. Nonetheless, "personal childhood record number 7" could be a vital addition to the Okkervil discography if handled properly. Perhaps the songs will be more viscerally, instinctively emotional, rather than intensely thought provoking as much of the band's other work is.

I'm going to try and take a lesson from my own preachy blogging and welcome The Silver Gymnasium with an open mind on its release in September.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Pretentiousness. And Cars. And Golf Clubs?

  • Reflections on why a little pretentiousness can be healthy.

I think I've been told that being able to admit you're wrong is a sign of maturity. Regardless of whether this is true, I think it's a good idea. At the end of last year I was wrong. In my piece  "5 Alternative Top 5s for, but not necessarily related to, 2012" I suggested that Holly Herndon's Movement was one of 5 albums "I just did not get" that year.

To say that I now really "get it" might be a step too far, but I think I'm starting to understand what the album's about. I think that the record represents music as art in its purest form. It's not about relatable lyrics or melodies. It's about trying to tune into the exact plain on which the music exists and not only listening to the sounds available, but registering and reflecting on whatever effect they might have on us as listeners. Given that the record's name is Movement it's perhaps not too far a stretch to suggest that this is partly what Ms. Herndon had in mind. Movement is definitely a right place right time record, but I'd recommend listening to it on a pair of headphones. All the left-right panning and manipulated breath noises really get into your head after a while.

[I was also wrong to attack her for suggesting that the emotional energy of her Skype calls can be heard in her music by virtue of having passed through her laptop. Her point was in fact that it would amazing if this could happen one day in the future. This, I guess, is arguable rather than completely insane.]

However, given that blogging by its very nature is horribly, intolerably pretentious, I'm not too happy with the little paragraph that I constructed above. Anyone discussing "music as art in its purest form" deserves to be punched in the face. Those volunteering to hit me should comment below. While I won't deny I deserve it for making my point as I did, I don't think that the point is any less valid. Branding a record as "music as art in its purest form" is undeniably pretentious as balls, but it's not a reason not to listen to it. Shrugging off music because it's "too pretentious" is just pretentiousness' ugly redneck cousin. Prejudiced anti-hipsters are little better than hipsters themselves.

I hope that that explains why we shouldn't not listen to musicasart, but it still doesn't really support the claim that it can be genuinely interesting to listen to the likes of processed breath noises instead of just accepting whatever immediately enjoyable Adele song is on the radio. I've toyed a lot with metaphors and ways to explain it. I think - continuing on from a feature I recently wrote for anydecentmusic - that the best analogy I can come up with is something to do with cars. Adele is a reasonably priced family car. She goes averagely fast, she's reasonably fuel efficient, and you can also put golf clubs in her. She might do all of the above quite well, but that doesn't change the fact a Ferrari will go faster, an electric car is more fuel efficient and a truck could take 100 sets of golf clubs. If money, space, the environment, and maintenance were no object, having 26 cars would be better than having 1.  A Ferrari might take a little getting used to, but with a little perseverance the rewards are definitely there. 

I have no idea if Adele has released a record this year, but for the sake of argument let's assume she has. It might be okay if you were stuck on a desert island with one album for the rest of the year. It'll probably have everything a pop album should have: ballads, upbeat numbers and hit singles, but it probably doesn't excel at much. So far this year, Vampire Weekend or Phoenix have arguably produced the best "pop" albums. For intimate feminine tracks, Torres' eponymous album is peerless. Relationship-based musings have been nailed by The National. Then there's everything else in between, below, and beyond that an Adele record simply wouldn't cover. My favourite records this year are probably those released by (ever-more rock n' roll sounding) punk band  The Men, and alternative R&B duo Rhye.

