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Monday, October 31, 2005

Afro-Spiritual Glitch-Tech: Geez 'n' Gosh

Chris V. wishes that someone had taken Moby's idea of building techno beats around old blues samples a little further. Under his Geez 'n' Gosh alias, Uwe Schmidt (a.k.a. Atom Heart, Señor Coconut, and one half of Flanger) has done this -- though more with gospel than with blues, and he's taken it so far, in fact, that the result is not quite as accessible (to put it as diplomatically as possible) as Moby's Play.

It is, however, bizarrely danceable. Geez 'n' Gosh weds gospel to an over-the-top glitch tech/microhouse/click hop aesthetic -- the cut and paste, pops and clicks, making-dance-music-with-digital-detritus movement associated with people like Akufen and San Francisco's own The Soft Pink Truth. It is music that is nerdy and funky at the same time, and the gospel injection provided by Mr. Schmidt's sampling remains soulful because his lovingly over-programmed machine beats are equally soulful in their own way.

Listen to these clips of We Call On Him and Mother Showed Me (The Way To Go) from the 2002 Geez 'n' Gosh album Nobody Knows. The glitch sound may be old news, but this record points out one possible way that it could grow. The clicks and pops, the scratchy record noises we've grown used to hearing in our old blues and gospel recordings take center stage -- the singing provides human presence, context, and spirituality, but the accidental noises introduced by old vinyl, poorly stored master tapes, and primitive recording techniques (that have become an inescapable part of our 21st century gospel/blues experience) become the real basis for these new compositions.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Origin of the Sound

This had started as an exploration of what defines the sounds attached to geography, and how they come to be. Places like Seattle, Bristol, Detroit, Jamaica. If I say "Seattle sound", you instantly know what I'm talking about, whether or not you automatically start denying that Seattle had a particular sound. At the heart of the matter was the notion of figuring out how a new sound or style gets made, and after looking into all of these places to find the common thread, I think I've got it. It's a coincidence. Sorry. The sound you hear about in Spin or wherever comes from as few as 3 bands being from the same place, and sounding roughly similar. And that's because they all seem to know each other. And because of that, they all have similar tastes and influences. Which brings me to what I think is the true origin of new musical sounds: Good old-fashioned genetic mutation.

Our resident ethnomusicologists can fill you in on how long we've been living in the postmodern era, but safe to say it's been a long time. One can say that everything has been done at this point, and we've just been rehashing all of the old ideas since then. The popularity of mashups is certainly a good indicator that this is true. But I would argue that it isn't that everything has already been done, but that all of the original bits to work with have now been discovered, and now it's a matter of mating the different parts to find the good mutations. A lot of people gave Moby shit for releasing Play with the gimmick of taking old blues samples and building a techno beat around them, but I think it was a great idea. It's a shame that no one took what he did and expanded on it a bit more. The Bristol sound came from hip-hop mixed with earlier influences like jazz and soul, in some cases rather directly. Smashing Pumpkins combined stadium butt-rock with punk and managed to find something new and good. So did Green Day, for that matter, but they spent a bit too much time at the mall to sound appealing to me. Or look at the second and third wave of ska. In the 70's they mixed it with punk and it turned into something substantially different from what they were doing in Jamaica, and everyone got all excited about it again. And then when people mixed in grunge and put the hip-hop back in it, again it went in a different direction. Garbage did that one song "Can't Cry These Tears" where Butch Vig and all his knowledge of late 90's techno-rock decided he wanted to do a 50's doo-wop song, which I'd actually like to see more of. I'm sick of people sampling the 70's and 80's, and I really don't want to have to suffer through another 60's revival. So do the 50's. Or the 20's. It will be good for you. People got mad at the Squirrel Nut Zippers for mixing swing with whatever else they felt like, but I would love to hear driving industrial beats with people singing like Billie Holiday. Or maybe if more people had taken that swing revival and ran with it. Feel free to steal my suggestions, I'm tired of listening to the same thing.

