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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nino Rota and The Simpsons Theme

I'd meant to do a piece today on Nino Rota and his soundtrack for Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, but I couldn't find any clips of it online, and got sidetracked by another shiny musical info-nugget. I'll review Juliet of the Spirits tomorrow. Instead, here's a quote from Matt Groening about The Simpsons theme song (via Retrocrush, get an mp3 of The Simpsons theme here if for some reason you can't just play it in your head while you read this):
"The trend in TV themes for the previous 15 years had been this namby-pamby synthesizer schlock, modest in both ambition and execution. These noodly, ersatz-sentimental themes all seemed to whimper, "We can't offer you much, but please like our pathetic little show!" I wanted a big, fully orchestrated, obnoxious, arrogant theme that promised you the best time of your life.

We approached Danny Elfman, whose career I'd been following since I saw him perform as the leader of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (best described as an avant-garde Cab Calloway-on-Mars vaudeville ensemble) at the Whisky-a-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in the late 70's. Elfman had recently composed the soundtrack to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and I knew he'd be perfect.

I gave Elfman what I called a "flavors" tape, featuring the kind of sound I wanted for The Simpsons theme. The tape included The Jetsons theme, selections from Nino Rota's Juliet of the Spirits, a Remington electric shaver jingle by Frank Zappa, some easy-listening music by Esquivel, and a teach-your-parrot-to-talk record.

Elfman gave it a listen and said, "I know exactly what you're looking for."

A month later we were recording the now-famous Simpsons theme on the 20th Century Fox lot with a huge orchestra. I think all the producers were a little nervous and fidgety about the untrendy audacity of the music. But then-executive producer James L. Brooks came in, listened a bit, then said, "My God! This is great! This is lemmings-marching-to-their-death music!"
As someone obsessed with musical pattern-recognition, I find the list of music on Groening's tape for Elfman particularly interesting. Elfman's score for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was clearly influenced by the Juliet of the Spirits soundtrack, so it makes sense that Groening would turn to him if that was what he was looking for.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NPR on the Influence of Music Blogs on the Indie Music Scene

This story gives a pretty interesting overview of how the indie and music blog scenes intersect:

To Generate Buzz, Clap Your Hands on the 'Net!
All Things Considered, November 29, 2005ยท Musicians looking for a break are increasingly turning away from conventional forms of promotion and toward the more populist venue of the Internet. MP3 blogs, Web-based music magazines, and online record stores all offer small-time bands a chance to reach a wider audience.

Over two weeks this past June, all of those forces mobilized to support a group called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a five-piece rock combo based in New York and Philadelphia. It was one of scores of bands making music without the help of a record label, pressing CDs themselves and selling them at concerts and on the Internet.
A music blog blogging about a radio show story about music blogs... trippy...

Global Sound System: A DJ Mix Roundup

I've taken a week to absorb a fine set of DJ mixes. Normally, I spend most of my free time seeking out and collecting new music, but sometimes it gets to be too much. What with the holidays and a nagging flu, I've been in the mood to just listen. Why take the trouble to put on your own records when a skilled selector has already planned out your listening for you? Here are some brief reviews of the blocks of tunes that have kept my ears happy over the last week:

Heatwave Mix 2005

This one has been a revelation for me. I'd been looking for a way into the world of reggaeton for a while now (for a better definition than I could manage, see Wayne&Wax's nuanced piece on the subject), and this set provides just that, mixing hot reggaeton tracks in with some of the biggest dancehall and hip-hop tracks of the last year. The result is an international dancefloor killer, hands down. I swear that I will not miss the Heatwave crew when (hopefully) they come to San Francisco. From their site: "Heatwave's sets take in a wide range of Jamaican-oriented sounds, all of which are featured on this mix: dancehall/bashment, reggaeton, R'n'B/hip hop/crunk, soca, reggae and ragga jungle from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Panama, Senegal, France, USA, UK, South Asia and St Vincent." Apparently they are great producers as well, as evidenced by the huge, striding, swung groove that kicks off the mix, their Kelis/Beenie Man/TOK remix on Punchline Records (anyone know how much of this is original Heatwave material?). This track joins several others from the Heatwave mix on my new must-have list. The whole thing may be a little too jiggy for some of our readers, but I'd recommend it all the same, for educational purposes -- just skip over the Snoop and Ying Yang Twins tracks. More information, tracklist, and artwork available here.

