Archive — Music

Dutch “singing road” silenced after villagers complain: “I’m going nuts”Palko Karasz and Yonette JosephThe New York Times

A car driving over the musical rumble strips

This must be the most spurious “road safety” feature ever conceived.

A Dutch town decided to install rumble strips that are set at certain frequencies so that cars “play” the regional anthem as they drive over them.

This article focuses on the fact that this feature is driving residents crazy as they repeatedly have to hear this raspy version of the same melody all day (and night) long.

But surely the spurious justification is more deserving of ire.

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

Because, apparently, the melody would only play when drivers are driving at the right speed. Except, as officials concede later in the article, that’s not even true. If you drive at a different speed, the melody still plays — just at a different speed. Perhaps drivers may even speed up just to end the din more quickly.

What a terrible idea!

This article also contains a brilliant video from Tom Scott demonstrating an even more disastrous version of the same idea, in California.

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Vortrack [Fracture Remix]Squarepusher

Vortrack cover

This tune has disturbed me.

Since I heard it, a distressing sentence has floated around in my head:

“This is the best Squarepusher track in 14 years.”

14 years. Count it up.

I think I was 15 years old when I first discovered Squarepusher. To the young Squarepusher fan I was, it’s been almost a lifetime since he has released music like this.

I was a big fan of 2003’s Ultravisitor, where Squarepusher created an otherworldly environment somewhere between stadium prog-rock concert and IDM basement. It was genre-defying — a unique sound. But it felt perfect. It was a brilliant, successful album.

But it seemed to send Squarepusher down a strange rabbit hole, tenuously exploring the boundaries between live and studio-based music with ever-diminishing returns.

Time to change direction then. An email I received from Warp Records in November said:

‘Be Up A Hello’ sees Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) return to using a bewildering array of vintage analogue and digital hardware, the same equipment that first helped him develop his sound in the early ’90s.

By the way, the 14-year-old tune I’m referring to is Planetarium:

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Week ending 2 January 2020James MastertonChart Watch UK

How Amazon appear to have had undue influence on the music charts. River by Ellie Goulding is this week’s number one, seemingly because Amazon have added it to their Christmas music playlists. So whenever anyone asked their new Alexa to play Christmas music, this new single got played — propelling it to number one.

This article also contains some interesting details about the pros and cons of different ways of compiling music charts in the streaming era.

If the voices of those clamouring for the charts to discriminate between “lean in” and “lean back” streams — i.e. those which the user has actively chosen to hear rather than simply being served up in a playlist — grow ever louder in the new year, then River will be held up as a shining example of why that needs to happen.

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Love Without SoundWhite Noise

An Electric Storm cover

It’s Delia Derbyshire Day, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of An Electric Storm by White Noise.

Delia Derbyshire may be best known for her part in the realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune — and her wider work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But her involvement with the White Noise project saw her dabbling with a futuristic vision of pop music.

It was both way ahead of its time, and also resolutely of its time. Synthesisers weren’t yet affordable, so these boundary-pushing sounds were made with complex tape manipulation and other engineering techniques. I think this is among her best work.

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Spangle (2019 expanded live version)Seefeel

Spangle (2019 expanded live version) cover

A reworking of Seefeel’s classic 1994 track Spangle, promoting the group’s upcoming tour of North America.

It’s great to have Seefeel back in action again. Their music was a little before my time, but I relished discovering it a few years later. It seems cutting-edge for the period — clearly influenced by shoegaze, but with a fizzing techno sensibility. It’s a combination that wouldn’t have been possible before, and wouldn’t have been thought of after.

Also check out Autechre’s (released in 2003, but presumably made in 1994) remix of the original, which gives it a brooding dark ambient vibe that could pass as a lost track from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume Ⅱ.

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Rent ResponsiblyVHS Head

VHS Head logo

Ten years ago today, the first VHS Head EP was released. I remember it seemed to come as a bit of a bolt from the blue. For a while it was my favourite new electronic music.

Video Club is a delightful slice of retro electronic music. Subsequent releases, though relatively scant, have explored a parallel universe consisting entirely of video nasties. VHS Head’s music is constructed from samples taken from VHS cassettes.

Video Club packaging

As is customary for releases on Skam Records, it includes a braille strip. But a novel addition was the golden Video Club membership card.

Be kind and rewind.

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Ágætis byrjunSigur Rós

Ágætis byrjun cover

Music was one of the jobs I was put in charge of for our wedding. Alex isn’t particularly interested in music. We don’t have any shared musical memories. We don’t have “our song”. So that made some aspects of the wedding planning tricky.

