Friday, October 29, 2010

The death of a disco walkman

My reaction to Sony’s announcement this week that they are ceasing production of the cassette Walkman was one of surprise. Surprised that they are still making the damn things! Moreover, who, other than ‘retro-geeks’ is buying them in this age of the ipod, mp3 player etc??

I have chequered memories of my own experience of the Walkman. I’m not sure I ever had a Sony Walkman. My first walkman was a cheaper imitation, a sort of ‘no name’ walkman. Or personal stereo, to be strictly accurate. It had large-ish, ‘over-ear’ headphones and took 4 x AA batteries. As you can see above, a designer’s dream. They were quite clunky, generally too big for a pocket. Many’s the jacket pocket I ripped trying to wedge it in.

The headphones were seldom good quality. After a time, usually one headphone would stop working. This sometimes gave a whole new sound to older music, memorably the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, where I lost the saxophone side, so just had Keith Richard’s dirty guitar riff. I always liked hearing it that way. For other albums, a strategically placed finger resting beside the headphone jack would allow stereo sound to resume for the most part.

The cheap nature of the headphones led to serious leakage, ie on a bus journey the whole bus would hear a tinny version of whatever you were listening to. My brother used to be quite disdainful of whatever nonsense he would inadvertently hear spewing put of my headphones when we got the bus to school. Still it wasn’t as bad as the guy with the crimped hair who used to get the same bus who used to listen to P0rn0gr@phy by The Cure every day, at the same point. Thus you’d hear him coming, announced by the dismal riff of One Hundred Years and Robert Smith groaning out “it doesn’t matter if we all die” (and I like The Cure!).

Batteries were a huge issue. As I said my first walkman took 4 of them. Not to put too fine a point on it, it ate batteries. Particularly fast-forwarding a tape (cassette) used up a lot of batteries. Early versions had no rewind button, so if you wanted to go back, you had to turn over the tape and fast-forward, guessing the point in the tape that you wanted to hit. On the other hand, this difficulty meant that you really listened to an album, with no option to skip tracks, and those lovingly assembled tapes became the soundtrack to growing up.

One of the ways of getting around the battery eating problem was to spend a dull class winding the reels of tape with a pen. Or another way was to carry around a ‘fast-forwarding set of batteries’, ie. batteries which were almost used up. This was because when your batteries started running down, the tape would play slooowwwer, with unintentionally hilarious results (everything sounded goth!). Later versions only needed 2 batteries, a major leap forward.

There was a certain art to avoiding having to fast forward on a walkman, you had to make sure that every minute of your C60, C90 or even C120 tape was full of music. The ideal was to have a 45 minute album on each side of a C90. Invariably I ended up carrying around 4-5 tapes with me at all times. Several variants were launched, I seem to remember a Walkman Sports, which was distinguished by having curved edges and being yellow. Very sporty.

It was revolutionary though at the time, being able to hear your music on the go. It brightened up a dull bus-ride and blazed a trail for the mp3 players of today. Other versions had a radio as well as tape player. Some tried to listen to music in class, courtesy of a single headphone up a sleeve! In later years, the CD walkman (of Discman) was launched. I never really took to it, as CDs are not the most portable things and one CD was seldom enough.

So long, walkman, you served me well. After all how many other devices were immortalised in song by Morrissey (“as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her walkman started to melt” – Bigmouth Strikes Again by The Smiths).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Album Review: Bryan Ferry – Olympia

This autumn is becoming the return of the elder statesman! For Bryan Ferry, it seems it’s still 1985 as this album could have been recorded then. You Can Dance uses a sample from Roxy Music’s True to Life to reasonably good effect in an 80s, cocktail kind of way.

Unfortunately most of the album continues in the very same way, with little deviation. Vaguely danceable beat? Check. Twanging guitar? Check. Dancing girls cooing. Check.

There are a couple of covers here. Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren is completely sunk here by an MOR arrangement and way too many musicians. Traffic’s No Face, No Name, No Number on the other hand survives the stifling arrangements and showcases Ferry’s world-weary croon to good effect.

Indeed the more stripped down arrangements (relatively speaking) are the best tracks, here, with Reason Or Rhyme and Tender Is The Night allowing Ferry’s vocals to breathe, as opposed to burying them in studio trickery.

