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.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Desire As

Certain popular music stands both in and both out of its time. To acquire the latter quality, it needs to appeal to a wide range of emotions, and sustain the appeal even when whatever stylistic facets it shows fall out of general fashion.

Most of the music that has endured has these qualities, that are most clearly defined in folk music. Popular music, of course, draws its roots from folk music but is quite clearly distinct. Much of it is made for purely commercial reasons, and most of it is clearly derivative of itself or other less well-known musical streams, be they folk, jazz, gospel, country (which in itself is an adaptation of the folk idiom, blues, and the composed popular song (Minstrel into Tin Pan Alley & Broadway).

Today, the dominant popular forms are rock 'n' roll derived, so much so that rock influence has seeped right back into those contributing forms. Listen to jazz or country these days, and the rock influence is clear.

This is no bad thing - popular music thrives on cross-fertilization and withers on the vine in isolation.

All of which serves as a pertinent preamble to a consideration of Prefab Sprouts' Steve McQueen album (inexplicably called Two Wheels Good in the U.S.).

This is a pop/rock album, owing something to early 1980s aesthetic - it's produced by Thomas Dolby and is awash in his synthesized orchestration - but ultimately it is more out of than in that time period. It is also drenched, however, with sounds and song structures drawn from American vernacular music spanning the whole 20th century (and to some extent even earlier, Stephen Foster comes to mind here).

I hear the words of Georgie Gershswin sings songwriter Paddy McAloon in Hallelujah and Gershwin's shadow is long over this record. As, indeed, is the craftsmanship and melodic sensibility of all the pre- and between-wars song composers - Kern, Rodgers, Carmichael, Berlin etc.

Not that this record aspires to sound quite like its influences. On the surface, it's not that different from a contemporary pop album by, for example, Elton John. But dig a little lower, and a much stronger set of songs than typically found on John's records becomes apparent. Lyrically, McAloon shares the same wit and acumen that you would find in the best Elvis Costello or Squeeze songs - to name but two contemporary artists with early Prefab Sprout.

Melodically, those great songwriters of the past are clear models, even as any direct influence is disguised by the pop-rock arrangements. Although the song Faron Young uses country music instruments, they are mixed to provide a strangely displaced and ironic sound over what is essentially a mid-to-fast tempo pop song.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of this record is although it practically should scream Beatles - particularly Paul McCartney's approach - it seems to bypass that band. Or should I say, it runs parallel. It seems to feed off the same sources that nurtured The Beatles, and it is quite conceivable that Lennon-McCartney might have written these songs. But they did not, and somehow the record resolutely seems to have sidestepped their influence.

Which, of course, is most unlikely - but it is a measure of the individuality of this record that it has such an independent feel.

Steve McQueen really is record that stands in and out of its time, and is a true classic of thoughtful, melodic popular song.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Chris Whitley

The singer, guitarist and songwriter Chris Whitley died last year, taking from us one of the more creative and interesting artists of the late 20th century. Ironically, I have not personally given his career justice as the only album I possess of his is Living WithThe Law, his breakthrough record from 1991.

This is a mistake.

Whitley joins a number of artists who operated largely below my radar in the latter 1990s and 2000s that I really need to become better acquainted with. For the simple truth is that the turn of the century has produced just as much good music as any prior time, but I have not turned onto it.

This is going to change.

The two music courses I took last year have acted as catalysts for this, primarily because I explored in depth areas both known and unknown to me, and have unearthed reams of fabulous - and largely unknown - music in the process. Most importantly, I was reminded that great music is made all the time and all it takes to find it is a curious mind.

Listening again to Living With The Law, as I am doing tonight, is strongly affirming of this sentiment. Not least because of Whitley's deep and symbiotic understanding of American vernacular music, particularly roots blues and folk on this record.

Reading about his later albums, I realise he is an artist of far wider range than even the expansive Law reveals, and I need to explore this music.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

In Utero

Nirvana marked a permanent shift in my appreciation of rock music, one that brought both losses and rewards. Not that it was any particular fault of the band, which is one I feel a natural affinity for both in sound and feel.

No, what happened with Nirvana was that this was the first band, fitting my own musical sensibilities, that I did not have a finger on from the earliest days of its existence. In fact, the entire Seattle scene was not even a blip on my radar until it broke nationally.

Considering I had been deeply immersed in the 1980s indie scene (taking in records and concerts by acts from Big Black, Game Theory, Thin White Rope, Husker Du,The Pixies, The True Believers, The Primitives - which turned into Uncle Tupelo - and true obscurities like Viv Akauldren and For Against), this blindsiding seems weird.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I had largely stopped reading the music press, finding the blend of uncritical fan-worship and relentless chopping of genres into lots of little meaningless pieces boring and unrewarding.

Perhaps, too, was a feeling of saturation. The 1980s indie scene was extraordinarily rich and most listeners today probably have only a glimmer of what was going on then. When I heard Nirvana - this amazing new breakout band - I heard only more of what I had heard earlier, even allowing for Nirvana's unique blend of pop smarts and raw power.

But I think what put the nail in the coffin for me was Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam's first album was so 1970s (and think 1970s' mainstream rock rather than punk) that I was really put off. Pearl Jam improved, and although they are hardly my favorite band, I still think they are decent. But along came the flood of unremarkable Pearl-Jam wanna-bes, and rock became less than interesting.

Meanwhile, after the runaway success of Nevermind, Nirvana socked its listeners with In Utero. Prepared as was by my love of Big Black and early Pixies, the stark production by Steve Albini appealed to me. While the songs show little structural progression from Nevermind, the bleak framing of the sound in conjuction with Cobain's increasing instability, gives this record a power that quite transcends the more radio-friendly Nevermind.

