Achieving musical perfection: a vague theory

I have a vague theory I’d like to share. The great thing about vague theories is there’s no evidence or research to back it up, so nobody minds too much if it doesn’t make any sense.

This theory came to me, of all places, whilst listening to the theme from Newsnight.  A while back I somehow wangled a ticket to see Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, the comedian’s sublime classical music/comedy evening.  Even in the cavernous wasteland of the O2 arena (as Bailey joked, “there’s heckles coming from a different postcode”), the majestic power of a full orchestra was something to behold. Among the classical standards he enlisted the BBC Concert Orchestra to run through was the venerable theme to BBC2’s flagship current affairs show.

It sounded incredible: the stab of urgent, authoritative horns demanding your immediate attention, as if to say “this is important, yeah? Pay me heed!” But what struck me more was how oddly perfect it sounded. This, after all, was music I was utterly familiar with, from within the furthest alcoves of my very soul. Like any TV theme it seemed omnipresent, ever since the days of staying up late for the sake of staying up.  I’d heard it innumerable times before and now here it was, live in front of me, performed flawlessly, every inch of the music re-confirming what I already knew about it, chiming with memories past. It could only have been more perfect if Paxman himself turned up and started interrogating me about my policy on immigration.

My theory runs thus: we can (and frequently do) achieve a level of perfection in music through familiarity. I know this sounds a little trite, especially given perfection is an impossible state to reach, but it’s more about perception of perfection. You could try to improve the Newsnight theme, but at this stage it would be impossible. We know exactly how it sounds, every contour and every beat, and our familiarity with it becomes as much a part of why we love it as anything. It’s perfect, exactly as it is.

(I’m talking about ‘popular’ music here as well, by the way, not just television theme tunes.)

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Chris Brown, and other moral quandaries

When I was at Uni, one of my lecturers screened Triumph of the Will, a fantastic, rousing, thrilling nonfiction political film from 1934.  It was chockablock with artistic innovations, pioneered the use of long lenses and was, in several respects, a landmark in cinema – let down only by the minor snag that it was a propaganda film for the Nazi party.

Director Leni Riefenstahl puts you in a tricky ethical position as a viewer: on the one hand, you’re looking at some stirring, ambitious, visually delicious images, and on the other hand, NAZI NAZI DEFINITELY UNDENIABLY EVIL NAZI.  It is, to quote Moss from The I.T. Crowd, an ethical pickle.

Here’s another pickle: director Roman Polanski, acclaimed as much for cinematic masterpieces like Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as he is for raping a 13-year-old girl. You’d think that being arrested, charged and convicted for sexual abuse on a minor, not to mention a free admission of guilt from Polanski himself, would be career-ending – but Polanski continues to work to this day, the great and good of Hollywood lining up to work with him, albeit in countries where he can’t get extradited.

Hmmm.  So, the message seems to be: abhorrent, immoral criminality is fine, as long as you’re blessed by a higher power with the divine gift of talent. It certainly seemed that way last weekend, when pop nonsense maestro Chris Brown performed at the Grammys almost two years to the day after he gave then-girlfriend Rihanna a fairly senseless beating; a couple of years on, everyone seems fine with this now, and Brown merrily walked home with two Grammys.

Should we ostracise people like this from society?   Or should we exercise a bit of grace and forgiveness?  I can’t claim to know the answer to this. But seeing Mr Brown enjoying such a speedy return to the welcoming bosom of his industry does come across as an implicit tolerance of his crime, rather than forgiveness for it. If nothing else, it’s facilitating idiots like this who take to the internet defending their hero in the most tasteless manner possible. Because morons like his music, they’re happy to tweet stuff like the truly awful example below. A pretty pisspoor state of affairs, frankly, and enough to make you despair for our species.