These are just quick examples collected by arranging my iTunes collection by year, but the point is one about diversity. Scratching below the surface of whatever reasonably priced family music is available on the radio reveals a world of specialties, whether it's hardcore punk or "music as art in its purest form". Over the years of exploring music's weirdest fringes it's possible to gradually map out a specific and refined taste, picking and choosing the best parts from every genre and returning to each when the time is right. Whether it's music or collecting cars, the best results will only be found by investing a little time and effort, and not settling for things which are universally "okay". Listening to musicasart isn't about eschewing "normal" music in favour of weirdness for the sake of weirdness, it simply makes up a small part of a broad base of speciality music in which each part does what it is intended to do excellently.

Of course, I'm not saying that I like all music. I'll never get death metal, for example. As seems to be the case with everything I've written in this blog, I'm just stressing the importance of having an open mind. Maybe I should replace the banner at the top with "TL;DR - it's good to be a dick about music, but only after you've given it a chance".

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Aye-m Scoattish.

  • Reflections on whether the age of the Scotrock is, or at least should be, over.

Being in a band forces you to mature fast. Not long after first putting your music out into the world, the realisation that no one cares sets in. Why should they? No one owes you anything. There are a million things going on in the lives of others. Why would you ever have dreamt that your music would play a part even 1/100th of the size in their lives that it has played in your own? Given the brutality of it all, I think it's important to support local acts. I buy CDs when I can. I offer courtesy Facebook likes to bands that friends show me even if their music doesn't particularly interest me. If it makes them look more legitimate and makes it easier for them to win real fans then I'm happy to help.

On that note, I feel pretty uncomfortable about this blog post. I don't enjoy being cynical. I don't think it's especially productive, particularly when cynicism is directed at low-level acts. For a while I toyed with the idea of making this post something of a name 'n' shame. I planned to turn each bitchy criticism into a little red hyperlink, highlight an example of what some new band was doing so horribly wrong. Eventually my sense of support and community won over and I decided against it. In the interests of full disclosure, at this point I would also like to admit that the I am guilty of all the sins listed in this article, and in many cases my complaints are born partially out of jealousy about the fact that so many of my peers shamelessly pander to the zeitgeist so much better than I do. Nonetheless, I ultimately hope that something positive can be taken from this post. While it may cause many to deservedly hate me, I hope it might provide inspiration for others. 

So what am I complaining about? I recently received an email from a friend entitled "why do I hate this so much?". The music was identical to virtually every "hey, check out this new band my friend started" song I get sent these days. Thick Scots accent? Check. Delay-soaked Telecaster riffs? Check. Uncomfortably sincere lead vocalist? Check. Quietverseloudchorusquietverseloudchorusepicmiddle8loudchorusend? Check. I attempted to reply to my friend and to pin down exactly where his gut-reaction hatred came from. This post is an extended version of my reply.

I think the best place to start is the Scottish accent. While the accent alone can't be held responsible, all my other criticisms seem to form neatly around it. Now, it goes without saying  that local accents have always been a part of folk music (it almost feels wrong to refer to them as a "part" of the music given that they most likely simply existed unconsciously in the music). Following that, The Proclaimers also made the accent widely popular in the 1980s. Roddy Woomble settled on his natural accent around the turn of the century with the release of Idlewild's 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part. Nonetheless, without undertaking any research, it seems to me to be the case that accent overemphasis really took off with Fatcat Records' big three - The Twilight Sad, Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks - sometime towards the end of the last decade. These acts, in conjunction with their lesser-known contemporaries, provided inspiration for a slew of imitators and now, in 2013, we're left sifting through the dross. 

What is it about the use of our accent that can inspire anger in certain listeners? I believe that it's because it is little more than a mild form of emotional blackmail. Before it became over-used, the accent was a symbol of sincerity. This is probably due to its close connection with folk music. It made heart-on-sleeve, emotional lyrics okay again after the mid-2000s, which saw Wales provide the world with a series of bands that sang in nasal, emo, fake, American Pie accents. Coupled with the genuinely excellent music on early records released by the bands discussed above, the Scottish accent earned global respect.