In Utero is where I connected with Nirvana, and yet within months Cobain was dead and the mostly uninteresting commercial alternative movement was in full flood.

Perhaps Cobain's death affected me more deeply than I acknowledged. It was in some ways also the death of the glorious 1980s scene, and, as my life changed, I did not reconnect with anything later in quite the same way.

Which is not to say 'rock is dead'. In fact, I currently feel that old familiar surge of excitment.

We're at the beginning of a new age. Let's hope it lives up to Cobain's vision.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Evan Parker

After playing The Longest Night again, I pulled out Evan Parker's solo soprano saxophone album, accurately labeled Saxophone Solos. This record, and it's an an L.P. as I have not yet acquired (or come across although I know one exists) a CD version, was picked up about a year after The Longest Night L.P.s but preceeds them chronologically.

There are four cuts on this record, named Aerobatics 1 to 4, and they are well named. For the sound of Parker's saxophone is as I described below, only without John Stevens to expand the aural scenery with his percussion, all you are left with is the gyrating saxophone.

Much of the music consists of long held tones, but they are far from static. Wobbles and overtones are introduced and without even realizing it you find yourself listening to a far more varied sound than you can imagine possible. Interspersed with these long sections of relatively stately development are passages of high speed multi-note flourishes, again pushing the sonic boundaries directly into the vocal range that is characteristic of much free jazz from Ornette Coleman onward.

In many ways the music reminds me of compositions for electronic tape, specifically atonal (either serial or aleatory) ones, as you might find Stockhausen or Cage constructing. But the vocal quality that come with Evan's playing gives his improvisations a warmer, more human, quality.

Evan Parker has made dozens of records and I have only four, this one, the two Parker-Stevens collaborations, and a duo concert with guitarist Derek Bailey. His music is not easy to find, especially in America, and I have not yet become such a dedicated fan as to make the necessary effort.

Somehow, I feel I should though.

The Longest Night

The Longest Night is the title of a two volume set of LPs released on the Ogun label in 1976. The artists are Evan Parker and John Stevens on soprano saxophone and percussion respectively.

I found both these LPs in a import cut-out bin at Streetside Records in Columbia, Missouri in 1981. I knew nothing of the artists, but bought them simply to try them out. I also kind of liked the cover art, a skyscape.

The music contained was amongst the strangest I had yet heard. Parker plays squiggles on his sax, sounding frequently like a squeaky machine, and avoids the long line and melody like the plague. Stevens hyperactively works a very reduced percussion set to fill in the spaces. He does not hold a beat, or convey a clear pulse.

Most people I knew who heard this music at the time reacted extremely negatively to it. It was noise, and what's more noise akin to chalk scraping over the blackboard.

I can certainly understand that view. It does sound like scraping and seemingly makes no sense on first listen. But I found myself coming back to it again and again, and once you get past the tone and the noise elements (not by ignoring them, but by assimilating them), this is actually very satisfying jazz music. Listen closely, and there is a rhythm and there is a sense of melodic progression.

In other words, it is not random noise. Every squeal is placed there for a reason, and the improvisational interplay between the two musicians is jaw-dropping. The music is extremely vocal - it talks to you, in a way far closer to actual language than most music. Once you get drawn into that conversation - which, of course, is primarily the interplay between the musicians, it's hard to let go.

The pieces start and stop without any seeming sense of conventional opening or closing. In feel, this music is far closer to ritual music, for example that of Native-American cultures, and gives you little if expect the conventional rewards of Western music.

But it is not true ritual music, and requires a combination of approaches in listening to get to grasps with it. This takes a lot of work, but I always emerge from hearing these improvisations spiritually refreshed. An appreciation of avant-garde techniques in 20th century music helps a lot, but there is not an academic aura about The Longest Night. It simply is.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Beta Band

All I am going to write is based solely on what I have from the Heroes To Zeroes album, and I don't know any of their other music (other than the snippet played in the Hi Fidelity movie).

This is a situation I plan to rectify a.s.a.p. Rarely have I felt so compelled to collect a band's opus as I do with this band.

Simply put, The Beta Band, are the greatest neo-sixties-to-seventies acid/psychedelic rock band I have heard.

In fact, they have so deeply imbibed the zeitgeist of that era that they would come across as a highly original and essential band even at the absolute heyday of The Beatles/Pink Floyd/Pretty Things/Beach Boys/Traffic/Family/Soft Machine/Gong psychedelic explosion.

But little touches of everything that has come between also infuse this music, so that it is not merely a throwback. Particularly evident is the music of the greatest neo-psychedelic rock band of the 1970s/80s, Siouxsie & The Banshees. Also evident is the greatest neo-psychedelic pop band of the 1980s, XTC.

If all the record relied upon was the production values of those eras it would not amount to much. But every song here is a melodic and harmonic gem, capable of standing besides the very best of their influences and frequently surpassing them.

Most sadly, The Beta Band are no more. But they demonstrate unequivocally that the experimental rock music of the 1960s/1970s need not remain fossilized, the lode can be mined afresh by every succeeding generation.

In this way, The Beta Band resemble Stereolab, although their sounds and artistic vision are quite different.

No greater counter-argument to the perennial "rock is dead" lament that aging rock fans trot out when confronted with a scene that seems to have left them behind exists than this. For the truth is that no one is left behind unless they choose to be, and every amazing offshoot of rock 'n' roll continues to thrive.

Monday, January 30, 2006


For some reason, I dragged out a number of old Cure albums today and gave them a spin. The Cure is an extraordinarily inconsistent band in my opinion with the exception of their early (pre-The Top) work most of which I find compelling.

