Friday, September 26, 2014


I have barely posted on 'Music' over the past few years.

Partly this is because I have stopped buying music.

My attentions have turned to the more creative, from a personal point of view, art of photography. 

This means I have stopped becoming a music consumer.

I never thought I would reach this stage.

Looking out, in my basement from my computer den, I see rows and rows of CDs and LPs, all lovingly accumulated over the years since I was 15.

Most have been converted to MP3s or FLACs, played now over my computer network in my bedroom, usually just before I go to sleep.

Or at work over the tinny speakers attached to my computer.

Or in the car over the not quite so tinny car speakers.

Occasionally, between recorded radio plays. Has music really become so peripheral to my life? Perhaps it has. Yet it still holds strength. Last weekend, driving back from Holliday, MO, after an afternoon photographing sunflowers, I played the third album I ever bought, the first Roxy Music album, over and over again. Music bought when I was fifteen. I loved it. Those old songs, heard so many times since, still move me. They cast me back into the absolute beginnings of my life yet hold true to the life I life today. How can this be? How can something I loved while still living with my parents, while still a virgin, while still terrified of the unknown future ahead of me, still be meaningful today?

I don't know. Perhaps this, more than anything, is a testament to the power of music.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Big Express

Bit of an oddity, this, a new post here, but two circumstances led me to it. First, I was unable (for unknown reasons) to log onto the Ape House forum pages to make some comments. Second, through a convoluted chain of circumstances beginning with the introduction of an 'embed' function into Cowbird, my almost exclusive internet outlet these days (apart from the inevitable Twitter and Facebook), I revisited my two Blogger blogs. Untouched they've been for years as My Opera and then Cowbird supplanted them.

But now I revisit and find a vastly increased level of functionality and ease-of-use.

So let's go again.

"The Big Express" is an XTC album dating from the early 1980s. A period of mind-wobbling productivity for the band, pushing out reams of exquisitely crafted pop songs that sent critics into ecstasies and the general public into a swoon of indifference.

During a brief period in the mid 1980s, I scooped up almost all the current and older XTC albums (perversely skipping Go2) and feel immediately in love with two songs from "The Big Express". The opener, a choppy mid-period Beatles-style guitar driven rumination on lack of awareness that managed to bridge the (admittedly narrow) gap between The Beatles and The Jam. And a little way into the running order, "This World Over", a gloomy meditation on a post-nuclear world with twinges of Police sonics, but a typically entrancing melody.

The rest of the record I failed to take on board.

For years.

Until this weekend, when, undoubtedly stimulated by the multiple listens I have recently given Bowie's excellent new "The Next Day", a record itself stuffed with beautifully crafted songs, I listened again to "The Big Express".

What a great record it is. Full of invention and energy, subversively constructed songs that defy clichés and an overall feel of a band at the height of its powers. Where, to be truthful, XTC was for most of its now sadly truncated career.

The revisit affirmed my love of "Wake Up" and "This World Over", but other songs, "I Bought Myself A Liarbird", "I Remember The Sun" in particular, are all reshuffling that great mental list of tunes, noteworthy or not.

That's what I wanted to say on the Ape House forum, but this will do just as well.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Long time gone

This stays up for archival purposes, but I am in reality long time gone from here.

Find me here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Be Here Now

I suppose it is appropriate that I should chose to return to this long-abandoned blog while pickled on eggnog and listening to the one Oasis album that you need to be drunk to enjoy, the bloated and excessive 'Be Here Now'.

Looking back on what I wrote all those years ago (yes, it is years), most of it still makes sense and my opinions haven't really changed, so I feel pleased about that.

Blogger has changed so much, though, that it is almost like starting over!

Friday, June 16, 2006


The energy that record companies devote to ensuring their consumers buy the same music over and over again never fails to astonish me. I suppose it all began in the 1970s when independent companies such as Mobile Fidelity began offering 'half-speed remasters' of popular best-selling rock albums, particularly those that attracted audiophiles in the first place.

