[Cover Me]: Arcade Fire, Elliott Smith and Cowboy Junkies

 Arcade Fire – Queen Bitch (Originally by David Bowie)

Today Arcade Fire released their sprawling fourth album, Reflektor, and if like me you have recently been grooving to the lead single of the same name you will undoubtedly have noticed the heavy David Bowie influence on the track. ‘Reflektor’ masterfully synthesises choice elements from Bowie’s catalogue from Station to Station through to Outside to create a paranoid-dancehall anthem that sounds as if it were beamed from an alternate future where the Eastern bloc is still in effect, aided not least by the man himself on guest vocals and production from Bowie disciple, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame. Arcade Fire pull it off with style, but their earlier Bowie impressions were not always so accomplished. Their early, admirable take on the glam rock anthem ‘Queen Bitch’ points clearly to their musical inspiration for the riff on ‘Wake Up’, but does not little else besides. However, Bowie is always a tough nut to crack, so with the best of intentions the Montreal/Texas collective deliver a rollicking rendition that deserves to take home the bronze at the very least. (Please excuse the interminable screaming on the recording, I couldn’t find a better copy.)

Elliott Smith – ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’ (Originally by Hank Williams Jr.)

It has been ten years since Elliott Smith’s mysterious and tragic death, an end which has cast a long shadow over his recordings since. Probably known best for several contributions made to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, much has been mythologised about him and much is made of the sadness. But, these are poor characterisations of a person who made light melodies of their personal demons and whose black sense of humour is often overlooked or misunderstood. With that in mind, I’ve decided to accentuate the positive by choosing this ramshackle cover of Hank William Jr.’s ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’, found on the Live at Largo EP which accompanies Autumn de Wilde’s portrait book, Elliott Smith. This idiosyncratic cover of a country song is a fun tune and is a great insight into the loving relationship Smith had with his audience. You can hear Smith audibly cracking up as he sings (and messes up) the song and the crowd laughing along with him. You can practically hear the grin on his face as he asks at the song’s close, “So, you guys doing okay? You weren’t thrown off by my fuck up? ‘Cause there’s more in store!”

Cowboy Junkies – ‘Sweet Jane’ (Originally by The Velvet Underground)

This cover has been on my list for a while, and the unfortunate announcement yesterday of Lou Reed’s death at the age of 71 seems to make this an appropriate moment to feature this tribute. ‘Sweet Jane’ was one of Reed’s favourites from his own compositions and he included it regularly in live sets from 1969 until his death. The song has been through many variations, from upbeat pop strummer on the Loaded album to solo heavy glam-rock in some live renditions. This version by Cowboy Junkies, which most will recognise from Oliver Stones’s Natural Born Killers, is based on the slower version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live! and takes full advantage of the natural reverb in the church in Toronto where they recorded their second album, The Trinity Session. The lazy strumming and sluggish bass line perfectly complement Margo Timmins’s drawn out delivery of each line until the break where her voice soars above them and lifts the song up. And what did Reed think of it? He told BBC Radio 4 in 2007 that it is “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” High praise from a man whose work will be played with as much excitement in one hundred years time as it was on the day it was first unleashed.

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[Artist Spotlight]: Roy Harper

Roy Harper“You’re a girl with horizons, so easy to see, / Atop your high mountain, time is temporary”

Long absent, but never truly gone. Roy Harper has long been one of those stalwart figures in the background of British music, working tirelessly often behind the scenes but imperceptibly influencing anyone who has ever come into contact with him or has heard his work. Having gained praise and tips of the hat from both contemporaries (Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Who) and subsequent generations of musicians (Jonathan Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Counting Crows), he has naturally gained a mythological status as something of a folk sage. His reclusion from recording after poor experiences with record companies has only fuelled this reputation, but recently he broke the thirteen year silence with Man-Myth, co-produced by present-day folk mythologist Jonathan Wilson. Tonight Harper will play the first of three intimate nights showcasing the new album, accompanied by Wilson and a small string and brass ensemble. If you are going to the Festival Hall in London tonight, I am very envious of you.

For those of us not going though, we must content ourselves with the music. With that in mind I thought I’d draw attention to a gem off Man-Myth which has been coming into my mind during the morning drives past lines of trees shedding their golden leaves, ‘Time is Temporary’. Naturally for someone of his age and reputation Harper’s attention has turned to intense self-reflection, meditating on mortality and the discrepancies between self and perception, reality and expectation. Secluded here amongst delicate cello and banjo lines and buoyed up by a compelling guitar melody, Harper muses on love’s fleeting nature and the passing of time. However, with age comes perspective and rather than vocalising maudlin self-pity, Harper resigns himself, and possibly comes to terms with, the way things truly are. What makes the song truly poignant though is the tension Harper weaves in his poetic lyrics between trying to preserve the ‘perfect moment’ (“I have seen you for days here dipping your toes into the stream, / A vision of purity in an old pre-raphaelite dream”) and accepting that the passing of time is a fact of life (“I’d love you to stay here, but soon you’ll be gone / That’s just the way here in the sun”).