It’s a pity Ferry wouldn’t move a little more in this direction. His 1999 album As Time Goes By featured orchestral arrangements, and although it was all covers, the subsequent tour saw him recasting his own material in this vein to great effect. Otherwise I’m not sure how long he can keep going as he is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Album Review: Dakota Suite with David Darling and Quentin Sirjacq - Vallisa

This is rapidly becoming the year of the live album. Bill Callahan, Mogwai and now Dakota Suite! Actually it would be hard to find 3 more different artists. This is actually a recording of concert Chris Hooson from Dakota Suite played with cellist David Darling and pianist Quentin Sirjacq in a chapel in Bari.

It’s essentially classical music and sees Chris Hooson sharpening his craft, with some of his strongest attempts at this present on this album. Some of the tracks come from his last album The End of Trying, and are enhanced by Darling and Sirjacq’s contributions. The music in the main is quite minimalist. Very Early One Morning is a gorgeous piece for piano and cello and is a good indication of the rest of the album. North Green Down has a lovely piano melody, full of regret, while later on A Worn Out Life sees Chris playing a sparse, jazz-tinged guitar with some great piano touches and plucked cello.

Both collaborators get an opportunity to play one of their own tracks. Quentin Sirjacq plays a fine piano on Des Etres Disparus, which sounds like it could be a soundtrack from a French movie. David Darling goes one better on Remember, not only deftly plucking his cello but also singing a wordless vocal, sounding all worn and weary, like wise old sage-like figure. After listening to the rest of the album, the presence of a vocal is arresting and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s a tranquil and relaxing concert recording, worth checking out if you enjoy classical music. Best to do nothing while listening to it, and just absorb it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – Broken Record

For those who remember Lloyd Cole and the Commotions in the 80s, the 2010 model is a rather different beast. His posture and attitude from his heyday has been replaced with a relaxed gentle self-deprecation. And he’s discovered folky country rock.

It suits him reasonably well, opening track Like A Broken Record is a gentle charmer, all steel guitar and self-deprecation (“I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, not that I had that much dignity left anyway”). The uptempo tracks aren’t bad either. Writers Retreat bops along nicely on a bed of harmonicas, slightly reminiscent of Whiskeytown, then the pace is taken down a notch or two on The Flipside, which sounds like any of the slower tracks from Lloyd’s 90s solo albums.

Why In The World could be something off Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love with its regretful tone (“maybe I’m not built for these times”) over a soaring keyboard-led melody. Westchester County Jail repeats the trick of Writers Retreat with added steel guitar. A bit of pace in the songs suits him quite well, That’s Alright has a nice REM-style midtempo groove to it while Oh Genevieve (classic Lloyd Cole title) is another song to add to his long list of odes to various girls.
Later, Rhinestones is a sprightly, banjo-led stomp, before closing track Double Happiness keeps up the pace, stretching out a little musically on the guitar before the end. All in all, Lloyd’s “edge” is almost completely absent here, but it’s a pleasant enough collection of tunes, very enjoyable for fans of Lloyd Cole.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Album Review: Robert Plant – Band of Joy

You have to hand it to Robert Plant. Not for him the easy option of taking the huge cash on offer for a Led Zeppelin reunion. Instead the former rock god has had an interesting career, dabbling in bluegrass and folk.

This album mainly consists of covers, from Los Lobos to Low via Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. Angel Dance, the opener is a kind of sprightly folk, while House of Cards is more a lumbering, slow-burning rock track. Plant covers not just one Low track but 2! Silver Rider is the more successful of the two, as Plant allows the band to stretch out with some superb guitar. Monkey on the other hand struggles to match the visceral intensity of the original. Nevertheless, they are great songs, and Plant does a decent job on them.

On the other end of the spectrum, You Can’t Buy My Love is a kind of early 60s stomp, and we get some bluegrass in Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday and Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down. Townes Van Zandt’s Harm Swift Way is transformed into country rock, working quite well.

