Best of 2011: Clive’s Picks

Stepping up to the challenge next is Leading Man Clive, who’s dropped a decent size list of goodness. Some of his music tips are amongst my best of 2011, and I’m gratified to note one of my favourite albums of all time as his rediscovery of the year.

Continue reading Best of 2011: Clive’s Picks

Freedom To Listen, or why ST Was Wrong To Leave Spotify

>20111119-095040.jpgA lot of hablab in the press over the past couple of weeks about artists leaving Spotify. Coldplay (no tears shed there) and Tom Waits (wail of dispair) both denied the service new albums, citing the old saw of wanting people to listen to the works as a whole. We’ve seen through that one for a while. Both records are available on iTunes for you to buy as little or as much as you want.

Continue reading Freedom To Listen, or why ST Was Wrong To Leave Spotify

Modern English

DocoDom and I have been working together for quite a few years now, and it’s always nice to see some of the material from our archive popping back up on the interwebs.

Dom’s just uploaded the first major project that we worked on as a team to YouTube, and I’m delighted to showcase it here. Modern English is a half-hour show about the mod subculture, featuring interviews with some of the faces of the scene. Enjoy!

A Lot Of Sustain: X&HT watched Sex, Food, Death … and Insects

I have a longstanding soft spot for Robyn Hitchcock. He’s one of our greatest songwriters and a godsdamned National Treasure. I have seen him live, covering Sgt. Pepper in it’s entirety, a gig notable for the moment when he knocked the jack out of his Telecaster and I handed it back to him.

You could, I suppose, if you’re feeling lazy, tie him in with the great wellspring of British eccentric artists that tracks through William Blake and Lewis Carroll, through Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Bonzos, Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan. Surrealism and humour backed up by a steely determination to tread one’s own path, and talent and ability up the hoozit. Long time fan and collaborator Peter Buck off of R.E.M. has said that he can’t understand why someone hasn’t taken his songs and made big hits out of them. I’d love to see one of the X-Factor clonoids do Brenda’s Iron Sledge or (probably more appositely) Sheila’s Having Her Brain Out, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.

The 2006 documentary Sex, Food, Death … and Insects follows Hitchcock, Buck and other musical collaborators as they work through the songs that would make it onto the Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus Three albums Olé Tarantula and Propeller Time. These songs mark a continued resurgence in Robyn’s fortunes, and are equal part rippling psychedelia and heartfelt pop-folk. It’s tough to write a song that can sound warm and tender while keeping in the weird angles and off-note touches that make Hitchcock’s stuff so much fun. These songs nail it time and again.

The documentary has a pleasingly intimate air, bringing us into Hitchcock’s rambling house, where Olé Tarantula was recorded. The process is ramshackle, ad hoc and spontaneous, leading to songs filled with happy accidents and unexpected guest turns. John Paul Jones drops in for a cuppa and a couple of chiming mandolin solos. Robyn’s niece Ruby Wright adds lovely, quavering musical saw to the proceedings. It feels like a delightful way to make an album. Defences drop. The famously grumpy Peter Buck airs his grievances about being part of one of the biggest bands in the world, and how much more he prefers the Venus Three. Certainly, his guitar work evokes R.E.M. at their jangly, shiny best.

But Hitchcock is the revelation here. Wise, centered and at peace, he seems the very opposite of the stereotypical eccentric. He observes things in a different way to most of us, certainly. But because he is so observant, he has a well-stocked cupboard of imagery to play with, and it’s the way he recontextualises these that brings up the surreality in his songwriting. When he talks about rotating elephants in the song Belltown Ramble, he’s talking about a sign he saw above a Seattle car-wash, in the district of the title. There’s reason and method to everything he does. The insight we get from these moments, along with the wonderful music are what make Sex, Food, Death … and Insects such a satisfying watch.

Tell you what, have a couple of clips.

Thanks and blessings to the inestimable Timothy P. Jones, without whom this documentary would not have hit my DVD playing machine.