However, as one of Harper’s earliest influences, John Keats, wrote in Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us”. All moments are fleeting and temporary, but against the ravages of time we can commit it to memory and commemorate it in art, as Harper does here. The sparse core of guitar and voice, tastefully embellished on occasion by additional instrumentation, is a perfect vehicle for Harper’s reflections and his legendary tenor is like honey, still able to take you away to a place where the breeze gently moves the grass on verdant meadows and where streams babble freely amongst themselves for eternity.

Man-Myth is available now through Bella Union. Harper is on tour this week only, but still posts infrequently on his blog. Check it out, it’s good stuff.

[Cover Me]: Arctic Monkeys, Mazzy Star and Johnny Cash

Arctic Monkeys – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ (Originally by John Cooper Clarke)

Not exactly a cover, so much as a setting of words to music. The influence of John Cooper Clarke’s wordplay has long been evident in Alex Turner’s lyrics and since the Monkey’s last trio of albums has lead them to L.A. and back it seems fitting for their latest offering to come full circle and finish with Carke’s kitchen-sink poetry. Turner’s Sheffield brogue is a perfect foil for Clarke’s Salford drawl as he delivers lines like “Let me be your ‘leccy meter, And I’ll never run out”. Meanwhile, the shuffling beat and swirls of oscillating guitar hold a strong tie to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s ‘Loverman’ (the band have also covered Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, from the same album). Positioned at the end of the album, this song of longing proves to be the woozy hangover at the end of AM‘s long, heavy night.

Mazzy Star – ‘Five String Serenade’ (Originally by Arthur Lee)

Mazzy Star recently released their first album in seventeen years, Seasons of Your Day, and it reminded me of this little beauty from 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See. Originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love, the song choice really lays out the shared Californian genealogy between the two bands. Both bands have a knack for hazy and psychedelic melodies. However, while Arthur Lee’s psych-tinged original wallows amid waves of chorused guitar and shimmering strings, David Roback and Hope Sandoval’s take really accentuates the lullaby at the heart of the song. Roback slows the pace down to a slow dance, accentuating each note in the arpeggio, while the swathes of strings in the original are condensed to a sparse string section. Floating between these and the occasional tambourine shimmer is Sandoval’s sultry drawl, which complete’s the song’s soporific atmosphere. The song lies nestled at the centre of So Tonight That I Might See, and is a spellbinding moment of tender magic.

Johnny Cash – ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (Originally by Gordon Lightfoot)

It has been ten years since the loss of Johnny Cash, whose American Recordings albums remain a tribute to his power as a performer and a songwriter even in his final years of deteriorating health. His output was so prolific at this stage that he left behind three album’s worth of recorded material that were released after his death. It seems that he was a man wanting to set the record straight before he checked out, and nowhere does this come across as strongly than in his versions of ‘Hurt’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. The latter was penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and is one of the most evocative and accurate account of a dissolving relationship I have ever come across. Lightfoot’s original was already pretty poignant, but in Cash’s hands the song takes on a whole new poignancy. As with all American Recordings covers, ‘If You Could My Mind’ is stripped down to its very essence, with barebones instrumentation. But, as ever, it is Cash’s entrancing vocals that really clinch it. His voice is recognisable but quavers, betraying his years and deteriorating health, forming cracks in the deep and confident voice which sang ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. It is the audible hesitation when singing “I’m just trying to understand” and “I just don’t get it” which cuts through to the core. It gets me every time. Rest in peace, Johnny.

[Artist Spotlight]: HAERTS

haerts-660x533“No you can’t move up with your eyes down”

HAERTS are a recent discovery for me (about 10 this morning, in fact), but I have been unable to stop listening to their effusive brand of dream pop since. The Brooklyn based five-piece comprises of members from England, America and Germany who only started playing together in 2012. Since then they have snagged many spots on radio, appeared on the second Kitsuné America compilation and signed a deal with Neon Gold/Columbia Records, all before releasing their debut EP. Not bad for a year’s work.

