Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Music: The Buggles

This week's top five: Taraf de Haïdouks, The Buggles, Steeleye Span, Talking Heads, Eurythmics. Quite the unexpected 80s week!

Like everybody and their grandma, I first heard The Buggles through "Video Killed the Radio Star." The Buggles were primarily multiinstrumentalists Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn. A few years ago, I went through a new wave phase and picked up 1980's The Age of Plastic. I wasn't disappointed by what I heard.

Possbily because it was around this time of year that I first heard it, the album has wintry associations for me. Where Devo's futurism came with a campy candy shell and Kraftwerk's was cold, robotic and alien, The Buggles looked on the present with the nostalgic perspective of an unsatisfied future. This is underscored by the seamless blending of traditional and electronic instruments, especially in the doubling of synth parts with female vocals. The Age of Plastic brings this across through its excellent pop production sensibilities that bring to mind both Phil Spector and Mozart.

Aside from the big single, "Elstree" also captures the future-nostalgia and the use of synths to fill in for the voices and timbres of traditional instruments and part-writing.

The synth strings and the harplike arpeggios are status quo for synthpop, but its the "woodwind" synth countermelodies that create The Buggles' signature sound. It's touches like that which should earn the band a reputation greater than that of a novelty song writing one-hit wonder. I've been recommending the album to everyone I think will listen, but it's yet to really spark the same response from anyone. Here's hoping a little more spaghetti on the wall might stick.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shorts: All over the place

  • Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini are questioning whether natural selection is capable of producing symbol-manipulators or language. Babel's Dawn reviewed the book.

  • Steven Novella calls attention to an economic study of early 20th century snake oil.

  • Machines Like Us reports on a study linking General Intelligence to specific well-connected regions of the frontal and parietal lobes.

  • Plans are in the works for an Eddie Condon documentary, according to Jazz Lives.

3 Mustaphas 3 : live!

Neither the greatest recording quality nor the best of performances, but after being a fan for ten years, it's great to finally see 3 Mustaphas 3 on stage.

Playing the Greek classic: "Anapse To Tsigaro"

Playing "Linda, Linda":

The videos show them being slightly more indulgent then their nearly-always tasteful recordings, but their passion and respect for the music is on fine display here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Radiophonic Workshop doc

I spent yesterday afternoon watching The Alchemists of Sound, a 2003 BBC documentary on its Radiophonic Workshop department. My fellow Americans probably know of the Workshop mostly through the Doctor Who theme and the parody/pastiche of its output that forms the soundtrack to Look Around You. Highly recommended, despite the creepy man in blue in the background of every interview shot.

Here's part 1 of 6.

People keep asking what End Times and I will do when Lyndsy leaves for France in August. Well... I wouldn't be surprised if synths and musique concrète played a role in at least what I turn to next.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Music: Altan

Top listening this week: Altan, John Hartford, Adam and the Ants, The Smiths, and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. Since The Staggerer's released our CD last night, I decided to go the celtic route.

Here's Altan with reels from John Doherty.

Last week, I briefly lamented the end of the experimentation in British folk rock. The 90s saw the same thing happen again as a pan-celtic genre developed. Altan didn't arrive on the scene as early as the Bothy Band or Planxty, but they forged their own highly influential sound and repertoire made distinct by the influence of Donegal traditional fiddle playing and by the unique lineup: the twin fiddling of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Paul O'Shaughnessy, Frankie Kennedy's flute and his understated harmonies, the propulsive rhythm section in Ciarán Curran and Mark Kelly, and after Kennedy's death, the addition of Dermot Byrne on accordion. Altan's not-so-secret weapon was the infectiously joyous voice of Ni Mhaonaigh, often joined by the voices of the lads to good effect.

In its first ten years, Altan was the sort of band where the combined strengths of the members together created something greater than a simple sum of the parts. They explored new and exciting textures. The band's work mirrored what was just begin to stir in Americana/bluegrass at the time. Sadly, just like the American counterparts, Altan's efforts culminated in creating a new generic sound due in part to the sudden and unexpected commercial potential of Irish music following Riverdance, but along the way inspired virtuoso upstarts in this new subgenre, such as Solas.