Kid Kameleon's Shockingly Good Mix

Late last year, Kid Kameleon put together a beautifully selected, technically amazing mix (part 1, part 2) to kick off the new Shockout label. Shockout is:
..a Tigerbeat6 sublabel focused on crossbreeding dance and electronic music with raw, influential elements of ragga, jungle, dub and soundsystem culture. Inspired by the leftfield dancehall of Ward 21, Vybez Kartel, Lenky, Remarc, Congo Natty and Bad Company's best releases, the excitement of DJ Rupture's early ragga / IDM / breakcore mashups, and Razor X (the seminal pairing of Kevin Martin's Bug project and the Rootsman's Third Eye label), Shockout specializes in strictly original music and exclusive vocals, hot, vital electronic producers and maverick MCs.
Some of my favorite music of the last year was put out on this label. They are exploring exciting territory, releasing records that work Jamaican musical devices in to something refreshingly outside of their familiar context and often narrow genre conventions. I badly want their sound to explode in to a full-fledged genre (if such a thing is even possible with such an inherently eclectic style), if only so that I will know what to call it when people ask me what kind of music I am listening to these days.

Kid Kameleon's mix, though, covers a lot of territory. Not a lot of people can mix from Missy Elliot to Tom Waits, and make it sound smooth. He's got Nena's 99 Red Balloons, one of my favorite ragga jungle tunes (Power of Trinity by Conquering Lion), the cantina song from Star Wars, and that oh-so-catchy DJ C featuring Gregory Isaacs Shockout dubplate "Gone a Jail" that I've been anxiously waiting to find in the shops since I heard it in an Aaron Spectre mix a few months ago (please hurry, I must have this record). So props to Kid Kameleon for this excellent mix. If you like this one, he's got several more shared on his site.

podcast: The Apparat Programme

From the ashes of the Superbust Mixtape podcast, Warren Ellis brings us The Apparat Programme: broadcast at ninety-six kilobits per second in broadband. Episode 3 "news from nowhere" was released today. Hit the link above for the track listing and direct download. The feed is available here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/Apparat

Mr. Ellis collects the best in music from independent artists who make their tracks available on the web. If you want your music to be considered for the programme, you can send your mp3s to [email protected].

He doesn't seem to stick to any one genre. Though there are definite dark/goth/industrial influences, describing it as such doesn't really do the selection justice. I guess you'll just have to listen and see if agree with his tastes.

[update: not to be confused with this apparat. -vitriolix]

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Inna Di Flat Field

We saw Bauhaus play last night in San Francisco. I was going to do a normal concert review (Peter Murphy looks old, Daniel Ash looks like the evil Bono, the rhythm section is solid as always) but instead I'll take this opportunity to talk about the dubbiness of Bauhaus.

I wish more bands would play dub reggae for goths, but I suspect there is a good reason they do not. If the audience knew that's what was going on, they would probably be horrified. But the dub presence in the music of Bauhaus is undeniable. Sometimes it is right out in the open, as in their 1979 debut single, Bela Lugosi's Dead. This song is straight-up dub: the beat, the pacing, the spacialized delay effects. They did such a good job of making it their own sound that no one notices. Some of their songs feature an even more prominent reggae sound with skanking guitar offbeats, like the In Fear of Dub, Earwax, and Harry sequence off their 1981 Mask album. Their classic She's In Parties off 1983's Burning From The Inside is another fine example, starting off with the regular song, then dissolving in the second half in to a sinister dub version.