Happily, unlike Polanski or Riefenstahl, Brown is no genius, so the moral dilemma is simplified.  I have no qualms in reporting that the man is diabolically untalented: his wretched brand of trance-pop-bollocks an ugly, facile shell of non-creativity. Shamelessly derivative, he’s everything that’s wrong with contemporary music, and by that token, the world. He is not even guilty of a “cool” crime, like drugs or vandalism! There is nothing good about this person. Even if you think he should exonerated for his transgressions, there can be no argument: the guy’s a douche. Sorry, Team Breezy, but like Gary Glitter’s “Gang” or the Nazi Party of Germany, your loosely-affiliated organisation is doomed to fail.

Waiter waiter, this [DJ] food is dry and unimaginative

Who (or what) the hell is DJ Food? Is he (or it) a DJ, some sort of food, or something altogether more sinister?  Confusion still reigns over whether the ‘food’ in question is a concrete or proper noun; when the project began in 1990, as a collaborative effort between Ninja Tune label founders Coldcut amongst others, it was decidedly the former – aimed at providing ‘food’ (samples, breaks, loops) for the nascent trip-hop DJ community.

These days, it seems, DJ Food tends to lean towards proper noun territory.  Strictly Kev, aka Kevin Foakes, has single-handedly adopted the moniker, with the first new album in 11 years.  DJ Food’s early releases in the nineties, the Jazz Brakes series, were invariably filed under Enthusiasts Only, jammed with 30-seconds-or-less tracks that rendered them alien to most casual listeners.  The Search Engine is a more conventional album, but to some extent seems anachronistically trapped in the fire of the nineties from whence its creator was forged, stubbornly using genteel, humdrum big-beats devoid of imagination.

It begins confidently enough, some heavy-set, DJ Shadow-esque beats from opener All Covered In Darkness suggesting sturdy things to come.  But even Shadow more or less managed to free himself from the shackles of flannel-shirted tyranny, with moves towards a grown-up, 21st-century breed of hip-hop.  No such progression is evident here: just dogmatic attachment to dull, ungratifying drum patterns.

As we move onto track 2, ‘GIANT’ – perhaps named after the giant-ness of the eight interminable trundling minutes it goes on for – one of several middle-aged guest vocalists are introduced (The The’s Matt Johnson), and thus the stage is set for what could be the soundtrack to a particularly mediocre British gangster film.  Most entries, including eleven-minute (!) Magpie Music, are chocka with stupid bloody ‘ironic’ samples that stopped being funny years before even the spectre of Lemon Jelly. A man from America talking about astronomy will not distract from your insubstantial noise.

Electronic music is a fickle beast,  and Ninja Tune stablemates like Bonobo and Amon Tobin have mostly managed to adapt to an evolving creative climate by moving with the times and adopting spikier, dubstep-informed sounds. DJ Food seems have aimed for fifteen years ago and still somehow missed. The Search Engine is harmless enough, but it’ll bore you to tears.


Album review: On Beyond by Muchuu

If your dial was switched to Radio 1 late last year, chances are you will have heard the sparkly electropop stylings of a bright new band named Muchuu, bringing wide-eyed sweetness with electro sensibilities to mainstream radio.  You may well expect such sounds to have sprung from the neon-lit suburbs of Tokyo (especially with a name like that), but this brother-sister combo hail from the green fields of Herefordshire in the English countryside, and their twinkly, good-natured music is finding fans worldwide.

It scarcely seems possible that this fresh-faced pair, whose combined age barely troubles forty, are already on their second album, but On Beyond marks an impressive maturation from their debut Adventure We Go.  The influences are many and varied, but it’s fair to say that Muchuu – composed of Milky (vocals, lyrics) and G-Man (keyboards, synths, backing vocals) owe a debt to the cheery electropop from the eighties onwards, as well as the more experimental output of pioneers like Bjork.