Overall the album is a little hit and miss, but at least he’s pushing himself creatively.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Concert Review: Peter Broderick at the Pavilion, Cork, October 20th 2010

An odd thing to do on a midweek night, drive to Cork to see a gig. Still a good friend of mine lives in Cork so it was a good chance to catch up. Little did I realise that I was going to a gig with 3 Peter Broderick groupies! The venue is cool, an intimate converted theatre.
The first band were Ambience Affair, who showed some nice instrumentation, almost shoegazer-y, though they were let down by the singers Glen Hansard-style shouty vocals. Next on was Tsukimono, a "Swedish guy with a Japanese name" as he said himself. He peddled a glitchy brand of electronica which reminded me of Christian Fennesz.
Meanwhile Peter Broderick had passed us a few times in the crowd, and shortly afterwards he came on stage. He started his set standing rigid with the song Sideline (from How They Are), which is acapella for the first minute or so. A courageous way to open the show.
Broderick is a talented multi-instrumentalist, and he played a fine piano on Pulling the Rain. After a brief interlude where a saw was produced (!), he reverted to guitar for Not At Home, even at one point entering the crowd playing the fiddle.
He even managed to play the piano and the guitar simultaneously during Guilt's Tune. A bit of a show-off maybe but all the while he was backed up by some very strong songs, both on guitar and on piano. It will be interesting to see how he develops from here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Album Review: Mogwai – Special Moves

This is Mogwai’s first live album, a recording of a gig in Brooklyn last year. It’s a very lavish package, with a live album, the Burning live DVD, and also downloads of additional material.

There’s a spread of material here from all their albums. The quality of the recording is very good, you can hear every scrape of guitar string even amidst the inevitable onslaught that comes in many of their songs. If anything, some of the tracks are even more embellished, I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead in particular benefits from additional keyboards. Later, Hunted By A Freak emerges as one of the strongest of the bunch. The roar of appreciation when its off kilter guitar picking starts up is quite something to behold for an instrumental!

The track Cody contains some slightly thin vocals from Stuart Braithwaite and is a little jarring. The other tracks draw from all Mogwai’s repertoire of talent, the slow-builders (Friend of the Night, I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School), the elephant-on-the-loose (Glasgow Megasnake), and the epic mindblower (Like Herod). For this last one especially it’s well worth watching the ‘Burning’ DVD (tastefully shot by Vincent Moon). When the sudden guitar assault comes mid-song the camera is on the crowd. You can feel their exhilaration as they simply scream and roar with a combination of fear and elation, which sums up Mogwai’s live experience.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Album Review: David Sylvian – Sleepwalkers

After the difficult Manafon album I approached David Sylvian’s collection of collaborations with some trepidation. The cover art did little to entice me in either. However with relief I noticed the presence of some strong melodies here. Sure he his moments of pretension are numerous. There are difficult Manafon-esque pieces (the title track, Five Lines), spoken word pieces like Thermal and Angels (featuring some swearing which sounds awful), and jarring instrumentals like Trauma which sounds like a leftover from Blemish.

Leaving those aside, there are a couple of great songs here which restore my faith in Sylvian and his muse. Ballad of a Deadman is a gorgeous bluesy duet with Joan Wasser, with a sort of marching band tempo and a nice string part in the middle.

Ryuichi Sakamoto is someone who Sylvian has a history with, and on World Citizen – I Won’t Be Disappointed they marry a somewhat simplistic lyric concerning the environment with a soothing electronica piece. It’s a roaring success. There are a couple of tracks he made with Nine Horses here, the best of them being the relatively sparse The Day The Earth Stole Heaven. Based on an acoustic guitar and some ‘la la la la’ backing vocals, and a great lead vocal, it was the prettiest track on Snow Borne Sorrow, and it’s worth catching here.

After the brief piano ballad Playground Martyrs, a sweetly played acoustic guitar kicks off the next track Exit / Delete, a collaboration with Takagi Masakatsu featuring a strange tale of Caroline (a recurring character in Sylvian’s more recent work) and deleted files, but it’s a gorgeous summery piece of music.

Some of the more experimental pieces work well also, Transit is a collaboration with Christian Fennesz which takes glitch electronica textures, low feedback, distortion and blends them into a very 21st century European ballad.

This collection comes as a welcome relief after Manafon. Although quite a lot of it doesn’t really work, it’s nice to hear many of the more playful tracks gathered together in one place, and in even the less successful ones offer plenty to return to.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Album Review: Neil Young - Le Noise

The best Neil Young albums tend to be the ‘rocking’ albums with Crazy Horse (Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps) or the acoustic, stripped down albums (After the Gold Rush, On the Beach etc). His new album is neither of these but sits apart as a curious beast. The album consists entirely of Neil Young and his guitar, accompanied by producer Daniel Lanois’ effects. So no bass, no drums. And Neil’s guitar is mostly plugged in.