But last night, with the drums turned way up and the vocals a bit too quiet, I noticed that a subtle dub feel runs through a lot of their music, mainly due to Kevin Haskins' drumming. He seems to favor a very dub reggae approach, often employing a minimal 4x4 kick with a highly syncopated snare pattern. Maybe I'm mostly hearing this because my ears are attuned to it, but I would not be at all surprised to find a little King Tubby in Mr. Haskins' record collection. The jagged guitar and uber-goth vocals win out over the dub, but it is a constant undercurrent in their songs, shaping that unique Bauhaus sound.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Mirrormask Soundtrack: Not Good

Normally I would not be inspired to review something I didn't like, unless I had a particularly original or amusing reason for disliking it. But saxophonist and composer Iain Ballamy's soundtrack for the Jim Henson Company/Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean film Mirrormask puzzles me. For the most part, it is not my cup of tea. Most of the cues center around a wailing, light-jazz saxophone sound, with a generous helping of artlessly programmed drum beats and what sounds like multisampled "ethnic" instruments. The variety of styles (tangos, waltzes, circus music, Arabic, breakbeat) and the small ensemble perfomance (a ten-piece band rather than full orchestra) should have been perfect for the film's fantasy theme, creating an auditory sense of removal from the everyday, like Angelo Badalamenti's masterful score for The City of Lost Children. Except the wailing saxophone and the new age production just turn the whole thing in to a block of cheddar.

What puzzles me is that the soundtrack has a moment of brilliance which I'm still hearing in my head several days later: a mechanical, otherworldly arrangement of Hal David and Burt Bacharach's song Close To You, with truly unique and surreal close-harmony singing, performed in eight multi-tracked parts by Swedish vocalist Josephine Cronholm. It works perfectly as an unexpected musical number in the film, with the unusual harmonies coming out of the mouths of singing robot-clock-women as they give the main character a kind of gothic makeover. How did this one piece of music on an otherwise unappealing soundtrack turn out so nicely? Perhaps someone should take away Mr. Ballamy's saxophone.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Free Mp3: Lackluster Live

Lackluster is one of the many IDM artists that I've been meaning to dig deeper into for a few years, but for some reason never really found the time. Now I wish I had sooner. He hails from Helsinki and has released music on most of the major and minor IDM labels.

Last week he posted a free mp3 (73 meg) of a live set (set list here). This is his way of celebrating the release of 2 new albums: Slice and What You Want Isn't What You Need.

This live set is really delicious. It ranges from very warm ambient to melodic IDM to BoCesque abstract glitch-hop. The songs definitely have their share of grit, but it never quite descends completely into chaos at the expense of melody and progression, which suits his sound well. You can definitely tell this guy is really feeling every sound and melody in here. Definitely a good sign for these 2 new albums.

He has a ton of music for free download and you can buy his albums direct from him in his shop

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Happy Birthday Franz Liszt

Yesterday was the birthday of composer and pianist Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 - July 31, 1886). He was my hero for a time -- he inspired me to give up the guitar for a couple of years in a misguided attempt to master the piano, and I even had my hair cut like him (coincidence, I assure you). In the academy he is not considered a great composer, in part because he often appeared to substitue cheap showmanship for compositional ideas.

But his position as history's greatest pianist (hyperbole, perhaps, but that's how he is often remembered) allowed him to explore the sheer timbral beauty of the piano in his compositions in a way that no other composer has. Chopin may be more accessible, but while Chopin mastered an understated and elegant approach to the sounds of the piano, Liszt favored the melodramatic. His is a music of large gestures (supposedly his hands could stretch across more than octave and two keys -- in fact, an octave plus 3 keys or 4 keys, from C to F an octave higher) and powerful emotions.

I prefer Liszt's pieces for solo piano. With his ability to create lush, full orchestrations using only the piano, to my ear an orchestra only gets in the way of what is wonderful about his music. You can listen to samples of Liszt's "Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude" S. 173 (The Blessing of God in Solitude) at amazon, tracks 5, 6, 7. The piece is around 22 minutes long, so these short samples don't give really give you a full sense of the large gestures, powerful emotions, and full orchestrations using only the piano... But this is my favorite piece of his, so around here it is representative of his work.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The White Power Olsen Twins

Lamb and Lynx Gaede are thirteen-year old twins who have been performing songs about white nationalism since they were nine. They have an album out (link to a sample of their very bad song Victory courtesy of Crooks & Liars) under the name Prussian Blue, and a music video on the way. From ABC News:

"We're proud of being white, we want to keep being white," said Lynx. "We want our people to stay white... we don't want to just be, you know, a big muddle. We just want to preserve our race."

