Friday, 28 November 2008

The conservative impulse of modern indie; or, kill the NME

Any institution that makes money from music, or is a by product of this commercial process, cannot lay claim to protecting artistic integrity. The NME treats music as a commodity, and has replaced critique with sales promotion. Their conservative impulses towards new music and how to ‘break’ and ‘source’ artists mean they can lay no intellectual claim over the preservation of music as an artistic conceit. It has also led to a unified, bland genre of music.

The following three case studies are to illustrate this point.

Case Study 1 – New Rave
Now that it is over, it is clear that the creation of new rave owed as much to the vagaries of contemporaneous music journalism than to musical invention. It was a movement with no soul, no historical context, and no core. It arrived fully packaged and commoditised. At its heart lay no music label, band or promoter that it grouped around. A disparate group of bands were amassed under the banner, with little direct linkage between them. Instead there was an emphasis on stylistic tendencies, as if it was an excuse to sell clothes rather than records. This mainly came about due to the preponderance of the music press and also its union with the fashion industry. Note NME’s links to the Arcadia group, amongst others.

Case Study 2 – The Brats
In the late 90s the NME launched the Brats as a subversive riposte to the mainstream Brit Awards. Their original oppositional stance has receded into conformity and languor. Considering they are owned by IPC Media, a large conglomerate with a huge multinational marketing reach, this transition is not unexpected.

Case Study 3 – The Pigeon Detectives
The most tuneless, godawful band I think I have ever heard. And they owe all of their success to the patronage of the NME. A hopeless bricolage of every half decent act that has been popular in the NME over the last 5 years. This homogenised rubbish is symptomatic of everything that is currently wrong with British alternative music, and that the NME have helped to create. There is frankly a multitude of excellent music currently being made in the UK that is soundly ignored because it wouldn't appeal to a certain demographic.

It’s no surprise then that the NME has been superseded by community based websites such as Drowned in Sound and Pitchfork. While they revel in their hipster status, they do promote a good model for a modern music publication (whether online or print) combining high level criticism with community based musings.

The NME has become an irrelevance. User derived content, free mp3 files on band's websites and the proliferation of community websites have lessened its influence. The parameters of its musical base are so narrow that they are constrictive. The editorial remit appears to be to give as much saturated coverage to certain favoured artists who will sell the magazine. The inability to review new artists without referencing a canonical (in their eyes) artist is akin to product placement. The record industry is notoriously a closed shop, and it frankly smacks of nepotism. Whilst this is sound business sense, in the long term they are alienating a core section of their readership.

The question that must be posed by all of those disillusioned by the publication’s fall from grace is whether too much is expected. In its current guise I would say that is the case. There is a place in the mainstream for an oppositional voice, one that places music criticism within its contextual environment and can appraise without subsiding into clichéd, postmodern, ironic malaise. But the NME have come to represent the mainstream, and big business. Their conservative impulses and failure to evolve with their readership means it will eventually fall on its own sword. The vapidity of it's journalism makes it a question of when and not if.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

