Monday, 28 November 2005

When size does matter

Albums, like lots of other things, come in all sizes.

There's mini albums like Pink moon or Nashville skyline, which may disappoint someone who has invested good money in them. While I'm an advocate of quality over quantity, I still feel a little bit ripped off when the little LCD on my CD player shows a time less than 30 minutes.

Then there's the epics like Sunset studies and Urban hymns, albums which truly take effort to listen to. I find that when I'm considering playing an album like this, I ask myself some questions:
  • Do I have time to listen to this album?
  • Will I be able to listen to it uninterrupted?
  • Can I do it justice in this sitting?
All of this has me thinking. What is the optimal album length that takes into account the aforementioned issues? After many years of intensive research at the Anally-Retentive Music Analysis Centre (ARMAC), musicologists have discovered the optimal album length. But they have also taken it a step further, and calculated the optimal number of tracks on an album.

How have they done this? Through a survey of course. Who did they survey? Music fans of course. Why have they done this? Because they can. Why am I writing about this? Because I can. And I also haven't posted for a while, and I'd like to keep this blog active.

Well here are their findings.

The optimal album length is 45 minutes. The optimal number of tracks is 12.

Here's their justification behind these figures:
  • Most humans are able to digest one hour television shows quite well. Subtract the advertisements from a one hour television show, and you have yourself about 45 minutes of actual entertainment*. Music is another form of entertainment, and it should be in the same digestable "portion size" as television.
  • For the mathematicians among us, this gives an average track length of 3 minutes and 45 seconds. Here's some brilliant 3:45 tracks, in no particular order:

    • Blueline Medic - At least we had the war
    • Big Star - Watch the sunrise
    • Elvis Costello - Watching the detectives
    • The Pogues - Dirty old town
    • Nick Drake - Northern sky
    • George Harrison - All things must pass
    • John Lennon - How?
    • Manic Street Preachers - Democracy coma
  • 12 track albums give us a chance for the vinyl fans amongst us to divide a CD into virtual "sides" of 6 tracks each. So you get 2 opening tracks and 2 closing tracks. How cool is that? [As a side note, Belle & Sebastian actually put a gap in the middle of their albums to simulate the act of "flipping over the record"]
  • 45 minutes used to be about the time it took me to get to work when I lived at my folks' house, which meant I could listen to an album fully before I got to work. It was a great feeling arriving at work just as an album finished. Now it only takes me about 15 minutes to get to work, so I need to stick with EPs if I want to get this same feeling.
  • At the time of writing, 49 albums from my collection of 877 are 5-star albums. 14 of these 49 albums have 12 tracks, clearly the statistical mode in my set of 5-star albums. Of these 14 albums, 10 of them are +/- 10 minutes from the 45:00 length. I think these albums speak for themselves:

    • The La's - The La's [35:10]
    • Elvis Costello - This Year's Model [35:34]
    • Elliott Smith - Either/Or [36:53]
    • Queen - A Night At The Opera [43:17]
    • R.E.M. - Murmur [44:05]
    • Manic Street Preachers - Everything Must Go [45:18]
    • Kate Bush - Hounds Of Love [47:27]
    • Radiohead - The Bends [48:31]
    • Oasis - (What's The Story) Morning Glory? [49:58]
    • Pulp - Different Class [51:57]
    • Radiohead - OK Computer [53:21]
Classics, the lot of them!

If anyone disagrees with ARMAC's survey results, speak now or forever hold your peace.

*Obviously this is making a bad assumption that TV ads are not entertaining, and this is simply not true in many cases. TV ads are often entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. "As a mother I feel it's my job to give my kids Nutella for breakfast." Need I say more?

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Benefit of using an iPod #001

Appreciating singles again.

Before I got an iPod, a single would never get any space in my CD case. Who wants to waste a precious space in a 32-disc case for a CD that only lasts 10 minutes? I actually sold many of my singles on eBay for this very reason (although I kept a few really choice ones, like Paranoid android which has some cool B-sides).

Before the days of the iPod, one had to hope that the artist would release a great B-sides and rarities compilation so you could justify keeping the CD in your case. Many bands including Oasis, Suede and Belle & Sebastian have done this. But it doesn't happen as often as it should.

On an iPod, a B-side can take pride of place on a playlist. Singles can be listened to as they were intended to be listened to. No more discrimination against the little guy.

Come back to me you neglect-o-rino singles!

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Top 10 songs not sung by the regular lead singer

In my description of this blog, I say the following:

Generally this blog will contain ramblings about music, with an emphasis on music lists of all sorts.

Ever since my many "top 10 years for music" posts, there haven't been many lists. So I figured it was time to pull the thumb out and churn a list out. I have many more ideas for lists, and these will all come in due course.