Lynx and Lamb have been nurtured on racist beliefs since birth by their mother April. "They need to have the background to understand why certain things are happening," said April, a stay-at-home mom who no longer lives with the twins' father. "I'm going to give them, give them my opinion just like any, any parent would."

April home-schools the girls, teaching them her own unique perspective on everything from current to historical events. In addition, April's father surrounds the family with symbols of his beliefs - specifically the Nazi swastika. It appears on his belt buckle, on the side of his pick-up truck and he's even registered it as his cattle brand with the Bureau of Livestock Identification.
Extensive research has turned up an English blues rock band of the same name. In an effort to stir up trouble for the white power Olsen Twins, we have contacted the nice Prussian Blue in hopes that they will mind that their name has been usurped for such an undeserving cause. A choice quote from their site:
Even more news - we're now a registered trade mark! So we're going to have to put little ® after our name from now on. Doesn't sound much, but it actually means a lot to us.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fleetwood Van Beethoven

This is old Camper Van Beethoven news, but (to follow up on Vitriolix's post about Camper/Cracker) they recently finished a bizarre project they had begun towards the beginning of their careers:

The last words we hear on Tusk, Camper Van Beethoven's new, song-for-song cover of Fleetwood Mac's semi-ambitious 1979 double album, are "This is a bad idea." While the chuckling band member who says this probably isn't referring to the project as a whole, it's safe to assume the band left that bit in as a winking acknowledgment that their Tusk is an odd little beast, as likely to frighten and bewilder those who listen as it is to please them.

We'll get to just why you should risk listening shortly. First, you're probably wondering why in the hell the band recorded the thing in the first place. The story goes like this: Sometime in 1986 or '87, the band retreated to a friend's cabin in the mountains to write songs for what would become their first LP on Virgin Records. But drummer Chris Pedersen broke his arm skiing, and the group got distracted when their friend, who apparently had a Lindsey Buckingham obsession, suggested they try recording Tusk note for note.

Now, if someone dared you to take a record that cost something like a million dollars to produce in state-of-the-art Los Angeles studios and try to re-create it over a weekend with your four-track, you would probably giggle and tell them to quit hogging the bong. This is why you are not in Camper Van Beethoven.

Camper Van Cracker

For all of your who remember Cracker, and even the fogies amongst us who are Camper Van Beethoven fans, here is some news:

  1. Camper apparently reformed, toured (all while I slept apparently) and once they were sure they didn't hate each other, recorded a new album: New Roman Times. Haven't heard it yet, but hey, I can be cautiously optimistic can't I? If you've heard it, please comment...

  2. Cracker did an album of hillbilly'd up versions of their best songs with Leftover Salmon. Its actually pretty good. In a lot of cases better than the originals, but Cracker always walked the line of being a little too slick for me.

  3. Cracker seems to have a new album, called Countrysides.

  4. Camper appeared on a Sublime tribute CD.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Depraved Fan Girls

I seem to be attracted to people who consume media at an alarming rate. Today I came across a post from my friend Michaela about Pavement:
james carter, cyrus chesnutt, ali jackson, and reginald veal have put out a record (gold sounds) of pavement covers.

now that's more like it; jazz versions of pavement i can definitely handle. it helps that i think mr. carter and mr. chesnutt are fucking geniuses.

stream "cut yr. hair" at the brown brothers recordings website... hearing the 'do do do do do do, do do do do-ah!" rendered in scat over a wailing sax and thumping organ at the end of the track has totally made my day. seriously.