Their songs exist in a fantastical, Studio Ghibli-esque world, a world populated by pirates and dreams, full of imagination and invention. It’s fantastically refreshing to hear pop employ a bit of creativity in its songwriting approach.  Muchuu’s homemade-ness is pivotal to their charm and success – it is probably for the best that they found their audience through the blogosphere than a superficial record deal. G-man’s melodies are not without invention, either, with breezy synth production which wouldn’t sound out of place in a Japanese arcade hall.  Tracks like Dance The Day are peppered with 8-bit Nintendo-style noises and bleeps, appropriately accompanying Milky’s sweet-natured singing.

The tone and style will almost certainly be too saccharine for all tastes, but even then you can’t fail to appreciate the maturity of production and the earnestness of songwriting.  Muchuu boast evident talent belying their young age; it seems highly unlikely they’ll be pop’s biggest secret for much longer.

An open letter to Chris Martin

Dear Chris,

Mate, what’s going on?  I’m worried about you. I just heard your new single, Paradise, and quite frankly it’s put me in the mood to kill something,  it’s so bad.  I accidentally heard it on the radio and immediately filed a complaint with Ofcom.

For a song called Paradise it paints a remarkably accurate picture of what hell sounds like – the horrifically dull pop synths borrowed from every pop song of the last ten years, the Umbrella-esque “para, para, paradise” hook, the lazy and desperate “woah oh oh oh” line which cynically pre-empts a crowd singalong at your next stadium tour.  These last two singles, in fact, have been terrible to their core. Every Teardrop Is A Rainfall – what the hell kind of title is that?  That’s what a spoof Coldplay band puts out.  You’ve descended into self-parody.

What happened, man?  When did you stop caring?  It didn’t used to be this way. Your first album was pretty good.  I was 13 when it came out and it appealed to my burgeoning pubescent angst – it was gentle, sensitive, heartfelt.  It had acoustic guitars, warbling unaffected singing and thoughtful lyrics about girls and insecurity and stuff.  It provided a window of comfort during my confusing teenage years.  I was an unashamed fan.  I even went to one of your gigs.  I took my mum.

Parachutes is by far your best album.  But you didn’t seem to think so.  “We know that’s terrible music,” you said of it in 2006, “and we always try to think about what we can do next.”   Maybe you’re too sensitive and insecure for your own good.  It seems modesty got the better of you, and over the years you’ve released albums steadily decreasing in quality.  I stopped listening, partly because it did my street credibility no good whatsoever to have Coldplay on my iPod.  But your slow decline into lameness went in tandem with how shit your music became.  I don’t dislike you because you’re not cool – I dislike you because I think you’re boring, obvious, unoriginal, repetitive, bland, and annoying.  Sorry.

When you first emerged, it seemed like your main influences were Radiohead and U2.  Imagine what you might have sounded like if you’d have leaned towards the former!  Instead, you went for the latter, the dark side, for the stadium glory, and now you sound like you were discovered by Simon Cowell.  For shame.

Love to Gywn!

John

Five happy songs with unhappy lyrics

For the first in a series of attempting to highlight ambiguously defined trends in music, here’s a pointless rundown of a few songs featuring an incongruous contrast between the downbeat subject matter and the upbeat musical timbre.  This is definitely not a waste of anybody’s time.

1. Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire

When you hear that opening brass fanfare, it’s a guarantee everyone is up on their feet at the wedding reception/east London indie club/teenage house party.  This is a song which transcends age, race, creed or musical snobbery.  But have ever really listened to it?  It’s depressing as fuck, either a tragic metaphor for romantic rejection or a needlessly graphic account of post-curry defecation.  “I fell in to a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns; the ring of fire.”  Yeesh. Pass the talcum powder.

2. Tunng – Hands

Tunng are an impossibly sweet British folk band with lashings of electronica invading their softly melodic acoustic guitars.  Listening to them is analogous to soaking in a bath of distilled loveliness.  But they relish being a bit dark.  The lyrics on Hands (musically, a delightful, friendly little tune) are a bit like an episode of Eastenders, opening on man who can’t resuscitate his wife, before launching into this cheerful chorus: ‘We sing as the sky falls down, We sing as the sky collapses, And make of this what we can, It’s ok, we’re all going to end up dead and gone.”   These may be the nicest emos you will ever meet.