However, respect quickly became cashing in. "This is what people like now? Better turn off the American and switch to Scots! People dig emotion? And metaphors? And weather? I bet they'll like alliteration too: waves, wind and water (and drowning, of course) sound great together! Are you cold? I'm cold! We're in Scotland man! Better write a song about how hard it is to be warm and/or getting stuck in the rain! I'm true to emotion and true to Scotland. Like. Me." I think that the anger comes from the fact that what was once a symbol of sincerity is being abused in a completely hollow manner no more genuine than the American Pie emo already mentioned. Whilst I'm being slightly hyperbolic, my complaints aren't far from realistic. I once played a show with a singer who spoke with a strong English accent. When he got up on stage and began singing a tonally-perfect Simon Neil impression, I had to stop listening, head for the bar, and buy a strong drink. While the accent and lyrical style is the primary focus of my frustration, I think that the whole package - delay lines, telecasters, and unnecessary start/stop riffing - has become stale. It's particularly frustrating that imitators' musical style of choice seems not to follow innovative furrows ploughed by the likes of The Twilight sad, but instead that of Scotrock's most bland act, Twin Atlantic.  

Identifying problems is easy. Coming up with solutions is harder. What would I like to see the next time a friend sends me a link and asks me to "check out this sweet band"? Ditching the accent would be problematic. Intentionally abandoning homegrown accents would be just as transparent as intentionally overemphasising them. I think singers should be encouraged simply to sing naturally, but it's a shame that this has become "singing in his/her accent". So to get Scotland out of it's rut, I think we need to change our approach to making music and break away from the emotional niche that we've been bludgeoned to a tearful death with. I think that CHVRCHES' overnight success must be partly attributable to the simple fact that they offered something new. Personally, I would like to see music with an element of danger. Something with a bit of passion, sleaze and aggression. If the next band in my inbox is Scotland's answer to DFA1979, LCD Soundsytem, Les Savy Fav, Fugazi - or better yet all of the above and something new - our country will be a far more interesting place.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Greatest Hits Fan Club.

  • Reflections on whether it's truly possible or wise for contemporary music fans to view classic artists as their "favourites".

Those who are unfamiliar with the hilarious blog Texts from Dog should familiarise themselves with it immediately. I like to think that my relationship with my flatmate is not unlike the relationship between the characters on the site, although I'm not sure which one of us is the dog. Despite sharing the same physical space, we make surprisingly little physical contact. Communication is primarily via passive aggressive texts and Facebook messages. We like to piss each other off.

In December I think I crossed a line. I crossed it so far that it was worth saving the response: 
"In 10 years time. I can see only about 5 of those acts still going with "any decent music." The Hipster-shite you listen to will be here today, forgotten about tomorrow. Just like hipsters."
Apparently suggesting to a die-hard Springsteen fan that the reason Rolling Stone was the only publication to name Wrecking Ball as the "best album of 2012" was because both artist and magazine are for old men isn't a good idea. Now, I should state the I am a fan of Springsteen. The comment I made was designed purely to annoy. But the exchange got me thinking about the relationship between fans of music today and older artists.

I've found that music fans like to hide behind popular musicians. I've been told on more than one occasion that I "automatically lose" any battle of musical taste because my favourite band came into being after the turn of the millennium and isn't The Smiths/Bruce Springsteen/The Beatles/Neil Young/Insertyourdad'sfavouritebandhere. It's as if nostalgia places such artists atop a pedestal that no modern music could ever hope to topple. It's as if music died with the Smiths. Such hiding is not only boring, it's disrespectful to a lot of the great music being produced today. Not only do I think that 20 year old "my favourite band is the Smiths" types are boring, I would also argue that they just don't "get" the band they claim to be such a fan of.