Turns out, Michaela and a few others have been doing a blog, mostly pertaining to the live music scene that constantly flows through Austin at http://www.depravedfangirls.org/. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hearing Hip-Hop's Jamaican Accent

Wayne Marshall is working on a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. His dissertation is on the intertwined history of reggae and hip-hop, but he uses the music as a cultural lens through which to examine the complex history of blackness in American culture. Recently, a piece of his was published by the Institute For Studies In American Music at Brooklyn College (CUNY). He describes the gist of his argument like this: "by listening to the shifting connotations of Jamaican-ness in hip-hop from the 70s to today, we can hear how the meanings and definitions of race have changed in NY over the last few decades."
Although hip-hop's dominant narrative typically begins with the introduction of Jamaican sound-system techniques and technologies into the South Bronx, the Caribbean presence in hip-hop tends to recede into absence after this originary moment. Despite an increasing infusion of reggae into hip-hop over the last three decades, a hybridization reflecting New York's increasingly foreign-born black population, hip-hop histories routinely downplay such "outside" influence. Narrative strategies that seek to validate African American aesthetics against the denigration of mass media representations have thus obscured a more nuanced account of hip-hop's social character, with far-reaching implications for our understanding of such notions as race, ethnicity, and nation. The failure to acknowledge Jamaica's place in the hip-hop imagination overlooks the context-specific identification practices through which many performers have expressed the predicament of being both West Indian and black in New York. Such an oversight, in effect, maintains a discursive complicity with traditional, essentialized notions of race.
The paper is fairly academic, but not frustratingly so. If you've ever watched one of those VH1 hip-hop documentaries and thought "this is all very interesting, but why won't they go a little deeper?" then you should read it. I myself have often wondered how hip-hop's Jamaican roots became so obscured, after I learned that the man who is considered the godfather of hip-hop, Kool Herc (more on him later), was a Jamaican immigrant. It is not hard to imagine how he must have brought the Jamaican ideas of toasting and sound system parties with him to the Bronx, ready to be repurposed into a new American music and culture. Wayne Marshall's paper explores the patterns of identification, negotiation, and assimilation that left hip-hop's Jamaican accent so undetectable. Maybe if we all mail him a dollar, he will write a book.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Plat du Jour

Matthew Herbert has a new album out all about (and made from the sounds of) food. Plat du Jour. Amazingly, it also happens to be damned good music, in addition to being a rad concept. He's been working on it since 2003, and once you dig into it more you'll understand why.

One track is made from samples of 3255 people eating an apple. Seriously.

The sounds of around 3255 people eating an apple.

65 individual people eating an apple on apple day 2004
crunchers at sonar festival, Barcelona, Babylon, Istanbul for two nights, in Montreal, the Pompidoo centre in Paris, and in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

All apples were local varieties, in season ( apart from Montreal where they were from cold storage) and organic.

The UK has over 2000 varieties of apple, but supermarkets prefer to import theirs from America, south Africa and New Zealand.
He has copious notes on how each track was made, including ingredient lists and the geo-political issues with that kind of food (how its farmed, imported, processed, etc).

He is also exploring doing independent internet distribution of his releases, and he's doing it right. Instead of charging essentially the same price for the download as you would for physical media, he's only charging 5 pounds (about $9) it is available for sale in AAC and MP3.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Harvey Danger - Little by Little...

Back in the late 90's a little Seattle-based band called Harvey Danger had a radio hit with their song "Flagpole Sitta". This was back when I occasionally was foolish enough to buy an album because of one good song on the radio, and I ended up really liking the band. After the flop of the second single from Where have all the Merrymakers Gone? and no luck with their second album, the band members went their separate ways.