Later CDs never grabbed me though. The sole exception in Disintegration, and upon playing it again today I felt that it, too, had lost its magic. But as the record played on, I found my resistance to it slipping. Somewhere in the middle of Prayers For Rain I capitulated completely, and found myself wondering inwardly at what a great record this is.

Just why is difficult to pin down. Does it just wear you down with its unrelenting gloom until you simply have to sucumb? Perhaps there is something to this, but I think there is more. Robert Smith has never sung better than he does on this record, and his thin, whiny voice overcomes its limitations by using them to maximum expressive effect. At first, he seems merely theatrical but as song follows song, the theatre receeds and a starker, more personal, feel makes itself apparent.

Considering this is a band that has made the sparse, stark confessional its modus operandi from the very beginning, the fact that Smith is able to pull this off with such success on this particular record suggests that he was unusually in tune with some deeper, darker emotion.

What is true is that Disintegration stands out qualitatively far above the immediate preceeding and following Cure albums, and to date they have not matched it again. It is the only late - i.e. arena rock - manifestation of the band that makes much artistic sense to me, even as they were simultaneously achieving worldwide commercial success.

It's hard to imagine they will ever top it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

William Billings

The following essay was another part of my recent course on American Music. and was written in response to the following question:

Q. Read William Billings’ prefaces to his Continental Harmony – both “To the several Teachers of MUSIC…” and “A commentary on the preceding rules…”. Comment on what these treatises seem to say about Billings himself: his sense of humor, his ability as a teacher, and his views on music, especially vocal music.

Billings may be better known today than he was even just a few years ago, but he still needs advocating. His music is simply wonderful

The Boston composer William Billings (1756-1800) represented one pinnacle of the uniquely American musical flowering in the latter 18th century. Unique, because although the music was European in background, it was very different from the music of Europe of that time. By the time of Billings’ birth, J.S. Bach was dead and Handel had but three years to live and the Baroque style that had been perfected by those two masters was evolving, not least through the medium of Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, into the Classical style that would peak during Billings’ lifetime in the works of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven.

None of this music played any significant part in Billings’ development. Instead, Billings reached back, through the writings of earlier composers and psalter compilers such Willaim Tans’ur and John Playford, to older styles dating back to the Renaissance. But the music of Tans’ur and his followers never aspired to the level, of, for example, a Thomas Tallis or John Shepherd. It was strictly practical writing for small groups of people with limited resources, lacking in many cases any accompanying instrument such as an organ. This was music for the parish church and concentrated on settings of the Psalms. A ‘do-it-yourself ‘element was a necessity – practitioners were frequently self-taught, given the difficulties of gaining a musical education in an isolated rural region of England. The American colonies could be considered in some respects as further flung regions of England; it is thus unsurprising that music making of this type, particularly with the strong religious sentiment of its practitioners, would flourish in the New World.[1]

Billings published four volumes of psalm settings, fuging tunes and anthems during his life, beginning with The New England Psalm Singer, published in 1770. This was followed by The Singing Master’s Assistant, (1778), the Psalm Singers Amusement (1781) and the Suffolk Harmony (1786). The early volumes sold well, the latter less so. By the time The Continental Harmony was published in 1792, Billings was in financial difficulties and his last work failed to restore his fortunes.[2] He may well have been aware that The Continental Harmony was likely to be his swansong given his age, changing public tastes and his financial problems, and writes within from the point of view of someone summing up his discoveries and attitudes to music and music performance. Now let’s consider the work itself.

Approaching the writings of William Billings from the point of view of a sophisticated listener but a rudimentary at best scholar of the language of music, I find myself drawn immediately into the role of student to Billing’s master. This is helpful in gaining an understanding of Billing’s persona as I am already casting myself in my mind back into a New England home, sitting alertly in a wooden chair, listening to the words of the Master as he imparts his knowledge.

And alert I would have to be, for Billings packs a lot of information into his long sentences. Nonetheless, his approach is methodical and well ordered. He begins with The Continental Harmony with a series of lessons directed to ‘the several TEACHERS OF MUSIC, in this and adjacent states[3]”. Note the reference to teachers. Billings is laying out the syllabus and principles here that he believes should be taught, and is giving the local choirmaster a comprehensive set of guidelines by which to do so.

The first lesson, “The Gamut[4]”, consists of tabulated listing of the notes of a scales for Tenor or Treble, Counter and Bass complete with their soundings as fa-mi-sol-la. Immediately, it is apparent that Billings is approaching the pupil as singer, which is as it should be for a book of song, but indicates that Billings is tailoring his musical teaching with practice in mind, as opposed to more abstract theorizing. Billings points out the whole and half note relationships, taking time out even at this early juncture to point out a common mistake of singers singing a B mi note as C fa. In doing so, he shows an empathy with the trials of many a choirmaster as well as the fruits of his own experience.

Swiftly he moves onto “Lesson II On Transposition”, where in two long sentences that need several readings to grasp, he lays out the travels of mi away from B as the key changes and the relationship of fa, sol, la etc. to mi after such changes. Again, practical advice for singers.

Lesson III on “Cliffs” (the 18th century spelling of clefs), introduces us to the written stave and the familiar bass clef, the identical treble and tenor clefs – the G clef – and the unusual counter clef that gives the middle line of the stave the identity of C. In a note Billings tells us how far, in intervals, a note set by one particular clef differs from that same note defined by a different clef and ends by defining the octave as any sound plus a seventh[5].

Lesson IV, “On Characters[6]” defines all the notes by duration, from semibreve down, through minum, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver and demisemiquaver. He points out the changes in note duration from systems in the past where the semibreve was the shortest note rather the longest. He introduces the equivalent rests, and the additive terminology that adds one third to length of any note– the dot – known at the time as the Prick of Perfection but which Billings prefers to name the Point of Addition.

