Music Should Be Free (or at least cheap!)

I’m not big on torrenting music. With a SpotifyUnlimited account I can listen to pretty much anything that tickles my fancy, and MySpace or Last.FM are still worthy tools for checking out any recommendations that come my way. And of course, if I come across any mixtapes on my wanderings, I’ll snaffle them up too. The process of discovery is part of the fun.

Here are some of my favourite finds from the past couple of weeks.

The new Nine Inch Nails side project How To Destroy Angels has posted an EP on their site. If you like the idea of NIN with sweet female vocals, you’ll like this, s’all I’m saying.

90’s singer/songwriter Jane Siberry has decided to go the free/pay-it-forward route with her entire back catalogue. Her earlier albums are especially worth a listen, and it’s fascinating to track the changes she’s gone through over the years. Still touring, still writing, still got it.

As a taster for the new album out next week, Big Boi has dropped a mixtape of goodies that includes some Outkast classics. So fresh and so clean.

I’m not the biggest fan of La Roux. I find her work derivative, and her voice scrapes my nerve endings like cheese wire on glass. But her Jamacian vacation with remixers Major Lazer takes the material into strange, dubby new territory and has me bouncing around like the dancers in the ‘Pon The Floor video.

Omar Rodruiguez Lopez of The Mars Volta is constantly spraying out interesting psych-proggy weirdness, and has begun collaborating with John Frusciante. The last two albums documenting this collaboration are available for free, or donation to arts charities. The earlier of the two albums is especially good for zoning out to on a long train ride.

Finally, I’d like to recommend Zoe Keating’s new album, Into The Trees. Her cello-driven, darkly cinematic soundscapes are a must, and will come into their own this autumn. On downloads alone the album is already top 20 in the Billboard classical charts, and deserves to break big everywhere. The download will set you back $8, which is hardly a piggy-bank shatterer. Give it a go.

Fight The Sleep, But Not The Dream

The bear is creeping me out somewhat.

There are some bands who I will never miss whenever they play the UK. It becomes something of a duty. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some of the bands I really love have become so huge that they will only play either tiny fan club gigs that only the message board fanatic has a chance of getting into, or bloated ugly stadium gigs. Which explains how I missed REM’s appearances last year. Glastonbury? No, thanks.

Crowded House still manage to get the balance right. They’re doing Hyde Park later this summer, supporting Thumbs-Aloft McCartney, but are ramping up for that enormo-gig with a romp through the sort of comfortably sized venues that really suit their approach to the material and the fan base.

To Oxford, then, and the charming New Theatre. TLC and I had seen the Finn Brothers here a few years back, and missed the encore to catch the last train. This time round, we drove. Well, TLC drove. I enjoyed the ride. We didn’t want to miss a minute of this one.

Support came from Connan Mockasin, a quirky New Zealander with a blonde mop (mirrored cutely by his band, which included Neil’s youngest son Elroy, all wearing Deirdre Barlow wigs), a Strat cut down to look like a Vox Teardrop and a great line in angular surrealist psych-pop. It was a brave choice of support, and could have gone down like a cup of cold sick. I’m reminded of Goldfrapp in full horse-headed dancer mode opening for Duran Duran on their last stadium tour, a move that lead to much consternation amidst the Lambrini brigade that had come along for nostalgia and ended up with songs about sex on ghost trains. But Connan’s wit and charm, as well as the skill of everyone concerned in switching between squalls and whoops of noise and locked-in motorik groove, won the day. I recommend checking out Forever Dolphin Love if nothing else.

Crowded House are on a roll at the moment. Neil Finn reformed the band in 2006 with the clear intention of writing and playing new songs. This is no greatest hits package. They’re in the UK touring Intriguer, the second album of new material, and to my mind they’ve never sounded better. Even though Intriguer isn’t out till next week (clearly a fubar by the record company, and a bit of a sore subject for Neil, who made the point that you could buy the support act’s record at the merch stand, but not the headliners) the new songs have a warmth and instant familiarity to them. There’s no radical change in direction here, but thought and care has been taken to update the sound while hanging onto the hooks and harmonies that make you smile. Intriguer is full of songs that will sneak into your thoughts and curl up, purring gently.

Sure, with a back catalouge of such range and quality there’s going to be a lot of sing-along moments. That is kind of the point to a Crowdie gig. Calling it audience participation doesn’t really do the feeling justice. There’s a real sense of communication between the band and the room, and the moments of polka, the banter (what happened to the goose?) and the point where Neil had the whole audience humming a perfect E minor are par for the course. The balance of new to familiar material was perfectly judged, and even the oldies were played around with enough to keep them interesting without doing the Dylan thing of rendering them unrecognisable. But the most important thing about a Crowded House gig is a sense of community, of communion. I know fans of any band will say the same, but I can’t think of any big names connecting with an audience in the same way that Crowded House manage so effortlessly. An audience united in a love of songs set in a private universe where dreams and reality blur and merge, and where sex is a primary, almost religious force.