Then along came the CD with its supposedly miraculously large dynamic range and scratch-free reproduction. Again, those same best-sellers were pushed onto that format, complete with a price premium to match those 'half-speed remasters', and what did we find? A very variable result, with some recordings well-mastered even from the earliest days (I have excellent CD versions of Wire's Pink Flag, and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus dating from those early days), but many sounding somewhat lifeless compared to LPs. a few sounding downright bad.

So began the CD remaster. Some in the 1980s, a lot more in the 1990s and 2000s. In some cases, they really do sound a lot better than their precursors. In others, marginally so. Some sound merely as if they have been remixed to boost the bass, some sound genuinely opened up with more detail coming through. But it is all a matter of degree. And, in a movement of sweet irony, much of this music is recompressed, reduced in sonic quality and recycled as mp3, WMA or iTunes. Portability easily trumps fidelity in most people's estimation.

Now we are moving into DVD audio and SACD, allowing 5:1 and more remixes for home theaters and supposedly even greater fidelity. In strict signal terms, yes, the greater bandwidth of these new formats allows for even greater fidelity to the original source. But for most of us, it doesn't matter at all.

For me the best thing about CDs was the removal of all those scratches and hisses. I was never such as audiophile that I really cared that much about the sonic imperfections of the earlier CDs. Certainly I can hear the improvements in the remasters. Sure they are nice, but they don't really alter whatever artistic value I get from the music. Two speakers, mostly just headphones, are all I am ever going to want for music reproduction so the multichannel enhancements are essentially meaningless. In truth, I'm not even sure the jump from mono to stereo was really that significant. I prefer to spend my cash on seeking out some fresh and new music rather than buying yet another copy of Dark Side Of The Moon.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

What's The Story?

Walking to the sound of my favorite tune
Tomorrow never knows what it doesn't know too soon

I was cycling through Forest Park this morning on my way work, my mind wandering as it usually does at that time. This time I was thinking about music, and specifically the Oasis of 'What's the story (Morning Glory)?". Part of this relates to my weekend experience of reminding myself how far and how low this band fell after the release of "Morning Glory".

But there was more at work here than that. It's about one full year since I finished my college course on the music of The Beatles, and I was thinking of that band as well. Oasis and The Beatles are tightly connected - the lyric quoted above directly refers to The Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows", and this is just one of myriad Oasis borrowings and references.

Oasis manage to transcend this obvious fixation by never actually sounding like The Beatles. The guitar roar and Liam Gallagher's whine place the band far closer to, say, the Sex Pistols sonically. For their first two albums, the band certainly squeezed out enough inspiration from this clash (no pun intended) to produce some truly catchy and unforgettable rock. But then it all fell apart, and the interesting thing about this is how slight the musical change was.

Post-"Morning Glory", Oasis is not that different in sound and style from pre-, but what once sounded fresh and exciting becomes dull, uninspired and sometimes even turgid. It's difficult to analyse exactly why. Certainly, songs became over-extended or relied one time too many on familiar sounding riffs and melodies. But something intangible was lost - best described as inspiration in both composition and performance - once the original band fragmented, even as the sound remained largely the same. Playing "Morning Glory" and "Be Here Now" back to back is perhaps the most effective demonstration I can think of recordings that rise to art and fall to over-confident mediocrity.

The Beatles, although not as consistently great as their reputation suggests, nonetheless never experienced such a tipping point. During the lifetime of that band, a lifetime well exceeded by Oasis, The Beatles produced about twice as much music and remained vital to the end.

I think this is a clue as why I have been so let-down by Oasis. The sound of this band is just about as close to the perfect sound that I have ever heard; their early songs as close to perfection as I could hope for. But this amounts to about two albums worth plus a collection of worthy singles. They should have broken up there and then and kept my fond memories and impressions intact.

The Beatles managed to do just that - break up before their decline (and the solo work demonstrates just how far they could have fallen).

I guess it really is all about timing.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Raw Power

Considering all the vitriol and censure that has been inspired by rock music from its very beginnings when Elvis asked if it was alright, mama, there are really very few rock records that can be considered truly toxic.

Elvis has been so assimilated that it takes a spin of his Sun Records recordings to remind you of how intensely powerfully he could rock, as well as reminding you as well as anything how a burning, brilliant star can be dulled and quenched by commerce.