Big Bamboo, Calypso 'Picong' Classics (1914-2002)
Bam Bam (Jamaican Mento Mixxx), A Collection of Mento Classics

These two mixes by the fabulous Dr. Auratheft are pretty unusual. I recognize a few songs from the Trojan Calypso Box Set and other compilations, but in general this music is pretty hard to find if you don't know what you're looking for. The lyrical content of these calypso and mento songs is bawdy and hilarious, the melodies are joyous and almost maddeningly catchy, the rhythms are the very definition of toe-tapping, and some of the musicianship on display (especially among the vocalists) is breathtaking. I recommend the Big Bamboo mix to start with, if you dig that one go back and grab Bam Bam. For extra credit, listen for the obscured but undeniably present elements of ska and reggae that bubble out of this older Carribean music.

King Tubby's Home Town HiFi Sound System
King Tubby's Home Town HiFi Sound System (Part 2)

Another couple of Dr. Auratheft mixes (he's got a bunch more that are in my queue for listening this week). These sets cover King Tubby's classic, pre-digital period -- the best of the best of the best of dub, in my humble opinion. The mixing is straightforward and unobtrusive, the tunes are top shelf. If you don't know King Tubby or dub music, these would make a great introduction. If you do, then you'll be happy to have them.

Monday, November 28, 2005

16,000 Lights Of MIDI Madness

Some people love Christmas. Some people just use it as an excuse to go absolutely crazy and sequence their entire house and yard to MIDI music. The email forward that I got said this incorporated 16,000 lights. Yup, looks like it...


I also received this link, but it didn't work for me:


New Blog Links

We are adding a few more music blogs to our links, you should check them out:

The Witness Exchange


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Blog Link Roundup

Autogenerate "singing" message from your text plus song clips (from Boing Boing)

New Creative Commons song every day for a year (from Boing Boing)

Radiohead, remixed: Me and This Army (from Boing Boing)

BBC listens in to insect chatter (from BBC)

Cube Privacy Via Gibberish (from /.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Funkiest Year Ever

Over at the Library of Vinyl Experience (another fine music blog), Pace Foster has culled data from the Sample FAQ to answer the burning question we have all been asking: "What was the funkiest year ever?"
Because the Sample FAQ lists the year of the original songs that have been sampled by hip hop producers, we can construct a simple frequency count of the number of samples that used material from a given year. All I did was add up the number of times that people sampled songs in each year and plotted the frequencies in Excel so that the categories are years and the values for each category are the number of times songs from that year were sampled. If none of this makes any sense to you, just think of this as "freq.-ing the funk".

The resulting distribution will not surprise people familiar with hip hop, sampling or the explosion of amazingly funky music in the early 1970's. As you can see, the most heavily sampled period (represented by the peak in the distribution) occurred between 1970 and 1975. But the actual peak occurs with 872 different songs that sampled material released in 1973. So that's it. According to this source at least, 1973 was THE FUNKIEST YEAR EVER! (If you accept a few conditions and caveats - see below).

Friday, November 18, 2005

Free EP: Blue Vitriol - They Went To Titan!

From the Blatant Self-Promotion Department:

Blue Vitriol - They Went To Titan! (2005)

Jake and Josh finished up a 6 song mini-album which has just been released on the premier German Electronic Dub-Reggae music label: Jahtari. It is available immediately (for FREE!) in handy Mp3 format. We've been working on some of these songs for more than a year, so it's definitely our best work ever. Jahtari is gearing up to do CD and Vinyl releases soon too-- keep an eye out over the next few months for news of a CD version of the album with a few exclusive bonus tracks.

We have also revamped our website bluevitriol.com, it is now a much more user friendly blog style site. We constantly post news about events, free music and previews of releases we are working on. Check it out and add it to your RSS reader to keep up to date.

So please, download and listen to the Mp3 release of our new mini-album, share it with anyone who might enjoy it, and let us know what you think. You know you love the digital dub:

Blue Vitriol - They Went To Titan! (2005)

Here is the description from Jahtari.org:

3...2...1...LIFT OFF! On October 15th, 1997 the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever built left Earth for the vast Saturnian system - the Cassini orbiter with its attached Huygens probe. After a seven-year journey through the roaring silence of space Cassini finally reached its goal: the majestic rings, dozens of frozen moons and huge magnetosphere of Saturn that has intrigued human imagination for centuries.