Billings then introduces us to the modifying elements that affect the notes he has just defined – the Flat, the Sharp, a Repeat character, the Slur – ‘a form like a bow, drawn over or under the heads of two, three or more notes, when they are to be sung to but one syllable[7]” (an explanation that personally explains slurs more effectively than any I have come across). He gives us the bar divide, the Direct to show the placement of the first note of the next staff, the Natural, and the Mark of Distinction, a quotation-mark like character set over a note to indicate it should be ‘distinct and emphatic’ - a character that ‘when properly applied and rightly performed, is very majestic[8]”. It’s worth noting here the value of the long abandoned habit of capitalizing the opening letter of a significant word that Billings, along with all contemporary writers of his age, uses in large measure. It is a wonderful aid to understanding.

Lesson VI covers the pacing of music from slow to fast. Billings begins with the adagio, and details a very precise way for the conductor – the choirmaster – to beat out this pace – or mood as Billings calls it. Each crotchet should be beat using the method “first strike the ends of the fingers, secondly the heel of the hand, and thirdly, raise your hand a little and shut, and fourthly, raise your hand still higher and throw it open at the same time[9]”. What a wonderfully expressive motion this is, surely the method that Billings himself used. Billings very precisely sets the true time of each crotchet as one second, defined by the periodicity of a pendulum thirty nine and two tenths inches long. Should you not have such a pendulum, Billings even tells you how to make one “of common thread well-waxed, and instead of a bullet (as weight) take a piece of heavy wood turned perfectly round, about the bigness of pullet’s egg, and rub them over, either with chalk, paint or white wash, so that they may be seen clearly by candlelight.[10]” Billings was clearly a practical man capable of some invention, as would befit a man who made his living primarily as tanner. Also the one of first, if not the first, in a long line of American inventor-composers! He also has strong grasp of the physics of pendulum periodicity, being able to calculate precisely the length needed for a desired timing.

Largo mood, “in proportion to the adagio as 5 is to 4”, follows with Billings providing pendulum lengths for beating in crotchets or minums. Next is allegro, beat as adagio except with minums replacing crotchets. Two from Four or 2/4 time follows, with each crotchet as half a second – a more manageable pendulum of nine inches and eight tenths![11]

Billings then switches from these common time moods to consider two moods, 6/4 and 6/8, with 6 crotchets and 6 quavers to the bar respectively, judging these “neither common nor triple time, but compounded of both, and, in my opinion, they are very beautiful movements.”

Following come three triple time moods. These are 3/2 time – each bar containing three minums, two beat down and one up. Again we are given precise hand movements “let your hand fall, and observe first to strike the ends of your fingers, then secondly the heel of your hand, and thirdly raise your hand up, which finishes the bar[12]”. Then Three to Four (3/4), similar to 3/2 except crotchets are now used instead of mimums. Logically, Billings finishes with 3/8 – ‘an indifferent mood, and almost out of use in vocal music” where the beat is defined by the quaver.

Billings takes time in lengthy footnote to explain exactly the relationship of the numbers used in these time signatures, the named notes, and their place in the bar. In the same footnote, he gives performance instructions for the singer to negotiate figures placed over the bar, such as a 3 above three tied notes, a situation where you must sound the three notes in same the time it would normally take to sound two of the same kind - directions easier to grasp “by practice than precept, provided you have an able teacher[13]”.

Now we move onto more complex concepts. Lesson VII covers “syncope, syncopation or driving notes”, that “have not been sufficiently explained by any writers I have met with[14]”. Using no more than the musical materials that he has already given us, Billings demonstrates, in his first example, in the Allegro mood (i.e. two minums to the bar or 2/2 time), the equivalence of a minum between two crotchets in a bar to two tied crotchets between two untied. This is syncope.

His second example, again Allegro, with a bar containing a crotchet followed by a dotted minum. Here one beat consists of the crotchet, plus half the minum that is carried back, and the second beat is the last half of the minum plus the point of addition.

His third example, illustrating syncopation, shows the effect of ties that cross bar lines. Here Billings is not clear, and the first two examples[15] that he shows as being the same do not seem to be so, although a third example he gives us is equivalent to the second. Sowing confusion in a subject ‘that has not been fairly explained by any of our modern authors[16]’ does little to separate Billings from his contemporaries, but is perhaps explained by typographical errors – again his “Example 5th[17] shows inconsistency as Billing reiterates his ideas of syncope and syncopation using different time signatures.

Finally, Billings concludes his series of lessons with the statement that there “are but two primitive keys in music, viz. A, the flat key, and C, the sharp key” and “these two keys should be well understood; they must be strictly enquired into by all musical practitioners; for without a good understanding of their different natures, no person can be a judge of music.” Furthermore, Billings insists that words be set to flat keyed tunes to portray the sad, and to sharp keys for the happy. Clearly Billings has a strong attachment to a relatively simple set of compositional rules, all of which were being greatly expanded by European developments during latter half of the 18th century.

Having relatively tersely laid out the basic rules of music, Billings then chooses to develop his themes at much greater length by the strategy of a question and answer dialogue between a doubtless idealized student and Mr. Billings, the music master. This dialogue is carefully constructed to follow the plan of his lessons. Initially, we learn that “The Gamut” is Greek in origin but owes its current form to a monk, Guido Aretinus, “whose name deserves to be recorded in the annals of fame” and who was probably ‘inspired with this invention, by Him, who is the Author of harmony itself[18]”. Billings here underscores his belief in the great religious value of music, a sentiment out of sympathy with the strict beliefs of the Puritans. To make his music acceptable to as large a part of the New World, Billings would need to underscore its divine origins as much as he could.

