Sunday, December 3, 2017

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty

BEN RATLIFF

Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty

New York TimesFeb 17, 2016 

by Simon Reynolds


Few things scream “first world problem” more loudly than the notion that there’s too much good art and entertainment being made at the moment. Yet it’s undeniable that there is something curiously oppressive about the current bounty, something paralyzing about our ease of access to it. TV is one field where what ought to be a boon feels increasingly like a bane: once there were only dozens of new shows per season, now there are hundreds, such that keeping up with the quality output gets to seem like a chore.  If anything, the music overload feels even more unmanageable. 

New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s new book is a remedial intervention for our predicament of being able to “hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, basically for free”.  Every Song Ever is framed as a set of  strategies to counter the confusion and appetite-loss that can afflict music fans as they attempt to navigate what feels like a cross between a maze and a banquet - the overflowing riches offered by  streaming services like Spotify,  unofficial archives like YouTube, music-sharing blogs, and other instant-access sources of sound.  Rather than rely on traditional signposts such as genre borders or artist biography, Mr. Ratliff proposes new routes across the teeming landscape: modes of attentive listening based around concepts or musical properties. Some, such as slowness, speed, stillness, and density, are fairly easy to grasp; others, like discrepancy and transmission, are more elusive. 

Close listening is Mr. Ratcliff’s forte. When he gets right inside what a musician is doing in a particular recording or performance, and how that affects your body or perceptions, the results are usually lovely and illuminating. His studies of James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky,” Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and the work of João Gilberto and Curtis Mayfield, are precise but never clinical.  The chapter “Getting Clear,” dealing with “audio space” as conjured on records by producers and engineers as well as by players, is particularly vivid, encompassing  artists as various as Grateful Dead, Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus. Mr. Ratcliff fulfils the injunction of Manfred Eicher, the founder and in-house producer of the ECM label, to “think of your ears as your eyes.”    

Another absorbing chapter deals with participatory discrepancies, a concept coined by the musicologist Charles Keil to describe the minute imprecisions in a performance that create a group’s unique feel.  Mr. Ratliff advises that the best way to hear a classic rumba album by Totico Arango and Patato Valdés is “through headphones, at night, walking through heavy crowds in Times Square, smelling street food, visually processing the lights.” That’s because the music in your ears will mirror the external environment: “nothing happens in perfect synch or in a straight line”; instead there’s a mesh of “flickering, jostling particulars.” 

 Mr. Ratliff leans towards non-technical terms and unshowy language, which he then nudges towards the profound or revealing. Sometimes that works brilliantly:  a passage on the Allman Brothers and the glory of bands with two drummers likens the role of Jaimoe to “a housepainter doing touch-ups, not on the second day of work but as the first coat is applied.”  Other times the effect falls somewhere between cute and clever, like when attempting to account for why virtuosi are so often religious:  “Perhaps they can’t contain their own pride and gratitude, or they can’t house the gigantic battery needed to power it.  They need an external storage space for it, and they call it God”.
  
A larger problem with Every Song Ever is that its premise starts to fade from view – starts to seem like a pretext, in fact, for a fragmented miscellany of meditations on music Mr. Ratliff likes. That’s fine as far as it goes, and readers will often find themselves propelled to YouTube or Spotify to hear what he’s writing about. But I wasn’t convinced that the nomadic modes of engagement with music he advocates would necessarily help anyone grapple with the quandaries of listening in an overloaded era. The categories are so open-ended they might even increase one’s sense of disorientating plenitude. They seem more like exercises one might do after having listened to a hugely varied amount of music over the course of a lifetime. 

Mr. Ratliff is both wary and weary of genre, which, near the start of the book, he asserts is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less”. Actually, genre terms mostly emerge organically out of communities of musicians and fans.  Although Mr. Ratliff announces early on that he’ll refrain from using genre language wherever possible, in practice he nearly always identifies music using those tags: as bebop, happy hardcore, flamenco, dark ambient, nyabinghi.  Genre terms are useful, perhaps indispensable; they tell you something. The self-consciously genre-crossing critic – just like the self-consciously genre-blending musician – depends on style boundaries precisely to transgress them and achieve desired sensations of liberation, discovery, an airy cosmopolitan feeling of rising above the rooted and local.     