The Big Man

I clearly remember the first time I ever heard Clarence Clemons play sax. The Old Grey Whistle Test, that exemplar of taste and musical goofiness, regularly used to roll out a clip from the 1978 Winterland gig that’s one of the all-time classics for followers of the E Street Band. Bruce was still a skinny, hyperactive runt. They played Rosalita. The whole song is propelled by the Big Man’s horn, driving, adding drama and little points of thrill and beauty even as it revs behind Bruce as he tries to talk Rosalita into a night-time tryst. He’s massive in that clip, physically and musically. And boy, could he ever pull off that salmon-pink suit. The guy was always sartorially … adventurous.

There’s a lot of distraught fans out there posting Youtube clips of Clarence’s Jungleland solo. It’s one of his finest moments, I’ll grant you. But Rosalita shows how the Big Man was the bedrock of the E Street sound, the heart and yes, goddammit, the soul. I don’t mind admitting to you that I’m a tiny bit tearful about today’s sad news.

The angels are in for a treat tonight. Blow, Big Man.

The Minor Fall, The Major Lift: 5 Soundtracks That Transcend Their Movies

These are good times for film soundtracks. Reputable dance acts are now willing to work with a director and come up with music that complements and adds to the visuals, rather than simply licensing a couple of songs to play over the end credits. Instead of a duff compilation or an orchestral suite, soundtrack albums are becoming sharp experimental works with a proper narrative flow.

The big beat boys of the nineties make music that has always had a cinematic edge, and the addition of an orchestral edge to the bounce really opens out the sound. Basement Jaxx’s work on Attack The Block adds theremin to the mix, accentuating the sci-fi. The Chemical Brothers created a jagged, jittery soundscape for Hanna that seems to have influenced Joe Wright’s cutting style.

Then of course, there’s the epic score to Tron: Legacy, which has frankly raised the bar for electronic soundtrack work. The scale and sweep of Daft Punk’s work made the album one of my favourites of last year.

A decent soundtrack album can be a sheer joy, mixing great songs with massive instrumentals and moments of mood and drama. Some don’t work at album length. I’m thinking specifically of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, which is simply the same cues played over and over again at different track lengths. Or, sadly, Clint Mansell’s music to Moon, which I love to bits, but is stretched uncomfortably thinly over 75 minutes. The final ten-minute piece Welcome To Lunar Industries (Three Years) gives you everything you need. Tellingly, it’s the one track not available on Spotify.

There are certain soundtrack albums that have managed to find an identity above and beyond their origins, becoming works of art in their own right. Here are my top five. I’m sure there are more. I’m sure you’ll let me know.

Continue reading The Minor Fall, The Major Lift: 5 Soundtracks That Transcend Their Movies

Lyrics That Make You Want To Listen To Instrumentals

I’ve been listening to The Icicle Works again lately – Ian McNab’s epic bombast suits my mood, especially here under the grey dome of a typical late spring bank holiday.

Their breakout single “Love Is A Wonderful Colour” is wonderful, widescreen bellow-along stuff, but the opening line almost knocks you out of the spell the band are trying to create.

“My friend and I were talking one evening, beside some burning wood…”

That, I guess, would be a bonfire. I’d listened to the song for years, but only recently glommed on to how clumsy that opening line is. Now, of course, it’s all I can hear. Great.

This fumbled attempt at mystery and atmosphere, while at the same time trying to keep the metre and rhyme of the song in check can lead to some unexpectedly hilarious or outright bizarre lyrical choices. Take, for example, one of my favourites, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”. Phil Lynott asserts:

“Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town…”

I’d start with the jail.

Comedian Russell Howard pointed this one out, and I have to hold back from yelling “try the jail!” whenever I hear the song. The song also contains a prime example of Lynott’s way with the ladies:

“Searchlight on my trail
Tonight’s the night all systems fail
Hey you, good lookin’ female
Come here!”

You can’t resist, can you? This is the man who allegedly coined the come-on line “Got any Irish in you? Would you like some?” You have to at least admire the swagger and testosterone in the couplet above, and the wink in it is almost visible.

Sometimes, all you need is one syllable to make a line scan, and the temptation is to jam one in and damn the consequences. That’s all that I can think was going through Paul McCartney’s mind when he wrote the opening verse of “Live And Let Die”. It starts off with a philosophical flourish:

“When you were young, and your heart was an open book, you used to say live and let live…”

All good so far. But then we get a sentence that doesn’t seem to know when to finish.