We drove back from Oxford through dark and winding roads, voices hoarse from an evening of hollering along with some of our favourite songs. The skies ahead of us glowed, matching our contentment.

Crowded House are touring the UK through June. The new album Intriguer is out on June 11th, and is available for preorder now through all the usual outlets. Go get.

Lack of (Euro)Vision

After last night’s debacle, I was going to post a long rant about what the UK is doing wrong with Eurovision, and how we can fix it. And then I dug back through my archives, and found a post I wrote back in 2008 which addresses the self same points.

Apart from the names, nothing has changed. We don’t bloody learn, do we?

Here’s the post in question.

You Can Clap Now

Rufus Wainwright is in the country, touring his new album All Days Are Nights. The show he’s put together has a certain schizophrenic charm. The first part is a straight run-through of the album, with projected visuals, gloomy lighting, and Rufus in costume, wearing something that’s a cross between a black bridal gown and a pageboy’s suit. It’s an enormously theatrical set, showcasing a very strong collection of songs. The stark setting works well, I think, highlighting the simplicity of one man at the piano. In the second half, he’s more relaxed, chatting and telling stories, and even forgetting the words to old favourites like Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, allowing the audience to cheerfully yell out reminders.

There’s a discussion to be had here about an artist’s relationship to his audience, and what they can and can’t get away with. Any fluffed lines in the carefully rehearsed and constructed first half of the show would have been unacceptable in the heightened atmosphere he had created. This sepulchural feel was extended to include a request that there be no applause until he had left the stage at the end. His walk-off was part of the act. This has raised some eyebrows and comments, and it was a request that was ignored at his show in Glasgow. I think it’s fair enough to ask for this, but there was a palpable sense of relief in the second half. It’s also interesting to note that his request that there be no photography in the first half was respected, but also taken as a tacit approval for the cameras to come out for the second half. Which they did, with a vengeance. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a theatre gig, and it was interesting to see that the stop and search approach for cameras that seemed to be the case a couple of years ago seems to have evaporated. Madame WDW was accompanying TLC and I, and was certainly making the most of the opportunity, taking photos and shooting video with her new Flip HD. But then, let’s face it. You can’t very well confiscate everyone’s phones at the door, and a couple of YouTube vids of Rufie fluffing the second verse of Cigarettes is hardly going to hurt his profile.

Separating new and old material quite so directly is bound to be a polarising approach, though, and Rufus Wainwright is not for everyone. A couple to the right of us couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre, tutting “I hope you won’t force me to watch that rubbish again.” I thought it was a bold approach that suited Rufus’ theatricality. This is, after all, a man that has written his own opera, which is not something you can say for your average singer-songwriter. Furthermore, performing All Days Are Nights in it’s entirety meant that there was none of the “here’s something off the new album” moment that’s normally a cue in a gig for a rush to the loos. He made the new material an event in and of itself, and by creating a church-like atmosphere, gave these songs of mourning and release a framework and context that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But it did mean that the audience was slightly tentative in the second half, and Rufus had to remind us that it was OK to applaud – hence the quote that makes up my title. There was a genuine air of not knowing what to expect – which I think is unusual in a rock show these days. I’d imagine there was a certain set of expectations – after all, he was touring a bare-bones set of piano ballads based around the death of his mother. I think if you wanted show tunes and costumes you were an album too late.

On the whole, then, one of the more unusual gigs that I’ve attended recently – and one of the most memorable.

Here’s a taster, with my favourite song on the album thus far. This is Zebulon.

Done A Mix

431F8AD0-9E43-445C-8C75-929D090185D0.jpgYesterday, the popular link-forwarding site Reddit was asked to generate a list of songs to get you out of bed and moving on a Monday morning. The response was – shall we say enthusiastic? As I had some spare time, I decided to plug those results into Spotify, and ended up with a mix that will last you through most of the day.

It’s here, and it’s collaborative, so if there’s anything you think should be added, go right ahead. Usual Spotify caveats apply – no Beatles, but then that’s true of digital media in general. No Led Zep either, as far as I can tell. I’ve tried to keep the list to one song per artist, and I should stress these are not my choices, so don’t be raggin’ on me about the Phil Collins, mmmmkay? However, in general I think it’s a great list, and will work for any day you need to get your lazy ass out of bed and getting the day by the short hairs.

(If anyone doesn’t have Spotify yet, and would like an invite, hit me up in the comments. I have plenty to spare, and it’s a service that’s worth a look.)