For instance, there were no obvious candidates — or, indeed, any candidates at all — for what Alex would walk down the aisle to. And because I never imagined I would get married until I met Alex, it’s not something that I had my own ideas about either.

Just a few weeks before the big day, I knew we had to make this decision. I mined my record collection for any shared musical memories we might have.

I considered something from Concrete Antenna, a beautiful experimental record that I’d never heard of until Alex bought it as a gift. It’s one of the most perfect gifts she ever got me, because I didn’t know it existed, but I loved it. But Alex decided it sounded too dark for our wedding.

Another candidate was something from the FFS album. We saw FFS when they played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago, and we both really enjoyed the concert. But again, it didn’t strike the right tone. (We did end up using Johnny Delusional as the ceremony closer.)

Eventually, I started to just pull out records and CDs that I thought sounded nice. I had to loosen up some of the rules I had imposed on the process. Crucially, the “no Sigur Rós” rule.

Ágætis byrjun is Sigur Rós’s best album. The title track doesn’t always get the most attention, but it is my favourite from the album. Listening to it while thinking about our upcoming wedding gave it a new emotional appeal for me.

I looked up translations of the lyrics, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before because it’s sung in Icelandic. It’s actually about the band listening to the finished mix of their first album, Von, and feeling like it was OK but could be improved. The title translates as “A good beginning”.

But the lyrics are also ambiguous. An alternative interpretation is that the song is about a fledgling relationship.

It seemed particularly apt for us, because we had two “first dates”. The first one was a good start. We did better next time (and never looked back).

I really like the brief, mild moments of dissonance in this song. It’s beautiful, but not quite perfect. Like life. Or like a relationship. The key is to recognise that it’s a good beginning, and we will do better next time.

The album has just been reissued in a 20th anniversary edition with three CDs of additional material. It’s astonishing to think this is 20 years old. At least it’s not as disturbing to me as OK Computer. I only discovered Ágætis byrjun in about 2001 when it became a sleeper cult hit outside of Iceland so I can still think of it as an 18 year old album.

I’m also fond of this live acoustic version from Heim.

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The Thinnest PlaceJustin Hopper & Sharron Kraus with the Belbury Poly

Chanctonbury Rings cover

Chanctonbury Rings combines the folk music of Sharron Kraus and retro electronics of the Belbury Poly with spoken word from Justin Hopper. It’s a perhaps unlikely combination.

This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that, despite Justin Hopper’s American accent, the music is unmistakably English. It immediately reminded me of the Seasons (a cultish, unsettling 1969 BBC LP for use by schools’ drama departments, featuring music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop).

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this. I picked it up because I’m a Ghost Box completist. But I found myself in a truly immersive listen. Hauntology at its finest.

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JoggingRichard Dawson

2020 cover

A song I heard on the radio this week that made my ears prick up. I wasn’t previously aware of Richard Dawson. But this is a brilliant song — dark, funny, meaningful, relatable, of our time. Once again I’m beginning to think that the most interesting music is actually coming from rock music for a change. Consider the album pre-ordered.

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Note — 2019-08-02

My Omnichord normally gathers dust in the corner of a room. So when someone retweeted into my timeline Karine Polwart asking if anyone in Edinburgh had an Omnichord she could borrow for some filming, I was happy to help, and to see the Omnichord out of its case for a change!

It makes its little appearance in this video for her cover of Chance by the Big Country.

This is part of her new album of Scottish covers, Scottish Songbook. It’s out today on lovely red vinyl.

My name on the back sleeve of Scottish Songbook

I had always wondered what it would take to get a ‘thank you’ on the back of an album. Now I know. 🙂

Hopefully one day I’ll get round to playing the Omnichord more often myself…

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RainbowBattles

Mirrored cover

Their single Atlas may have got the most attention, but for me it was Rainbow that was the centrepiece of Battles’ extraordinary 2007 album Mirrored. It mixed cartoonish melodies with prog rock hardness.

I first came across Battles on the release of EP C/B EP, a compilation of their early EPs. Hearing SZ2 for the first time was hugely exciting. It felt like exactly the music I was looking for all along, without ever knowing it.

So even though Mirrored was their first album, it already represented a surprising change in direction. The chin-stroking post-rock had been superseded by Pinky and Perky vocals.

It was confusing. But listening to it for a second time, it felt as vital as their early material. In time, more so.

Their live performances were genuinely mind-boggling. They did things with live loops and sampling in ways that no-one else dared.