TITAN, Saturn's largest moon, is one of the most mysterious objects in our Solar System. Scientists think that its atmosphere resembles that of a very young Earth. The Huygens probe was released from Cassini in December 2004. Two weeks later it entered the murky atmosphere of TITAN and descended via parachute onto its mysterious surface. The ESA Huygens probe was the first to land on a world in the outer Solar System.

BLUE VITRIOL are supplying the soundtrack to every aspect of this revolutionary mission with their 'THEY WENT TO TITAN'-EP on JAHTARI. A long journey to the outer regions of Dub itself, made for listening as a whole - over and over again. The dense atmosphere of TITAN becomes almost palpable in each track, every crag in the clifted surface of that strange moon an own sound. Hear vast Methane oceans moving in slow motion. Space suits hissing, scanner data transmitting, control lights flashing. Rockets igniting into the screaming magnetosphere, radar echos penetrating the thick clouds, echoing back around the rings of Saturn. Deep and lightyears away.

Commencing landing sequence to your sonic orbit now!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pandora's Music Box

Pandora is a service created by the Music Genome Project that helps music lovers find more music like the music they love (it was mentioned in this space previously, but deserves further consideration). The Project has created a database of around 300,000 songs by 10,000 artists (no classical thus far, and they are working on a separate project for Latin music) and uses it to make automatically-generated music recommendations in the form of a streaming playlist. Last month, the Wall Street Journal had a feature on them, and profiled one of their analysts, Bob Coons:
Mr. Coons's official title at Pandora is "music analyst." He spends as much as 20 minutes on each song, carefully pausing and rewinding as he fills out a report describing features like rhythm, key and the singer's vocal range. In all, Pandora can track up to 400 pieces of information on each song. Some of those traits are relatively straightforward -- whether a song includes a keyboard as an instrument, or is by a female singer. Others can be more nuanced, he says: "Is the voice nice and pure, or is it real gruff, like Joe Cocker? Is the saxophone sweet like Stan Getz, or is it growling like Charlie Parker?"
It works like this: you enter the name of your favorite musician or song, and Pandora creates a "radio station" that streams similar music. You can help it at any time by telling it you love or hate a particular song, and even click on the "why is this song playing" link to have a look under Pandora's hood and discover what features of a song are the ones that it's calling similar to the song/artist it built your station around. You can have up to 100 stations, and stations can be built around more than one artist (though the focused results you get with a single-artist station may be more useful). I fed it Mouse On Mars, and it immediately came back with a Ricardo Villalobos remix of Thomas Dolby's One Of Our Submarines. So far, my experience has been pretty positive -- I've already discovered a couple of new artists, and I was impressed that it took 4 or 5 songs before it got around to recommending Aphex Twin. I suggest you check it out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Free Mp3: The Screaming Chicks - Crazy Arms

I have to post this because of the last story. The Screaming Chicks (AKA Jake and Josh) doing a cover of the classic country tune "Crazy Arms" in their living room "studio" circa 1999:

The Screaming Chicks - Crazy Arms (mp3)

Jake: lead vocal, guitar, shaker, honky-tonkin piano solo
Josh: backing vocal, bass, snare

Talk about rad lyrics.

Jimmy Martin and the High Lonesome Sound

Over at CounterPunch there is an excellent article about a musician you may not know written by a philosophy professor who's thought about things along lines that never occurred to me before. It's an appreciation of "King of Bluegrass" Jimmy Martin, who passed away this spring, but author Michael Neumann unwinds Mr. Martin's story in to a nice piece on the history of music along the Appalachian folk music/country music/rock n' roll spectrum. He even considers Elvis Presley within the country music paradigm (one of my favorite party tricks) and the catalyst Elvis and the birth of rock n' roll turned out to be for the budding, northern Yankee folk music scene.

People think of bluegrass as more authentically old-time than "country music", and in a way this is true. But bluegrass is actually a modern music that didn't come about until the 1940s as certain musicians, such as Mr. Martin and his bandmate, "Father of Bluegrass" Bill Monroe, reached back and reworked older styles, including Appalachian folk music and fiddle tunes from Ireland and Scotland, elevating them with a professionalism and a virtuosity that set bluegrass very much apart from its folk music origins.

