[On The Record]: Thank You For The Days – Friars Music Exhibition, Buckinghamshire County Museum

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Probably like many other gig goers, I occasionally feel like I’ve turned up too late to the party to see legendary live shows. Completely untrue obviously, but with concert footage of any given artist now at your fingertips, a pang of envy sometimes takes hold for that disinterested crowd member in the corner of the screen during a seminal, spine-tingling performance by a band in their prime.

Recently, this feeling was not helped by the Friars Music Club exhibition at Buckinghamshire County Museum, which extensively details the illustrious heyday of Aylesbury’s premier music venue, now 45 years young. During its lifetime the club has had four different phases inhabiting various venues across Aylesbury: Phase one at New Friarage Hall from June 1969 to July 1970; Phase two (“The Golden Era”) at Borough Assembly Hall from April 1971 to August 1975; Phase three at Aylesbury Civic Centre from September 1975 to December 1984, then June 2009 to June 2010; and phase four which currently resides at Waterside Theatre since October 2010. In addition, Friars also hosted “Foreign Gigs” in neighbouring towns and even as far north as Newcastle and Liverpool.

Over the years Friars played host to pretty much any influential group you care to think of between 1969 and 1984. David Bowie? Played Friars. The Velvet Underground? Played Friars. Pink Floyd, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Clash, U2, Grandmaster Flash, Toots & The Maytals, John Martyn, the list seemingly goes on forever. Offering equal chances to underground bands like The Birthday Party and Captain Beefheart or local acts Marillion and Warren Harry, Friars Music Club and its members welcomed everyone with open arms. “I know Mott The Hoople happened in Aylesbury long before anywhere else,” commented  Mott frontman Ian Hunter. “Everybody seems to be friendly, and they make you feel good – and whenever I played there, I felt like an old friend being welcomed home”.

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The exhibition opened on 1st March, but it has been in gestation for quite a while. “I’ve been wanting to put it on for about ten years and the regime at the county museum wasn’t particularly sympathetic to the idea” says David Stopps, who founded Friars along with other music lovers in 1969 and who masterminded the exhibition. “But, last year the hierarchy changed there and they suddenly became very enthusiastic indeed about hosting our exhibition, so we talked to them about it and managed to get things together at very short notice. We only had it confirmed just at Christmas time and we had to get it open by the end of February, which is a very, very short time. But, we did and it’s been growing organically ever since, we’ve been adding things to it every week since 1st March.”

The exhibition is extensive: captivating concert photographs from Geoffrey Tyrell, Mark Jordan and others, some of which are being displayed for the first time to the public, hang on walls sprawled with gig posters and tickets. Elsewhere, clothes, memorabilia, instruments from Nick Mason, Edgar Broughton, Mark Rutherford and even a box of busted microphones (survivors from performances of ‘Headbutts’ by local hero John Otway) can be found. “We have our own archives, which is mainly tickets, handouts and posters,” reveals Stopps. “Then I contacted Toyah to see if she could lend us some costumes, which she kindly said she would. I contacted Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), who I know quite well, and he kindly lent us his “wave” drum kit, which is actually the same kit which he used at the Friars gig in 1969! It’s going off on Monday morning by courier as soon as the exhibition closes to a Pink Floyd exhibition in Milan which starts next week. Edgar Broughton kindly let us have his guitar, I contacted Stackridge and they let us have some stuff. [Free improvising saxophonist] Lol Coxhill’s wife helped me put together the exhibition booth around him, which I think is one of the highlights personally.”

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The dizzying list of Friars alumni and the glowing testimonials many have offered is impressive enough, but more than this the exhibition emphasises the seminal place Friars Music Club holds in music history. Friars quickly gained a reputation as an essential proving ground for bands to hit on tour and for picking up on bands before they broke into popular consciousness. Black Sabbath played just prior to the release of their debut album. Genesis honed their stagecraft there in the early days, with Steve Hackett remembering “there was a warmth and enthusiasm from the crowd that acted as a morale booster when other hearts were harder to conquer”. Even Rob Stringer, current CEO and Chairman of Columbia Records, started off as front of stage security at Friars: “When he was at the local grammar school he started working for us where he got into music really and has ended up going right to the top of the record business in America”.