I like The Smiths, as well as the Beatles and all of the bands I listed above, but I would never go beyond calling myself a "greatest hits fan". I do in fact own a Smiths greatest hits CD, but as I grew to appreciate the band my collection expanded into Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead. Nonetheless, I would feel disrespectful removing myself from the "greatest hits fan" bracket. I feel that it's important not to do so because so much of what makes music great is culture. I remember speaking to a friend who must have been my age or younger when the Smiths first became popular. He said that Morrissey was a cultural phenomenon. Not only was he an excellent singer and songwriter, but no one had any idea whether he was gay, straight, or both. I also imagine that hearing Johnny Marr's guitar playing less than a decade after the Sex Pistols had tried to ruin music must have been incredibly refreshing. While the Smiths' music still sounds great, I don't know if any one of my contemporaries will ever appreciate the cultural wave that made it important when it first came alive. I'm sure the same could be said for the likes of Motown's heyday. Today the records sound as good as they ever did, but I bet they don't feel the same way they did in Civil Rights Era America. 

I can't stress enough how much respect I have for all of the old bands I've talked about here and how much I enjoy their music. I also understand how important they are and have learned a lot from listening to them. The first time I was put on to Neil Young's Country Home I immediately thought "holy shit, so that's where Idlewild got Younger than America from." When I first listened to Born to Run from start to end I thought "so that's where modern rock and indie got... pretty much all of modern rock and indie from!". I also understand that there are countless more artists that influenced history's great musicians and hope to stumble across them in time, too. I'm sure that there are a lot of transcendent themes in the music, but I'm also fairly certain that something will get lost. I would therefore urge any young music fan to seek out new and interesting sounds and not be content with what their parents listened to simply because it's clothed in nostalgic legitimacy. I don't know what music will define the 2000s and early 2010s. I can only speak for myself in saying that I will look back on this period of time and remember listening to a lot of indie punk and being angry about being stuck in a jobless recession. Nonetheless, I can say with confidence that we should strive to make new bands our favourite bands, because it's our job to make them the bands our generation will be remembered for. 

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Thrill is Gone?

  • Reflections on whether we can grow out of musical puppy love. 

This month I've been listening to Foals' new album, Holy Fire. It's a good listen. They show some balls that have previously been hidden. Other times they just embrace the rhythm to corny-as-hell-but-enjoyable effect. Unfortunately the second half just dies. Slowly.

The new album wasn't what interested me, though. Not really. Listening to the band's latest album led me back to listening to their first. Antidotes came out in 2008, towards the time I was finishing high school. I fell in love with the album. At the time it really felt like I was experiencing something unlike anything I'd heard before. The spacy, cryptic songs inspired some part of my imagination that struck a chord with me and where I was at the time. In hindsight, I of course realise that songs like Hummer (which didn't in fact make the final album) and Cassius really are as obnoxious as my friends at the time pointed out. They belong as the soundtrack to terrible high school parties dubbed "raves" or "Skins parties" by high school girls with too much money and not enough imagination. Nonetheless, it remains the case that I can only describe the feeling that listening to that album again conjured up as something close to love. Something hard to put into words.

This in turn moved me to think of music more broadly. I began to wonder if I'd felt that feeling since. Certainly I can remember it clearly as a teenager. When I first heard the technical prowess of Funeral for a Friend's Hours, or when Bloc Party's Silent Alarm rescued me from emo I was enamoured. The Xcerts' debut, In the Cold Wind We Smile, with its mix of power pop perfection and reflective lyrics hit me pretty hard in the summer I left school, as I was waiting to begin university. Looking back at the music I've discovered since coming to university, however, I realise that examples of such album affection are few and far between. I suppose that Johnny Marr's guitar work on Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank came close. Titus Andronicus's The Monitor was pretty important for me a few months ago. I wrote pretty extensively about it at the time. For all that I truly enjoyed albums such as these, I just don't know if I've been caught up and smitten in the same way I was with Antidotes

Maybe as we get older we get more cynical. Maybe we just hear too much: perhaps music ceases to surprise us. Whilst my desire to seek out new music absolutely hasn't waned, I hope that I'll fall in love with albums again. The comparisons to love and the repeat references to high school might however provide a source of optimism. I used to think that I would never feel again what I felt for my first girlfriend. It wasn't that I hadn't had strong feelings for other girls, but the thrill was gone. Nonetheless, I've since been proven wrong. I hope that I'm proven wrong about music, too.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

A Waxen Revival.