Michael Neumann's article examines bluegrass as the modern, professional music it is:
The sad irony of bluegrass music today is that what passes for uncompromising integrity is just the opposite, a compromise designed to sell records. True bluegrass, I'm convinced, is and always has been commercial music, commercial country music. Let me try and explain why I believe this.

Many of the bluegrass greats did grow up in humble cabins, way up in the mountains or off in the hills. They really did grow up with traditional mountain music. But traditional mountain music never was bluegrass, and bluegrass musicians, at least until sometime in the 1960s, shared two pressingly urgent desires. The first was to develop a new music, so demanding that only seasoned professionals like themselves could play it. The second was to parlay that music into a ticket out of poverty and out of the hills. Bluegrass music never was an expression of Appalachian folkways. It was always highly individualistic and aggressively competitive. Bluegrass musicians did not want to sit around the old homestead playing Child ballads; they wanted respect. And money: this was no betrayal of anything; this was a real need.
Jimmy Martin joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys (the seminal bluegrass band) in 1949, and they became one of the most famous vocal duos in country music history, Mr. Martin's high voice mixing with Mr. Monroe's tenor in what came to be called the "high lonesome sound". Today, any fan of folk, country, or bluegrass can name Bill Monroe as the father of bluegrass, but fewer know Jimmy Martin. Michael Neumann has some interesting ideas about why, which I can summarize like this: the folkies never got him.

As an aside, I have no choice but to point out that Jimmy Martin was a dead ringer for our own Vitriolix, if only he were a little more country, and a little less rock n' roll...

Monday, November 14, 2005

Get Yer Dark On

Here's a nice dark ambient set by Time Slips By over at RSC:

Time Slips By - Live at Chillits (mp3)

It is a live set (from the Chillits ambient festival up in Willits, CA) loaded with lots of evil crunching beats, and heavily filtered sinister droney melodies. Good stuff.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

DJ Of The Future

Following up on yesterday's post, I came across a thoughtful piece on the implications of the netlabel phenomenon at O'Reilly Radar:
When recording was invented, performers complained that the recording technology captured all their technical flaws and none of their charisma, and the infernal devices would put them out of business. Recordings created a new class of musician, people who sounded great on vinyl/tape/CD even if they had the stage presence of a wet fish and their live shows sucked. Now we see the value of a recorded piece of music heading to zero and that same class of hot picking wet fish is complaining because increasingly the only way to make money out of music is to perform live (which they suck at, remember).
This is an interesting point, but it is less pertinent to the world of electronic music, where many producers never perform at all (in their capacity as producer, of course a lot might DJ). Especially with dance music, producers frequently don't intend to sell their records directly to their audience anyway -- they sell to a kind of middleman, the DJ, who then plays the music for the audience.

How will netlabels and online distribution alter this equation? One netlabel, Thinner/Autoplate, is already distibuting their releases packaged with Traktor metadata (a popular DJ software made by Native Instruments), so that all the songs are instantly ready to be mixed up in Traktor with no prepping necessary. Even more significantly, the newest version of Traktor is fully integrated with the Beatport Digital Download Network, which means that any DJ with a internet connection can purchase tracks (in an iTunes-like manner) from within the DJ software application, even if he or she is in the middle of a set. With this in mind, and considering the research I was reading about yesterday into annotatable audio, it only seems a matter of time before your DJ software will be clever enough to automatically download tracks to match the one you've got playing.

So it seems that the dance music distribution model has the least to lose and the most to gain from this change, since relatively few records are sold in the first place. If anything, it has the potential to put the music in the hands of a much larger number of people. I'll let you know when I figure out exactly how this translates in to a paycheck...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Find Music With Phlow's Netlabel Catalogue

We here at Playtherecords are very excited about the emergence of netlabels as an alternative to conventional music distribution options. Netlabels usually work like regular music labels, promoting and producing music, building an artist's brand, but with free online distribution of the music in a digital audio format, often under a Creative Commons license. On the internet, where anyone can share their music, netlabels also provide a valuable filtering service, sifting out the cruft and providing a centralized point of access for music consumers who are looking for a particular sound.