In such vein, Billings continues with speculation about the music of the original Royal Psalmist, King David himself, ultimately suggesting that The Gamut is none other than “King David’s Scale”.[19] Shrewd speculation, that regardless of its accuracy, stamps Billing’s method with Biblical approval.

In great and turgid detail, Billings then attempts to explain all the transpositions of B first mentioned in Lesson II, a passage to which the ‘student’ responds, “I doubt not but I shall reap the benefit of it”, and after parsing it repeatedly he may well do so.

Billings informs us that he know of only three clefs, the F, G and C, the former two being shackled to the stave, the latter moveable as stated in Aaron Williams in The Universal Psalmodist, 1764, one of Billing’s own reference sources.

Now we diverge from the lesson plan, no doubt to accommodate a practical concern of Billings, to consider choral performance practice. After defining the difference between a medius – a man singing the upper part of a four part musical piece two octaves above the bass – and a treble, a woman singing the same part three octaves above the bass, we then enter a consideration of the worth of each. For Billings, they are best set together for “such a conjunction of masculine and feminine voices is beyond expression, sweet and ravishing, and is esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatever, framed by human invention.[20]

This is most significant statement. It tells us exactly why Billings chose to be a composer of choral music and not instrumental, and it is clear, as Billings expounds further on the design of choral music, that the interplay of the sung voice is the one element of music that truly inspires the composer.

After this illuminating diversion, we return to plan as Billings informs of the bar filling properties of the semibreve rest, before once again considering the performance practice of the hold, not mentioned in the lessons. Billings has scant regard for this device, where a note is sung for longer than the time value of the note, as it disrupts the time structure of the piece and should not even be present in a properly constructed bar. In doing so, he declares his independence from the written principles of two earlier psalmodists, John Arnold and William Tans’ur.

Billings continues in this vein, considering the role of the double bar in psalms – a point to take a breath according to some – but for Billing a point to merely catch breath while keeping a good sense of time. Billings then reminds us that in psalms double bars are placed at the ends of lines, indicating to the congregation where to stop so they can keep some sense of place using the old practice of lining out, or retailing, as Billings calls it. This gives Billings a chance to rail at the practice of lining out, “which is so destructive to harmony[21]”, and aligns himself with the advocate of musical literacy, Dr. Watts.

We then learn of the old long notes values, the Large, the Long and the Breve, that have supplanted by the shorter values beneath the semibreve, and Billings again, in the manner of his earlier explanation of the transitions of B- mi, expounds on the difference between Common and triple time, doing his best to set to rest the misperception that common time is slow music, and triple time fast, ending with the characteristic assertion “You may depend on the infallibility of this rule in any mood whatsoever”.[22]

He again asserts that 6/4 and 6/8 time are composed of elements of Common and triple time, emphasizing that 6/8 “largely partakes of the beauties of both”[23], before turning has attention again to performing practice, precisely defining the speeding up or slowing down of a musical line that is marked for such as one quarter of the current speed. Billings approves of grace notes but not for note values under half a beat, as “it makes the sound like notes tied together, in threes, which is very false and entirely spoils the air (Billing’s italics)”. Again, Billings demonstrates he has a very clear concept of just how he wants his music to sound.

Back again to the consideration of key, which is best, flat or sharp? Here, Billings expounds on his “flat = sad, sharp = glad” concepts, with a lengthy consideration of the setting of psalms. He quotes the uplifting Psalm 95, “let us make a joyful noise” contrasting it with lamentations such as Psalm 42, “O my God, my soul is cast down with me”, assigning the sharp key to the former and the flat key to the latter. With great enthusiasm he relates how those latter flat key settings “affect us both with pleasure and pain, but the pleasure is so great it makes even the pain to be pleasant…(Billing’s italic)”, but then counters with the exaltation and “ecstasy of joy” that tunes in the sharp key produce[24]. He resolves that neither claim any superiority, and relates a charming story of the susceptibility of Alexander the Great to music, leaping up to slay his enemies upon hearing the sharp key, yet being soothed to weeping by the flat – all in the course of a brief performance. Nonetheless, he ends by declaring that should a vote be taken of all music lovers, the flat key would easily win. On further query by his pupil, he reveals that although men may regard each key equally well, women, nine-tenths no less, would prefer the flat.

Which leads again to another lengthy and dense paragraph on the mechanics of music, seeking to explain the transpositions of keys, a concept more effectively diagrammed than described, but he slips in a disarming poetic verse (previously published in The New England Psalm Singer) to explain the migrations:

By flats the mi is driven round

Till forc’d on B to stand its ground

By sharps the mi’s led through the keys

Till brought home to its native place

His ‘student’ interjects with the not-unreasonable statement as to “the necessity of transposing B-mi from one place to another, for if the tune must always end on A or C, I do not see any great difference between a tune that is set in its native place and one that is transposed”[25]. Billings responds by stating that such transpositions serve to keep the music on the stave, but, more importantly, let the music give “a variety of airs”[26] – a way of saying that every melody has a key that suits its temperament better than any other, and also implying that ending every tune on a C or an A is an easily broken rule.

By now it is clear that Billings is doing no less than codifying all the principles upon which he based his own compositional method. Clearly he feels it important to share this knowledge, suggesting a strong belief in both the originality and substance of his thought.

He continues to parry practices stated by other composers. A well-pitched tune is one where the performers can clearly produce the highest and lowest note, but Billings allows for exceptional singers who can carry a tune “perhaps five or six notes too high, or too low”[27] yet “oftentimes the greatest masters of composition set some of their pieces too or too low” (and there is a strong sense here that Billings is including himself in this class) as the ‘student’ will soon comprehend once he begins composing.