  • A quick reflection on the "Vinyl Revival".

I would never consider myself to be "manly". I like to read novels, not Nuts. I played in the wind band in high school, not on the football team. I drink gin and tonic, not Strongbow. Nonetheless, a week ago I found myself stripping various lengths of wire. With tools

Admittedly a lot of pretty decent wire was lost in the process, but eventually I succeeded. I was attempting to wire up my flatmate and I's first hi-fi system, complete with record player, digital radio (courtesy of my grandmother's kitchen), iPod dock, 2 speakers (courtesy of my parents' attic), and an amplifier. Whilst we might be somewhat late bandwagon jumpers, we're part of what many are calling a vinyl revival

A 30 second Google research session involving pulling data erratically from various sources indicates that vinyl sales increased 5% in 2009, 55% in 2010, and 43.7% in 2011. Last year, however, sales only increased a further 10.3%. Whether this means that growth has experienced a temporary blip as we enter the octuple dip recession or whether the vinyl market is saturated is unclear. 

The dubious statistical evidence on which I base this analysis and my amateur statistician/economist status probably mean that no rash decisions should be made just yet. Regardless, there's no reason to let optimism die until we reach the end of 2013 and we have a new set of stats to look. For the time being, it's interesting to ask why a vinyl revival makes sense. With Urban Outfitters selling vinyl (only Arcade Fire's first LP. Only to be listened to on record players that looks like a Blitz evacuee's suitcase) it would be unreasonable to deny that hipsterism hasn't played a part in all this. Nonetheless, more substantial reasons appear to exist. Some believe that as the initial hysteria surrounding MP3 is dying away, people are again realising that the tangible, permanent element of a music collection has a certain value that simply cannot be replicated on an iPod. Anyone who has watched or read Hi Fidelity can appreciate that collecting and organising is in the blood of any music fan. Phrases like "limited release" or "special edition" have an undeniable attraction. I was moments away from impulsively spending £30 I don't have on latest The Joy Formidable record because of all the cool stuff that comes with it.

LPs also have a particular advantage over CDs - their size. When an album sleeve is 12" rather than 12cm it's easy to see why it's called "album art". Our flat has three Ikea record sleeve frames hanging behind the TV which not only provide a cheap means of decorating the walls, but an ever-growing record collection also means an ever-growing supply of artwork which can easily swapped in and out depending on our mood. (For those interested, currently up there are Greetings from Asbury ParkThe Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, and Black Sheep Boy. Springsteen may have to make way for Hospice in the near future.)

What's more, underlying all this is the fact they vinyl simply sounds better. A sound engineer  friend once explained to me why this is the case, but I didn't understand it. "It just does, okay" is the best summary I can give here, but the point still stands unless, of course, you're listening to vinyl on a record player that looks like a Blitz evacuee's suitcase which also, by the way, comes fitted with an EU plug despite being sold on Urban Outfitters' UK website. (Whether this is due to the nature of mass production or because having "the wrong plug" is now cool is unclear). Finally, with most modern records coming packaged with a free digital download of the album there is no risk of losing the portability of your music collection by choosing to invest in a record player (or by digging out a very old one).

All in all, the vinyl revival is a fascinating phenomenon to witness. Superior sound quality and the inclusion of free downloads mean that it has real potential to be more than just a fad. Perhaps the real test will be whether it can survive the likes of Spotify. It's all very well to say that music fans prefer to pay £15 for a record rather than £10 for an iTunes download because of the advantages it brings, but where the choice is £15 for a record or every record you ever wanted ever for free then choice becomes less clear. Of course, question marks hang over the long term sustainability of Spotify, too. Perhaps all that can be taken from all this is that the music industry is at a turning point. Perhaps it isn't worth jumping on the vinyl bandwagon just yet, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, 31 December 2012

5 Alternative Top 5s for, but not necessarily related to, 2012.

Since I started this blog my mission statement has been "I can't compete with Pitchfork, so why bother?" So why compile a list of the 10/40/1000 best albums/songs/gigs of 2012 when a million other publications have produced better ones? Nonetheless, I thought putting together a few end of year lists would be fun.