Giving away songs for free may not seem like the best way for a musician to make a living, but with the market so flooded with music these days, and with the mainstream distribution methods still firmly in the hands of a relatively small number of corporate entities relentlessly pushing tired, old sounds, netlabels are pointing the way forward. With most of the cost involved in putting out a "record" eliminated, netlabels are free to take risks, or to release something that may appeal to only a small number of people. Moreover, they can serve as incubators for young, promising, but still raw music careers, something that the record companies used to invest in, but are no longer so willing to do.

As netlabels become more important, there are more and more stories of netlabel artists being picked up by "real" labels, such as IDM prodigy Grandma (a.k.a. Khonnor). I've also noticed more and more artists with established careers, whose records I own, putting out music for free on netlabels (such as minimal techno legend Ricardo Villalobos, with tracks on Textone). As more of our media is distributed online, I expect this back and forth will only increase -- and one day the distinction between "real" and "net" labels may disappear entirely.

So do your part to bring about the future of music -- head over to the Netlabel Catalogue, pick your favorite genre, and get yourself some free music. The best part is, the musicians who made it are usually just a few clicks away, and they would love to hear from you.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin

Occasionally, arguments break out amongst 1337 music nerds about Richard D. James (AKA Aphex Twin) and his place in the musical canon. Boy genius, or just another knob twiddler? The next Mozart, or passionate, but forgettable electronic producer? Clearly he is more than your average drug-hazed dance music producer/dj, but will history place him within the ranks of the composer geniuses of years past? The issue has plenty more to debate left in it, but Alarm Will Sound just added a few arrows to the electronic music nerds' quiver:

Acoustica : Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin

Alarm Will Sound is a 20 piece orchestra that has made a name for itself by working closely with major contemporary composers such as Steve Reich in addition to doing non-traditional works. This year they released an album of Aphex Twin covers spanning most of his career from his early ambient works to his latest double CD album.

This work is successful on many levels. First, it hits you just how amazingly well transcribed and orchestrated it is. Every grind, crack, pop and whoop is in exactly the right place, with exactly the right rhythm, often with a timbre that perfectly replicates the original synthetic sound. Considering how obsessively Aphex fans listen to every little sound, you'd better get that right. Beyond that, this really good music, even if you aren't an Aphex Fan. It's gorgeous and warm, intricate and full of emotion. I've been going to the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concerts regularly for a few years, and many of these performances would easily hold up in that setting.

Aphex Twin must be in love with this album.

Some clips from their site:

Logon Rock Witch
Gwerly Mernans

(samples of the whole album)

More about Alarm Will Sound:
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member band committed to innovative performances and recordings of today's music. Musical Artists-in-Residence at Dickinson College, they have established a reputation for performing demanding music with energetic virtuosity. Their performances have been described as "equal parts exuberance, nonchalance, and virtuosity" by the London Financial Times and as "a triumph of ensemble playing" by the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times says Alarm Will Sound is "the future of classical music."

The versatility of Alarm Will Sound allows it to take on music from a wide variety of styles. Its repertoire ranges from European to American works, from the arch-modernist to the pop-influenced.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ça Plane Pour Moi

A post over at Music (For Robots) sent me crashing happily into the pop-punk gutters lining memory lane this morning. I'd always had the vague impression that one-hit-wonder Plastic Bertand's 1977 song Ça Plane Pour Moi (song links in this post go to full mp3s) was substantially the same as a song by The Damned (really by Captain Sensible and The Softies, but it's been released as The Damned), Jet Boy Jet Girl. A little research uncovered the real story.

It turns out the tune originates with a band that was once called Bastard, and became Elton Motello after guitarist Byran James left for England to form The Damned. Bryan James presumably taught the tune to his new bandmates, and it was released as a b-side on their Wait For The Blackout 7" in 1982. Elton Motello has their own version which is pretty much the same. Meanwhile, Plastic Bertrand began using Elton Motello as a backing band, so they recorded it again with him, but he changed all the lyrics, and sang mostly in French.

So why did the version with unintelligiblly punk, French lyrics blow up in America? Perhaps because the chorus of the original, Elton Motello version, Jet Boy Jet Girl, is "he gives me head". America in the late 70's was not ready for a faux-punk rock ode to homosexual love. Plastic substitued lyrics which, in English translation, are non-threateningly absurd:
Someone poured whiskey on my cat, Splash
And lit him
He went "boof"
While he was on my bed
Normally I'd be all for the more politically interesting original song, but in this case, the urgent cheekiness of Plastic's version with its Beach Boys vocal flourish and lunatic pacing stands out. There are plenty more to choose from, because both versions of this catchy song have been covered by many, many bands.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Album Review: Milieu - Songs We Found In The Sand (rsc002)

In the grand tradition of melodic downtempo IDM, Milieu has released a free album on the new Netlabel Rope Swing Cities:

Milieu - Songs We Found In The Sand

If Rope Swing Cities keeps releasing albums of this quality, the label will go far.

