Friday, 27 September 2013

Daughter - If You Leave

Oh Dear!  Act in haste, repent at leisure springs to mind.  Although in my defence I did rather enjoy Daughter at Glastonbury, enough to award them second place in my Top Three for Glasto 2013.  There was something about them in a live environment that was quite beguiling but translating their slightly ethereal material to the studio has not quite worked for them.

Following their Festival appearance, I downloaded their debut album for 4AD, ‘If You Leave’ and have been listening to it on the inevitable ipod commute.  Unfortunately it has not really gripped me.  Without the visuals and expansiveness that live performance allows, their set sounds a bit flat, repetitive and devoid of any really memorable tunes, which is a bit of a disappointment, to say the least as I had great expectations for this unlikely trio.

On the plus side, Elena Tonra’s songs have a pleasant lilting quality and exquisite lyrics and each one has been beautifully arranged by fellow band members, Igor Haefeli (guitar) and Remi Aguilella (drums), but the whole is an object lesson in why everything really comes down to the tunes.  Many have argued that the lyrical content of a song is what really matters but unless you are Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, this is a very shaky premise.  For me, this album proves the point that unless you can write a decent tune all the production stardust in the world will not save it.

That is not to say that some of the songs are not OK but too many are a bit aimless melodically and the pace is too homogenous and too measured throughout the ten or so songs.  It needs a bit of livening up and a bit of drama added (compare with Florence and the Machine, for example) to really set it free.  Even Sade’s ‘Diamond Life’, that seminal 80s cocktail album, had a verve about it despite its mellow quality that allowed you to keep interested.  Daughter, on the other hand, have produced a beautiful sounding album that appears to have all the right ingredients, yet still does not gel

I can’t help feeling that at the moment, Daughter really ought to be a ‘singles’ band as to hear one song at a time is still quite an experience.  It is when you are forced to listen to 10 of them in a row that the impact is lost.  Perhaps next time?


And on that note, I am sad to say that I am ceasing writing my regular posts on this blog.  These last few months have been more of a chore than an enjoyment so after 7 or so years and over 300 posts I am retiring.  I may post from time to time but for now, I am taking a break.  Thanks to all of you who have read my musings and commented here.  It’s been fun.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Eagles Studio Albums 1972 - 1979

Back in the spring of 1977, it seems you couldn’t turn a radio on anywhere without being subjected to ‘Hotel California’.  It was omnipresent on the airwaves for months and effectively cured me of ever wanting to delve into the Eagles back catalogue, ever.  So what is this box set I see before me?  Lo, it is the newly released ‘The Eagles: The Studio Albums 1972-1979’.  And it is here because a) it was cheap, and b) I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about since I’ve not listened to most of their output until now.

Not being a particular fan of The Eagles, I have only ever owned one LP, ‘On the Border’ but now I have the complete set of all six 70s releases from their debut up to the frankly dreadful ‘The Long Run’.  Has time mellowed my indifference or do they now strike a chord?  Well, yes and no.  Listening to these albums now in chronological order it is easy to see how the conversion from ex-Linda Ronstadt country backing band to full blown stadium rock ‘n’ roll outfit occurred.  Whilst there is a gradual shift over time, the most marked change in style happens about the time of my only purchase, ‘On the Border’.  It is here that the mix of Leadon-led country and Frey/Henley rock is at its most divisive following the arrival of additional guitarist Don Felder – a move that eventually precipitated the departure of Bernie Leadon.

Having listened to all six albums, my overall impression is that The Eagles were in essence a great singles band.  Each album has 2/3 stand out tracks and all of them were released as singles.  Even the Hotel California album itself, which I have now listened to for the first time, is little more than the title track with a load of so-so other tracks (I can feel the comments coming already!).  In many ways I am a bit disappointed by this as I expected to find many hidden gems amongst the non-single tracks but I’ve been a bit under whelmed to tell the truth.  Nevertheless, the singles still stand the test of time and show why The Eagles were such a revered band so I think I’ll stick with them.

I have made an ipod playlist of about a dozen of my favourites and it bears a very strong resemblance to most of the ‘Best Of’ compilations already on the market.  The only major addition I have made is to include Bernie Leadon’s tribute to Gram Parsons, ‘My Man’ which is one of the best Country songs I have ever heard and cannot understand why it doesn’t feature on any Eagles compilation.