Instead of doing a more traditional "best of the year" list, I've decided to compile 5 top 5s that I want to compile. Are they related to 2012? I think one is. I hope that they are nonetheless funny, informative, and a little bit different. To help me with making these lists I've drafted in two of my closest musical allies: Tyrone Stoddart and Finlay Bernard. Tyrone is a long-term friend and band mate. He somehow manages to simultaneously have the best and worst sense of humour of anyone I know. Finlay has something that was vitally important to this project. He has the largest one I've ever seen. It's meticulously maintained. It is however unfortunately so big that women find it intimidating.

His music collection. 

He has a large music collection.


Music I just did not get this year.
I try not to be a dick in life. It helps. I named this blog Pointless, Harsh, and Long after the Dirty Projectors lyrics over on the right there, but I like the dual meaning. I think that the majority of blogging is indeed pointless, harsh and long, and I hope that I distance myself from that, even if only a little. But every now and then being a dick is important. It's also good for the soul. Patiently allow me to get 5 things off my chest:
  1. The Lovely Eggs - Wildlife
    • Wildlife is one of the worst albums I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. I imagine the band's sound could only be replicated by handing instruments to the nastiest, sleaziest nursery-age children that money could buy. You would indeed be buying them, because their parents would have sold them on the black market.

  2. Holly Herdon - Movement
  3. Swans - The Seer
    • I patiently waited 10 and a half minutes for the introduction to this song to end.

      It didn't.

  4. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...

    I'll admit I only came to the snappily titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do recently, based on the attention it has been getting in critics' best of 2012 lists. I might grow to love it over time, but for now I just don't get it.

    I was immediately struck by how well Ms. Apple can write lyrics - her phrasing is exceptional - but when listening to the album I simply feel stressed Maybe it's because Apple and her jazz background are smarter than I am, but an hour or so of almost atonal piano music makes me feel like I'm listening to a woman's dissent into madness. Not in a cool Brand New way, but in an "I've chosen to listen to the soundtrack to The Shining as a bit of light entertainment" kind of way.

  5. San Cisco
    • Full Disclosure: I've not even listened to this band. I loathed them from the second I saw that the screenshot for a YouTube video for a song called "Awkward" featured some Topman-looking indie brat singing with an iPhone text messaging box superimposed next to his head with the words "do do do do do doo do" in it.

      Am I getting old and grumpy? Probably. But if the band's record label are going to describe Awkward as a "viral megahit from down under" I don't want to listen to it.

Best Opening Tracks.
And so ends our connection to 2012, and also, thankfully, our connection to being a massive dick. Despite what iTunes has done to the way we listen to music, it should not be forgotten that albums, in their entirety, are works of art. My favourite albums are those which feel like journeys. When the last song ends I like to feel like I've been part of something, that something significant has taken place over the court of the record. Of course, every journey must have a beginning, and these are some of our favourites.
  1. Hornets! Hornets! by The Hold Steady, opening Separation Sunday.
    • Separation Sunday is perhaps the best example of the album-as-journey idea I led off with. When How a Resurrection Really Feels closes the record it's impossible not to feel as if you've borne witness to a significant development in the life of the record's main character, Holly.

      Hornets! Hornets! sets the tone perfectly. Craig Finn's raspy narrative "sung" solo, talking about girls who are "gonna have to go with with whoever's gonna get me the highest", sets the tone perfectly for the seedy, drug filled story of redemption to follow.

  2. Pots & Pans by Les Savy Fav, opening Let's Stay Friends.
    • Pots & Pans stands apart from the magnificent chaos that is Let's Stay Friends. It's driven by mid-tempo purposiveness, huge, delay-soaked guitars and some of the finest drumming on the record. It's sort of how I imagine Coldplay would sound if they had balls.  It acts as a mission statement as much as it does an introduction:

      "The people said no. The drummer said yes. This tour is a test."