“But in this everchanging world in which we live in…”

CLANG. Brakes on. A binful of prepositions, and all of a sudden Sir Paul is tripping over his own feet. Makes me give in and cry.

Readership, you all know of my love and admiration for R.E.M. but even the saintly Michael Stipe gets it wrong every so often. Famously, the band’s first album Murmur was titled after Michael’s less than clear vocal delivery. Sometimes, it might be better if he mumbled a bit more. The lovely Leaving New York contains the line

“…leaving was never my proud…”

which I would dearly love someone to explain to me. It doesn’t even rhyme properly with the next line of the chorus. In a song that has a strong personal meaning for TLC and I, that line sticks out like a gangrenous thumb.

Of course, the king of rotten lyrics is Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. He seems to be quite happy to sling together any old word salad as long as it matches the tune. My personal favourite is from “Wild Boys”, where our Simon loses the plot and the ability to string a sentence together all at once:

“You got sirens for a welcome
There’s bloodstain for your pain
And your telephone been ringing while
You’re dancing in the rain
Wild boys wonder where is glory
Where is all you angels
Now the figureheads have fell
And lovers war with arrows over secrets they could tell…”

There’s plenty more where that came from. Although I’d disagree with the school of thought that claims the line “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war” is one of the worst ever. It has the right level of over-the-top silliness that suits the Dran in their heyday.

We could go on and on, but I don’t want to turn this into a simple “crap lyrics” post. It’s the lines that almost work that are the most fun. Besides which quoting out of context does every songwriter here a disservice. There is one that always makes me smile, though, and I want to conclude with Sade. I am happy to say she taught me something about American geography when she sang:

“Coast to coast, LA to Chicago…”

The Windy City is, as any fule with access to Google Maps no, 800 miles inland. I guess “LA to New Jersey” didn’t have the glamourous cosmopolitan ring Sade was after.

The End Of Recorded Music: Bill Drummond And The17

Let’s begin with a few words from artist musician and cultural rabble-rouser Bill Drummond.

Drummond has always been about flipping the switch on baked-in ideas about art and music, but this is something else. Performance for the sake of performance, completely dissolving the boundaries between musician and audience, to the point where they become one and the same entity.

In his explanation of the concept found here Bill mentions influences as disparate as Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. I’d add the experiments David Byrne carried out in Brooklyn, turning an old warehouse into a musical instrument. I’m also thinking about Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a software instrument designed to play by itself for a thousand years without ever repeating. Or his Score For A Hole In The Ground, a tuned series of metal bowls that play a random melody when water is dripped onto them from above, hidden in a forest in Kent.

I find conceptual music deeply fascinating and satisfying, and the idea of a piece of music mutating and evolving beyond the reach of it’s composer is an amazing idea. The17 aren’t quite there yet – they are still organised by Drummond, and sing libretti that he has written. But this will change, I’m certain. And Drummond has stated his intention to set it free on his 60th birthday in 2013.

There is something so freeing and fresh in these ideas. I find it more and more difficult to connect with modern chart music, which has become shamelessly blatant in the way it cribs older songs, or have the sound and lyrical content of skipping rhymes. Yes, yes, I know, old git thinks music ain’t worrit used to be. Which is a rubbish argument, because there’s a lot of great new music out there. And let’s not lose the image of me bouncing up and down on the sofa cackling at Eurovision a couple of weeks back. I’m still not convinced about Drummond’s argument that all music has been heard to death, either. But a radical stance is the first move towards new way of thinking, and Bill has always been an innovator.

You could argue that performance by and for a small group is as ancient as gatherings around campfires. But then sometimes we need to see where we’ve been to understand where we’re going. I love the Spotify model of complete access to a vast range of music. I love discovering new and old music alike. (an example: this absolutely gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by… well, you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.) The17 ties into that process of discovery and distills it down to a very pure, clear extract. A perfect circle, welcoming and enclosed all at once. Music for the initiated, performed in an open church.

The next The17 performance will be in Portugal on June 17th. For more details, or if you’re interested in participating, check the website.