On the electric songs his guitar sounds immense, though without any other instruments the effect is a little disorientating, until you get used to it. In actual fact a lot of the songs sound like they would transfer well on to an acoustic guitar. Although it’s the strongest collection of songs for some time from Neil Young, he doesn’t frontload the album, and the opening 2 tracks are 2 of the weaker ones.

Walk With Me is a reasonable enough track which showcases Young’s guitar sound and Lanois’ production, which relies on the use of loops, bleeps etc, which occupy the last minute or so of the song. Sign of Love references Drive Back, which is to my ears, the least successful track on Zuma. Similarly on this album, this track is relatively pedestrian.

Someone’s Gonna Rescue You takes a little inspiration from the midsection of The Doors’ The End. While it sounds unremarkable at first, its overall ‘spaciness’ creeps up on you, though Neil Young’s high-pitched vocal doesn’t quite suit the song. Still it’s an improvement on the opening tracks. There’s a hint of Old Man in the melody, though it’s well buried by guitar and studio trickery.

The 2 acoustic tracks Love and War and Peaceful Valley Boulevard are as strong a pair of song as anything in his back catalogue. Love and War sounds like a classic Neil Young acoustic track. Without making it sound like this album is playing spot the old song reference, the melody is a little reminiscent of Hey Hey, My My. There’s a Spanish feel to the middle of this track, along the lines of Freedom’s Eldorado with some wonderful guitar playing.

After the return of the loops and heavy guitar that is Angry World, Hitchhiker is probably the strongest of the electric tracks, with a powerful vocal over a vintage Neil Young guitar progression. The aforementioned acoustic Peaceful Valley Boulevard is excellent, with echoes of Pocahontas running through it. The similarities are subtle, none of these tracks sound overly like anything else in his catalogue. Only with repeated listens do some of the melodies start to evoke older tracks. The guitar playing in this track gives it a particularly lonely feel, aided by excellent production.

Rumblin’ is the final track, and has another fine melody as Neil Young exhorts himself, singing “when will I learn how to listen”. Though the album’s initially a little difficult, it sounds better and better the more you listen to it, and there’s no real precedent for it in Neil Young’s vast back catalogue. It’s great that he’s pushing himself to do something new.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Album Review: Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling

This 2008 album from Mogwai sees them sticking faithfully to their formula rather than breaking new ground. But what a formula. The brooding opener I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead is another classic Mogwai opener, in the vein of Auto Rock, Hunted by a Freak etc. Though in common with a lot of this album it’s longer and more drawn out than most of Mr. Beast at nearly 7 minutes. Track 2 is the requisite heavy track, Batcat, which is bludgeoning heavy metal, with insistent sledgehammer guitar riffs.

The album continues to follow the same pattern as Mr Beast with Danphe and the Brain, one of many lumbering giants on this album, and it, like the others lumber along pleasantly for the most part, with occasional distortion. This one in particular reminds me of the Cure circa Faith / Carnage Visors, though without Robert Smith obviously as the entire album is instrumental.

There is one track on this album which has no precursors, The Sun Smells Too Loud, which is a bright, poppy tune with a strident beat. Not really sure about it to be honest, hope it’s just an experiment rather than a new direction.

In general though this is another strong album from Mogwai, though not a great one in comparison with previous work.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Album Review: Mark Hollis

This was the only solo album released by Mark Hollis, once of Talk Talk. Released in 1998, it takes the musical direction forged by Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock to a more minimalist and sparse setting.

The album doesn’t represent a major departure from these, as the 8 songs contained within are all framed by Hollis’ fragile, quivering voice. After 20 seconds of silence, opening track The Colour of Spring starts off sounding reasonably conventional before retreating in on itself with a beautifully quiet Satie-esque piano part. It’s like REM’s Everybody Hurts turned inside out and stripped down to bare bones. Watershed is more fleshed out, with more instruments but never so much that the instruments overwhelm the music with each individual instrument line given a chance to breathe in this setting. The merest flaws, strings squeaking and background noise can be picked out in these songs.