I would feel wrong to start this whole list concept without giving credit to Stylus Magazine, which is one of my favourite musical websites. They have a weekly feature called Staff Top 10, and this is what has inspired me to do a similar thing. As far as I know, all the lists I am going to include have not been included on Stylus Magazine. So just to make it clear, it's the concept of the top 10 which I'm "borrowing", not the actual lists.

We'll kick off this new (hopefully regular) feature with a list of songs by bands, in which the regular lead singer of the band is not the singer of the song. But I hear you say - "that's easy, just pick any George Harrison lead vocal from the Beatles catalogue". Not that easy. To qualify for this list, it has to be sung by a member of the band who is not known for singing. Unfortunately, the late Mr Harrison (or even Ringo Starr for that matter) have sung enough songs for the Beatles to make them semi-regular vocalists. So it really has to be a rare vocal appearance to make this list.

Before commencing with the list, I'd like to say that Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers need never get behind the mike again. His vocal performance on Wattsville blues (from their Know your enemy album) almost ruins that album for me. Stick with what you are good at, Nicky. Cross-dressing.

Shall we begin?

10. Italian Plastic - Crowded House (lead vocals: Paul Hester)

Late drummer Paul Hester took lead vocals on this fun Woodface cut. While some of Hester's songs (such as My telly's gone bung) should have been left on the cutting room floor, this song comes as a welcome bit of fun on the second half of the album. This song definitely has its haters, but I've always been a fan of it. It's also a very romantic song lyrically:

When you wake up with me
I'll be your glass of water
When you stick up for me
Then you're my Bella Bambina

Rest in peace, Mr Hester.

9. Coffee and TV - Blur (lead vocals: Graham Coxon)

This song is such a recognisable Blur tune that many probably don't realise that it isn't Damon Albarn on lead vocals, but lead guitarist Graham Coxon. I didn't realise myself until someone pointed it out to me. This song is a real red herring on their experimental 13 album, being the song which looked into the past on an album which predominantly looked into the future.

8. I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day - The Pogues (lead vocals: Cait O'Riordan)

Adding a nice twist of irony to this traditional song, female band member Cait O'Riordan (formerly Mrs Elvis Costello) sings this song about being a man that you don't meet every day. You can't help but smirk hearing her sing these lyrics, on their excellent Rum, sodomy & the lash album:

Oh my name is Jock Stewart
I’m a canny gun man
And a roving young fellow I’ve been
So be easy and free
When you’re drinking with me
I’m a man you don’t meet every day

As with almost any Pogues song, this is a great drinking song!

7. Cups and Cakes - Spinal Tap (lead vocals: Nigel Tufnel)

While Nigel is traditionally known for his brilliant (self-confessed) solos and his classical piano trilogy in D-Minor (including the superb piece Lick my love pump), you have to give him kudos for his brilliant lead on this old Spinal Tap song. On the surface it seems like a fairly shallow song about enjoying afternoon tea with a friend in the English countryside, but look deeper and you'll see deeper political statements:

Cups and cakes
Cups and cakes
I'm so full my tummy aches
How sad it must end
But I'm glad I've a friend
Sharing cups and cakes with me
And cakes with me...

Ahhh Spinal Tap, where are they now?

6. I'm Not Like Everybody Else - The Kinks (lead vocals: Dave Davies)

A great unknown Kinks song, this is a deeply personal song sung by Ray's younger brother Dave Davies. One of my favourite songs in their catalogue, this one makes me wish that he'd sung more of their stuff.

I won’t take all that they hand me down,
And make out a smile, though I wear a frown,
And I won’t take it all lying down,
’cause once I get started I go to town.

’cause I’m not like everybody else,
I’m not like everybody else,
I’m not like everybody else,
I’m not like everybody else.

5. I'm In Love With My Car - Queen (lead vocals: Roger Taylor)

While he's no Freddie Mercury vocally (but who is?), drummer Roger Taylor injected a dose of humour into their classic A night at the opera album. While many have written love songs about cars (Bruce Springsteen has based his whole career on this idea), nobody has written a song with so many classic double entendres as this one:

With the pistons a pumpin’
And the hub caps all gleam


When I’m holdin’ your wheel
All I hear is your gear
When my hand’s on your grease gun
Oh it’s like a disease son


Get a grip on my boy racer rollbar
Such a thrill when your radials squeal


Told my girl I’ll have to forget her
Rather buy me a new carburettor

One of the best songs on this classic album, and a great singalong.

4. Texarkarna - R.E.M. (lead vocals: Mike Mills)

This song has a great jangly guitar riff and a fantastic melody. Sounds like typical early period R.E.M., does it not? Except that you wouldn't even think this was an R.E.M. song after you've heard it, because it doesn't have Michael Stipe on vocals. It really makes you realise how integral Mr Stipe's vocals are to the R.E.M. sound.

This is definitely in my top 5 R.E.M. songs. Was this a single? If not, it should have been. I guess what makes this so good is that nobody except R.E.M. fans really know it. It's tucked away near the end of their Out of time album. It hasn't been overplayed like a lot of their other songs. In fact, it hasn't really been played at all as far as I know.