Most notably, David Bowie premiered material from Hunky Dory during his first appearance at Friars on 25th September 1971. Three months later on 29th January 1972, Bowie returned with The Spiders From Mars and performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time. The rest is history, and Bowie clearly recognised the pivotal role these shows at Friars played in his career when he texted Stopps hours before the exhibition’s opening night on 28th January. “Memories are everything apparently,” the text read “and I have only great ones of the fabulous Friars”. Remembering receiving the text Stopps says “I didn’t think it would be emotional, but it was and it was fabulous. Just a fabulous thing to get a few hours before we opened. I don’t think he does that for many people so it was particularly special coming from him”.

Friars kept its finger on the pulse of contemporary music and moved with the times, repeatedly proving its relevance in staging bands of the moment. As punk rose in the ‘70s Friars played host to MC5 in 1972 and Iggy Pop (with Bowie furtively appearing on keyboards) in early 1977, but it was when The Ramones played in May that year which punk truly arrived in Aylesbury. After a local campaign by Colin Keinch, The Ramones came to Friars on their tour with Talking Heads and delivered a blistering 45 minute set that fully kicked open the doors to the many punk and new wave acts that would play Friars. The Greatest Stiffs live showcase brought Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric later that year and the following year would see Friars put on their biggest open-air gig in Aylesbury’s Market Square, which saw local punk acts play to an estimated 20,000 people.

During the nationwide backlash against punk culture during the summer of 1978 when councils around the UK were putting bans on punk shows, Friars again showed their prescience by working with Aylesbury Vale District Council to bring The Clash to Aylesbury in June 1978. A strong relationship was forged with the band, who would return with The Slits in December 1978 and chose Friars for the opening night of the London Calling tour in January 1980. They would go on to play to 2,000 people at Friars biggest indoor event during the Combat Rock tour of 1982.

I asked David Stopps if there any performances which stick out as particularly memorable? “If I had to pick one it would be The Kinks [6th August, 1980, Maxwell Hall], that was just a phenomenal gig. To me they’re like the universal band: they’re a sixties pop group; they’re a punk band in their own sort of way because they’re all pretty edgy’ they’re a rock ’n’ roll band; and a folk group. They were everything, they were the universal band for me. Obviously the Bowie gigs stand out as being incredible and lots of others. The Ramones come to mind, particularly astonishing gigs. Kate and Anna McGarrigle were absolutely magical”.

Sadly in December 1984 Friars closed its doors due to financial difficulties and so 25 years of silence ensued. “When we stopped in 1984 I was surprised that nobody took it on and did their own thing along similar lines,” says Stopps. “But, nobody ever did and the venue was just sitting, it wasn’t like the venue closed or anything. There were a few concerts here and there between 1984 and 2009 that other people put on but, not many and I was quite disappointed that nobody sort of picked it up and ran with it. Now there’s quite a lot of local band activity at the moment which is encouraging and there are a lot of little venues putting on gigs again where a few years ago that wasn’t the case. So I’m reasonably encouraged about that”.

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When Friars fan Mike O’Connor started putting together a Friars Music Club website in 2007, David Stopps was astonished by the in-depth charting of the venue’s history and the interest the website generated. Inspired by his enthusiasm, Stopps and co. decided to resurrect Friars for a one-off gig in 2009 to celebrate its 40th birthday, which featured Friars veterans The Pretty Things, Edgar Broughton Band and The Groundhogs. The success of that gig lead to further shows from Stiff Little Fingers and Paul Weller, and Friars has continued ever since.