At the height of their powers, Battles made music in a way no-one else was making it. Watching them live was like watching four people walking a tightrope simultaneously. It could go wrong at any moment, and watching them push themselves and cope with it or recover from going wrong was a marvel.

Brian Eno counted himself as a fan:

When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you’d had that idea. And I saw them and thought, “dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”

Have a spare ten minutes? Treat yourself to the slowed down version someone’s uploaded to YouTube.

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Photo — 2019-07-19

Assembly instructions with detail of Thom Yorke's Anima record packaging

I do enjoy the Ikea-style assembly instructions included when you buy a fancy Radiohead / Thom Yorke record.

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VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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The RapanthemModeselektor

Hello Mom! cover

In retrospect, this tune (from 2005) sounds a little dated. A little bit too heavy on the post-Boards of Canada glitchy hip-hop influence. Bbbbutttt… it’s still pretty good.

I remember listening to this album a lot when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh, taking lunchtime walks round the Meadows. 14 years on I find myself taking the same lunchtime walks, working for the university. Crazy days.

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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DivineSébastien Tellier

Sexuality album cover

I woke up this morning to BBC Radio 6 Music playing a remix of Kilometer by Sébastien Tellier. It is quite some way to be introduced to the day.

But with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend, it put me in mind of the fact that Sébastien Tellier is in fact responsible for my favourite Eurovision performance, Divine.

France’s 2008 entry was controversial, because Divine was sung in English, which France’s powers-that-be don’t like. So Sébastien Tellier had to re-write part of it in French.

As you can see, that was only the start of the weirdness. The bearded women, the golf cart, the weird locked-off camera angles. And who else would have the audacity to consume helium in the middle of what would probably be the biggest performance of their life?

There was no doubt where my vote was going in 2008. It came 19th. That result was at least better than their previous three entries.

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Sybil´s DreamBeautify Junkyards

The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards cover

A recent slice of hauntology from the collectable Ghost Box Records. I have to admit this album, The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, has taken a while to grow on me. But my, has it grown.

As much as I love it, some Ghost Box material can get a bit samey. Perhaps it’s inevitable (or intentional?) given that it showcases a type of dark nostalgia; mal-remembered pasts. (Or, in the label’s own words, “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”)

Beautify Junkyards breathes new life into the ghostly universe of hauntology. They are Portuguese, but seemingly take cues from British acid folk music. Unashamedly inspired by an imagined past, but adding adding new dimensions to create something uncannily new. And with a songwriterly quality that isn’t always at the forefront of a Ghost Box project.

It almost takes us full circle to the early material of Broadcast, in many ways the genesis of Ghost Box.

If Sybil´s Dream didn’t do it for you, try Ghost Dance.

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RecallPlaid

Polymer cover

A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.

The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:

The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.

Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.

* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:

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People in the CityAir

10 000 Hz Legend cover

A great song, really effectively set to footage from Koyaanisqatsi by someone on YouTube.

10 000 Hz Legend is not as well-regarded as Air’s first album, Moon Safari. But I personally prefer it. Moon Safari opened the floodgates to a host of cliched chillout albums by sub-par artists. 10 000 Hz Legend shook it all off, and carved a new path. I think it stands the test of time better as a result.

This one appears to be the official video, but for some reason using a rather weak live version of the song.

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Close to the EdgeYes

Close to the Edge cover

Prog rock has a bad name. Prog rock by Yes perhaps has a particularly bad name. But sometimes, a 19 minute long wig out is what you need. It accompanied a lunchtime for me last week, and my afternoon felt better than my morning. What a song.

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Halogen — Kelly Moran

Ultraviolet cover

I was introduced to Kelly Moran by her first album on Warp Records, Ultraviolet, released a few months ago. For some reason (OK, maybe the Warp thing) I had assumed it was electronic music. So I was astonished to learn from this video that it’s actually a live prepared piano. Stunning stuff.

From that, I moved on to watch a performance of an older track, Limonium. Although short, it is perhaps even better than anything on Ultraviolet. One to watch no doubt, and I’ll certainly be investigating her back catalogue.

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Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

Autechre

Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

I totally have 19 spare hours to listen to all this right now.

thisisfine.jpg

These 19 newly released files are from the same tour as the 9 that were unveiled a few years ago, so it’s not new new. But I’m listening to the Orlando one right now and there’s enough new stuff going on to justify the £1 per MP3.

This makes me a bit more hopeful that something from their 2016 tour will one day emerge as well. The poster hangs on our living room wall.