But throughout the history of the form, a few rock artists have ducked expectations and produced music that is simply out of time and place. One such recording is Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power.

I bought this record when it first came out, all the way back in 1974. I'm glad I did, because that record has essentially ceased to exist. There is a CD, but this is a remixed version. A very worthwhile version, to be sure, and definitely worth having, but it is not the same.

The remix, by Iggy Pop himself, is entirely understandable. The original sound of the record is incredibly monochromatic. Guitars and vocals are merged into each other. The rhythm section churns underneath like a quicksand. It could have been recorded directly from a cheap transistor radio.

Nonetheless, this compressed sludge of a sound is perhaps the greatest hard rock/heavy metal you are ever going to hear.

The Stooges are (rightfully) touted as the first true punk band, in the 1970s meaning of the term, and everything you hear in punk music from that date onward has its roots in that sound. All the masterpieces made by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks or The Ramones are unthinkable without The Stooges, and Raw Power is surpassed by no one.

Whichever recording you hear, you are going to be pinned against the wall by the first cut, Search and Destroy, and you won't slide down to the floor until the final, the most appropriately named Death Trip.

Not a long time to hang suspended for sure, about 30 minutes, but you might not be quite be the same ever again.

Raw Power was made by a band in the throes of dissolution, with nothing to lose and nothing to spend. The extraordinary dense mix is attributed to the use of an ultra-cheap, practically lo-fi, recording studio. David Bowie attempted to apply to 1970s-style clarity to the original recording and failed spectacularly. Iggy Pop simply cranked all the meters into the red for the remix and let the sludge bleed through unadorned.

Raw Power is in no sense a pretty record, despite a peerless heavy metal ballad in Gimme Danger, and it is best listened to when you are in a really foul mood. For however bad you might feel, you are not going to match Pop for sheer piss. When a song such as Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell is one of the lighter tunes, you know you are in deep. Deep as a song such as the highly ambivalent Penetration will take you.

It's a great ride.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

City of Ruins

I recently picked up a copy of Bruce Springsteen's album The Rising in a clearance sale. Getting it this way I removed myself from accompanying publicity on its release about 3 years ago that mostly focused on the World Trade Tower attack theme running through the record. In addition, time has cast a more nuanced view of that event, a tragedy that spawned more reckless tragedies. Things are not quite so black and white now.

The record is a good one. I have never been a great lover of the Springsteen sound, but he sings well here and the E-Street Band plays well. The production is guitar heavy, which I like, but the drums are mixed too loud and too trebly. If I have any problem with the record, it is that it tries too hard to be a heartfelt epic. The lyrics are mostly generalities and are pretty obvious ones at that. That need not necessarily be a problem, but 15 songs in much the same vein is too much. Musically, too, it relies often on r&b and gospel derived forms that have regrettably also become somewhat clichéd.

I think Springsteen made this record too soon. Perhaps he felt he had to at the time, and there is no lack of sincerity in his approach. Memorials made soon after any event are notoriously difficult to pull off, because what seems earnest at one time can become overly sentimental and even mawkish later on (witness Elton John's almost unlistenable today Candle In The Wind for Princess Diana). I don't think anything on The Rising will suffer that fate, but should Springsteen return to the subject today, I think he would make a better record.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fog Tropes

I have always found the sound of fog horns uniquely compelling. Perhaps the song of whales comes close, but the unwavering and slowly unfolding music of the fog horn will hold me entranced for hours on any coastline where I should chance to hear the sound.

So when I first came across Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes on a compilation of various pieces put together by John Adams , I was intrigued. One listen, and I fell in love .

I subsequently acquired an equally entrancing early version of the work, also conducted by John Adams on Ingram's own New Albion CD ( NA002CD) featuring the work along with Gradual Requiem and Gambuh I.

Ingram is an assured master of the ambient soundscape. His work often resembles that of Brian Eno with whom he shares a strong structural underpinning for even their most ethereal works. But, unlike Eno, Marshall is more apt to make use of conventional 'classical' instrumentation, albeit in a heavily electronically treated form.