Billings then goes on to state the importance of the third note above the key note, plus the sixth and seventh as important guide notes for composition, rejecting fourths, fifths and the octave. He offers some conjecture as to the singers practice of hitting sharpening the B-mi, being drawn so by the key note. Clearly based on his own observations, he comments on the difficulty that even well-trained singers have harmonizing upon first meeting and performance, assigning the clash to differences in the singers transitions from one note to another. A good choirmaster, by laying emphasis on the first and third beats of a bar in common time, or the first beat in triple time, can effectively knit his singers together[28].

This advice, with its emphasis on accenting, elicits an extraordinary footnote from Billings who, answering a ‘critic’ who notes the lack of such attention on accenting in the earlier The New England Psalm Singer , proceeds to confess that he began composing without understanding “either tune, time or concord (Billings’ italics)”. After this confession, he vacillates between humility and hubris with the latter triumphing. Billings must have been sensitive to his own lack of formal musical training and, inevitably, his growth as a composer would encompass works that he now regards less well. Nonetheless this pugnacious apology is overdone and unnecessary – a strong pointer to an undercurrent of insecurity in the man.

Moving on, we read Billings’ opinion of the interval of a fourth, decidedly casting it as a dischord (contrasting with the opinion of Thomas Walter as stated in The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained).[29] He then considers the use of dischords in general, confessing that he has formulated no rules to handle them, going so far to acknowledge that “when fancy gets upon the wing, she seems to despise all form, and scorns to be confined or limited by any formal prescriptions whatsoever”[30]. It becomes clear that Billings compositional method begins with such freedom, and involves the attempt to organize and harmonize the latter parts of the work to this, this being “the grand difficulty in composition”.

A similar consideration of concords reveals Billings fondness for thirds, sixths and tenths – “the octave to a greater third[31]” – which he considers to be the greatest concord found in nature.

Returning to performance, Billings states his preference for singers with a musical ear rather than voice, “for any one that has not a musical ear is no better judge of musical sounds than a blind man is of colours[32]”. He conjectures on the global origin of the best singers, allowing that singers from the tropics, “the blacks brought here from Africa”, are better singers than native Americans. No mention is made that those same blacks would be slaves.

Billings defines an Anthem for us, making clear that he considers that the form of this “divine song” to be of his own creation[33].

Finally, Billings returns to his theme of the innate Godliness of music by quoting (through the “scholar”) the Italian proverb, “God loves not him who loves not music”. Claiming that there is no such thing as one who does not love music, Billing’s qualifies his opinion by extending his definition of music well beyond the sound of the choir into abstractness – “the usurer in the sound of interest upon interest (Billings’ italics). For Billings, music is “nothing more than agreeable sounds” and “that sound which is most pleasing is most musical.[34]” Only the deaf are excluded (although surely a deaf usurer would rejoice as well as any other in the music of his accumulating interest). Billings’ statements here, although they do not hold up to logical analysis, tell us much about the regard in which he holds music; a regard that is on the highest level and is effectively equivalent to any meaningful and spiritual human endeavor.

He concludes with words of advice to his ‘student’, neither be overconfident or unduly insecure, seek the truth, always be open to new knowledge, but ultimately to be most concerned with the essence of music, an essence irrevocably bound up in faith and allowing entry into “that land of Harmony, where we may in tuneful Hosannahs and eternal Hallelujahs, Shout the REDEEMER (Billings’ italics and capitals)”.[35]

Never one to let an interesting point go said without extra comment, Billings adds in a footnote that “ignorance and conceit are inseparable companions[36]” and expounds with another tale lambasting churchmen who fail to understand the use of appropriate meter for whichever psalm their service requires. A final footnote ends on a more spiritual plane by quoting Milton from Paradise Lost – a short section describing a unison performance of a sacred text “such concord is in heaven”.[37]

The Continental Harmony reveals Billings to be, if not an intellect of the first ranking, a thoughtful, inquisitive and confident individual, not to overbearing extent of excising self-doubt, but clearly an attractive advocate of his music. Indeed, a man of strong opinion as to the worth of music in general, and the competent understanding and practice of such. A strong streak of individualism runs through his works, casting him clearly in the forefront of a long line of ruggedly independent American composers who choose to work with the materials available to them, or invent new ones, rather than simply accept prevailing European cultural concepts. Like all in such a position, he is forced to become teacher to ensure the promulgation of his ideas, but this is a role he clearly relishes and his enthusiasm is very appealing.

[1] Kroeger, Carl Introduction to Billings, William The New England Psalm Singer American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1981 pp. xviii-xx

[2] Kroeger, Carl Introduction to Billings, William The Continental Harmony American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 pp. xiii-xxii

[3] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 3

[4] ibid, p. 3

[5] ibid, p. 5

[6] ibid, p. 7

[7] ibid, p. 8

[8] ibid, p. 9

[9] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 9

[10] ibid, p. 10 footnote.

[11] ibid, p. 10

[12] ibid, p. 11

[13] ibid, p. 11

[14] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.13

[15] ibid, p. 14

[16] ibid, p. 15

[17] ibid, p. 15

[18] ibid, p. 16

[19] ibid, p. 17

[20] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.18

[21] ibid p. 21

[22] ibid p. 23

[23] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 23

[24] ibid, p. 26

[25] ibid, p. 27

[26] ibid, p. 27

[27] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.28

[28] ibid, p. 30

[29] ibid, p. 31 see footnote 44

[30] ibid, p. 32

[31] ibid, p. 33

[32] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.33

[33] ibid, p. 34

[34] ibid, p. 34

[35] ibid, p. 35

[36] ibid, p. 35

[37] ibid p. 35 Footnote 55 – refers to Paradise Lost, Book 3, II 369-72

Let There Be Love

It's strange to consider that Oasis have now been around longer than their heroes The Beatles, albeit with revamped line-up and Ringo's son now on drums. But the essence of the band, Liam's voice and Noel's songwrting remains intact.