As it stands, their debut EP Hemiplegia is set for release on 8th October and looks set to be one of my favourites of 2013. On title track ‘Hemiplegia’, they create a slow-burning anthem which possesses all the pop sensibilities and dramatic flair of New Order and Depeche Mode, their obvious musical antecedents. The track centres on Nini Fabi’s triumphant vocals which soar above the instrumentation, while swelling tides of synth and percussion buoy her up even further. As the waves of this textural soundscape rise and fall it seems that she may even take flight, especially in the break around the two-minute mark. It is little dramatic flourishes like this that offer moments of tension and release which imbue their music with a real sense of wonder. And just as some music has the power to depict a particular mood or climate, ‘Hemiplegia’ and other tracks on the forthcoming EP seem to have the capacity to transcend, seemingly equal parts summer and winter. The compelling beats and loping bass evoke beach days and summer parties which last until early in the morning, while the euphoric synths and Fabi’s vocals are as cool as a glacier. The effect is refreshing and invigorating, like ice in your glass on a hot summer’s day and should fit perfectly whether the sun is shining or snow is falling. Perfectly timed, I think you’ll agree.

Hemiplegia is available through Neon Gold/Columbia Records on Tuesday 8th October.

[On The Record]: Audiophilism, Neil Young and Pono

Marty McFly“High Fidelity / Can you hear it? Can you hear it? / Can you hear me?”

Disclaimer: Please park your prejudices, reservations or holier-than-thou attitudes at the door. I am not an audiophile or audio technician, just a music fan who listens to a lot of music on a daily basis.

Following Neil Young’s unveiling of the high-fidelity audio download service, Pono, and the accompanying portable player on the David Letterman show last year, the service has had a tentative website launch. Pono aims to revolutionise the digital music industry by providing music files of the highest possible quality taken from the original studio recordings, on par with the master tracks in studios or a vinyl record. But, how marketable is a high-fidelity audio download service, and just why are audiophiles raging against audio files?

Like many people I’m sure, I have been sceptical about the proclaimed virtues of vinyl audio quality over other formats. All the talk of getting a ‘warmer sound’ just seems like borderline-obsession, scrutinising the minutiae for merit on a nostalgic format. I’m not much of an audiophile, having been brought up on compact discs and being of an age where I could buy my own music by the time mp3s came around. And while if money and practicality were no object I would choose vinyl over CD or mp3, my choice is largely rooted in an appeal to the aesthetically enhanced physical packaging and an enjoyment of the ritual of setting up a turntable, rather than audio quality.

However, the way CDs and mp3s compress audio information necessarily reduces the dynamic frequency range which has a proven, knock-on effect in the way our brains perceive the recordings (for a more technical and in-depth account, read Sean Poynton Brma’s accessible explanation here). In layman’s terms, the less audio information your brain is given (mp3s lose about 90% of the audio information in conversion), the poorer your experience of the music will be. Many musicians have openly supported this view, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers even going so far as to say that “Mp3s suck!’. Audiophiles have often commented that should you listen to the same recording in various formats the difference in quality should be immediately noticeable. Having recently set up my parents’ old deck, I figured this would be a good opportunity to test this claim and hear for myself whether a difference is noticeable on modest equipment or if it is merely splitting hairs. Coincidentally, one of the only albums I have access to on record, CD and mp3 is Neil Young’s seminal album, After The Gold Rush. Not only that, but because of the prevalence of CD and mp3, recording technology has adapted itself to that market too, so I reason an old album is more likely to be a better control sample than, say, Yeezus or AM. So, here are my observations:

Sticking on the record first, I am struck by the audible space between the piano and Neil Young’s voice on ‘After The Gold Rush’, which give the notes room to breathe. This is something I had not noticed before when listening to the album on CD and mp3 where the piano and Young seemed compressed together into a single source. Similarly, on the other piano centred ballad, ‘Birds’, the natural reverb around Young’s vocals is noticeable, whereas before it sounded like he was singing directly into my ear. Also, the harmonic overtones of the piano at the song’s close oscillate palpably. On ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ the vocal harmonies in the bridge between Young and Stephen Stills blend more seamlessly and resonate more completely, closing the distance between the two voices. Meanwhile on the heavier tracks, the deeper presence of percussion and bass is immediately noticeable. On ‘Southern Man’ Ralph Molina’s crashing drums sound fuller behind Young’s trebly guitar histrionics, especially the cymbal clashes which seem to shimmer. Meanwhile, the bass is deeper on ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’, emphasising the mounting tension in the chorus. Most powerfully, ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ is a visceral onslaught as guitars, piano and drums spar against each other over the steady rhythm laid out by bass and rhythm guitar. It feels like a solid wall of sound, whereas before it seemed like a coordinated group of individuals. So far, so good.

