What’s The Story?

March 26, 2007

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.


Remastered

March 26, 2007

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.


Raw Power

March 26, 2007

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.


City of Ruins

March 26, 2007

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 clich├ęd.

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.


Fog Tropes

March 26, 2007

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.


Brian Eno

March 26, 2007

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.


Desire As

February 9, 2006

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.


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