Altan and I fell out with 2000's Another Sky, which I no longer even own a digital copy of. I remember feeling things had become too bland, too predictable, and the guests - Jerry Douglas, Bonnie Rait, the string section - too emblematic of that "yes, we are trying to get spotlighted by NPR" attitude. I get the impression that, if it had been released a year later, it would have featured the O Brother style cover art that dominated folk and bluegrass music artwork for the next five years.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The New Adventures of Sunday Music: The Decemberists

It's time to pull myself away from Mighty Boosh on demand and slap on my ol' blogger hat. Writing yields more writing I find, and I'm in serious need of writing motivation. And so, on with the Sunday Music! My top five this week: The Decemberists, Dame Darcy, Big Mama Thornton, The Goofus Five, and Van Dyke Parks.

The Decemberists dominated because I finally got around to watching an old KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic video of theirs that had been waiting in my iTunes podcast queue behind a dozen TED Talks and BBC documentaries. And as such, I found myself revisiting The Hazards of Love, which had been in my short list of albums of the year (but lost out, as you can read here in the FW Reader). So I'm beyond fashionably late to the Hazards party, but the point of these Sunday Music pieces have been as much about exploring new music as closely examining old favorites.

The Decemberists w/ Shara Worden - "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid."

Both Worden and lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy seem to be having monitor issues here (you know those expressions all too well if you've ever suffered a bad stage), but Worden pulls it together to deliver those powerful soaring vocals that pushed the album up my top 2009 list (admittedly, a very short list).

The Decemberists have a lot of what I look for in a band. The current line-up is full of talented musicians, all real pro's at their instruments. (Keyboardist Jenny Conlee alone deserves more credit than she usually receives.) They take risks. Even when they repeat themselves ("The Chimbley Sweep" -> "The Mariner's Revenge Song"), the second attempt aims farther than the original and is usually better crafted besides. This is a band who - on the whole - learns from their mistakes and will probably leave behind a solid body of work, regardless of what the naysayers have been saying since first complaining that Picaresque failed to sound like Castaways and Cutouts.

Sadly - like those naysayers - what I view and what the band views as their mistakes don't always match up. I stuck by them through the Crane Wife debates of 2006/2007. Where others focused on the prog and arena rock, I clearly heard the sounds of Pentangle, Fairport, and my other British folk favorites - influences on The Decemberists that I had always heard and that Meloy himself was then drawing attention to through interviews. Still, I had to agree, I didn't much like the intro to "The Island" either, and it seemed clear to me that the band was writing music to be performed in front of the larger crowds they were growing used to. Certain subtleties of tone, harmony and rhythm don't translate well all the way back to the cheapseats, and the band seemed to be turning toward repetitive rhythms and those powerful sustained chords of the least interesting subgenres of rock.

With this album, I'm finally ready to admit it. Aside from a few interludes, Hazards relies far too heavily on the arena rock, butt rock, or whatever you want to call it. Witness, for example, what they do with what could be a quite lovely folk melody in "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)."

Becky Stark's vocals are perfect for the song, but the accompaniment mostly contrasts the four-to-the-floor thump of the verses with that barely syncopated rock rhythm (which for unknown reasons I forever associate with the arty side of 90s alternative). The final product works, but it feels too simple, like they rushed into the arrangement. We get an ABABCBBBB... where the C is all to brief, where we're clearly meant to want to sing-along through every chorus, and where the themes don't really develop. These are hard things to do (and things I beat up myself over every day), but the band had all the time they needed to prepare the album. At some point someone should have said, "As fun as this is, we're ending the song exactly where it started. It's just "O, Valencia" again. Let's see if we can do something else right here."

I'm mostly saddened by all this because 1) there are some otherwise great songs on the album and 2) with all the instruments and talent at their disposal, there's really no reason for them to always rely on overdriven guitars to give a song a sense of power or for the melodyless guitar shredding solos that spot the album. One of the best aspects of British folk rock from the 60s and 70s was that how it involved a wide variety of instruments, to the point that the first decade of bands each invented its own sound and textures. (By the end of the 70s, things settled down and a single uniform folk rock sound developed.)

So, The Hazards of Love: addicting enough that I'm still listening to it but in some ways a disappointment. Still, I find myself looking forward to whatever the band attempts next.