3. Eels – Your Lucky Day In Hell

There are a few candidates from Mr E’s discography, to be honest; the man has a habit of making upbeat, bouncy indie with an undercurrent of melancholy, and ‘World of Shit’ is certainly a close second.  But ‘Your Lucky Day in Hell’ just about snags it.  It’s the chorus which really kicks it, the whimpering refrain ‘Never know who it might be at your doorbell‘ in the vague HOPE that the Reaper will drag you down to Beelzebub’s lair, set to inoffensive 90s pop-rock.

4. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Perhaps getting a bit obvious now, but ignore the resoundingly bleak words and listen to that music.  Quite chipper, isn’t it?  It’s in the major key, and those eighties synths almost seem closer to new wave than post-punk.  Of course, the lyrics, sung in that incredible baritone of 23-year-old Ian Curtis, are nothing if not disturbing, especially with impending Curtis’ suicide, just months after the song was released.  ‘When routines bite hard, And ambitions are low, And resentment runs high, But emotions won’t grow.’  As sad and poetic as music can ever be.

5. The Doors – Alabama Song

Originally written by Bertolt Brecht, this is one of the more cheerful tracks on the blues rock legends’ self-titled debut; it has a choppy edge of gypsy folk, and the “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar” refrain will, when selected on a jukebox, rouse the patrons of a pub into merry singing unison.  But this is a song about alcoholism (“For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar/I tell you we will die” and prostitution (“Well show me the way to the next little girl”). Blues to the bitter end.

Festival report: Glastonbury 2011


“It’s unkind to say,” Elbow frontman Guy Garvey told the BBC recently, “but all gigs are a rehearsal for this one.”  They don’t make ‘em bigger than Glastonbury, Europe’s biggest music festival, and Garvey (who claimed not to have thought about anything else for three months) is a testament to the high esteem the five-day festival in southwest England is still held by both performers and punters alike. It’s been forty-one years since a dairy farmer invited Marc Bolan to play in his Somerset field for a bunch of hippies, and yet the annual ‘festival of contemporary
performing arts’ remains as vibrant and relevant as ever.

Of course, there’s always annual chatter of concern that the festival, which has become an unlikely national institution, is suffering from a slow decline in quality in. Aging hippies and travellers continue to mourn earlier, less commercialised incarnations of the event, and grumble about the heavy security and the infamous million-pound ‘superfence’, ostensibly there to keep the riff-raff out but, some argue, trampling on the older, freer spirit. The street artist Banksy, a regular attendee, put up a sign one year which read ‘Queue here to complain festival is not as good as it used to be’, strategically hung over a muddy ditch.

It’s true that the main stages often closely resemble the average Radio 1 playlist, and if you only watched the BBC’s coverage you might be forgiven for overestimating its commercialisation.  But the sheer scale of the festival defies generalisation.  Glastonbury is really made up of many small festivals, each with its own individual personality, music tastes and clientele. It’s impossible to see it all, even in long weekend.  You could spend a month there and still miss some hidden gems.

2011 (only my second Glasto) had some extraordinary mini-festivals on offer.  The truly breathtaking late-night area, entertaining punters through the night after the main stages finish, is a sight to behold. Set over five or six fields, the highlights included Arcadia (massive fire-breathing metal spider with acrobats dancing around a DJ), Block 9 (nightclub built into a life-size urban tower block with a tube train ‘crashed’ into it) and Shangri-La (endless alleyways of installation art and obscure little bars and shops). It’s a bewildering and mind-boggling experience – especially at four in the morning.  With so many easy distractions you easily forget there’s music to see – as I and my cohorts did rather a lot this year.