A brass sextet plays an important role in Fog Tropes, providing melodic and coloristic counterpoint to the wailing of the also electronically treated fog horns. He also introduces voice, again in a strictly coloristic mode, to give a human touch to the electronic fog. It does so admirably.

In some ways Fog Tropes resembles the famous Ives' Unanswered Question. There is a low register, relatively unvarying, foghorn-derived bass over which brass and voice pass repeated musical phrases. But it is more multitextured than the Ives' piece and consequently has a different feel. If Ingram was trying to paint a sound portrait of a fog bank he succeeds admirably, but the work has a resonance that goes way beyond those pictorial associations.

I often compare it to the Eno work, Ambient 4: On Land, and it shares many qualities with the pieces on that album. But unlike the Eno works, there is a sense of progression, climax and resolution that separates it from the more static ambient pieces. Fog Tropes tells a story as well as representing a state of nature, and that gives it one extra level of meaning.

A wonderful work.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Brian Eno

Ambient Music has been around for along time now. We all know the type - often played in art museums (and especially art museum shops), it's a low volume, usually highly consonant and low dynamic range form of background music.

Most of it is drivel. Drivel because it lacks any originality, strength of form or focus. Music such as this deserves to remain in the background and never come forward. The vast number of interchangeably bad ambient albums, usually with pictures of nature on the cover and psuedo-spiritual titles, almost beggars imagination. But then again, what is different here from the vast number of horrendously bad pop albums? In short, nothing.

But although the style has been ill-served by the majority of its practitioners, at its best ambient music is as fine as any music. It is striking how many serious composers in the latter part of the 20th century have embraced elements of the style, perhaps none more successfully than the American composer Ingram Marshall whose 'Fog Tropes' I regard as one of the masterpieces of the genre.

But Marshall can wait for consideration at another time. I wanted to use this article to highlight the contribution of Brian Eno to the form.

Eno is undoubtedly the grand master and main mover of all that is good in ambient music. In a way he was well placed to do this, emerging out of both the experimental (the Portsmouth Sinfonia) and rock (Roxy Music) musical environments on the early 1970s. Comfortably embracing cultural divides, Eno brought a new sensibility to music making that led to a series of masterpieces in the late 1970s.

According to the accounts of the time, Eno conceived of the concept of a low volume, essentially environmental, music as a result of being confined to bed following an illness and being unable (literally) to reach the volume control of the stereo in his room. Forced to listen to what I believe was a classical work at sub-optimal volume, Eno realised that the music, which of course blended into the environmental sounds of his room, had taken on a new character and feel. It had become ambient.

Eno's primary instrumental skill is with the synthesizer and tape recorder, both instruments that are ideally suited for the generation of sounds that resemble and integrate the low level environmental noise that we constantly hear, and rearrange it into music. This is precisely what he did.

Begininng first with a looped and essentially minimalist sampling treatment of a classical work on the album 'Discrete Music', he moved onto his first true masterpiece of ambient music, "Music For Airports'.

"Music For Airports" is such an important record that anyone who loves music should have it in their collection. A series of four meditative pieces based on piano, voice and synthesizer, this is perhaps one of the most beautiful sets of music put on tape. It is best played at low (i.e. ambient volume) but the four sections are constructed so artfully that it can be played and analysed at normal volume with equal satisfaction. This is music that washes the soul clean.

Eno followed "Music For Airports" with a series of equally delightful ambient recordings, either on his own or in collaboration, most notably with Harold Budd on "The Plateaux Of Mirror" and "The Pearl". My personal favorite remains "Ambient 4: On Land", a series of short soundscapes based around impressions derived from real and evocative places. Some of these, such as "Lizard Point", I have actually visited, and it is quite extraordinary how well Eno's music matches the emotional aura of that beautiful rocky seashore.

Perhaps it is familarity with these works that has reduced my patience for the less-inspired workaday efforts of the host of other practitioners of the form. I think, too, that without the knowledge of Eno's work I would have been inclined to dismiss ambient music altogether as just another example of wishy-washy New Age thinking. And that would be unfair. For the best ambient music is simply amongst the best music.