Since the demolition of Aylesbury Civic Centre in 2010, Friars has entered its fourth phase at the new Waterside Theatre where it lives on as select shows, which have seen the return of Friars veterans such as punk diehards The Buzzcocks, Aylesbury natives Marillion and a sell-out show by The Specials. Compared to previous venues Stopps says, “It’s different, it’s an evolution. The first venue was 400 capacity, the second one was 700, the third one was 1,250 and this one is 1700, so they’ve all gotten bigger as we’ve gone on. The Waterside is a very expensive venue to use and that’s always a big risk to put something on there, but in the old days it wasn’t so much of a risk. It was sort of make £100 or lose £100. But, now it’s very much more expensive and risky, so we don’t do so many shows now, but we are intending to do more in future. This year has been about the exhibition really, but we’re definitely going to be doing more shows.”

Fortunately, the intimacy and atmosphere of old which made Friars Music Club such a legendary venue seems to have survived intact. “That was what I was worried about, to be honest,” says Stopps, “If we’d ever get the old atmosphere back. But, when we came back in 2009 it was just magical, it was exactly the same as it used to be!”

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With interest in the club reignited by the exhibition, Friars Music Club are now looking to the future with a mixture of current and new bands to come. “Whilst we’ve been looking back since 2009, although Paul Weller is still pretty current in his own way, we are looking through to the new bands breaking through at the moment,” reveals Stopps.  “We were going to put on Bastille last year and they wanted to do it, we wanted to do it, but we just couldn’t find a date. We could see it coming before they had the hit single [Pompeii], it’s just such a shame we didn’t get them. But anyway, we’d like to think we’re still quite good at that but we’ll see!” Friars have lost none of their edge it seems, finger still on the pulse.

The exhibition had been scheduled to close on Saturday 5th July, but to celebrate its success Buckinghamshire County Museum have decided to specially open their doors on Sunday 6th July for a Special Final Day. “There are a lot of people coming, a lot of artists, a lot of music business people,” Stopps explains. “I shall be doing impromptu guided tours all day, get ten people together who are interested in a particular area and talk about that. Hopefully that will work and I’ll still be standing at the end of the day!”

Friars Aylesbury: The Local Music Club That Rocked The World runs until Sunday 6th July at Buckinghamshire County Museum. You can learn more about Friars Music Club here.

Photo credits: Mark Jordan, Martin Percival, Geoffrey Tyrell.

 

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[On The Record]: Crowdfunding – The Future Of Music?

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Crowdfunding, to give a dusty and prosaic definition, is where a project (artistic, journalistic, political etc.) is funded through the collective donations from individual backers. It seems that everyone is at it these days on varying platforms such as PledgemusicIndieGoGo, and Kickstarter, the latter of which is probably the most prominent. While crowdfunding has become a lot more popular and efficient with the advent of the internet, the idea has actually been around since the 17th century. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a crowdfunding scheme set up by Joseph Pulitzer then the Statue of Liberty may not have seen the light of day. When the committee in charge of the statue’s construction came up dangerously short on the funds necessary to complete the project, the american public raised $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today) over a period of six months, ensuring the statue’s completion. Although that’s probably quite a dated example, it’s a pretty good indication of what crowdfunding can achieve and that it can be a positive means of saving worthy projects from the scrap heap. Hercules Moments contributor and Dæmons man David Officer successfully funded his Fram EP through Kickstarter recently and said “Crowdfunding platforms are a very empowering way for small artists and creatives to do big projects when money is thin on the ground”.

However, crowdfunding has become the subject of some controversy recently, such as Amanda Palmer allegedly misusing funds raised on Kickstarter or Zach Braff acquiring studio backing for his crowdfunded independent film. I’m not going to waste time by explaining the Amanda Palmer controversy as it has been written about by pretty much everyone and their dog in great detail, but I think it is a prime example of the negativity surrounding crowdfunding platforms and the backlash that can occur when communications break down where money is concerned (If you wish to find out more I suggest looking here and here). Most of the controversy stemming from these issues comes down to backers feeling deceived or that their money has been misused. So how reliable is crowdfunding, and is there more to it than the optimistic “Art of Asking”?