Autechre 2016 tour poster in our living room

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rightclick — Mira Calix

utopia cover

It’s more than ten years since Mira Calix last released music, with her career having taken her in a more multidisciplinary artistic direction. I’ve found her music in the past to be a bit hit-and-miss. But when I heard rightclick I ended up being quite excited for the release of her new EP, utopia.

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Samaritans — Idles

I’ve become obsessed with this song. It contains an important message that is beginning to be heard, but still needs to be heard more widely. This is a song for now.

Discovering Idles has felt a bit like discovering Pulp when they released Common People. Although 9-year-old me didn’t really understand what appealed to me about Pulp, now I think I do. Distinctive-sounding music, yes. But also lyrics that are interesting (a rarity in and of itself), and important, and for right now.

The first time I knowingly heard Idles it was when another song was played on the radio in the morning, Great. I remember sitting up in my bed, astonished at the lyrics. You don’t often hear songs that are so political, especially ones that actually hit the nail on the head — and say what I would want to say, but so much better.

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A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Image from last year's girl

A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Another perspective on the troubles faced by HMV. Lis Ferla echoes my thoughts on why bricks-and-mortar record stores of all sorts are a vital part of the music ecosystem.

But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix.

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Windowlicker — Aphex Twin

Windowlicker cover

The other day we heard Windowlicker by Aphex Twin being played on BBC Radio 6 Music in the morning. On the one hand, this is very excellent. On the other, it has made it less likely that Alex will let me set the radio alarm to wake us up with 6 Music in the new year.

Needless to say, Windowlicker is a masterpiece. At the time it was mind-bendingly futuristic-sounding. 20 years on it still sounds pretty fresh and exciting.

It was also the last thing Aphex Twin released before Drukqs, which might explain why the album got mixed reviews.

When the video for Windowlicker was featured on one of those Channel 4 top 100 programmes, it resulted in this fantastic TV moment, featuring Frank Sidebottom.

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Aus – Ein — Jon Brooks

Music for Dieter Rams cover

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Rams, about the designer Dieter Rams, is released digitally today. It’s bound to be good — not least because it features original music by Brian Eno.

But perhaps it would have been more apt to include music from the Jon Brooks album Music for Dieter Rams.

Every sound on this record, from the melodic sounds to the percussion, the atmospheric effects to the bass lines originates from the Braun AB-30 alarm clock.

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Open Again — Thom Yorke

Suspiria cover

I was very surprised by how good Thom Yorke’s Suspiria soundtrack is. Thom Yorke says he was pushed out of his comfort zone making this album. It worked. It’s a joy to hear him exploring genuinely new territory instead of just making bad dubstep like his last solo album.

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Are pop lyrics getting more repetitive?

Graph of the repetitiveness of pop music

Are pop lyrics getting more repetitive?

A fun article with lots of data on the repetitiveness of pop lyrics, how they have evolved over time, and how they vary by genre. What strikes me is that it isn’t obviously clear that a repetitive song is necessarily a bad song — just different.

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Photo — 2018-11-27

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports playing on my record player, with the record sleeve in front of it

The newly issued half-speed remastered edition of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is very welcome.

The CD version I bought about 15 years ago sounded rather poor quality, with a distracting tape hiss running throughout. A bit frustrating when it’s one of the greatest and most important pieces of music of the 20th century.

It was a bit of a mystery to me why some other Brian Eno albums got this lavish remaster treatment first. The new version is spread across 2 LPs of heavyweight vinyl, played at 45rpm. This means each track luxuriously has its own side.

I don’t know much about the science of remastering techniques. But there’s no doubt to me that this sounds fantastic.

I’ve never been so pleased to hear a remastered album. The tape hiss is all but obliterated, and there are lots of details I hadn’t heard before.

40 years on from its original release, one of the most pleasing pieces of music now sounds almost perfect.

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Photo — 2018-11-23

Me wearing a Boards of Canada t-shirt

I may not be at work today, but that’s not stopping me wearing an old band t-shirt for #TShirtDay. I’ve chosen a slightly worse-for-wear Boards of Canada t-shirt that hasn’t seen the light of day for a while.

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Photo — 2018-11-21

Oblique Strategy card: "Tidy up"; Blockbox card: "Write it on a train."

I’ve been writing an article that I’ve been thinking about for well over a year. Upon writing it, it’s turned out to be surprisingly short. So I turned to my two favourite block-busters — and they both told me to do things I was thinking about doing anyway.

Oblique Strategies told me to tidy up.

Blockbox said write it on a train.

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