Sunday, May 29, 2011

The rise and rise of the album

I recall an article a few years ago suggesting that the album format was essentially doomed in the digital era.  The basic premise is that with an increasing trend towards digital distribution, people have greater ability to choose to buy one or two tracks (typically the popular singles) and will prefer to do that rather than buying an entire album with some songs that might not interest them.  Some suggested we might end up with artists releasing only singles; others thought a 5 or 6-track EP might represent a happy medium of sorts.

There's still plenty of thinking along the same lines.

I'll preface the rest of this post by saying that I am still fundamentally an album listener.  I use playlists and shuffle a bit, but I still prefer listening to albums - because when they're done well they are far more than the sum of their individual tracks.  Dark Side of the Moon is a (somewhat extreme) case on point.  So is OK Computer.  So is Welcome to Sky Valley.

But I think the album format is as strong as ever and will be around for a decent while longer.  Here's why:

1. Bands like it and it works for them
For decades now, most artists have worked to a schedule of record album, release it, tour, have a break, repeat, roughly over a two-year period.  The cycle was a lot shorter in the 60's/early 70's, arguably because they were on different/more drugs.  And there are still exceptions to the rule - like Buckethead (OK, extreme example). 

But there's a reason that cycle still dominates the music industry - because it works for the bands.  It makes sense to record an album rather than pop back into the studio every few months to record another song - especially if you hit a really purple patch of creativity.  And even though touring cycles can be hard work, it makes more sense to tour on the back of an album because the two tend to co-promote each other.  Plus those touring cycles have always been and will always be hard - albums or not.  Spending a decent amount of time in the studio affords artists some valuable downtime from the rigour of touring schedules. 

This could change, of course.  The latest Gorillaz album, The Fall,  was recorded on an iPad, on the road.  But let's be fair - Damon Albarn is something of a musical transient. 

2. Bands are figuring out ways to make albums work better for them
When pressed to ask what the albums The Slip, and The Fall have in common, 87% of punters would suggest that they're a two-part concept album involving a banana skin.

No seriously though, Nine Inch Nails' The Slip and Gorillaz' The Fall are both examples of albums that bands have made available for free digital download, with a subsequent physical release.  I'm loathe to give Billy Corgan credit for anything much these days, but he had a similar idea about a decade earlier. 

Historically, albums have actually been a pretty poor deal for artists.  Check out Steve Knopper's Appetite for Self Destruction for a well-researched and fascinating look at this.  Most bands do a lot better out of touring.  But by embracing the internet, and avoiding major labels, many bands have realised they can have a lot more control artistically and financially.

Clutch are a good example.  After falling out with former label DRT Entertainment, they established their own label, Weathermaker Music.  The first big benefit of that is that they have full control over everything they produce and release - no one is forcing them to cater to any particular audience, and they can do what they want with their recordings (i.e. no Courtney Love behaviour).  The second advantage is that the economics work a lot better - Neil Fallon has mentioned that they do better selling 10,000 records on their own label than 100,000 on a major label. 

Trent Reznor and Radiohead were both also way ahead of the curve in terms of embracing the internet as a distribution mechanism - for albums, not singles.  And more recently several bands have pre-released full stream of their albums on the net - Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, Soundgarden - to counteract leaks.

Basically, if the album format was history, we wouldn't have all these reputable artists coming up with clever ways of getting albums out to the masses.

3. A lot of bands are performing albums live in their entirety
Over the past five years there have been a number of both new and old artists that have played full albums as part of a live performance, far more than I recall them doing historically.  Roger Waters toured Dark Side of the Moon, then The Wall.  Mastodon toured Crack the Skye.  Gary Numan is touring The Pleasure Principle.  Megadeth toured Rust in Peace.  The Foo Fighters toured Wasting Light.  I could go on.

The point is, albums - both old and new - obviously still occupy a special place in the minds of the artists. 

4. Apple would like you to spend as much money as possible
Yes, record store numbers are dropping.  I can remember spending an entire day ("THE DAY!") with my mate Yuin working our way down every record store on Queen Street.  Real Groovy, Borders, the little Sounds store, Whitcoulls, the big Sounds store, the little Marbecks store, and the big Marbecks store.

Of those 7, Real Groovy almost went bust, Whitcoulls doesn't sell music any more (and almost went bust), Sounds did go bust, Borders is probably going to get shut down become Whitcoulls almost went bust, and Marbecks consolidated into one location (read: may have otherwise gone bust).