Flicking the CD on, I was surprised that the opener ‘Tell Me Why’ sounds slightly flat and limp, and the harmony vocals seem squashed together rather than resonating into one another. The following ‘After The Gold Rush’ actually sounds like a slightly different mix because Young and the piano actually seem positioned closer together, while the mournful flugelhorn solo seems slightly hollow. On ‘Birds’ the vocal harmonies still retain most of their qualities, but it sounds like the band are singing in a smaller room and the piano loses some of its harmonics at the end. With ‘Southern Man’, the cymbals no longer seem to shimmer in the same way, although Young’s solo, pushed to the fore, still retains most of its heft. However, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ seems to get a case of the doldrums, falling a bit flat and having lost some of its vitality. It’s almost like the band don’t seem as into it, even though it’s the same recording. Meanwhile, ‘When You Dance’ does not seem as unified a sound, as if perceptible cracks have formed between the players. Hrmmm.

th21-record-player-music-flickr-stacey-d-630w

Clicking play on the 320 kbps mp3 copy of the album in my iTunes library does little to inspire confidence. The guitars on ‘Tell Me Why’ sound comparatively reedy, while the vocals seem slightly tinny. The piano on ‘After The Gold Rush’ sounds flat as if the song had been played on a keyboard instead, while the flugelhorn sounds almost muffled. Also, Young now sounds like he’s singing right next to the piano. Similarly, ‘Birds’ sounds a bit limp and the piano harmonics seem almost completely absent at the end. The percussion on ‘Southern Man’, which I had always regarded as dramatic and cataclysmic on my iPod, sounds like they’re being played in the next room. By comparison, they lose a lot of their punch from the record or CD. Young’s guitar solo also sounds a bit negatively smoothed out, and again that piano-cum-keyboard sound persists. Meanwhile, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ has an even larger case of the doldrums than on CD, as if the life had been sucked out of it. That statement does sound a bit dramatic, but the difference is startling. Conversely, ‘When You Dance’ sounds more unified than on CD, but it too sounds flat. Rather than a dense, concrete wall of sound, this is a single layer garden fence that is missing a lot of the immensity heard on the record. In addition, the drums almost sound like they were programmed into an 808 drum machine by comparison.

I am honestly surprised by the audible difference between the different formats, or rather how immediately perceptible these differences were to me. I honestly expected it to be a lot of hot air, reserved for studio playback technology, but even on a modest set-up the differences were present. In listening to the vinyl album everything seemed  to be in the right place, especially acoustic space: Notes were allowed to breathe when needed in some places and in others cracks were smoothed over and harmonies seamlessly blended together. The analogy I would draw would be with seeing a film. Listening to the album on vinyl was like seeing a film in the cinema, while listening to the album on CD and mp3 was like seeing the film on a HD and a 60 hz television, respectively. Obviously the cinema is the fullest experience of a film you can have, but some films don’t lose much by watching them at home. Similarly, not all albums are essential listening on a turntable or lose their fundamental properties on lower-fidelity formats. So, will I now eschew all manner of digital devilry? Will I take to the streets, urging people to burn their CD players and refuse to listen to After the Gold Rush on my iPod or on CD in my car in favour of the vinyl record? Well of course not, not least because of the impracticality of carrying a turntable with me everywhere I go. All I am saying is that each format provides a different experience and that as a sceptic I was surprised by the audible discrepancies between these experiences.

So, given my recent experience, would I say that Pono is a surefire winner that is set to turn over the marketplace? Well, I’m not sure I am convinced there. Launching a service that offers high fidelity audio downloads seems feasible, but launching a specific player that is required to play the format seems too ambitious, if not unrealistic. It will require a lot of publicity backing to make a dent in the competition. Also, the side effect of having such an information-rich audio format means that Pono’s format may put cost and file size a bit on the uncomfortable side. Having said that, the Pono player purportedly will play all other audio file formats so I think cost and storage capacity will be a major factor whether people will shell out for one. In its favour, it is also the case that in recent years there has been a marked increase in the sale of vinyl, especially with younger generations. Amazon has claimed a 100% growth in vinyl sales year-on-year, with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories being the best vinyl seller of both 2013 and since 1999, which indicates that there is an appetite for vinyl in the casual online marketplace, as opposed to being relegated to a second-hand market. Evidently Sony and Warner Music Group must recognise this appeal to enter into deals with Pono, because although being Neil Young may help it does not get them onboard without some kind of foreseeable return. Ultimately, it’s success will, as ever, be down to how consumers react. What does remain clear though is that having an option for higher-fidelity digital music can only be a good thing, and  that there is a growing number of people who agree.

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Pono is set to launch in 2014