Mr. Ratliff uses terms like “comfort zone” as negative concepts, implying that listening widely is virtuous, or at least good for you, promoting a suppleness of sensibility.  But fanatical relationships with a particular sound or scene can be just as engaged, just as rewarding. Metal fiends, for instance, find an infinite array of subtle shades in what seems like undifferentiated monotony to non-initiates.  This sort of patriotic adherence to genre is something that Mr. Ratliff believes is on the way out, historically.  Which may be true, but is that a good thing?  The roaming listener who samples across the genrescape is more often than not harvesting musical fruits that were generated by narrowly focused and dedicated purists. 

In the end, it remains debatable whether there is a right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy way to listen to music. Being an omnivore doesn’t even guarantee increased enjoyment. There are people who derive endless delight just listening to one kind of music, or even a single artist, as Mr. Ratliff acknowledges in a section about individuals he’s encountered who have all-consuming obsessions with Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead’s live recordings.  Conversely, one of the downsides of the age of plenty is that the more widely you listen outside your well-worn grooves, the more frequently you’ll experience disappointment, distaste, or just indifference.  More is less. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Moon Wiring Club / Jon Brooks - Cafe Kaput - DD Denham

Moon Wiring Club and DD Denham: music for children, by children

The Guardian, 24 November 2010 

by Simon Reynolds

"One thing I've always wanted for my music is for it to appeal to children," says Ian Hodgson of Moon Wiring Club. "An ideal listening situation would be a family car journey. I think children would like all the voices and oddness. If you present kids with fun, spooky electronic music, then they might grow up wanting to make it themselves, like I did with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop." Hodgson's friend and collaborator Jon Brooks, aka the Advisory Circle, goes one better with the debut release for his label Café Kaput, which consists of spooky electronic music made by schoolchildren in the 70s.

Brooks and Hodgson originally met through MySpace. They rapidly discovered that they were "probably variations of the same person", according to Hodgson, with a shared passion for vintage 70s and 80s TV (not just the programmes but their incidental music and theme tunes). The friendship soon became an alliance. Brooks has done the mastering for all four Moon Wiring Club albums, including the brand new and brilliant A Spare Tabby at the Cat's Wedding. Hodgson, in turn, has done the artwork for Café Kaput. A full-blown collaboration between Moon Wiring Club and the Advisory Circle is in the pipeline.

The pair are chalk and cheese, though, when it comes to the way they operate musically. A skilled multi-instrumentalist whose music is "98% hand-played", Brooks makes little use of sampling or computer software. The Advisory Circle's 2006 debut EP Mind How You Go (reissued this year by Ghost Box in expanded, vinyl-only form) and 2008's much-acclaimed Other Channels reveals Brooks to be one of the contemporary scene's great melodists, with a gift for plush, intricate arrangements. Hodgson's approach, in contrast, is much more hip-hop raw. Entirely sample-based, Moon Wiring Club is assembled using astonishingly rudimentary technology: a PlayStation 2 and "a second-hand copy of MTV Music Generator 2 from 2001".

Hodgson turned to this crude set-up after struggling with software typically used to make electronic dance music. Because he's a longtime gamer, Hodgson found using a joypad to make music "much faster and more enjoyable" than clicking a mouse. But it still took him a while to work out how to get good results out of a PlayStation 2. "After months of tinkering, I discovered that it's good at sequencing short repeated phrases." Instead of looping breakbeats, Hodgson builds up rhythm patterns from single drum hits. Then he'll weave in sinuous and sinister basslines that are often coated in a dank layer of echo and delay. "I'll place the bass melody around the rhythm in a very 'stereo' way. I tend to see it all in my head as a 'cat's cradle'. Then if you add delay to the bass and time it right you get extra little melodies inside this structure. They sort of bounce and react with each other. Add melody and atmosphere to it and you get another interlocking structure – slightly organic, soggy, bouncy and knackered."