This isn't just about people downloading stuff, it's about people buying stuff online legitimately.  Apple more or less has that particular market cornered, and it's in Apple's interest to get you spending as much as possible.  So of course they'd prefer albums to push - that's why they came up with the iTunes LP concept and why they have that 'complete my album' feature.  That's why you can pick an album up more cheaply than if you purchased every track separately.

Look, if a computer company is smart enough to become the dominant player in music distribution, and it's still pushing albums, that says a lot.  And the record companies who let said computer company steal their thunder don't exactly have a history of innovation.

5. The internet loves albums too
No seriously, it does.  Just google 'mp3 blog album download' and see for yourself.  And that's even before we get into the murky realm of torrents.  Even when people can get everything they want, in whatever permutation they want, they're still choosing to download albums.  Economics tells us that is a 'revealed preference'.  But economics also tells us that if something is free people will probably take as much of it as they can get.  OK so economics tells us a lot of contradictory stuff.  Maybe just go back to the second sentence of this paragraph, then.

6. The alleged wave of singles/EPs has yet to arrive
So if artists are going to release music and they aren't releasing albums, then they must either be releasing singles or EPs.  That isn't difficult logic. 

No one is really doing that, though.  Rock bands aren't doing it.  Metal bands aren't doing it.  Even weird pop artists who wear steak rather than eat it aren't doing it.  The only artists doing it seem to be the new ones who don't have enough songs to release an album, and they've always done it that way until they actually can put an album out (or, failing that, fade into obscurity).  Even Justin Bieber went down that path, FFS, and if anyone is the (tragic) face of the internet generation it's him.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.  And I do like albums a lot.  Several walls of my lounge will attest to that.  But the album format has worked for decades, some great minds are finding better ways to make use of it, and there's no evidence of any real alternatives becoming popular.  I shall go and listen to The Downward Spiral, then.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Foo Fighters: Medium Rare track by track

About a month or so ago, the Foo Fighters released a (mostly) limited vinyl-only compilation for Record Store Day.  Entitled "Medium Rare", this basically throws together a bunch of covers the band have previously released, along with one or two new ones.

I don't think any copies made their way down to the small handful of participating New Zealand stores, so I had to resort to the internet.  For the most part I have a real aversion to downloading albums for free - given the amount of time, effort and money that artists invest in making music they deserve a reward for it, after all it is their livelihood.  I mean, I'd be pretty peeved if my employer told me I wasn't getting paid today.  But I think downloading can be justified where the particular track/album simply isn't commercially available by virtue of being out of print or limited or whatever.  So, basically, if I can't buy it, then I have no qualms about downloading it.

And so it was with Medium Rare, which has a delightfully meaty cover.

Anyway, onto the track-by-track:
1. Band on the Run (originally by Wings)
This originally appeared on a Radio 1 compilation and frankly it's pretty damn good.  It's not a major reinvention - and trying to reinvent a McCartney track might be a bit bold anyway.  But it sounds like the Foo Fighters doing a really good cover of Wings, particularly during the first major dynamic change in the song ("If I ever get out of here...").  Definitely a good track to start with.

2. I Feel Free (originally by Cream)
Originally a b-side to DOA, this one sees Taylor doing most of the singing and Dave doing all of the drumming, which happened on one or two other tracks during the In Your Honor period.  Decent enough and the guitar solos do sound particularly cool.

3. Life of Illusion (originally by Joe Walsh)
You know how there are always 'Japan-only EP's'?  Well this was on the Times Like These Japan-only EP.  Maybe Joe Walsh was in the Eagles but this song is fairly unremarkable and mostly just plods along.  There are a number of covers the Foos have done that would have been more worthy inclusions - Born on the Bayou, Ozone, even their highly-amusing cover of Stairway to Heaven was probably a better option (skip to 3:30 for a Jack Black moment).

4. Young Man Blues (originally by Mose Allison; made famous by The Who)
One of those 'second order' covers (a la Sevendust covering Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails' Hurt), this was from a VH1 Rock Honors show in 2008 and wasn't available on record until now (although apparently they also covered Bargain with Gaz Coombes of Supergrass at the show).  This is a really fun cover because it's much looser than the average Foo Fighters track and the band jams a lot in the middle too.  It's nice to hear them do something a bit less structured and do it really well. 

5. Bad Reputation (originally by Thin Lizzy)
Previously unreleased, and frankly a great choice.  Dave doesn't quite have Phil Lynott's swagger behind the mic but the band more than compensate for that musically.  Rollicking good stuff.