4:13 Dream - The Cure

Across the breadth of thirteen albums The Cure have created a sensory world, full of dense rhythms, melodic lines supplied by six strings basses, agitated vocals, lush orchestration and baroque touches such as woodwind and timpani. They have always had a masterly control over song dynamics. Each song is drenched in chiaroscuro. This aesthetic makes them instantly recognisable and is in firm evidence on new album 4:13 Dream. The usual thematic concepts are also perceptible. Robert Smith’s lyrics are imbued with existential tropes as he examines the binaries that make us human – life/death, reality/fiction, and fidelity/infidelity.
This is important because if you are to treat The Cure as a genre in themselves there are certain conventions that they cannot break and are not allowed to by their faithful following. 4:13 Dream, and indeed any Cure album from Disintegration onwards, suffers in comparison to past works. This is due to the reverence in which they are held and our own nostalgic memories of them. Memory is composed of both personal and collective memories that are not seperable, so our own personal response to The Cure's music is coloured by their ritualised coverage in the music press.
The Cure’s follow up to 2004’s eponymous release has had a lengthy and apparently torturous gestation, as Robert Smith edited the track listing from an initial thirty three track double album to a more palatable thirteen track single disc. The original press releases for the album slated it as moody and brooding, akin to Disintegration. Opener “Underneath The Stars” certainly has the same ambience, opening with crystalline glissandos before a post-rock wall of noise descends, threatening to consume all, including Robert Smith’s reverb laden, barely there, withdrawn vocals. The feeling of translucency, of lack, is very appealing and credit must be given to producer Keith Uddin for creating this aural environ. “The Only One” is vibrant and upbeat, with Smith’s familiar yelping vocal line eschewing the joys of what his beloved does to him (becoming more and more salacious as it develops from verse to verse) while “The Reasons Why” uses a chorus laden six string bass riff and Porl Thompson’s choppy guitar motif to underpin the song. “The Perfect Boy” is a standard Cure pop ballad, but is saved from becoming twee by Smith’s cries of “I don’t want to be innocent”. “This. Here and Now. With You” takes a minimal, post-punk approach to a similar song structure but uses synthetic texture and chiming guitars to create an impassioned entreaty. Of the two closing songs “The Scream” creates an eerie soundscape, with scattershot drums and synths building up the tension as Smith declaims “I can’t wait to break apart this dream” while “It’s Over” features an almost prog-punk twin guitar attack.
But for every good song on the album there appears to a damp squib to hold its hand. The brevity of “Freakshow” and “Sirensong” hardly endears them to the listener, coming across as half good melodies that couldn’t be fashioned into a full song. “Switch” would have worked well if the wah-laden guitar had been edited, because the piano melody that counters the guitar works well. A missed opportunity. “The Real Snow White” is frankly risible while “The Hungry Ghost” is certainly pretty, but so doused in compression and studio devices that it struggles to raise its head above the mire.
Like a fly trapped in amber The Cure struggle against the weight of expectations and the power of their own back catalogue. 4:13 Dream finds them in stasis, caught between looking back and looking forward while showcasing only their reductive impulses. While not amongst their best offerings however the album does augment their lengthy back catalogue without embarrassment.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of 4:13 Dream by The Cure on the site, please click on the article title.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Human - The Killers

The Killers deal in universals in a mawkish attempt to connect to everyone. If you continually speak in universals without attempting to to fully interact with them then you cannot fully appreciate them. The words in themselves become meaningless, a mantra without depth or context. Universals in themselves explain nothing, but must be explicated and disseminated in order to provide meaning.
By abandoning the story based songs of their previous albums and dealing purely in universals and attempting to appeal to the Everyman they only succeed in alienating those who were drawn in initially by songs such as the 'Murder Trilogy' ("Midnight Show", "Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine" and "Leave The Bourbon On The Shelf") or "Mr Brightside".
In terms of the actual tune itself, it is passable synth pop that references so many 80s artists it would be laborious to list them. It sounds dangerously like a retread of "Read My Mind" from Sam's Town, which was a lovely Springsteen meets Erasure impression. Perhaps coming from Las Vegas explains the ersatz nature of the Killers' art. Semantics aside, "Human" is a less than edifying experience.