  3. Perth by Bon Iver, opening Bon Iver, Bon Iver.*
  4. Jenny was a Friend of Mine by The Killers, opening Hot Fuss.
    • Just as it's unwise to go full retard, it's unwise to go full Vegas. Before the Killers went full neon lights and suspect facial hair, the massive Jenny was a Friend of Mine opened their perfect debut.

  5. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, opening Elephant.
    • Seven Nation Army has become this generation's Stairway to Heaven. Everyone you went to high school with can "play" it on guitar. It's used in football chants. When you search it on YouTube one of the suggested results is "Seven Nation Army dubstep". It's easy to forget that, when played properly, it's actually a really great riff and that's why it became so popular in the first place.

Best songs under two minutes long.

It's easy to tell if a short song works. It should leave you feeling like you need more. The beauty of such songs though is that they can be listened on repeat without feeling tired.
  1. True Colours by Gallows. [0:39]

  2. Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River. [1:19]
    • It wouldn't be a PH&L blog post without gratuitous Okkervil River adoration. Black Sheep Boy is of course in fact Tim Harden's track, and in many ways is everything an Okkervil River Song is not: short and to the point with no flowery lyrics. The contrast is fascinating, especially when it is borne in mind that this tiny song led Will Sheff to create an entire double album about the troubled "Black Sheep Boy".

  3. Self Esteem by Andrew Jackson Jihad. [1:37]
    • Some songs simply don't need to be long, as this fine folk punk demonstrates. Could you cram this much John Darnielle-y lyrical artistry and crash cymbal love into just one minute and thirty seven seconds?

      No. You could not.

  4. Stranger Calls by Honeydrum. [1:52]
    • Three things that we're intensely passionate about: Lobster Festivals, Donald Sutherland, and good value music.

      The French Canadian province of New Brunswick has given the world all three. Honeydrum's excellent shoegaze pop 7" is available for a mere $1. The title track fits comfortably into our sub 2:00 criteria.

  5. Fashion Coat by The National. [2:03]
    • Okay, so we're cheating with this one. The studio version of Fashion Coat actually comes in at 2:03, but our roguish amateurism is why you're still reading... right?

      High Violet, the band's latest album, is a masterpiece of atmosphere, helped in no small way by its excellent production: Matt Berninger's baritone singing often sounds like the voice of God. But returning to 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers reminds us just how good the band's songs and textures, stripped of all expensive studio tricks, actually are. The succinct Fashion Coat is exemplary.

      "Everywhere I am is just another thing without you in it."
Best unreasonably long song titles.
We started compiling this one on a purely objective basis - most characters wins. But that just got boring. All the winners were either obscure post rock bands or Sufjan Stevens.Instead, we've compiled 5 tracks with long titles, but tracks that are also worth listening to.
  1. The Sad But True Story Of Ray Mingus, The Lumberjack Of Bulk Rock City, And His Never Slacking Stribe In Exploiting The So Far Undiscovered Areas Of The Intention To Bodily Intercourse From The Opposite Species Of His Kind, During Intake Of All The Mental Condition That Could Be Derived From Fermentation - Rednex.
    • We said worth listening to, but we couldn't not include the outright winner. At 305 characters (including spaces) Rednex win.

      It's just a shame that everything about the song is terrible.

  2. The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands and the TV Talent Show Producers Have Won, If We Allow Our Culture to Be Shaped by Mimicry, Whether from Lack of Ideas or From Exaggerated Respect. You Should Never Try to Freeze Culture. What You Can Do Is Recycle That Culture. Take Your Older Brother's Hand-Me-Down Jacket and Re-Style It, Re-Fashion It to the Point Where It Becomes Your Own. But Don't Just Regurgitate Creative History, or Hold Art and Music and Literature as Fixed, Untouchable and Kept Under Glass. The People Who Try to 'Guard' Any Particular Form of Music Are, Like the Copyists and Manufactured Bands, Doing It the Worst Disservice, Because the Only Thing That You Can Do to Music That Will Damage It Is Not Change It, Not Make It Your Own. Because Then It Dies, Then It's Over, Then It's Done, and the Boy Bands Have Won - Chumbawamba.
    • Not technically a song, so it couldn't win, but at 865 characters it deserves an honorary mention. What's more, the album is pretty much everything that the Rednex song is not.