6. Darling Nikki (originally by Prince and the Revolution)
This one dates back to The Colour and the Shape era, appearing on a bonus disc that came with some copies.  An unlikely choice, perhaps, but it's always been a big personal favourite of mine - a little straighter and poppier than the original but the explosion into the chorus with Dave doing his 'big rock scream' is brilliant.  One that they still perform live on special occasions, occasionally with Cee Lo Green.  Definitely a highlight.

7. Down in the Park (originally by Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army)
Originally appeared on Songs in the Key of X, a collection of songs loosely related to the X Files (remember that?!).  It's a pretty straightforward verse-chorus-verse effort which is made special by the dynamic build throughout the song.  The first verse is just Dave singing over the rhythm section, on the second verse the guitars join in (albeit palm-muted), and then in the third version we're in full-on rock mode (complete with moar crash cymbal).  Nothing particularly tricky about it, but it works really well.

8. Baker Street (originally by Gerry Rafferty)
This was a b-side to My Hero and popped up on the same bonus disc as Darling Nikki.  It actually became a minor hit in its own right and it does a good job of taking the track down a much more rock route, most notably by substituting guitar for the distinctive sax solo of the original. 

9. Danny Says (originally by the Ramones)
This one was a bonus track with some versions of One By One.  If you thought a punk cover was most likely to be Chris Shiflett's choice, I'm betting you'd be right because he sings lead vocals on this track.  In the solid-but-unremarkable category.

10. Have A Cigar (originally by Pink Floyd)
Here's a trivia gem - the Foos have actually released two different recordings of this cover, both with Taylor on vocals.  The first was a b-side on Learn to Fly.  The second - featured here and which originally appears on the MI-2 soundtrack - features Brian May on guitar and is also noticeable because Taylor's vocals are a lot more aggressive.  It's essentially a hard-rock take on the track - while it's quite different from the much more spacious Floyd version, impressively the Foos manage to retain the original's groove with bassist Nate Mendel taking an unusually prominent role.

11. Never Talking to You Again (originally by Husker Du)
A live performance - with Dave solo on vocals and guitar - that popped up as a b-side to Low.  Solid but nothing special.

12. Gas Chamber (originally by the Angry Samoans)
An oldie but a goodie that popped up on the Big Me single.  At 0:56, it's the shortest song the Foos have recorded and I'd pick it as a Dave Grohl choice because it sure harkens back to his Scream days.  Rocks hard, doesn't mess around.

13. This Will Be Our Year (originally by the Zombies)
A previously unreleased track to close the album.  In the category of "there were probably better choices than this".  It's not bad, it's just not that interesting.

Overall, there are some absolute stunners, and a few that probably could have been omitted in favour of better alternatives.  But you know, you can probably happily track it down for free without too much moral culpability.  And if you got it on vinyl, well done you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Listmania #1: Sing it!

One of the highlights of the thoroughly kick-ass Kyuss Lives! show on Saturday night was undoubtedly John Garcia.  A fantastic singer with his distinctive, desert rasp, and after seeing Bruno Fevery do an admirable job of filling Josh Homme's rather large shoes on guitar, I'm convinced Garcia is the one part of that band that is truly irreplaceable.  Which has inspired today's Listmania - a bunch of singers that I rate really highly.

This isn't my top 5 favourite singers, by any means, but it's a shout to some singers that I consider to be pretty underrated.

1. John Garcia (Kyuss, Hermano, Unida, Slo Burn...)
Can anyone imagine Kyuss without John Garcia?  Seriously.  So very powerful, soulful and bluesy, in his own unique desert-y way.  But it's not just about Kyuss, and I think that is something that is often overlooked.  Aside from doing one of the most unlikely - and brilliant - crossovers of all time on the below Crystal Method track:

...he's produced three very good albums with Hermano - and done a bunch of other stuff too.  His long-awaited solo album Garcia vs Garcia is finally threatening to be released this year and I'm pretty excited.  He's instantly recognisable and sounded every bit as good live as he does on record.  Legend.

2. Richard Patrick (Filter, Army of Anyone)
After spending time as a touring guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, Richard Patrick started Filter in the early 90's.  There are some definite similarities between the two, although obviously NIN were far more successful.  As a singer, Richard Patrick has three great attributes that I love.  Firstly, he always adapts his voice to fit with the music very well - regardless of tempo or dynamic (or band, for that matter - he sounded great on the Army of Anyone album).  Secondly, he does the gentle-quiet to balls-to-the-wall-loud transition better than almost anyone - Hey Man Nice Shot is a decent example.  And thirdly, when does loud, he does it very very well (check out Under or more recently Drug Boy and No Love) for some great examples of this.

3. Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)
I'm not for a second suggesting that Dave Mustaine is a technically brilliant singer - he's not.  He started singing because when he formed Megadeth after getting thrown out of some other legendary thrash metal band, they needed a singer.  But seriously, can anyone actually imagine Megadeth with anyone other than Megadave on vocals?  And not just from the point of view that he kinda is Megadeth, either.  He may not be the most talented singer on the planet, but in terms of the way his voice fits with the style of music, there aren't many in the same league.  Could anyone else deliver Peace Sells with the same sneering sarcasm... could anyone else sound quite so borderline-mental on Sweating Bullets... could anyone else display the same rasping anger on This Day We Fight!?  No, is the answer.

4. Neil Fallon (Clutch, The Company Band)

Clutch is, of course, the greatest band in the world.  All four members are uniquely talented - incredible musicians and songwriters but never showy about it.  But that's a topic for another post.  Neil's voice is one of the most instantly recognisable facets of this great band (that and his fantastically cryptic lyrics, but again, that's for another post).  His distinctively powerful, deep, gravelly sound is just insanely addictive.  Whether's he's crooning about pirate ships on Big News I, or bellowing madness-in-the-style-of-nursery-rhymes on Texan Book of the Dead, he's just one of those singers that is very hard to stop listening to (even though after 6 years of thrashing this band, I still frequently don't have a clue what some of his lyrics are about).

5. Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust)
Everything that makes Sevendust great as a band is pretty much also reflected in the things that make Lajon a stunning singer... sheer power, groove, and the ability to switch from crushingly brutal to insanely beautiful in a heartbeat.  When Lajon's brutal, he's like a throaty, aggressive sledgehammer.  When he's soulful... wow, dude just soars.  Sonically, Sevendust are right up at the diamond end of the hard rock spectrum, but Lajon brings an immense amount of both soul and power to their music.  I've always appreciated him as a singer but what really sealed the deal was actually Sevendust's acoustic live record Southside Double-Wide.  With the band on acoustic instruments, there's a bit more space for his voice to fill - with little or no margin for error - and holy crap does he ever shine.

And just to finish, a few more underrated singers also worthy of a mention:
Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)
Dave Wyndorf (Monster Magnet)
Peter Steele (Type O Negative) - RIP
Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains, solo)
Ginger Elvis Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Kyuss Lives! preview

Over the past few years, I've been lucky enough to go see a number of bands that I honestly thought I would never have the chance to see perform live, most notably Alice in Chains and Faith No More (thanks, Soundwave Festival!).

In fact, my bucket list is getting pretty damn short now, although there are a few bands I've seen that I'd dearly love to see live again (looking at you, Sevendust).

But in the "unlikely reunion" stakes, I think Kyuss has to take the prize.  It's only 5 days until they play two nights at the Powerstation (speaking of nostalgia!) here in Auckland, and frankly I'm more than a little excited.  As is my concert-going partner-in-crime, despite only being properly introduced to Kyuss this year.

Most of the young-un's now know Kyuss as 'the band that Josh Homme was in before Queens of the Stone Age'.  Whilst not untrue, it's a little bit unfair to a band that in my view created one of the most unique legacies in hard rock history.

The uniqueness stems not only from their sound - which was a total revelation in itself that has spawned a lot of imitators - but also from the cult-like following they inspired for their relatively brief original lifespan.  At the time, not a lot of people knew about them.  This was back when radio was big, the internet wasn't, and I can distinctly remember that the DJs on 95bFM (pretty much the only place they got played in NZ) always introduced their songs in hushed, reverential tones.  You knew them, and loved them, or you hadn't heard of them.  Subsequent to their break-up, and partly following the success of Queens of the Stone Age, they gained a lot more widespread attention.

And my introduction came on 95bFM too, I think it was El Rodeo, so pretty much at the tail end of their run.  A few years later when "working" in the music department at The Warehouse, I stumbled across a 3-pack of Kyuss albums of $14.99.  I got some great deals in my time there, but I think that was the best.

It's the three albums in that pack - Blues for the Red Sun, Welcome to Sky Valley, and ...And the Circus Leaves Town that really are the definitive Kyuss.  There was an earlier album Wretch, but it isn't on par with those three.

But those three albums are just so damned good.  There's barely a weak moment across them - they're all great albums in their own right.  Blues is the most direct and aggressive of the three - drawing on Wretch to some extent but with the benefit of a little more maturity and much better production.  And it really sets out the Kyuss approach - a potent rhythm section, sludgy down-tuned guitar (often played through a bass amp), and John Garcia's inimitable vocal style. 