Moon Wiring Club often resembles trip-hop if its "vibe" was sourced not in obscure funk and jazz-fusion records but from the incidental music to The Prisoner, Doctor Who and The Flumps. Vocal samples are a huge part of Moon Wiring Club. Always spoken not sung, and always British in origin, they're derived largely from videos and DVDs of bygone UK television series such as Casting the Runes, Raffles and Ace of Wands. A scholar of "vintage telly", Hodgson can discourse at persuasive length about the superiority of British theatrical-turned-TV thesps such as Julian Glover and Jan Francis over American actors like Harrison Ford. He recently dedicated a podcast mix to 70s voiceover deity and Quiller star Michael Jayston.

Moon Wiring Club originally evolved out of what was intended to be "a peculiar children's book", Strange Reports from a Northern Village." That project got stalled but it did spawn the Blank Workshop website, based on an imaginary town called Clinksell, which has its own brand of confectionery, Scrumptyton Sweets, and a line of fantasy fiction, Moontime Books. The children's book project lives on also in the distinctive graphic look that Hodgson, a former fine art student, wraps around the Moon Wiring releases, drawing on influences including Biba's 20s-into-70s glamour, the strange exquisiteness of Arthur Rackham's illustrations, and Victorian fairy painters such as Richard Dadd. Blank Workshop and Moon Wiring Club is where all of Hodgson's enthusiasms and obsessions converge: "Electronic music, Art Deco, and the England of teashops, stately homes, ruined buildings and weird magic." Not forgetting computer-games music, a massive influence. "There is something about the forced repetition that makes you remember the tunes in a unique way," Hodgson says, adding that in some ways "Moon Wiring Club is meant to be Edwardian computer-game music."

"Still a kid in a lot of ways," is how Jon Brooks describes himself. His journey through music began "at pre-school age", thanks to his jazz session-player father. "Fellow jazzers would come round to record demos or share ideas. There were always instruments and tape recorders lying about." Brooks was proficient on a half-size drum kit his dad bought him before he even went to school. Soon the child prodigy was grappling with guitar, glockenspiel and keyboards, as well as messing with tape recorders and learning from his father about microphone placement. Although his dad died when Brooks was only nine, the son continued to pursue music, avoiding any formal training but studying music technology while helping to teach an A-level class in music technology.

Perhaps his early start with music, along with his later involvement in musical pedagogy, accounts for why Brooks was so intrigued by Electronic Music in the Classroom, an ultra-rare recording that was the byproduct of a course implemented at several home counties schools in 75-76 and which he has reissued through his just-launched downloads-only label Café Kaput. Originally released in a miniscule edition of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes for the parents of the children involved, this remarkable record is credited to DD Denham, the peripatetic teacher who devised and implemented the course. But the contents are actually the creme de la creme of the work created by participating children. Now retired, Denham stresses that "the concepts were always those of the child. I would help quite a bit with technical realisation, in terms of connecting that concept to a sound. But I always explained to them the steps taken in order to achieve the sound. The children soon picked up various techniques and developed them on their own. So, a little bit of collaboration, but it was more guidance than anything."

Many of the pieces on Electronic Music in the Classroom are disorienting and disquieting, reflecting children's under-acknowledged appetite for the sinister. "Some children would get spooked by each other's compositions or sounds," Denham recalls. "Sometimes an oscillator would emit a loud wailing and lots of other children would gather round the instrument like a magnet, rather than run away. Kids actually love being scared and sound, although harmless in this case, can be scary and thrilling." The reissue comes with the original liner notes, in which Denham recounts some of the quirky inspirations that the children drew on, from a nightmare about nuns, to the unsettling smell of the air expelled from a church organ, to the ghostly flitting figures of poachers seen from afar after dusk.