      Everything about it isn't terrible.

  3. They Provide the Paint for the Picture Perfect Masterpiece That You Will Paint on the Inside of Your Eyelids - Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution.
    • The best part of this song is listening to Thomas Kalnoky sing its title in about 3 seconds.

  4. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters Our Music is All Awful Noise and We're Just a Bunch of No-Goods - All Shall Be Well (and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well).
    • Some post-rock made the list. This band deserved a mention because of their humility and humour. They're lovely, check 'em out.

  5. Late Due to Sweatpants Boner (Alarm Malfunction, Slow Motion Love Interest, Mean Principal, Etc.) by Ebu Gogo.
    • When pushing Finlay on the subject of why this song ought to make the list he began to describe it as "happy math rock... sort of".

      That charming description was reason enough.

Top 5 songs to make love to.
  1. Remix to ignition - R Kelly
  2. Remix to ignition - R Kelly
  3. Remix to ignition - R Kelly
  4. Remix to ignition - R Kelly
  5. Remix to ignition - R Kelly

My own personal top 5 musical moments of 2012.
I know this makes it 6 top 5s, but this last one's just for me. 

  1. Discovering Titus Andronicus.
    I wrote pretty extensively about why I fell in love with Titus Andronicus in October's post The Enemy Is Everywhere. The band's existentialist indie punk has soundtracked the year of my life in which I came to realise that we've only got one life, and that it's far too short to be spent doing something we don't love.

  2. My first encounter with vinyl.
    In an apartment just north of UT campus in Austin, Tx, the girl I had just begun dating (I was living in the States, it was "dating") introduced me to the ritual of dropping the needle and listening to music the way it was supposed to be enjoyed. 

    I couldn't have asked for a better Sunday morning.

  3. SXSW 2012
    Early in 2011 I had to chose which University I wanted to study abroad at for a year. I had no idea. The University of Texas at Austin stood out. I knew a lot of bands from the city. I'd heard that it played host to a variety of music festivals.

    Snobs will tell you that SXSW isn't what it used to be. That could be the case, but I struggle to care. Admittedly, I didn't have a badge so couldn't attend any of the badge-only events, the state of which I suspect is what bugs a lot of SXSW veterans.

    SXSW 2012 was one of the greatest weeks of my life, but it made me reflect a little unhappily on Scotland and it's drinking culture. At virtually every event I attended in the festival I was handed free drink, free food, and asked to enjoy good films or good music.

    When I returned to Scotland over the summer I began working at an outdoor bar in the Edinburgh festival. Drink promotions are outlawed in Scotland because of our chronic binge-drinking culture. While this hacks me off, I can understand the rule. Even without people consuming inane amounts of unreasonably cheap booze, as a barman I saw some pretty shameful stuff, received abuse, and witnessed plenty of fights. While I loved SXSW, the contrast made me sad to realise that Scots can't be trusted with a drink.

  4. Bonding.
    One of my favourite pastimes is spamming the Facebook walls of friends with links to bands that they might like. I enjoy getting spammed in return.

    While both my brother and I are middle class white boys from a well-to-do suburb in the south of Edinburgh, this year I discovered that we're both pretty passionate about hip-hop. As passionate about hip-hop as two middle class white boys from a well-to-do suburb in the south of Edinburgh can be. A beautiful spamming relationship ensued.

  5. Starting this blog.
    I have no idea what I want to do with my life, but I think it's important that I try to find something that I love. I've started this blog. Over 1000 people from across the world have read it. I've also been lucky enough to do a bit of work for AnyDecentMusic?

    I owe a massive thank you to my friend mentioned in no.2 for encouraging me to grow some balls and start searching for a career I'll enjoy.