So, are The Eagles the American Madness, a great singles band with a series of less than great albums?  Discuss.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Music Mechanics

A friend of mine made an interesting remark the other day.  Here’s how he arrived at it.  We were mourning the passing of old technology like the cassette, 8-track cartridge, VHS videotapes and of course, vinyl records.  The real issue, we surmised, with the march of time is that we are all left with the data media, records, tapes and so on, but not the equipment to play them on.  As cassette players and record decks become a rarity we are left with a load of un-retrievable data.  It was at this point that my friend propounded his theory; that of all the media formats, vinyl would be the one worth holding on to as it would be possible for many people, with a rudimentary understanding of physics to build a machine to play them.

Let me expand this a bit.  The vinyl or indeed, shellac, disc was invented during an age when everything was the product of mechanical engineering, electricity barely having been discovered.  As a consequence, the physical record carried an analogue groove which was read by a mechanical contraption, a needle on an arm, and the vibration thereby generated, amplified by physical, not electronic means.  Even today it should be possible to build a rudimentary machine that tracked the record groove and fed the vibrations produced to a large horn much in the same way that the first record players did.  So even if the apocalypse comes, owners of vinyl records may well be able to play them again after a bit of mechanical fiddling with components that could be made or cannibalised.

Those still owning a stack of tape formats such as cassettes, cartridges or CDs would not be so lucky as these are a product of the electronic age and would require a knowledge of electrical engineering and the correct materials to build circuits.

The idea that the age of mechanics has now become the age of electronics was brought home to me when I tried to buy a Meccano set for my son’s birthday.  These days it is manufactured by a French company and is not generally available in the same way that say, Lego, is.  Lego has filled the void left by other construction toys in a big way but it has a flaw.  I read a recent review of today’s Meccano written by a Civil Engineer and he made a pertinent point.  His view is that Lego allows you to build today’s structures in an unreal way but Meccano allows you to build the same structures in a real way.  In other words Lego does not use real engineering principles and thus teaches you nothing.

It seems that in the age of electronics, no one is really interested in teaching youngsters how to build mechanical objects as the knowledge is redundant.  Perhaps building a record player may well be beyond today’s generation after all?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Is There a 1980s Audio Stamp?

It looks like I’m having a bit of a Polish phase at the moment.  Having reactivated my connection with Pat Benatar (nee Andrzejewski), I have been trawling through the back catalogue of another daughter of Polish immigrants, Judie Tzuke (nee Myers but reverted to Tzuke).

Having always liked her 1979 debut ‘Welcome to the Cruise’, I have been rediscovering her subsequent LPs (and in 2 cases, cassettes – eek!) that have been lying dormant and generally unloved in my collection since the 80s.  And it has been time well spent as her first half dozen albums are well worth seeking out.  Why I haven’t until now brought this stuff into my current playlists is undoubtedly due to their limited availability on CD.  The fact that her first 10 albums were originally released on no less than 8 different labels goes a long way to explaining why there is no box set retrospective or sensible reissue programme.  Many of these labels have changed hands several times with the consequence that no one has been really interested in maintaining their availability.  Shame.

Listening to the likes of ‘Sportscar’, ‘Shoot the Moon’ and ‘The Cat is Out’ is a bit like opening a time capsule.  The general consensus is that the 1970s has a strong aural and visual identity but there is no doubt that the 1980s has its own highly identifiable audio stamp.  Take 1985’s ‘The Cat is Out’ for example and have a squint at the cover – that hair!  Those shoulders!  The music is even more identifiable.  Almost every instrument is a classic example of 80s sounding rock.  It starts with a drum machine and no matter what anyone says, these things were a curse on real music.  You can predict the rhythmic patterns after about the first 8 bars of every song.  At least a human error mixes things up a bit.  Then there is that fat fretless bass sound.  Good grief!  I’m SO glad they died a death.  Most noticeable of all are the analogue synth sounds.  Those chord washes and bell sounds are absolutely typical of the early-mid 80s.  For people who know their synths intimately and I’m not an expert, you can probably guess the exact year of recording on these alone.

Yet despite the 80s aura, the songs are strong and the whole things holds together remarkably well.  I never realised that the 80s were so unique, sound-wise.  Moving on to the 90s I have not yet detected any real defining features – perhaps it needs a bit more distance before these things become apparent?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Glastonbury 2013 Part 2

OK, so I did watch a bit of the Rolling Stones set but frankly I wasn’t that impressed.  They looked tired, jaded and dated.  Mick looked faintly ridiculous, prancing around at his age in front of his largely static fellow band members.  Best rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet?  Hmm…

I was heartened to see that at the same time, over on the Other Stage, Chase and Status had drawn a huge crowd of not-interested-in-the-Stones people with their own brand of RapRock.  It’s good to see that the younger generation are not hanging on to the coat tails of classic bands and nor should they.  Each generation should discover their own and if that includes past examples then fine, if not then that’s fine too.