In 2004, after an informal reunion, they decided to make another album together. And this time they decided to try something a little unusual:
In preparing to self-release our new album, we thought long and hard about how best to use the internet. Given our unusual history, and a long-held sense that the practice now being demonized by the music biz as "illegal" file sharing can be a friend to the independent musician, we have decided to embrace the indisputable fact of music in the 21st century, put our money where our mouth is, and make our record, Little By Little..., available for download via Bittorrent, and at our website. We're not streaming, or offering 30-second song samples, or annoying you with digital rights management software; we're putting up the whole record, for free, forever. Full stop. Please help yourself; if you like it, please share with friends.
Of course, you can also buy the physical CD from their website. I'm really liking the new album. Why not check it out, it's free after all:
Also, check the links section of their website for the band members' blogs and other goodness.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Fat Beatz

When people ask me what sort of music I like, once I get past the lame joke of saying "yes", I usually say trip hop before anything else. Maybe it just matches what my mood happens to be most often, or perhaps I missed my true calling and should have been a stoner, but as a genre its most often at the top of my list. Which is incredibly frustrating at times. The number of what I would consider good trip hop groups is actually very small, despite the genre being pretty big. The problem comes from there being essentially two different sounds that can be considered trip hop, and one of them I really can't stand. There is also of course the required amount of just horrible bands in any genre. Technically any guy with a drum machine can call his girlfriend over to sing a few songs, and you have a trip hop group. So every few months I try to weed through all of this nonsense to try and find the decent bits, which I am now sharing with you so that you don't have to. I should say right now that years of gothyness have warped my sensibilities, so you won't find me saying shit about Thievery Corporation. Now you know my bias, proceed accordingly.

Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead - They're the reason you have read this far. They're the ones who pretty much defined the style. Not much for me to say about them, aside from watch out for the later Tricky albums. Stick with the first few.

Muggs - Formerly of Cypress Hill, had his name attached to a Tricky album despite doing almost nothing on it, he came out with a solo album called "Dust" a few years ago. Worth checking out, if nothing else for the song that Everlast sings on, because Everlast will always manage to sound badass.

Haloblack - One of the main reasons I'm so pissed that mp3.com went away. Haloblack sounds like the sort of thing they listen to in the after hours bars of the Silent Hill dimension. Two albums to watch for, Funkyhell and Throb, Throb being the better of the two.

Ruby - I loves me some Ruby. For those not in the know, Ruby is made up of two former Pigface members, if thats the right word. How about they used to be in Pigface, and now they do their own thing. Super sexy and chill, while managing to be angry and industrial at the same time. First album is called "Salt Peter", my personal favorite. You probably heard a song called Paraffin on the radio in the mid 90s. That was them, and I think the worst song on the album. So much good to check out.

Terranova - German band that follows the standard trip hop pattern. Great album called "Close the Door". filled with all sort of trip hoppy goodness. Then their next album came around, and it turns out that they reinvented themselves to "embrace a smoother, more electronic sound", which of course sounds like everything else you've heard. One thing I will say for them is that I found out that my favorite Tricky song is actually a Terranova song that Tricky just plays the mumbletron on.

Collide - This group is more firmly in the gothic camp than the other bands here, but don't hold it against them. Not only do they do a cover of "White Rabbit" that I don't hate, they cover "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" by Fun Boy Three. Look for an album called Chasing The Ghost, and a remix album called Vortex, or possibly Xetrov, or both.

Lovage - The exception to the rule. Slow cheesy ass love songs over mellow beats. Sung by Mike Patton and Jennifer Charles, music by Nathaniel Merriwether, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala. This is exactly the sort of shit that I should really hate, but I just can't.

ok thats all. hope it helps.

"It's Grime timmmee... REPHLEX in da haaaauuussss!!!"

Yeah, it sounds odd to hear dancehall stylee MC's yelling about how massive Rephlex is on top of mainstream Breaks... i mean Grime. Since when has Replex Records (home to many a showgazing obsessive bedroom nob masher) been relevant to the mainstream dancefloor set? 2002 I guess. Anyhow, doesnt mean the music isn't good:

Reflex Records Grime Launch at The End (set 1)

Reflex Records Grime Launch at The End (set 3)

Who knows why set 2 isnt up there...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Playing The Building

David Byrne is in Sweden where he has transformed Stockholm's Fargfabriken gallery into a gigantic instrument. From the Reuter's article:
The founder of the band "Talking Heads" has turned a disused paint factory by the Stockholm waterside into a giant musical instrument, constructed around an old wooden pump organ with its entrails ripped out and replaced with wires and pipes.

