Thursday, 23 February 2006

iPod random mixtape #002

Time for another post, and I'm going to take the lazy approach. So it's time for another iPod random mixtape!

1) Here comes a regular - The Replacements

Paul Westerberg sings this song about a guy who wastes his life away in the pub. It's not clear if this is song is autobiographical, about guitarist Bob Stinson, or about nobody in particular. What's clear is the emotions that Paul's vocal and lyrics stirs up inside you while listening to this song. Add to this some fantastic lyrics:

You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut

and you have the makings of one of the most brutally honest and emotional songs of all time. This is the perfect closer on their Tim album, and a perfect example of how the 80's weren't all that bad.

2) A poem on the underground wall - Simon & Garfunkel

This is actually the bonus version of the song from their Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme album - I think it's another take. It starts with Paul Simon saying "listen carefully to this thing because...I wanna go with on the arrangements" (the ... is where the producer or someone interrupted him).

It's a short song not unlike anything else they recorded, with some nice finger pickin' guitar pluckin', and an interesting lyric about what seems to be a graffiti artist writing a four-letter poem on the wall of an underground train station. Was it love? Was it a more rude word? Paul Simon doesn't give much away in this song. I suspect there's a deeper meaning to this song, but maybe I'm too shallow to see it.

3) Heaven can wait - Meat Loaf

I remember that when I bought Mr. Loaf's Bat out of hell album I thought it was one of the best albums I'd ever heard. But that was my 77th album purchase, and now I'm up to 906 albums. Yes, you could say I've come a long way. The songs from Bat out of hell can be divided into two categories: over-the-top rockers and over-the-top ballads. This is one of the latter.

It's cringe-worthy stuff, it's dated, but it's not without its merits either. The arrangement shouts out Broadway musical. The lyrics are overdone, like a bad meatloaf. But amidst all its daggy-ness you still gotta respect a guy who takes his schmultz so goddamn seriously.

4) All nighter - Elastica

I bought Elastica's self-titled album when I was really into Britpop. While a lot of Britpop albums have aged remarkably well, this one hasn't done so well. There are some good songs on the album, but this is a 90-second throwaway song that isn't particularly memorable.

5) Circus - Tom Waits

I have to admit that I found Tom Waits' latest album Real gone (the album where this song is from) a little disappointing. It had a too-difficult opener (even by his standards), a momentum-killing 10 minute 3rd track, and the absence of piano didn't help either.

Circus is a typical Tom Waits spoken word piece, with spare circus-like instrumentation and surreal lyrics that only Tom can muster. It's an effective track, harking back to his Franks wild years days both musically and lyrically. But it works more as a mood piece than a song, and probably works better in the context of the album than as an individual track.

6) I shot the sheriff - Bob Marley & The Wailers

Everyone knows this track, so I'm not sure what to say about it. Eric Clapton covered it, but the old adage that "the original is the best" definitely applies here. It's a typical early Wailers tune (from their rootsy Burnin' album), with political lyrics and falsetto backing vocals during the chorus from Bob's fellow Wailers.

7) Manmade horse - Something For Kate

This is not what I would consider a standout track from their excellent Echolalia album - but that says nothing about the quality of this track, just about the quality of some of its peers. This could quite easily be a standout track on another album.

Paul Dempsey's songwriting skyrocketed on this album, but credit needs to be given to the producer as well. While their previous album Beautiful sharks sounded quite murky in places (despite the great songwriting), Echolalia truly sounds like the work of a professional band.

This is a great tune, its lyrics are intelligent without being pretentious and Mr Dempsey puts in a fine vocal performance. Add some nice piano tinkling and you have a song which really should be a standout.

8) The ids are alright - Guided By Voices

I have 147 Guided By Voices songs in my CD collection (and therefore iPod). That's almost as many Beatles songs as I have, but most people probably haven't even heard of Guided By Voices. Why do I have so many GBV songs? Because they are so goddamn short, that's why! Robert Pollard writes pop music and doesn't waste any time. He gets his hooks in, and he gets right outta there before the songs grow tired. Many other artists could learn from his school of thought. The problem with the GBV catalogue is that so many of their albums are hit and miss affairs. For every pop nugget like To remake a young flyer you have to put up with a throwaway song like Big chief chinese restaurant.