This album is richly atmospheric with plenty of great moody textural progression, but the real hook of these songs lies in their melodies and harmonies. What I mean to say is: these are "Songs" more than "Tracks".

Compositionally, there are few hard delineating lines between sections (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro). Instead, Milieu tends to build progressions that evolve and shift slowly over the length of the track. Without being dull, the music is definitely not foreground music, in large part because of this slow evolving compositional style. Put it on to relax or as you need to get some work done, and it will mostly stay out of your way, occasionally making you stop and listen to absorb the depth of the moment.

The beats are in the subtle glitch-hop vein, with just enough bounce and movement to keep your head bobbing. While this album is definitely derivative of Boards of Canada, at its best moments it can easily stand toe to toe with their latest effort. Overall, a very solid effort.

Standout tracks include (full track downloads):

As Summer Blooms
Poplar Drive 1967

Download the whole record here (zip 120 meg).

If you like it, leave him some Feedback.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Why So Many Genres?

I've always been fascinated by musical genre. This is a useful tendency for a dj, because you need to be able to keep track of the subtle differences between, for example, dubstep, breakstep, and nu-step, if you don't want to waste a lot of time in the wrong section of the record shop. But with dance music, as my 'step example demonstrates, the genre distinctions often seem minimal and arbitrary to all but the most diligent listener. They exist in such abundance partly as a descriptive aid for the selector, so that he or she will be able to narrow down the search for a particular musical tendency. But at what point does the label affixed to a particular musical tendency transcend being a simple descriptor and emerge as a categorical genre?

Philip Sherburne, music critic, dj, and San Francisco ex-pat (I believe he has relocated to Barcelona), addresses this issue in a classic edition of his Needle Drops column:
I'm a big fan of genre qua genre. I think classifying things is fascinating. I think you can learn as much about a piece of music by how it differs from a similar piece, as by what it does on its own. This is doubly true for dance music, where every track is, in some sense, a variation on a common theme. Every house anthem, every techno track, every drum 'n' bass mash-up is a version of the essential house or techno or drum 'n' bass template. Some of these veer asymptotally close to the non-existent original; the trick here is to see how close you can get without going cookie-cutter. When too many identical tracks start coming out (cf trance, tech-house, tech-step -- the latter a subgenre of drum 'n' bass), the genre is forced to adapt or die off. There's an alternate impulse -- to take the genre's template as a given, but see how far you can venture from the "ideal" and still make it recognizable. That was Squarepusher's original project, and lo and behold, it spawned its very own offshoot called (sometimes scornfully, sometimes fawningly) drill 'n' bass.
The idea is that there is a theoretical (Platonic, if you will) "ideal" template for each type of beat, and that the never-ending (and ever-shortening) cycle of ever more specific sub-genres being born is a result of producers' attempts to project something new on to those templates without going outside of their strictures. Of course, as soon as one producer hits upon a novel technique for accomplishing this, others will immediately start using it. At this point, someone may coin a term to describe the technique (Mr. Sherburne did this with his "microhouse" label). If use of the technique becomes widespread enough (or even if the label is just so catchy that critics can't resist using it), then the descriptor grows in to a genre, and the whole cycle starts over again.

It's important to recognize, then, that the difference between a descriptive term and an actual genre is pretty fluid. There was a common thread to the techno and tech house records I sought out back in the day, even if those are generally considered distinct genres. In the end, the meaning of these terms are in constant flux anyway, so stick to the labels which are useful for your purposes and don't expect other people's ideas about what they mean to line up with your own.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Underrated Jazzman: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Blinded by a careless nurse as a child, Rahsaan Roland Kirk became a completely original performer, driven by a profound love for music and for blacknuss that he wore proudly on his sleeve. He played various saxophones, clarinets, flutes, whistles, recorders, and pretty much anything he could find to blow in to, and played them all with effortless skill. His main instruments were tenor saxophone, and two obscure saxophones used in turn-of-the-last-century Spanish military bands: the manzello (a small instrument, similar to a soprano sax) and the strich (a straight alto sax without the characteristic upturned bell). He often performed with all three hanging from his neck, and was well-known for devising a way to play them all at once. Kirk also perfected circular breathing, and is said to have been able to sustain a note for more than an hour. On the flute, he nurtured a technique to produce a throaty, exuberant, doubled sound by singing or humming in to the mouthpiece while he played, which was later adopted (for better or for worse) by Jethro Tull.