Nonetheless, listening to the latest Oasis album Don't Believe The Truth is a rather weird experience. The sound is in someways a throwback for them - if you can say a sound that was a throwback to begin with is a throwback! Nonetheless, it sounds like a classic Oasis album and that means their first two records.

I haven't yet decided if this record is in the same class, but one song, Let There Be Love, is most definitely up there with their finest.

It reeks of Beatles influences (Lord knows how much trouble they went to get a piano sound exactly like that of Lennon's Isolation), '60s production values and instrumentation (prominent mellotron), but, as is the case with all of Oasis's best material, completely transcends them to stand out as a moving and beautiful ballad, gorgeously sung by both brothers, and with the melodic weight of the most enduring folk music.

Oasis were always a group out of time, a sixties-obsessed band thriving in the nineties because they cherry-picked enough of the music in between to give themselves a uniquely powerful sound. But really none of this matters very much. Their strength is their songs and their singing, with Liam as surely one of the finest rock vocalists of all time.

A great Oasis song is simply that - great.

The Unexpected Influence

Every now and then, I hear something in a piece of music that I know I have heard before - be it a melody or chord progression.

This is a rather bald statement. The truth is that it is very hard to hear any music that does not contain elements heard before. So what separates the new from the merely derivative?

Not an easy question to answer, and I'm not sure I can.

Anyway, these thoughts popped into my mind while listening to The Beta Band track, Assessment, from the Heroes to Zeroes CD. This track contains a very distinctive set of chord changes that I have recognizably heard once before, on the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin album, Love Devotion Surrender, specifically on the track The Life Divine. This version is a hypercharged guitar jam over the vamp of this particular chord sequence and remains my favorite track on the album.

Considering it's really a very basic descending sequence, I am surprised I have not heard it elsewhere, but there it is. At least The Beta Band had inspiration to write a very affecting song around it. Whether they thought of it on their own, or whether they picked it up from the Santana/McLaughlin album who knows. The only clue is in the title Assessment - which is close to the Ascension or Acknowledgement title used for the title of a Coltrane album and part of the A Love Supreme suite respectively. Love Devotion Surrender draws on Coltrane for two cuts.

Tenuous at best. But that's all part of the fun of trying to trace musical influences.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Despite my oft stated disgust with the current state of mainstream pop - a disgust that in truth could be applied to the mainstream pop of any time - I am actually a sucker for a well-crafted, hook-laden commercial song that shows any spark of individuality and creativity. However, such music seems to be in short supply in the USA right now, so I found myself turning to different sources.

And not necessarily the obvious British alternative. The single hugely successful, hugely commercial, and decidedly mainstream (albeit with a strong individual touch) artist who appeals to me today is the Columbian singer Shakira.

Not that I have heard her latest albums (something to put right soon enough). No, this impression is based on her Spanish only Dónde están los ladrones? that I recently picked up after hearing a clip or two on the BMG website.

This is one masterful CD. Sure, all the mainstream pop motifs are in place, be they dance beats or power ballad guitar chords, but they are fresh and exciting. Shakira is a very good songwriter and has a crack band behind her here. Her melodies are seductive, the arrangements sparkle. Perhaps her greatest gift is to have mastered that effortless synthesis of world music (and I don't necessarily mean NPR-style ethnic world music here) that I believe is the key to popular music growth today. One hears touches of everything from Country, through Latin, through all kinds of alternative, through electronica, through simple balladry, through everything basically, but none of it sounds artificially appropriated.

On top of all that she is a compelling singer. Comparisons to Alanis Morrisette have been made, and, yes, Shakira shares some of the vocal mannerisms of Morrisette. But she has a much larger vocal and expressive range.

She also writes better songs.

Clearly she is richly self-confident in her music, so much so that on her song Octavio día she appropriates the two chord motif of I Am The Walrus and generates a song that carries echoes of The Beatles without in any sense being a Beatles song.

So what, you may say, artists having been appropriating The Beatles non-stop since their earliest records, and this is certainly true. However Shakira's song seems to go beyond homage or mimicry into something reflective and thoughtful. A further example of her creativity is the blending of Western dance with Middle-Eastern melody and form on the catchy Ojos así - not something you would necessarily associate with a 'Latin' artist.

So, an artist I shall be looking into much more. But why did she dye her hair blonde? She looks so much better with those black tresses.

I Predict A Riot

Listening to the Kaiser Chiefs hugely enjoyable Employment CD reveals the ultimate absurdity of the relentless urge to subdivide and sub-classify rock music. You might as well throw all those endless divisions away and return to simple pop/rock definition that I personally prefer for any music with a pronounced rock 'n' roll derived backbeat.

For the music on this CD would have been called pop music a la Beatles or Kinks in the 1960s, power pop in the early '70s, punk pop in the late '70s, guitar pop in the 1980s, Brit-pop in the 1990s and it is all those things.

So let's just call it rock, and rejoice in the effortless synthesis that the band has mastered to produce yet one more entry in the patheon of highly satisfying rock albums.

Whether Employment is a masterpiece I can't tell yet, but it contains a lot of witty, catchy, energetic songs and is good food for the soul. Despite the long and honorable heritage that it draws from, the band sounds individual and self-contained and may, assuming it holds together, join the finest of its predecessors as another essential building block in the edifice call rock.

I think it will.

The reason why is encapsulated in the single I Predict A Riot, a sublime rocker of social unrest not unlike The Jam's Eton Rifles, and it is just as powerful complete with glam-rock style riffing guitars under the chorus and a very nice sense of dynamics. It resembles a lot of great songs that have come before it, yet sounds exactly like none of them. Which is precisely how it has worked for every great rock song since the beginning of the form.