Then there's The Way the Vicar Smiles, a delirium of drastically warped, vaguely ecclesiastical sounds (what could be church bells, a choir singing psalms). In the liner notes Vicar Smiles is accurately described by its young creators Robert and Luke as "a bit creepy". "The local education authority thought we were probably skating a little too close to the middle with that one," recalls Denham. "You couldn't get away with it now. However, the vicar in question disappeared from his work a couple of years later, without so much as a whisper. Make of that what you will."

Thursday, November 23, 2017

RIP Malcolm Young

AC/DC
 High Voltage / Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap / Highway To Hell/ Back In Black / For Those About To Rock We Salute You 
Mojo, 1994


by Simon Reynolds

Beats me why AC/DC aren't rated alongside The Ramones as seminal mid-'70s
minimalists. Both have built a career out of flogging a formula. Musically,
AC/DC's rock'n'roll fundamentalism takes the form of stop-start raunch-riffs and
lewd sub-blues rasp, as opposed to the Blitzkrieg Boppers' buzzsaw ramalama and
gabba-gabba-hey. Lyrically, AC/DC's fuckin', fightin' and hellraisin' yarns, like
the Ramones' gonzo shtick, is 50 percent tongue-in-cheek rock'n'roll parody, 50
percent genuine thick-as-pigshit moronicism.



AC/DC and the Ramones both debuted pre-punk, and hit their creative stride
in '76. But one's hip and the other's not. The reason is that AC/DC have no
progeny, whereas The Ramones blueprinted punk. Flattening the syncopation and the
sex out of rock'n'roll, the Ramones inadvertantly created a whole new rock
aesthetic. Whereas what makes AC/DC trad is precisely their strongest point, the
supple rhythm section and hip-grinding riffage: they're a reversion to the pre-
punk, pre-metal days when rock was dance music. AC/DC funk, which is why the Beasties sampled them to def (jam). In fact, "TNT", from 1976's High Voltage, is rap megalomania a decade ahead of its time, with Bon Scott boasting he's gonna "explode" just like LL Cool J in Mama Said Knock You Out, then nominating himself "Public Enemy Number One"!



The RIFF is one of those things that rock-critical thought has no purchase
on. As with the grain of the voice in soul, or the bassline in funk, it's
something you can't really talk about, or explain why one grabs you where
another doesn't. The RIFF is rock's base element, and AC/DC's absolute essence;
it's not Angus Young's solos, but his and brother Malcolm Young's dual rhythm guitars
that are the lure on "Rock'n'Roll Singer", "Live Wire", "Problem Child", "Highway
To Hell". AC/DC also have a great way with a teasin' intro, e.g. "For Those About
To Rock We Salute You."




Other aspects to AC/DC are pretty peripheral next to the meat-and-potatoes
of the boogie. Juvenile is the keynote: this is the band that put the 'base' in
back-to-basics. The bawdy misogny and puerile innuendo can get mighty tiresome:
the VD metaphors of "The Jack", the drooling lechery of "Love At First Feel",
"Beating Around The Bush", ad nauseam.



Then again (returning to the punk analogy), "Rock'n'Roll Singer" (from High Voltage) parallels "Career Opportunities" as Bon rants "you can stick your 9-to-5 living ...and all the other
shit they teach the kids at school". And "Problem Child" (from Dirty Deeds) is as psychotic as "No Feelings". AC/DC's ethos is nothing if not "the truth is only known by guttersnipes". But truthfully, their petty delinquency is closer to Oi! than Class of '77. Imagine Cockney Rejects, but with 'feel' and 'groove'.





An anthology of singles (AC/DC are one of the great singles band) and best
album tracks is way overdue, but until then these digitally remastered reissues
offer an opportunity to reappraise the aged Aussie reprobates. High Voltage is a stone classic, and the rest all have their moments.