There are quite a few immediately apparent positives to crowdfunding. For one thing, it allows the artist greater creative freedom than they may otherwise have if a label or a studio is involved. For instance, in deals with some industry moguls the artist may be beholden to their wishes, such as altering the project to suit the investors at the expense of the artist’s vision. Matthew Young of Song, By Toad points out that “If an artist wants to release what they want and when they want, then they need to either make sure that their label is flexible and understanding (which many are) or fund it themselves, and this is a good way to do it”. Through crowdfunding artists are able to set their own agenda and the input offered by backers is usually welcome as part of a prior understanding between artist and supporter. And at the end of the day, for any artist with a modicum of integrity, the people who support them will always be the ones they ultimately have to answer to.

Crowdfunding platforms also allow artists to reach out to a larger body of possible investors and get creative projects completed which may not have been funded otherwise. For example, Tim Courtney, another Hercules Moments contributor and member of Katerwaul, who recently successfully funded a film through Kickstarter, explains that acquiring funding from bodies such as Creative Scotland is not always easy: “I’ve seen a lot of my talented friends and peers not get work on these development shorts like Digicult etc. due to a ‘lack of experience’. I know my own career is faltering as a director because I’ve not shown I can handle a bigger budget, but how do you get those bigger budgets if the one means our country has of giving it to you won’t take the risk on you?”. Against such catch-22 situations, crowdfunding projects can help level the playing field by giving artists that chance. Furthermore, this also puts some control in the hands of the supporter as well, where the only projects you back are the ones YOU choose, rather than your taxes being funnelled into a project you have no interest or say in, as happens with some funding committees. So essentially it’s a win-win situation, where your money goes directly to the artistic projects you feel deserve it rather than the umpteenth season of a high-rating show, while the artist is able to pursue a project that may not attract funding elsewhere. Not to mention the increased interaction and cooperation between artist and supporter that crowdfunding fosters, as Lloyd of Olive Grove Records notes: “Knowing you did your bit to help a band that you love genuinely means a lot, especially at the end of the day when you’re sitting with a tangible product in your hand”.

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So what’s the big deal, why all the fuss? Well, the snag with this approach is that the backer’s money is not always insured and delivery of the final product is not always guaranteed. In some cases projects fail for a number of reasons (ranging from bad luck to poor choices), leaving backers a long way down the line unable to get their money back and without the products or incentives promised to them. Out of interest, I backed the Pixies visual history book on Kickstarter to get a feel for how much the backer actually knows about what they’re getting into. Straight away a disclaimer came up stating: “Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project. It is the responsibility of the project creator to complete their project as promised, and the claims of this project are theirs alone. If this project is successfully funded, your card will be charged on Thursday Jun 6, 11:59 PM EDT, along with all the other backers of this project”. Whether these disclaimers and failsafe features are a recent addition or have been in place all along, I am not sure, but from my experience it was instantly clear to me what the score was.

And this is not dissimilar to the way the music business, and indeed any venture that requires financial backing, operates already. Artists mock up a proposition for what their project is and what the costs are likely to be, then present it to potential backers. The only difference here is that the backers can be individuals from all over the world rather than just companies and entrepreneurs. While it is obviously disappointing to not receive the goods promised, that’s ultimately the risk you take in any investment and emphasises that crowdfunding is not a market service where you ‘buy’ incentives.  And this is what such disappointments often boil down to: supporters are not used to being investors, so naturally when projects fall through they behave like customers who have not received a paid for product. However, that is not the agreement they entered into when backing, and I feel this is something people will need to come to terms with as time goes on.