More than any other jazz performer I can think of, the body of Kirk's work reveals a musician with a bottomless well of passion for music. On his recordings a sheer joy in sound is evident in every note, every trill, every yelp, woop, and grunt. Kirk is not always counted among the great men of jazz because his performances could seem gimmicky, but he insisted that his three-saxophone techinque, all his talking, hooting, and hamming it up while playing, his use of sirens and whistles, and everything else in his sizable bag of tricks, were just an attempt to produce the sounds that he heard in his head.

Listening to Kirk play, it is apparent that this was a man with sounds in his head. His performances were the sonic equivalent of a pot boiling over, music escaping from his open mouth as if he were divinely possessed by the sounds in his imagination. Kirk clearly bared his soul in his music, but at the same time, he is one of those performers who sometimes seem to be merely a conduit through which the music travels from wherever inspiration lives to our ears. Jazz critic J.E. Berendt said that Kirk had "all the wild untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz musician"; to me this perfectly sums up his otherworldly yet totally human spirit.

Some woefully short samples of his playing are avaible at the official Rahsaan Roland Kirk site. Serenade to a Cuckoo is rightfully one of his best-known songs. It highlights the breezy, conversational side of his flute playing. Ain't No Sunshine is another flute track, this one demonstrating his trick of humming/singing into the instrument. Stompin' Grounds shows off Kirk's sax chops in a more standard bop context, while Theme for the Eulipions has him irresistably drawling a dusky, low blues line on the tenor. Better yet, head over to Amazon to hear more of his playing -- try the first disc of the Dog Years In The Fourth Ring box set. But if you hear one Rahsaan Roland Kirk album, I recommend 1964's I Talk With Spirits (Kirk's technique plays nicely in the free-wheelin' context of early-to-mid-60's jazz), or 1971's Blacknuss (with more of a low-down-funky soul jazz feel).

Live, Realtime 3D+Music

I saw this performance about a year ago at the Pd~conference of chdh, made up of the French brothers Cyrille and Damien Henry. Its an amazing combo of realtime 3D graphics and live music. The same control data generates the music and the visuals, so the performance is tightly linked, and really quite well done, with lots of attention paid to thematic development in both the music and the visuals. This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of VJing, which is some nifty or pretty visuals at best loosely related to the music.

There have been many comparisons to the Autechre video Gantz Graf, which is proported to have more complicated graphics. But there is a huge difference here: Gantz Graf is rendered and probably took weeks if not months to produce. chdh's stuff is all live, generated in realtime, controlled by two linked motorized MIDI control surfaces.

Also, in terms of artistry, chdh really shows mastery of the OpenGL medium. While Gantz Graf is stuck on transformations and views around the central point of OpenGL, chdh's work breaks out from that central point on many levels, feeling much more fluid.

Check it out: chdh.net

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The World's Most Powerful Subwoofer

I'll take two.
Rather than your garden variety 10 or 12 inch paper cone pulsating back and forth, this subwoofer creates a wall of air as big as your living room. In other words, the entire room becomes a resonating box!

By rotating the fins and modulating the speed, frequency goes all the way down to 1Hz, the territory of jet engines, nuclear explosions and plate tectonics. By comparison, your typical sub hits 20Hz on its best day.

Album Review: Wayne&Wax's Boston Jerk

The first thought you may have when you throw on this record is "What is this slightly odd-sounding white-boy from Boston doing making Jamaican music? Is he some sort of cultural fetishist?" Dig a little deeper and you'll see you aren't the only one asking the question.

The whole project is sort of a meditation on this idea, complete with interludes of Wayne interviewing his Jamaican guest MC's. You have got to give him some respect for actually moving to Jamaica for 6 months to make this album. Most other outsiders who dabble with dub/ska/reggae/ragga stylings do it from the comfort of their own homes, their only exposure to the culture they worship being Red Stripe lager, jerk chicken, and piles of dub recordings.