But music there was, and the sheer range of styles and genres on offer did not fail to impress.  Over two thousand acts performed at the event, with many playing as early as Wednesday, some simply spontaneously. If bongos are your taste, for example, there’s no short supply at the pseudo-ancient Stone Circle, where a seemingly perpetual hippie drum circle plays tribal rhythms around a campfire, to the hissing backdrop of recreational laughing gas being dispensed.

The festival’s main programme began on Friday, with Metronomy and Two Door Cinema Club warming things up.  But as stormclouds gathered overhead, it was the curious task of the Wu-Tang Clan to liven up the afternoon crowd.  Sweary gangsta rappers at three in the afternoon seems like less of a strange scheduling choice after Jay-Z’s triumphant headline set in 2008, and they did a heck of a job. The Clan’s infectious energy and raucous style (basically, lots of shouting) remain unmatched in hip-hop after nearly twenty years.  Chaotic, but brilliant.

Later on Friday, the buzz around the site was the identity of the Park Stage’s ‘Special Guest’, and judging from the unending stream of crowds arriving hours before it was due to begin, consensus was that it would be somebody big.  The consensus proved correct when Radiohead, headliners back in 2003 and 1997, played a downbeat set from their two most recent albums.  The reaction was mixed; though we got our first live performance of beautiful new album The King of Limbs, those in the crowd baying for older, singalong anthems were largely disappointed.  With the drizzle growing ever steadier, many dissipated for the late-night area, or bumbled off to Morrissey on the Pyramid, who was reportedly grumpier than usual that attention was not focused more on him.

Saturday brought the acclaimed performance from neo-soul pixie queen Janelle Monae, whose dazzling set, broadcast on the beeb, would later trigger a big spike in album sales.  Our group foolishly missed this likely-already-legendary appearance, preoccupied as we were nursing a hangover in the Green Fields.  This little slice of old-school Glasto sustains a classic counterculture atmosphere; a vegan Eden with lefty shops, stages, and easily the best food anywhere on the site (providing an ideal detox).

Feeling refreshed, we made our way to the second Special Guest at the Park Stage, which was an even a worse-kept secret than the last secret.  But with a beautiful sunset accompanying them, Pulp were almost the anti-Radiohead.  Cocker and co. blasted a joyous greatest-hits set to a enormously grateful crowd, who sang along to every word sung by the charismatic frontman, even those of us overlooking on the hill.  Few songs say ‘festival anthem’ like Common People.

The surprise slots were in danger of overshadowing the main attractions over at the Pyramid – U2’s Friday headline slot was ignored by the under-30s and lambasted by tax activists.  On Saturday, Coldplay put on an explosive, firework-heavy show, in spite of their bland material.  But it turned to pop superstarlet Beyonce to close the festival in style on Sunday, doing what her husband Jay-Z did so well three years previously in uniting firm fans and newcomers alike for a hugely impressive ninety-minute set.  You didn’t have to be a pop aficionado to appreciate the magnificent soul-infused spectacle from Ms Knowles and her all-female band.  She managed to turn cynical indie geeks like me into genuine admirers; no mean feat.

Unfortunately, I only caught the first twenty minutes of her set, before calling it a night – five solid days of partying was catching up with me, and earlier that day – the hottest day of the year – I was hit with a minor bout of heatstroke.  Glastonbury is an experience that people talk in terms of survival as much as anything, and there is a war veteran mentality amongst the survivors, particularly in a muddy year.  As I queued up for the long journey home, there were moments of silent acknowledgement between tired strangers – that despite the elements, we had been through something special.  Michael Eavis has suggested recently that Glastonbury may not have many years left. Let’s hope he’s wrong.

The King of Limbs: first impressions

In common with everybody in the entire knowable universe, I have spent most of the afternoon listening to Radiohead’s eighth studio album The King of Limbs, which was released for downloading today.  R-Day, as no-one is calling it, was pushed forward 24 hours, and just like that, there it is.  A week ago we weren’t even sure when the hell it would be released. I’ve already listened to it about four times.