"The public can just come in and sit down and play what they like," he told Reuters this weekend while the installation at "Fargfabriken" ("The Paint Factory") was being set up.

"Playing the Building" is not a Byrne concert but a hands-on art installation that runs until mid-November.

The organ's keys and stops are linked to dozens of clear plastic tubes that pump air through the factory vents to make a range of whistle noises, bang hammers that clank against hollow iron pillars and start four engines ranged on the roof.

The Fargfabriken site is in Swedish but they have some tantalizing photos (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 -- click in the bottom right corner of the photo where it says "nasta>" to see the next photo, or click "stor bild" to see a larger version of the photo you are looking at) of the large-scale geekery that went in to this project.

Friday, October 07, 2005

More on Music Analysis

Following up on Chris V's post about automated song analysis, there is a story on Slashdot called Dissecting Songs Down to Their 'Musical Genome'.
The company Pandora Media takes a different tack for its online music-recommendation service. When you tell Pandora a song you like or have bought, it doesn't mine its sales database for records of other purchases by those who have bought the song. Instead, it looks for songs with a similar musical profile, based on a database of 300,000 songs rated on up to 400 characteristicslike rhythmic syncopation, vamping and vocal harmonies
Also relevant is Last.fm which uses a plugin (audioscrobbler) in your media player to record what you listen too and make recommendations about other songs/artists you might like... They even have a netradio webcast that is personalized to you.

I've created a Playtherecords Last.fm Group. If 15 of you join it we get our own custom charts and radio station based on what we listen too. Woot.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Future Is Shiny

I'm far from the first person to talk about HSS but it seemed like as good a place to start as any. It's the fancy software service where you pay a company $50 and they analyse a song for you and tell you how likely it is to be a hit. They do this by mathematically comparing your song to every hit song in the past 50 years or so, and seeing how much it has in common with them. Their big discovery was that the vast majority of hit songs were incredibly similar to each other on their fancy math scale. This wasn't that big a discovery, as many people had suspected this for some time, and the KLF even told us how to do it without the use of analysis software. And since they were able to burn a million pounds in a bonfire, I think they know what they're talking about.

There are a few things I would like to say about this. First off is that if you read the HSS site, they talk about the occasional song that doesn't fit into their formula, namely that they were all songs that had strong lyrical content, which they admit that their software can't do a damn thing to detect. This of course points out the big flaw in the use of HSS, which as I understand it is used rather widely now. Package is more important than content. No one will seek you out for your beautiful poetry. Try telling someone that you like a band because their words are really really good and wtach their eyes glaze over. Which is also no surprise. This is why you can achieve worldwide fame for having a song that goes "baby baby uhh yeah baby". The power is all in the music itself. This is why people listen to the Cocteau Twins, or talk about how much they love the music of The Sims 2. You can spout utter gibberish and people will still identify with the song.

As a side note I wonder if this is also partially to blame for all the protest songs that stay with us. Keep it generic enough to make your song last. "War is stupid" has much more staying power than "Nixon is a dipshit". This is why Marilyn Manson tells us that angry teenagers should rise up in revolt against...something. When was the last time you listened to Eminem's "Mosh"? November 2004? No kidding.

The other thing I wanted to say about the HSS phenomenon is that to me it rather closely matches the notions of what we find attractive in human beings. Studies were done showing that we all have a fairly standard notion of what is beautiful. We tend to find beauty in the average, or perhaps the median. Subjects were shown photos of various faces and told to ratetheirface. Then they would start superimposing different faces on top of the originals, adding more and more faces each time. And it was this large amalgamation of all these different faces that scored the highest. The interesting part of this was that it wasn't actually the perfect average that is considered the most beautiful, but rather something that is slightly off from it. The eyes being slightly too far apart, or maybe the mouth is a tad crooked. Anyway, the scale is now determined for beauty in human form as well as music. And I suspect that they are similar. Like there's some perfect song out there, exactly in the middle of the scale that we would mathematically determine to be the best song ever, but maybe all the really good stuff is just slightly off of it. Anyway, I'm done now.