In some cases, such as the aforementioned Braff/Palmer projects, backers may not feel their money has been used correctly or worse, that they were deliberately deceived when backing. This is obviously a very serious matter, but it seems to me that it ultimately comes down to the transparency of the individual project. Many projects will be created with this transparency in mind so that the backer is sufficiently informed, as David did with his project: “Because of the nature of the funding, it’s open to a lot of scrutiny and you have to be honest and upfront. You need to do your research and be confident in your figures”. Crowdfunding by and large operates on a ‘buyer beware’ policy, that is, if you are suspicious of where your money is going, then you invest at your own risk. The other main criticism leveled at crowdfunding is that it is essentially a form of begging and that it is unfair to ask fans for financial support. After all, if plenty of other artists have managed to finance themselves and if fans already buy the albums, what right does an artist have to ask for direct financial support from them? “I’ve heard people moaning about the price of a Reward with a CD or Vinyl etc. or that it’s people asking the fans to fund a project that they’re going to have to fork out on again,” Tim says “To this all I can say is its a marketing problem. I don’t think the genuine artists on Kickstarter are ripping people off”. Essentially, there is a stigma attached because people believe it to be the soft option or associate it with laziness. However, this is far from the case. Often the artist will have done the actual creative legwork already (recording, filming, sourcing artwork etc.), and is looking for the funds necessary to see the project through to completion in its final stages. As David aptly asserts, “It’s not a replacement for hard work, saving up or any other business led strategy. This isn’t about creating businesses, but fulfilling creative projects”. Similarly Tim explains, “I never claim to be an expert, but the one piece of advice I can give to people is that you need to REALLY plan and research your project and other successful projects. It took us over a month of planning to put it together before going live with it, and it worked”. Despite negative perceptions, it is clear that going down this route is not merely a case of waiting for a handout (well, in the majority of cases hopefully).

So, is crowdfunding “the future of music”, as Amanda Palmer has touted in her Kickstarter campaign video?  Could crowdfunding pose a viable and sustainable alternative model to the label oligarchy which the current music industry is based on? Well, not really. “Labels bring a lot more than just funding to the table,” says Matthew. “They also bring contacts, a network of their own fans, extra bodies to work on the release, a reputation, and experience of releasing music. All of these things are hugely valuable and are not covered by crowd-funding. With a good manager or a couple of experienced, organised people within the band you might be able to make up for a lot of this, but not all”. Crowdfunding is really a tool for helping tip the balance in the artist’s favour, where support can come from the most unexpected places, as Tim found with his Sunsets and Silhouettes campaign: “One of the people who bought an Executive Producer reward lives in New Zealand with no affiliation to the cast or crew, and another from Germany. And the only reason they’ve given us £250 each is because they believe in our talent and the story. And that is overwhelming.” Meanwhile, when David got in touch with the Fram Museum in Oslo about his Polar expedition inspired project, they backed the project for £500. Furthermore, he has been invited over to play in front of the King of Norway and the Prime Minister, as well as collaborate with an Inuit Drum Dancer at the Museum’s Polar Festival: “The success of my Kickstarter means I’ve got a great story and a better chance of selling my vinyl now. More importantly, I got to create a piece of art I really believe in.” Both of their projects are well on the way to production now and may not have been possible, or as successful, without crowdfunding platforms. There may be a few bugs that need ironing out and and there is still some way to go, but crowdfunding is definitely changing the way we create and support art, and that is a very exciting thing.

– Originally published on Hercules Moments

[On The Record]: Christmas Songs That AREN’T Embarrassing.

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so that song playing in the stores keeps on telling us. And it is, but sometimes the inevitable litany of overplayed songs we’ve heard since childhood bring you down on the umpteenth time you hear them in a single day. There are some truly great Christmas songs (who doesn’t really love ‘Fairytale of New York’?), but plenty of them are just tired and plain embarrassing. With that in mind, here is a rundown of some less played Yuletide favourites to be proud of and to keep you rocking through the festive season.

Otis Redding – ‘White Christmas’
A Christmas oldie given a soul revamp by Otis Redding, who breathes new life into it by wringing each note for all its worth. Meanwhile, the brass and shimmering organ give it that uplifting gospel feel, which truly do foster feelings of comfort and joy.