It is still early days, of course, but first impressions are very good.  The direction they’ve chosen is a shift, obviously – Radiohead are never a band to rest on their laurels.  They burn their laurels and invent new ones.  After the more comfortable indie stylings of 2007’s In Rainbows this is an album going back to electronic experimentation, a move which this rather bitter review slightly missed: “It’s rock music as mime: all the posturing and none of the substance. Or humour.”  Forgetting, of course, that Radiohead haven’t made a full-blown rock record in about fifteen years.

It’s experimental alright, but not maddeningly so.  Only track 5, ‘Feral’, is a tough listen.  This features none of the wildly glitchy noises from Kid A (an album now very close to my heart, but like many Radiohead fans, was tricky to begin with).  It’s clearly informed a lot from Thom Yorke’s electro and two-step heroes; there are elements of The Eraser. But it’s a richer, more textured album than that solo effort.

‘Bloom’ is a typically brave opening track, an off-kilter drum beat and a discordant wail in the background.  ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ goes in the opposite direction, filled with a pacy bass flicker and light percussion, whilst Thom sings “You got some nerve…”,  poking with the sharpness his lyrics are so often infused with.  ‘Little By Little’ goes in another opposite direction, typifying the plurality of the tracks on this album – it’s a real broad mix.  ‘Little By Little’ may be the best track on the album, an amazing blend of guitars and Beatles-esque sampling.  If Radiohead were a band ostentatious enough to release a greatest hits (their former overlords EMI have done, without their permission), this would surely be on it.

But then so would the beautiful ‘Codex’, a stunning little song composed largely of a simple piano refrain, and further proof that this band have not lost their grip on portraying the alienation felt by many.  So, too, would ‘Give Up The Ghost’ probably feature on this hypothetical Best Of, as would the terrific ‘Lotus Flower’ which has a slightly laughable video of Thom dancing like a maniac to accompany it.

As mentioned earlier, only ‘Feral’ falls a little flat, an exercise in electro-experimentation slightly too far, and the only other criticism I can muster is that the album is not long enough – at eight tracks and thirty-seven minutes, I can’t help feeling like they’ve been too hard on themselves leaving so much out.   But I can hardly complain – there’s a new Radiohead album out, and it’s completely, utterly brilliant.

P.S.  This spoof review from Vice magazine is admittedly pretty funny.

Music preview: The Bad Shepherds

Adrian Edmondson made his name as the psychopathic punk student Vivyan in classic eighties sitcom The Young Ones.  These days, in a neatly cyclical turn of events, Edmondson is touring with his band The Bad Shepherds to perform energetic folk covers of classic punk songs, with a date this evening in W12 – proving, if nothing else, that even violent maniacs like Vivyan can mellow in their old age.

What does seem like a somewhat gimmicky premise actually works pretty well – the translation from angry electric guitars to spirited acoustic ones is fairly effective.  Edmonson suggests that punk “was the folk music of its day” and it’s hard to argue when you can expect cheerful acoustic versions of ‘Teenage Kicks’, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and a Ramones medley.  Edmondson’s roles are listed as ‘Vocals/Thrash Mandolin’.

As you might imagine, it’s all tinged with a layer of irony, but unlike other actors recently foraying into music (hello Tim Robbins) this particular foray boasts a real musicianship, solidified by established folk musicians Troy Donockley, Andy Dinan and Ella Edmondson joining Ade on stage, and a heavy touring schedule behind them, including a well-received Glastonbury appearance last summer.

Tickets are just about still available for the gig tonight at the Bush Hall; expect to stand shoulder to shoulder with a mix of ageing punks, real ale fans and curious musos in what promises to a be a quirky and different way to spend your Friday evening.

A version of this article originally appeared on Londonist.com

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