Buying In The Name Of

Rage Against The Machine is the UK’s Christmas No. 1. That still feels like such a strange phrase to write. It outsold the record that most industry voices had assumed would be a shoo-in, Joe McElderry’s “The Climb”, by a cool 50,000 copies. This is A Very Good Thing, for a number of reasons.
Of course, there is the argument that both records are effectively making money for the same company, Sony. This misses the point. The X-Franchise has lost the war of hearts and minds pretty severely this year, and that is going to hurt the brand badly. The realisation that there is a large enough percentage of the population out there that are not just indifferent or unwilling to spend money on supporting the X-Franchise, but despise it actively enough to independently source another track, successfully campaign for it and buy it in sufficient numbers to make it the popular choice must be horrible for Cowell and crew.

This year has seen a bit of a sea change in the way music is offered and distributed to the public, and Rage’s victory shows that clearly. It was not available to buy in the shops, and had not been re-released by Sony. It was a song that went to number one because people wanted it there, and the fact that it has made it the top slot today could send marketing departments in record companies worldwide into a panicked spin. What do you do if your carefully concieved, hideously expensive campaign to push the next big thing to the top of the charts gets shoved aside because some scrote with a Facebook camplaign decides it’s time Mr. Blobby made a comeback?

This is the harbinger for absolutely massive change in the delivery of music, as it proves without a doubt that crowd-sourced PR works. It’s to Rage’s credit that they saw the groundswell and ran with it, zipping to London to record a live session on Radio FiveLive (“now, let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you don’t want me to sing the line “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me to. That’s what you’re telling me. Just so I’m clear.”) that will go down as a classic comedy swear moment in radio history. They have announced that the profits from the single will go to Shelter. There’s a seperate campaign running that has already raised over half a million quid for the charity. I’ve dropped a fiver to that one. Seemed only fair. The download of the single cost me 29p from Amazon.

Rage have shown themselves to be connected with their audience, filled with humour, charity, compassion and fun. The X-Factor camp, on the other hand, have come across as curmudgeounly, whiny and increasingly self-centred. It seems to be all about little Joe’s dream of getting to number one, and anyone that buys the Rage single is stomping on that dream.

Aces. I bet people started buying “Dying In The Name Of” twice when they heard that tripe.

But the one sign that has cheered me most this Christmas is contained in the choice of song that the X-Franchise chose to launch little Joe’s career. Choosing a ballad for the grannies to swoon over is a decision that has stood Cowell and his band in good stead for several years, but it’s backfired pretty impressively in 2009. Let’s not forget, this campaigning idea began last year when Jon and Tracy Morter put Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up against Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah. Then, the campaign was too fragmented, with a lot of punters choosing to buy the Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley versions of the song instead. But the point was that the song won. Hallelujah is an excellent choice for a Christmas No. 1 record, with the right balance of festive charm and bittersweet sentiment. Never Gonna Give you Up was a bit too joky a choice.

This year the choice was a lot clearer, and a lot simpler. The ballad was trite and turgid, and up against a song you can jump around to while swearing at the top of your voice. Barely a choice at all, really. But the result could have been very different.

One of the early choices for Joe’s first single was a cover of the journey track “Don’t Stop Believing”. A much stronger song, and one with the right balance of cheese and X-Franchise will-to-power. I think it would have won.

This shows us something rather enlightening. This is the point where Cowell has either lost his sure touch, shown he’s either fatally out of touch or has simply stopped caring about the singles-buying market. He’s facing a public that has clearly demonstrated that they do care about music and the charts very much, thank you, and are perfectly prepared to show that they have the will and the ability to take the wheels off the hit-making machine. It’s a lovely moment, and a great Christmas present for music fans across the country.

The only thing that could make it sweeter is for the franchise to release Joe’s version of “Don’t Stop Believing” as the next single. And for the Journey original to make it to number 1 instead.

Use It Or Lose It

We may be making progress. The Mandelson-backed shift in the government’s policy towards file-sharing (cut people off from the internet on a record company’s say-so) has attracted enough negative attention that the members of the Open Rights Group have snagged a meeting with his staff on Monday to put their point (internet access is too important to cut off on a record company’s say-so) across. This is because people who care about freedom of speech and expression, people like you and me, Readership, are willing to raise their voices to say no thanks, actually, this is not the sort of thing I voted you into office to do. Actually, remind me. Who voted you into office?

Aaaanyway. A couple of linkies for you. First and foremost, to the ORG petition on the issue. 3000 sigs so far, and they’re aiming to get 5 grand for Monday. Stick your moniker on this one, it’s important.

And I’m gonna repost a great piece on NRRF which makes all the right noises while simultaneously making a politician after a few column inches look like a complete knob. This HAS to be a good thing.

Keep the faith, my lovelies.


The ORG are staging an open forum in London on October 2nd to discuss the policy, and better approaches to the issue. Tickets are available from the ORG site.