The Ramones – ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’
This is my kind of Christmas message. Of course, Christmas isn’t always the most tranquil time of year and bust-ups tend to come with the territory. Sometimes the chaos takes hold, but it’s worth remembering what counts, as The Ramones do here.

Pearl Jam – ‘Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)’
From one of Pearl Jam’s earliest Christmas singles in 1991, ‘Let Me Sleep’ shows Eddie Vedder singing with childlike wonder and vulnerability, both excited and lost as “cold wind blows on the soles of my feet”. Meanwhile, Mike McCready’s stunning eastern guitar melody ensures that this is not your standard Christmas fare. Equally worth checking out is ‘Strangest Tribe’ from a 1999 Christmas single.

Teenage Fanclub – ‘Christmas Eve’
Short, but sweet. The Scot band always could pen a nice ditty with beautiful harmonies and guitar melodies, but this tune comes with an extra sprinkling of Christmas magic.

Eels – ‘Everything Is Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’
A Christmas anthem from the man known as E, full of riffy guitars that will blow away the holiday blues. Any Christmas song with the line ‘Baby Jesus, born to rock!’ immediately deserves a place on this list.

Tom Waits – ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’
What you might call a Christmas song from the wrong side of the tracks (well after all, it’s Christmas there too isn’t it?). It’s a sad and vulnerable song in some aspects, but what wins it back is Waits’s comic timing and the tongue placed firmly in his cheek (“Charlie, I think about you every time I pass a filling station… on account of all the grease you used to put in your hair”).

Simon and Garfunkel – ‘Seven O’Clock News / Silent Night’
Nestled at the very end of 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, this version of ‘Silent Night’ has a real sting in its tail. While the duo’s ever-perfect harmonies beautifully deliver the Christmas carol against a backdrop of poignant piano, it is juxtaposed by an overdubbed news bulletin of actual events on 3rd August 1966, including announcements of mounting tensions against civil rights marches, Lenny Bruce’s suicide, serial murders and violent responses to Vietnam protests. The song is eerie and encapsulates in just under two minutes the growing fears and anxieties of a once-hopeful generation as an increasingly bleak seventies loomed.

Run-D.M.C. – ‘Christmas in Hollis’
So maybe Run-D.M.C.’s PG rated rapping seems a bit outdated since hip-hop and gangster rap changed the game, but there’s no denying that this half-comic Christmas song has charm. It mixes truthful family traditions with pastiches of Christmas carols and a chance meeting with Santa and his “ill reindeer”…

Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
Poignant and sad despite the jingle bells coda that open and close it, after all of these years ‘River’ still remains one of the most undisputedly beautiful songs ever written. It is definitely a song for those having a blue Christmas, but between the self-admonishments and homesickness there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the river that will take away Joni’s worries. It is a small and possibly false hope, but it is there.

Mogwai – ‘Christmas Song’
Away from their tinnitus-inducing riffing, Mogwai are also capable of quiet and incredibly tender moments. ‘Christmas Song’ perfectly captures that childhood moment of waking up early on Christmas morning, with cold light creeping its way through the window and the ripe silence before the household wakes up and feet shuffle (or scramble) their way downstairs.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – ‘Main Theme From Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’
The main theme from the Nagasi Oshima’s film about the relationships between four men in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War does not immediately conjure up the spirit of Christmas. Having said that, there is definitely something very meditative about Sakamoto’s piece, like the calm you get when watching snow fall in the depths of winter.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’
Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a cheesy song, but hey, it’s Christmas! Can’t have Christmas without a little bit of cheesiness and I do like a bit of Brooce. So hear’s a rollicking, full band version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’, complete with cheesy grins and ho-ho-ho’s. Merry Christmas all!

P.S. In the same Christmas spirit, here is a rundown of some of the worst Christmas album covers of all time. Read them through to the end, I promise, you will cry with laughter.

What are some of your favourite alternative Christmas songs? Let me know in the comments below.

[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

[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.

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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