Welcome to Sky Valley is my personal favourite.  It's a stunning album and also one that has a bit of its own uniqueness and mystique about it.  Although there are basically ten songs, the CD has just three tracks, each comprising multiple songs.  This might be as infuriating as hell when you want to listen to Asteroid, but I personally love the reverence it shows towards the album format.  And it is really well-constructed as an album, much more focused than its predecessor, ebbing and flowing throughout before building to a fantastic conclusion on Whitewater.

Circus is also good, but it contrasts heavily with Sky Valley which I don't think works to its favour.  Whereas Sky Valley is an incredibly focused rock album, Circus sees a lot more sonic experimentation (for example, el Rodeo and Catamaran).  It's not a bad thing, but sometimes one craves the raw growl of classic Kyuss - although that's in abundance on the sprawling, psychedelic 10-minute closing track Spaceship Landing.  I consider that track to be one of the greatest album closing tracks of all-time.  At the time it was the final song of Kyuss' final album, and it's hard to think of a better closing statement for the band.

There were a few line-up changes over the band's career - Garcia and Homme were the only members to appear throughout.  The lineup on the Kyuss Lives! tour is Garcia, Brant Bjork on drums, Nick Oliveri on bass, and newcomer Bruno Fevery on guitar - who played on Garcia's "Garcia plays Kyuss' tour.  Arguments will no doubt abound over how it isn't the same without Josh Homme, whether they would've been better off with Scott Reeder on bass, etc etc, but frankly I still reckon they are going to kick some serious ass. 

As rock vocalists go, Garcia is one of my all-time favourites.  He's instantly recognizable - jagged, powerful, bluesy.  As a singer he makes you take notice not just because of what he's singing, but how he's singing it - and the way his voice blends with the Kyuss soundscape while still sounding like a distinctive instrument is amazing.  He's had a solo album in the works for years now; here's hoping it sees the light of day soon.

Oliveri is, of course, a powerhouse of a bassist and Brant Bjork played drums on every album bar Circus, so there's no reason to believe that this line-up won't kick some serious ass.

Even more so when you look at some of the setlists. Although there is some changing-up from night to night, it's pretty much an ass-kicking setlist when the likes of Green Machine, Odyssey, Thumb, Gardenia and a wicked triple-header of Freedom Run, Asteroid, and Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop all consistently appear.  And they've still got balls too - not a lot of bands would opt to open with a 10-minute epic like Spaceship Landing.

This time next week, I'll probably still be recovering.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hot sauce, baby

Today sees the (physical) release of the new Beastie Boys album, The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.  Which many have already heard, after the group pre-leaked it themselves, a trend which is becoming quite the big thing.

Before I get to the album, it's worth giving a nod to the title for two reasons.  The first because I think it is a cool album title (and hot sauce is actually vaguely topical in a music-related way).  The second because there is no Part One, well, not a released version anyway.  It was set for release, but after MCA came down with (fortunately treatable) cancer, it got shelved.  Part Two has the same songs in the same order as Part One (less one), and although the Beasties have said this entirely coincidental, this is coming from a group who certainly know how to take the Michael.  As you can witness in the promo video for the album, which has a two-minute short version, and a full thirty-minute extended version, along with an abundance of guests.

It's actually been seven years since the last Beastie Boys' album with vocals, although the single Too Many Rappers was released back in 2009.  I guess I'd describe the Beasties as one of those groups that I have a bit of an on/off relationship with.  I love Check Your Head, Paul's Boutique, most of Ill Communication and some of Hello Nasty.  The rest I'm not so wild about.  Put this together and the result is pretty vague expectations for this record.

Which it certainly exceeds.  For the most part it sounds like they've trued to make a fairly focused hip-hop album.  This hasn't always been the case with the Beasties; as one moves through their discography there's a definite trend towards experimentation which peaks on Hello Nasty.  And in this case it's definitely a good thing, even if there are (entirely predictable) adventures into punk (Lee Majors Come Again, albeit with some major hip-hop digressions) and instrumental funk (Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament).

But opening track Make Some Noise really does seem to set the tenor - a fun, funky track with occasionally clever and occasionally intentionally dodgy rhymes.  There are nods to some of their older tracks like Say It (think Jimmy James), Nonstop Disco Powerpack (think The Move) and Long Burn the Fire (think The Update). 

But then they pull a few new tricks too - Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win features Santigold and bounces along with some world influences.  Here's a Little Something For Ya is a busy, groovy number that basically screams for a drum and bass remix - although DJ Shadow has already had a really good go at mashing it into a million entertaining pieces:

So, first impressions are pretty positive - this one could well be in my top ten come year-end.