So where does this song fit in? It's a typical short GBV number at a little over a minute. Robert's faux-British vocals sing about something that I don't really understand, which is also a GBV trademark. The tune is kinda nice but it doesn't seem to really get anywhere. I'd like to say that this is the kind of song that fits better in the context of the album, but last time I listened to Universal truths and cycles I remember thinking that it was pretty much all over the shop. So I'm not sure how listening to this song in the context of an album would help its cause.

9) Back to back - The Replacements

The 2nd 'Mats cut to make this random mixtape. This is from their penultimate Don't tell a soul album, which many consider to be the nadir of their catalogue because it has a commercial sheen and a lot of fans thought that it was a bit of a sellout.

Personally, I consider this album to be better than their last album All shook down. Why? Because it has good songs, and nothing on All shook down is as memorable as most of the songs from this album. Bad production can kill good songwriting (it happened on Elvis Costello's Goodbye cruel world). But good production can't improve average songs.

So, back to this song. It's not unlike a lot of the 'Mats earlier stuff, it's just a bit more pop and a bit shinier. Still an enjoyable listen, even if I wouldn't put it in my top ten 'Mats songs.

10) Something about England - The Clash

Sandinista! is a holy mess of an album. It's a double album (triple on vinyl) which is absolutely begging to be cut down to a brilliant single album. There's way too much filler on it. And despite its filler, it's also a true genre-hopper. It jumps from punk to waltz to dub to hip-hop all within the space of a few songs.

This is quite a "pop" song by their standards, with a typical Joe Strummer lead vocal and Mick Jones backing him at key parts of the song. Not one of the best songs from Sandinista!, but definitely in the above average category.

Sunday, 19 February 2006

[OT] Yarra River from Federation Square

This is off-topic (hence the subject line) but here are a couple of photos that I took of the Yarra River from Federation Square tonight. They are a bit under-exposed, but when I tried to brighten them up with Picasa they lost a bit of sharpness so I thought I'd leave them as they are.

They were taken with my new toy, a Canon Ixus 55 which Matty kindly brought back for me from the US after I bought it online.

This is really just a test to try out Picasa's "BlogThis" feature :)

UPDATE: It seems that Blogger shrinks the pictures significantly, so now I'm hosting them myself. Click on the pictures to see them full-size.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Music appreciation: Objective or Subjective?

In July last year, Cokemachineglow writer Amir Nezar wrote a really interesting article about music appreciation entitled On Criticism: When Feelings Aren’t Enough. Another Cokemachineglow writer, Peter Hepburn, has recently responded with his own article The Subjective Approach to Music Criticism.

Take a read, it's really interesting stuff.

If you can't be bothered reading it, here is the gist. Amir's stance is that you can't talk about your appreciation of music without having objective evidence to back it up. He says that a good critic doesn't simply say "so and so have released a fantastic album that feels right" without giving evidence as to why it's right. He feels that there is a need for in-depth technical musical evidence here, right down to discussing the use of time signatures and chord changes as the basis for enjoying music.

Peter thinks that Amir is wrong for "attempting to place a technical framework on music criticism". He talks about how the Stooges hardly even knew how to play their instruments, but they gave birth to punk rock. He talks about some artists like Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham can be appreciated more based on their lyricism and delivery rather than their musical compositional abilities. He discusses how certain quintessentially British albums like Parklife, Different class and London calling will most definitely be appreciated on a different level by British fans than by American fans.

Which side of the fence do I sit on? I think it's fairly obvious from my posts on this blog that I most definitely agree with Peter's arguments. I'm not a muso. I've dabbled in a few instruments in my time, from recorder, clarinet and guitar. But it always ended in a cop-out when I couldn't be bothered anymore. Instead, I prefer to leave it to the experts and I do the listening instead :-)

Because I have less technical musical knowledge than some, does that make me a less capable music critic? Aren't the intangible qualities of music, which I generally talk about, just as worthy of discussion? After all, it's all good and well if you can discuss an artist's use of a 7/8 time signature and experimental chord changes, but is that going to make you enjoy the music any more?