Wayne&Wax, AKA Wayne Marshall is a DJ, Producer and Ethno-Musicologist living in Boston, hence the word play in the title of the album. Some of you in the faithfull PTR reading masses may recognize W&W's name from his blog, which several of us around here read obsessively. Definitely one of the most thoughtful music blogs around.

The album wanders stylistically between found sound, cut 'n' paste, hip hop, ragga and grime. More often than not, it works. Here are a couple standout tracks:
  • Ready for the road: This track is an interesting blend of trip-hop creepiness with ragga energy and cool. I challenge you to not get the western-movie strings and whistling stuck in your head.

  • A It Dat: This is clearly the big dancefloor single of the album. Wayne's rhymes are tight, and his guest MCs bring that ragga vocal stylee that we love so well. The beat really typifies what so great about this new generation of techno/dub/hip-hop stylistic mixings, its has all the smart punchiness of a good hip-hop track with a tight head-bobbin' ragga rhythm. Dear world: more music like this, please. Thanks!

  • Taximan: This is a definite contender to be one of the best "found sound" tracks I've ever heard. At the start you hear Wayne step into a taxi, portable microphone recording as he tells the driver his destination. The you hear beats and melodies built up completely from bits of sound sampled from inside the cab: the squelch of the cabbies CB radio, the sound of horns blaring from cars passing by, random clicks and chunks from the street around them. But the real genius is how Wayne cuts'n'pastes the cab driver talking to his dispatcher over the CB into what amounts to a MC rapping over the beat. Why didn't I think of this?

  • Bigger Than Biggie: This track definitely has his most mainstream hip-hop feel, which makes sense considering the lyrics are all about money, fame and the thug image in hip-hop -- how in order to be accepted in the biz you have to sell the mythic thug image, even if you are selling your thugness in a convenience pack with a bottle of sprite. (Mmm... That's tasty cultural whoring!) Not exactly a totally original rant, but it's done well and has some teeth, especially from a white, Jamaican-influenced underground MC.
You can buy the CD from CD Baby.

Hear Wayne talk about Mashups on NPR.

Hear Wayne talk about Reggaeton on PRI's The World.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Blue Beats For Longing

What's better than trip-hop when you don't want rap but need to bob your head? Instrumental versions of hip-hop songs. DJ Flack posted this mix of "rainy day head-nod beats" a few days ago, and I've listened to it half a dozen times already. Some big tunes in there (I can't stop humming the cheeky chipmunk melody from Lonely, Akon's hit of this summer, which kicks off the mix) and plenty of classics. I can't remember the last time I heard a mix so consistent -- a grey melancholy permeates all 48 minutes of it, like walking with your hood up and your head down on a wet sidewalk in a rainy city. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dakou: Real Punks Are Chinese

Someone once told me that the punk scene in China is more "authentic" because there, the government can put you in jail for saying something they don't like. That actual repression, the threat of jail or worse, makes everyone involved seem just that much more hardcore. A recent feature on the Public Radio International/BBC program The World touches on the fascinating origins of punk in China with a story about remaindered cds:
The story starts about eight years ago. Punk music was a rarity in China at that time. But that was changing, thanks to dakou.

Record labels and retailers from across Asia took their surplus CDs -- the ones with the telltale notches in the cases -- and shipped them out as trash. Thousands of these dakou or "saw-gash" CDs ended up in Chinese garbage dumps. Then, through a network of scavengers and middlemen, these dakou CDs found their way into China's alternative record stores.
This image of a network of scavengers, sifting through garbage dumps to find old Nirvana and Sex Pistols cds, seems incredibly romantic. In a sense, Chinese punks (and, presumably, other musicians who aren't part of such a well-defined subculture) literally built their scene out of the leftover debris of western capitalism. This even serves to mitigate somewhat the ever-present tension between punk's anti-authoritarian nature and its corporate, commercial exploitation -- The Sex Pistols may have become part the capitalist machine almost immediately after playing their first power chord, but their music (due to the action of that very capitalist machine) eventually ends up in a place where it has real revolutionary potential.

The World story also profiles Chinese punk band Subs. They're actually pretty good, if you're in to that sort of thing. Two of their songs (Drew The Line and What More) are available for download.