Monday, 17 November 2008

We Can Breathe In Space, They Just Don't Want Us To Escape - Enter Shikari

Enter Shikari are an odd proposition, blending post-hardcore with exultant trance-like synths. Imagine Dave Pearce remixing Vision of Disorder. On paper it sounds incongruous, but repeated listens deliver comprehension. The sweaty atmosphere of a hardcore show and a club in Ayia Napa aren't too dissimilar.
The song structure of their comeback single “We Can Breathe In Space…” is generic post-hardcore, replete with breakdowns, time signature changes, and harmonised vocals. The song works well when the band keep it simple. The chorus is catchy, with a nimble guitar figure that snakes it’s way into your subconscious. However the transition from verse to chorus is a time signature change too far and sounds slipshod. In common with many of their new rave peers (or those other disparate bands who were branded new rave by a slavering music press and the ingratiates in the industry desperate to sign them) the emphasis on stylistic tendencies looms – the grunted backing vocals, the first breakdown with sampled dialogue, the euphoric synths – and this detracts from the song as a whole.
You get the feeling that until Enter Shikari learn to rein in the more excessive side of each of their conflicting styles, their songs will always sound ungainly and cumbersome. Too often their songs sound like a list of elements that have been crossed off a list. "We Can Breathe In Space..." hasn't broadened their sonic palette, but there are elements in the mix that bode well for their upcoming sophomore album.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of We Can Breathe In Space, They Just Don't Want Us To Escape by Enter Shikari on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Monster Song - Psapp

Beloved of advertising executives and television producers, London-based duo Psapp return with new single “Monster Song”. Credited with inventing the toytronica genre (elements of synthetic music combined with on toy instruments), they have enjoyed immense success in America. US licensing deals aside, “The Monster Song” is more organic than previous releases and certainly more sophisticated a production than many would give them credit for. More conventional instruments replace the rubber bands, chickens and household objects of old, albeit that alongside the guitars and strings lie the oud and Bontempi organs. They all combine to compliment the gentle layers of Galia Durant’s elfin vocal. While pretty enough, the song is prosaic in structure, ambition and scope. What saves the song from falling into a morass of twee recollection is the subdued and introspective coda.
When listening to Psapp it is hard not to imagine two children locked in their childhood music room. Their songs are reclamations of childhood, which explains their appeal. Psapp exist somewhere on the edge of our subconscious, with their songs of monsters, rockets and animals played on a mixture of toy, electronic and traditional instrumentation. Ultimately though the song, like the band, remain an inoffensive curio, capable of moments of extreme splendour and delicacy but also equally of saccharine insipidity.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Monster Song by Psapp on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Beg, Steal or Borrow #2

Deerhunter - Microcastle (2008)
Loveless - My Bloody Valentine (1991)
Honey Ride Me A Goat/Lakes - Split EP (2008)
Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984)
Slint - Spiderland (1991)

Get 'em.

Seaspray/22 Dreams - Paul Weller

Being classed as a venerable music institution means that our perceptions of an artist could be framed, especially when their best material is always whispered to be 25 years behind them. For Paul Weller, obtaining a lifetime achievement award from NME just short of his 50th birthday, it must have seemed an apposite time to rest on laurels well earned.
Weller released his best solo record for over a decade this year with the song cycle 22 Dreams. “Seaspray/22 Dreams”, the second double A-side released from it, showcases Weller’s talents and influences perfectly. “Seaspray” is very reminiscent of Wild Wood‘s bucolic, English psychedelic folk. Mandolin, lush woodwind and horns blend with acoustic guitars and Weller’s careworn vocal line to create a Faces meets Nick Drake style ballad.
“22 Dreams” is a tangled mesh of beat style guitars, and demonstrates Weller’s assertion that “catching the feeling” was the most important element on this record. Whereas the rockier numbers on previous albums sounded synthetic this track is much more authentic, with the grunted backing vocals and Motown horns reaching a blaring crescendo while Weller muses on saving his soul. Lyrically both songs exist as transcendental fugues, embracing oneness with nature and the power of the subconscious.
Much like Oasis on their new album, Weller appears to be fixated on late 60s/early 70s rock. He blends the mod guitar thrash of The Who to the more pastoral elements of Traffic and the vibe, groove and drone of early Krautrock artists like Can. But there’s much more to these songs, hidden layers of aural texture that wash away memories of a decade’s underachievements. Sang with an air of tender resignation they reassert Weller’s position as one of England’s pre-eminent songwriters.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Seaspray/22 Dreams by Paul Weller on the site, please click on the article title.