In fact, this year’s Pyramid Stage headliners didn’t really do much for me.  As well as the Stones, I’ve never really quite understood The Arctic Monkeys and although I like a bit of folk, the dreadful corporate blandness of Mumford and Sons sends me to sleep.  So, where do my awards for this year lie?  There were a plethora of new(ish) bands that got my attention without really standing out so a ‘highly commended’ goes to the likes of Noah and the Whale, Editors, Cat Power, Stealing Sheep, Hurts and Phoenix who were all very entertaining, but I’ve had to reject all of these in favour of my final choice of three.
Two HAIM sisters

In third place are US sister band Haim, who were just about everywhere, so hard to avoid.  They played several sets on various stages and turned up as backing singers for Primal Scream so their PR team deserve a medal at the very least.  Their own sets were full of bluesy rock which at times took flight into fabulously dizzy instrumental jams that few bands seem to manage these days (especially when they are playing to backing tapes!).  Unfortunately, their tunes are a bit disjointed and the vocals a tad idiosyncratic but hey, they come across as a raw joyous talent and they provided some of the best festival moments for me.  One to watch, I’d wager.

For second place, I struggled between two bands that I’d not heard of before.  First were Savages, a somewhat strange outfit who delivered an intense and at times, quite frighteningly serious set of spiky songs.  In the end I ousted them for being too close to ‘Scream’ era Siouxsie and the Banshees for comfort and decided to deliver second place to the enigmatic Daughter, whose enchanting set of Indie Folk delivered on the John Peel Stage held me spellbound.  Singer Elena Tonra looks a solo performer but has chosen to surround herself with two male musicians whose edgy arrangements lift her songs to another level.

My choice for first place was the result of much soul searching, having already panned the Stones for being too old, but this lot were so much fun, so the award goes to Chic.  For me, music is something to be enjoyed and in this business oriented age, it is good to see how uplifting it can be, given the right circumstances and Nile Rogers delivered this in spades.  Everybody danced – how could you not?  Such a shame that Bernard Edwards was not there to reprise those iconic bass lines and see how much of his legacy still resonates with modern audiences.  The most enjoyable set at the Festival by a short glitter ball.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Glastonbury 2013 Part 1

After a fallow year in 2012 which allowed us punters to pay attention to the Summer Olympics and allowed the cows to take off their ear defenders for a bit, Worthy Farm once more played host to the great unwashed and the festival that is Glastonbury.  As has now become a ritual on this blog I shall be posting two Glasto reports, this one with a few thoughts on this year’s proceedings and a second with my world famous awards.

So without further ado, here are some general observations.  This year’s event was generally more of the same, sporting a huge variety of acts from all genres and generations, playing to enthusiastic crowds of awe-struck teens, seen-it-all-before parents and bewildered toddlers.  What was different was that the weather was almost Woodstock-like with clear blue skies rather than the usual deluge and the TV coverage was bigger and better than ever before with live broadcasting of all the major stages on multiple channels, website streaming and mobile access.  In fact, it was all too overwhelming for the poor viewer who could not possibly watch everything and was reduced to the same dilemma that confronts the actual festival goer, that is, which acts do I watch?  Hurrah for hard disk recording!

Some things, however, never change and it is quite curious to note that despite the massive advancements in music tech and the changes in society generally, the one aspect of bands at Glasto that has not changed is that guitars have remained resolutely stuck in the 1960s.  Everywhere you looked guitarists were sporting Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters, Rickenbackers, Gibson Les Pauls or SGs.  If you found a bass player without a Fender Precision you were doing very well indeed.  It seems to be that guitars have become the genes of the rock world that are passed on from generation to generation, tying the line of heritage together into a complete whole.  There is almost a reverence in using classic instruments that the likes of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix once sported that says, ‘we are descended from the greats’ like the royal right of succession.

Without giving too much away, Saturday headliners, The Rolling Stones, will not be appearing in my Top 3 (to be revealed in my next post) and for one reason only; they are the meanest band in rock.  They made their fortune several times over, years ago, so why do they still insist on holding people to ransom over fees.  This time, they wanted to restrict broadcast time to one hour and when that was finally agreed (the day before their performance), started to quibble over repeat fees.  It’s not like broadcasting their set is likely to keep paying punters away, the festival was a sell out months ago.  It’s about time Mick and the boys started to give something back to the industry and the fans that made them what they are.

I’ve got hours and hours of recorded material to wade through and I've not seen their performance yet, but perhaps I won’t bother.