I'm listening to it on my new iPod now. This song makes me smile. Choice cut :-)

3. With A Little Help From My Friends - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (lead vocals: Billy Shears)

Ahh, good old Billy Shears. Lots of people bag his vocals, but this is one of his most passionate performances. If you've only heard the Joe Cocker version of song, you need to hear the original.

Great vocals and a fantastic bassline. The 'Peppers only released one album in their brief lifetime, but what an album it was. And it's songs like this which make it so amazing.

2. You're So Great - Blur (lead vocals: Graham Coxon)

Yes, this is the 2nd Blur song to make this list. What can I say, I just love "lost classics". Songs tucked away on albums that nobody really knows about. Everybody knows Song 2 from Blur's self-titled album. It has been overplayed almost as much as Alanis Morrisette's Ironic. But nobody really knows this song. And that's what makes it so bloody good.

I could quote the lyrics from this song, but without the music to put it into perspective, it would come across as overly sentimental schmaltz. So I won't. This song sounds like a lost White Album cut. It's amazing. I wish Graham Coxon had sung more songs before he left the band.

1. The Guns of Brixton - The Clash (lead vocals: Paul Simonon)

I have stated the virtues of London Calling in a previous post, so I won't do it again. Instead I will talk about this song, because it's a great one. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones wrote some fantastic songs for The Clash, but I'm pretty sure neither of them wrote a song as good as this one by bassist Paul Simonon. Not to be confused with Paul Simon, of Simon & Garfunkel and Graceland fame.

A sublime bassline and reggae beat holds this song together and odd sound effects add sparks of interest here and there. But it's Paul's vocal performance and the menacing political lyrics which elevate this song to the top of this list.

Situated perfectly at the end of Side-B on the original double vinyl (that's the 2nd side of the first record), the effect of this song relative to the album it lost a little bit on CD*. It just doesn't sound as menacing when it is following by the upbeat ska of Wrong 'em boyo.

* Before you start telling me to act my age, and stop acting all wanky about the old days (strange considering I was born in the same year that London Calling was released) - I will admit that I did hear this album on CD before I heard it on vinyl. But I own the vinyl now, so I am allowed to say that ;-)

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Whitlams gig [29th October 2005 @ Corner Hotel]

I used to be more of a fan of the Whitlams. To paraphrase a Regurgitator song, I like their old stuff better than their new stuff. Their 1997 album Eternal Nightcap is one of the great Australian albums of all time, a sombre tribute to founding member Stevie Plunder who died tragically a couple of years earlier.

Unfortunately, time has proven that Eternal Nightcap was a fluke in the post-Plunder Whitlams lineup. They are a very different band thesedays, the passion that Stevie brought to the group seems to have been pushed aside in an attempt to establish a more commercial sound. It doesn't sound right to call them a sellout, because they are certainly not commercially successful, but they are such a different sounding band nowadays that it almost seems like trademark infringement to be recording under the Whitlams name. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. There's still Tim Freedman's vocals, and the style of music is still jazzy piano-based pop. Kind of like an Australian version of Ben Folds Five, if I had to describe them to someone who hadn't heard of them before.

But I was offered free tickets to this gig (thanks Sheri!) so it was hard to turn it down. I dragged my fiance Lorin along (definitely not a Whitlams fan) and while she didn't have a ball, it was still probably a bit better than she expected. It was a sellout gig, and we spent most of the first part of the gig right near the front, packed in like sardines. Hot night + Sellout gig + Corner hotel = Low comfort factor. We ended up moving towards the back of the venue about halfway through, and it was much more comfortable.

They played a good mix of songs from their 5 albums so far, but I was glad to see that they played a lot of tracks from Eternal nightcap and earlier. They also played several songs from their 6th double album, which is going to be released in February 2006 according to Tim. The songs they played from their new album sounded promising, in some ways stripping back to a rawer sound than their last two albums, which is definitely a plus for me.

Opening with Royal in the afternoon (one of the highlights of their latest album Torch the moon), they followed this up with the upbeat You sound like Louis Burdett. One of the surprises of the night was hearing Where is she, one of the lesser known cuts from their debut Introducing the Whitlams. Hard to believe that this album is over 12 years old now.

Tim introduced a song by saying that it about the 2nd girl he fell in love with from Melbourne. I expected him to play Melbourne from Eternal Nightcap, but it was actually No aphrodisiac from the same album, albeit a slowed-down version.

Highlights for me included the early classic I make hamburgers, their semi-title track Gough (which closed the encore and thus gig nicely) and Buy now pay later (Charlie No. 2) which is one of my favourite Whitlams songs and one of the most beautiful piano ballads I have heard. Great stuff.

All in all an enjoyable gig, but I just wish I could lose myself in the moment more instead of feeling sorry for myself in a state of discomfort.