Postscript: Having listened to this album repeatedly, I have grown only to like it more. It may eventually come to rank with Definitely Maybe.

The Sound Of Fury

One of the consequences of the "Music of The Beatles" course that I took last summer was an exploration of British rock 'n' roll and pop music prior to the release of "Love Me Do". Adam Faith was one of those artists, but his forte was pop music. Billy Fury was a different story.

Not that Fury recorded nothing but ace rock 'n' roll - far from it, he recorded his fair share of often slushy and unrocking pop ballads. But somehow, astonishingly, in the midst of all this Fury managed to record what is easily the best British rock 'n' roll album before The Beatles.

Indeed, The Sound Of Fury, is a trailblazer in all sorts of ways. One of the more enduring Beatles' myths is that before that band broke, rock 'n' roll artists seldom recorded their own compositions and certainly did not put out albums of new self-composed material.

It certainly true that most albums consisted of a handful of hit singles and hastily arranged filler, but any examination of the 1950s LP output of major artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly, reveals holes in the argument.

The Sound Of Fury is entirely self-composed by Fury. It's also performed by an astonishingly tight and accomplished British band including Joe Brown on electric guitar and Alan White on drums. The music is essentially Sun Records-derived rockabilly and rock 'n' roll with a touch of Buddy Holly's Texan style thrown in for good measure. Nothing strikingly original, to be sure, but it is executed with such self-confident swagger that it easily stands up to the American classics.

All of the songs are gems, but my particular favorite is the opener, That's Love. A mid-tempo rocker with Jordanaires-style vocal harmonies, it is a excellent showcase for Billy Fury's extraordinarily expressive and wide-ranging vocals. Influenced by Elvis, yes, but Elvis has never sung better than Fury does on this session. He's also beautifully recorded, as can be heard to great effect on the latest CD incarnation of this classic record The Sound of Fury: 40th Anniversary Decca Records 8449902.

The Sound Of Fury is superior to the weaker Beatles albums; indeed it's superior to much of the output of the more well-known 1960s British beat-boom. If it has any fault, it is simply too short. But for Fury to persuade his record label to record even only a 10" LP's worth of original material in 1960 was a miracle in its own right.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I was listening to the early 1990s CD Girlfriend earlier today, and checked up on the All Music guide review of Matthew Sweet's single and title cut. This led to an interesting review of the new Rhino box set Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box.

This is a 7-CD take on the nineties concentrating on alternative rock, and a cursory glance at the track listing reveals about 35% songs that I own, and about 50% I've heard, 90% I've at least heard of and 10% that slipped under my radar.

All well and good, but as reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine points out, the set essentially bypasses hip-hop, dance, Brit-pop as well as a good number of the most important alternate rock acts (Nirvana, Pixies, Sonic Youth, P.J. Harvey, Radiohead for example). That's understandable given inevitable licensing restrictions, but as a record of the 1990s it misses the mark for me.

And it was probably inevitable that it would do so. As Erlewine perceptively points out the 1990s really saw the splintering of rock into self-contained sub-genres, categories so inclusive within themselves that is possible to become completely immersed and shut-out all the rest.

Much of the blame for this has to lie with the record industry, whose penchant for playing it safe reached epic proportions in the 1990s. Outside of a few glory years in the earliest part of the decade, can anyone say that there has been any truly memorable top-40 pop music since? I don't think so, and with radio industry condensing into a series of genre and era-specific formats, all exhibiting woefully repetitive shrunken playlists, was there even any reason to listen to see there was something to hear?


No wonder file-sharing took off like a rocket once the technology became easy to use.

So I spent much of the latter '90s exploring dance and Brit-pop, giving up completely on commercial radio and greatly reducing my interest in 'alternative', a genre which was running out of steam by 1995. I have always maintained an oblique relationship to hip-hop, dipping into very shallow waters there.

So a 1990s compilation that cherry-picks the best of those genres would be very interesting, and I dare say we will start to see them before too long.

But however splintered and difficult-to-follow the 1990s were, the 2000s has them beat. Half way through, and I still don't have any clear sense of any movement at all! Perhaps the times for those are past.

I'm In Love With A German Film Star

One of the many mysteries of popular music is the one-hit wonder. Why is it that an artist or band of questionable talent and dubious originality can produce, in one glorious moment of otherworldly inspiration, a song or recording that reaches to the stars?

I have no answer to this question. However, such records form a constant thread throughout the history of popular music, and, when collected into a set such as the Rhino Records Nuggets series form a powerful corpus of delightful music.

All these are thoughts that occur to me as I listen to one of my favorite one-off songs, The Passions' I'm In Love With A German Film Star.

Film Star was released by the band in the winter of 1981, and was a moderate hit, but nothing special. I first heard it in early 1982, on a compilation tape that a friend has sent me from England, and was bowled over by it.

It's heavily derivative (of Cure, Joy Division new-wave doominess), filled with cliches (the standard rock 'n' roll derived skip-drumming of many punk hits), a female singer of no great ability and essentially banal lyrics (I'm in love with a German film star I once saw in a movie; Playing the part of a real trouble-maker but I didn't care, it really moved me).

Nonetheless, I remain entranced by the song, and would put it in any desert island compilation (of decent length!). It works because all the elements are perfectly in balance and thus the song transcends what should be insurmountable barriers. Who cares if the guitar solo is lifted almost verbatim from Robert Smith's work on "Seventeen Seconds". Who cares if the melody is little more than a blues progression - the song suceeds completely on its own terms and joins that select group of what might be called Perfect Pop Songs. Naturally enough, nothing else the band ever recorded comes even close.