On a slight deviation, Bill Drummond is the unheard voice in our conversations about the M25 Spin, following chats with Gimpo and Iain Sinclair. Dom is in contact with him, and it’s a dear wish of mine to be able to chat to Bill about the Spin, The17 and his other projects. We remain hopeful, and will update you as news becomes available.

Boom Bang A Bang: How Twitter Saved Eurovision (for me, anyway)

So, here we are again. The day after Eurovision. We’re all feeling a little grainy, a little dull around the edges, perhaps a trifle embarrassed at how much time we spent on Twitter last night.

Twitter has transformed Eurovision for me. It turns the show into a community pastime. I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Eurovision party, but I’m more than happy to sit at home, drink copiously and rant on the webs about the silly minutiae of Moldovan headwear or the relationship status of the Azerbaijani pair. And I know full well that there are hundreds, thousands of people out there all doing the same. I’ve bitched about the show in the past, but I simply couldn’t resist, despite fair warning from Twitterpal Selcaby:

(I missed out a couple. I was cooking dinner at the time.)

It can seem that the whole thing devolves into a scrum where everyone is shouting at the telly at once, and you do sometimes wonder whether the songs are getting the fair judgement that they deserve. But then there were some genuine clunkers and deranged decisions at the Dusseldorf Arena that needed commentary. And more and more celebs seemed to be joining in this year. Charlie Brooker, Chris Addison and Caitlin Moran all added a welcome dose of acid to the event.

Eurovision has become, despite (or perhaps because of) the obviously partisan voting a genuinely exciting and unpredictable contest. I was certain, to the point of nearly putting money down, that the Hungarian entry would romp away with the prize. She never got out of the bottom eight.

Ireland’s blatant attempt to make sure that they didn’t winning by fielding sugared-up quiffbots Jedward looked as if it could backfire, and at one point midway through voting they were looking dangerous. Well, as dangerous as a pair of ADHD-twitchy bubbleheads in red leather can look, anyway. Which just goes to show that Eurovision is as much about the performance as the song, and a dose of surrealism can actually catch you some mileage.

As for the UK, well, at least we’d moved away from the talent-show method of picking an act, and for that managed the best result we’ve had in years. Untouched by partisan voting (six points? THANKS, Ireland) we stayed resolutely mid-table, but with none of the embarrassment of the nul points years. The song was a bit of a clunker, but the back-to-business approach worked. It’s something to build on for Azerbaijan. A proper, honest-to-goodness pop band doing a proper, honest-to-goodness pop song, with none of the amateurism that’s marred our recent entries.

In short, this was the year when I learned to relax and enjoy Eurovision. Saturday night saw TLC and I both curled on the sofa, hammering away on laptops and cackling like loons. It was my FA Cup final, with an end result that had a certain poetry and ironic charm. Especially when the winners couldn’t stay in tune for their second performance.

Why Be Free When You Can Be Cheap? Music And A Book For Less Than A Latte

A couple of things that you might want to do with your digital pocket change today.

New imprint H&H Books have released their first anthology, Voices From The Past. Twenty-six stories under a common theme, none more than 1500 words, from acclaimed authors like Alastair Reynolds, Paul Cornell and Maura McHugh. There’s some great spookiness on offer, and the quality of stories is a notch above top. Recommended. You can pick it up from the website in ePub or Kindle formats for 99p.

Meanwhile, the creative whirlwind centred around Amanda Palmer continues to spit out some amazing songs. She, along with Ben Folds, Damian Kulash of OK GO  and her husband, Neil Gaiman (how much are we looking forward to Gaiman doing Doctor Who this Saturday? Thiiiiiiiiis much) gathered in Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Mass, to record an eight track album in eight hours. From scratch. They managed six tracks in twelve hours, which is still a remarkable achievement. The fruits of that endeavour are now available for you to download here. They are uniformly great songs – and who knew Neil Gaiman could sing? Nighty Night will cost you a buck.

At current exchange rates, then, that’s an album and a book for £1.60, and I think you’d struggle to find a latte that cheaply. Well, not one that you’d care to drink, anyway. Proceeds for both are going to charity. Get them both, make yourself a coffee, and be certain that you’ve done something good with your day.