Inside Looking Out is rather sombre, almost forbidding. You nearly hold your breath listening to songs like these, as if even breathing could disturb the mood. Hollis sings in a gossamer-like voice words which are not lyrics in the conventional sense but more impressionistic (“left no life no more”). The song is dominated by the sparsest of piano progressions, with a little guitar and keyboards here and there, and production so bare you can here occasional creaks here and there. It’s breathtaking.

The Gift is busier, along the lines of Watershed, and tinged with regret with some wonderful acoustic guitar peeking in and out of the track before ending with woodwind. A Life (1895-1915) opens with clarinet and is light years away from conventional rock music, with parts of it very silent indeed, until after 3 minutes a piano part enters to carry the song for 2 minutes, along with some spectral backing vocals.

Westward Bound has a ratcheting guitar figure along the lines of Runeii from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, while The Daily Planet reaches back further (after a cor anglaise opening) to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album. Guitar, some lovely piano and harmonica blend together to create a muted epic.

Final track, A New Jerusalem is the sound of music being put away. Funereal in tempo, it’s blissfully bleak. The album finishes as it starts, with silence. It takes an age to get into this album, but it does reward. This really is a modern form of that age old genre, the blues. However it’s hard to see where Hollis can go from here, and I understand he has retired from the music business.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Album Review: Portishead - Third

This was the long-awaited third album from Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley, who as Portishead created one of the key albums of the mid-90s in Dummy. Unfortunately its ‘trip-hop’ sound became the soundtrack to ‘cool’ dinner parties, ‘helped’ (is that enough inverted commas?) in no small way by the BBC TV series This Life.

I saw Beth Gibbons touring in 2003, and I must admit she was a little precious, shutting the bar during the performance, which had the effect of trying the audience’s patience, only thinking of when would the gig end and where would they go afterwards?!

How relevant would Portishead prove to be, 14 years on from Dummy in 2008? Opening track Silence starts with some disembodied voice speaking in Spanish (I think) before a cacophony of sound is unleashed, dispelling any preconceptions that this was to be anything like Dummy. It’s a skittering, claustrophobic, dark block of sound which sets the tone for the album. Two minutes later Gibbons’ tortured voice enters the mix, battling against eerie keyboards, stabs of distorted guitar and insistent percussion. It’s a breathtaking track and anything but ‘chill-out’, with a forlorn guitar joining the maelstrom before it ends abruptly.

Hunter is a sort-of torch song, reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’ Out of Season album, and on more conventional ground for older fans of Portishead, though it’s interrupted by sound effects searing through intermittently which conjure up a plane taking off. All the while Gibbons sounds as anguished as ever, and strangely enough it works beautifully.

Nylon Smile is not quite as strong as the opening 2 tracks, consisting mainly of pulsing electronica, but The Rip is a highly engaging lament built around a guitar figure which evolves into a keyboard progression. Gibbons sings “White horses, they will take me away,” and it sounds kind of menacing till the keyboards take over the track, concluding it pleasingly.

Plastic features what sounds like a machine rotating and stop-start rhythms, but then We Carry On takes the pace up several notches, insistent electronica with a pounding beat punctuated by some almost Sonic Youth-ish guitar riffs and effects. It’s an alarming track, almost military with its relentless march, and light years away from Dummy. I can only imagine what it’s like live.

Deep Water which follows is totally jarring. For one thing it’s only a minute and a half long and sounds a whole lot quieter than anything else on the album. It features Beth Gibbons voice and what might be a ukulele, and she’s joined by a kind of doo-wop chorus, making it sound like a relic from the early part of the last century.

Blowing this out of the water is the completely bonkers Machine Gun, which has drums and keyboards combining to produce a machine-gun-like rhythm with Gibbons’ voice bolted on and air raid siren-like keyboards. It’s probably the hardest track to get into and I’m not sure it entirely works, though it’s interesting nonetheless.

Small sounds like a quieter, downbeat track until keyboards crash in after two and a half minutes as the song grimly lurches along. Magic Doors ominously follows, before the closing Threads, which is maybe a little reminiscent of the better tracks from Dummy where Beth Gibbons sings her little heart out about how she’s “always so unsure”. The whole thing ends with more air-raid siren style keyboards.

I couldn’t listen to this album at first. I put it away and revisited again later. So glad I did. Forget ‘trip-hop’, this album is wonderfully inventive, and if anything the band are closer to Radiohead circa Kid A. It’s a thing of wonder.