A Chain Of Musical Continuity

When I was a music student at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineties, I was exposed to a huge amount music through a series of music history courses. I came away from that experience with a revelation that has shaped my enjoyment of music ever since. Since there are only so many ways to arrange the twelve notes that we have available in western music, our art relies (to a much larger degree than most serious music fans would like to admit) on a constant recycling and reinventing of themes, styles, lyrics, and orchestrations, of musical and programmatic material of all kinds. No work of art is created in a vacuum; every piece of music that has ever been written has been influenced by music previously heard by the composer (and the listener's perception of a piece is similarly shaped by his or her listening history). Acknowledging this phenomenon creates a chain of musical continuity that flies in the face of the much-revered critical holy grail of authorial "originality", but can add greatly to one's enjoyment and understanding of music in much the same way an understanding of history can shed light on the current events of the day.

There is one accidental discovery in particular that fueled my drive to understand these connections of musical reoccurrence.

Now, I must confess that back in those college days I was a rather clumsily spooky fellow, and as such I was intimately acquainted with Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral (much to the chagrin of my dorm roommate, who became born again after living with me for two weeks... but that's another story).

The Downward Spiral
has a tense, descending motif (a musical element, in this case melodic, that is repeated or evoked throughout the composition) running through the album that has always sounded to me like a melodic downward spiral. Compare it to this passage from Henry Purcell's 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas. No, it is not exactly the same, but the resemblance is striking. Our professor told the class that this passage is an old melody, not entirely original to the Purcell, meant to evoke despair. Imagine my delight when I, giggling at the reference I had made for an uncomprehending professor, received an A on our exam for my description of the passage as a "downward spiral of despair and resignation."

My point is not that Trent Reznor "ripped off" the theme for what many argue is his finest album. I would argue that this debate is inconsequential, and regardless it is highly unlikely that I'll ever get a chance to ask Mr. Reznor if he's even consciously heard the Purcell. For whatever reason the connection between the two pieces of music undeniably exists -- the musical tradition that gave us Henry Purcell also gave birth to Nine Inch Nails. Recognizing and embracing this continuity (that's intertextuality for the poststructuralists out there) can add a richness to your musical life that considering works as discrete, closed-off, lonely, individual structures, cannot.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo

It's awesome in a really twisted way that the first track on the debut album from Oingo Boingo (Only a Lad 1981) was called "Little Girls" and featured such dazzling poetic lyrics such as:
I love little girls they make me feel so good
I love little girls they make me feel so bad
When they're around they make me feel
Like I'm the only guy in town
I love little girls they make me feel so good
Surely a sign of good things to come. If anyone has any of their pre Oingo Boingo stuff, please, please email me.

From Wikipedia:
They also made a cameo appearance as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in the movie Forbidden Zone, written and directed by Richard Elfman, the brother of Danny Elfman. In this incarnation, the idea of which was initially formed in late 1972, the band was essentially a musical theatre troupe. Most of the members performed in whiteface and clown makeup; a typical show would contain music ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s (some of which were covers, some of which were original material based on music of another era.) This version of the band had as many as 15 members at any one time, playing over 30 instruments between them. Unfortunately, very little recorded material from this period exists. Because of the expense and difficulty of maintaining an ensemble of this size, Danny Elfman decided in 1978 to reduce both the band and its name, dropping the "Mystic Knights" moniker. Around 1994 it was yet again shortened, this time to "Boingo".

Rasta No Abide A Sad Fraternity Mon

Brilliant piece of satire at The Onion that explains precisely why I am so embarassed sometimes to say that I "like reggae" (as well as illustrating American capitalism's amazing power to transform a politically revolutionary art form into a safe, bland commodity). I have to say that I am "in to dub" or I "like rocksteady and other Jamaican music". And don't get me started on how Orange County ruined the word "ska"...