Now I know some readers of this blog (one in particular springs to mind) may take offence to my comments so I'd like to be clear here. I'm perfectly aware that there is a difference between a technically competent musician and one who doesn't know their B sharp from their F flat. I'm not arguing that. I'm simply making the point that I don't think technical competence is in any way proportional to musical enjoyment.

Frank Zappa was considered one of the best composers of the 20th century. I've tried and I've tried (I have 7 of his albums) and I just can't get into his music as much as I'd like to. I'm not doubting that he's a master at composition, but just doesn't hit the right spots for me. Bob Dylan has a technically poor singing voice, but it doesn't mean that he isn't one of my favourite vocalists of all time.

In most cases, I can't put into words why I love a particular album, song or artist. There's something deeper going on here, and trying to treat music appreciation as a pure science with objective metrics doesn't gel for me.

Watch RocKwiz this Saturday night!

For any Australian readers out there, make sure you watch RocKwiz this Saturday night.

It's the episode with Pete and Dean on it, good mates of mine and contributors to this blog. It's finally going to be shown, and only 5 months after it was recorded!

It's on SBS from 9:15-9:45pm.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Pete's teammate is Glenn Tilbrook* of Squeeze fame!

* I just thought I'd mention Mr Tilbrook, because every time I do, The Squeeze Reader links to me. Nothing wrong with spreading the word a bit further :-)

Thursday, 9 February 2006

Some musical rambling

Happy new year! January was a non-existent blogging month for me, so it's time to get the momentum going again. Rather than write a coherent post, I'm going to unload a few musical thoughts I've had lately into a blog post. Hopefully we'll be back to well thought-out postings in the not-so-distant future.

Hearing an album you like in a record store

I went to Queen Victoria Market last night (they have this Wednesday night craft thing during summer). This was the first time I've been, and I couldn't give up the opportunity to pop into the JB Hi Fi in Elizabeth Street while I was in the area.

Upon entering the store, the eerie intro to Dirt in the ground by Tom Waits (from his superb Bone machine album) was playing. Now this is not a well-known track by Mr Waits, so it was unlikely that they were playing a compilation or soundtrack. I was hoping that they were playing Bone machine proper, and when Such a scream followed it my prayers were answered.

Listening to an album in your own time (whether on CD, iPod, insert device here) is all good and well but there's something quite special about hearing an album that you love in a store.

Here are some reasons why it's so good:

The sheer exhibitionism of it all. I feel like I'm inflicting my tastes on the other customers even though I didn't have anything to do with the choice of music. It gives you a pretty reliable indication that whoever decided to put the CD on either has fantastic taste in music or was a bit curious and wanted to hear something new. Either way, it's a win-win situation (assuming they end up loving the CD after hearing it for the first time).

I feel like I'm getting something for free. Time is money, and it's a true act of multitasking listening to a CD I like while shopping for other CDs. Sure I could just take my iPod into the store and listen to it while in there, but that's a bit anti-social isn't it? And I could end up in a freak CD store accident if an ambulance officer headbutts me while trying to pass me because I didn't hear him while bopping along to All stripped down.

Appreciating music on a different level. I've said many times in the past that appreciation of music depends on many factors: mood, location, etc. Well I hadn't been to this JB for a long time, I was out and about, I'd just had a decent Indian meal at Queen Victoria Market. All the mood and location factors where there. And I gotta say, Bone machine sounded awesome in that store.

Hearing a CD again. I've become such an iPod person lately that I honestly can't remember the last time I listened to a CD. When I heard that fantastic segue between Such a scream and All stripped down, I knew that CDs will always hold a special place in my heart. You just don't get the same effect on an iPod.

iPod: 3 months on

It's been almost 3 months since I got my iPod, so I figure it's time to look back on how it's changed my appreciation of music. Here's the pros and cons as I see them:

Pros of the iPod
  • I can listen to what I want when I want.
  • If I can't sleep I can listen to some tunes on the 'pod until I can sleep. I've done this a few times lately, and it's great giving a spin to Trout mask replica and Roman candle on those sleepless nights. It's amazing how great these albums, different as they are, sound at 2am in a darkened room. [Sure I can do this on CD, but it's less convenient and I'd need to lie fairly close to the stereo.]
  • I can get some interesting stats on my listening habits through the iTunes program.
  • Playlists are kind've cool, especially if you want to make a good mix for a party or something.
  • Smart playlists have a certain novelty factor to them, and they are kinda useful as well.
Cons of the iPod
  • The segue issue still pisses me off. Yeah, I know it's anal. Some albums will just sound shit without proper segues between tracks - SMiLE for one. And it's deterring me from listening to them on the 'pod.
  • The sound quality of listening to music in the car with the iTrip is less than impressive.
  • I kinda miss the ritual of taking the CD out of the case and playing it. I can't even remember what a lot of the discs actually look like for the albums I have purchased recently as it has pretty much been a rip it and shelve it routine.
  • I feel that my CD collection doesn't really have value anymore. Since I'm listening to practically everything off the 'pod, what's the point of the CD? Don't get me wrong, I'm still buying them, but it seems less necessary to buy them.
All in all, I'm happy with the purchase. It means I don't have to take 2 CDs out of my case each time I buy 2 more, which was the case before I got the iPod. It means any CD can get a chance to be heard, even those singles that had a really cool B-side which would never get any room in my CD case.

But has it changed my musical habits overall? Yes and no. It's a great device, it's great to have all my music on me, but I don't think it's quite the revolution that Steve Jobs would like me to believe it is. But it's still early days.

CD retrenchments

I recently culled (or listed on eBay) 12 CDs from my collection. They were all relatively recent purchases, and most of them were purchased for under $10 each. Some of them I'd given only one or two listens to, and decided they weren't for me. Some of them I gave more listens to in the hope that they would grow on me, but they never got to the stage where I was really enjoying them.

Why? I simply have too much music to listen to, and having these CDs in my collection (or on the iPod) were detracting me from music I did want to listen to. I felt that I had to give them a fair go, and the time was not right to give them a fair go because there's too much other stuff I want to listen to.

If circa-1999 Jiggy could read this now, he'd be shocked. My attitude back then was - if I'm erring on the side of considering the album a potential grower, I should NOT sell it. Thesedays, it's changed a little bit. If I feel that it's an album I can't be bothered with, I will sell it. It could be based on genre, it could be based on experimentalism, it could be based on the effort required to appreciate it. Most of the 12 albums I culled I simply couldn't be bothered with. My attitude is that one day in the future, the time may be right for that album. And if that happens, I can always buy it again. Not the end of the world really.

[There are other factors at play, like the critical acclaim for a particular album. I'm a sucker for a good review. If an album I purchased is unanimously praised by critics then I will definitely give it more listens than one which has had negative or impartial reviews.]

The untouchables

There's certain CDs that I hardly ever listen to anymore. I may have only listened to them 5-10 times in the > 10 years I have owned them. Pump by Aerosmith is one such CD. So why won't I cull it?

In business, they don't cull the dead wood because the redundancy package would simply be too much. It would send the company broke. Instead, they let them hang around until they retire. They get their gold watch, the company keeps the money they would have normally given to them in a package. Everyone wins.

So what does this have to do with CDs? Well, not much really. I just can't make myself part with Pump, because it has memories associated with it. It's got Janie's got a gun on it. Each time I hear that song it reminds me of being in my early teens. And What it takes is just a fantastic power ballad and a killer closer. So while I can't see myself in a situation where I will want to listen to Pump from start the finish, I can't bear to part with it.

It's interesting to note that I bought Pump on the same day that I bought OK computer. One CD is hanging around because it's an untouchable. The other album is hanging around because it's one of the greatest albums of all time, and it opened up so many musical avenues for me.

When I bought both of those CDs, who was to know what they would mean to me in the future? Who is to know that what I buy today won't mean anything to me within the space of 5 years?

What percentage of your CD/MP3 collection will really mean something to you in 50 years time, and what will simply be dead wood that you're too afraid to retrench?

It's an impossible question to answer, but it really makes you think.

This is rambling Jiggy, signing off.