Category: Music


There I Was, Changed

Here’s my latest DJ mixtape/podcast for you to download, share and enjoy – a little sunshine from the southern summer to light up your holy days (though not exactly Christmas-themed, unless Christmas is about peace, love, music and having fun).

I’m psyched about this one – it’s a mix of newer sounds on abstract, funky tangents beyond the usual house, with elements including indie, disco, electronica, pop and weirder stuff. Call it post-house, except it still has a raw classic-house feel, reminiscent of the adventurous days before modern subgenres and formats. It’s definitely a party-time sound, but also moody and dramatic. About the only way to categorize these tracks as a group is they’re hard to categorize, and they make me happy.

“You changed my way to something new…”

Track list:
1. Nico Purman – “Melina” [Crosstown Rebels]
2. Robag Wruhme – “Pnom Gobal” [Pampa]
3. WhoMadeWho – “Keep Me in My Plane” (DJ Koze Hudson River Dub) [Gomma]
4. Fresh Tee – “Nordic Waves” (Andreas Saag Remix) [EleFlight]
5. Mario & Vidis featuring Ernesto – “Changed” (André Lodemann Remix) [Future Classic]
6. Chris Malinchak – “Kuzari” [French Express]
7. Hot Chip – “How Do You Do?” (Todd Terje Remix) [Domino]
8. Chris Malinchak – “There I Was” [French Express]
9. Flight Facilities featuring Grosvenor – “With You“ (David August Remix) [Future Classic]
10. Joe – “MB” [Hemlock]
11. Blagger – “Strange Behaviour” (DJ Koze aka Swahaimi Remix) [Perspective]
12. Edward – “Naxa” [Merc]
13. Diles Mavis – “Be Somebody” [French Express]
14. Alex Gopher – “Super Disco” [Different]

“There’s not a problem…
’Cause I can do it in the mix…”

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Vivid

Last week I covered the Vivid Sydney festival for inthemix and its sister website, FasterLouder. Vivid is billed as a festival of “light, music and ideas.” It’s most obvious component is visual: a number of buildings in the waterfront area of the city around Circular Quay, including the Sydney Opera House, are lit up each night during the festival with often spectacular colored lights and projections. But it also features some truly adventurous live music programming over eight days, all of the gigs taking place in the various rooms of the Opera House. (This aspect of the event is known as Vivid LIVE.) I reviewed five shows in six nights. It was demanding but fun. I’ve gathered all five reviews here into one post.

Saturday 26 May: Efterklang with Sydney Symphony

Approaching the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Saturday night, I get my first look at the light show that will grace its iconic “sails” throughout Vivid – the illusory spectacle of a gigantic woman lying on the roof, restlessly rolling all over it and idly knocking about its famous tiles. It’s strangely alluring. The projection is more elaborate than I remember from previous editions – a fitting harbinger for the elaborate music I encounter inside.

The Danish band Efterklang are in town for a performance specially commissioned by Vivid LIVE. Acclaimed for their lush, complex “indie chamber pop,” the group were invited to world-premiere songs from their unreleased fourth album, Piramida, at the Opera Theatre with the Sydney Symphony.

The Piramida Concert, as it’s called, is an excellent way to kick off a week of Vivid gigs, which tend toward the arty, the adventurous and – inevitably, because it’s the Opera House – the orchestral. It’s easy to make fun of the overweening ambition that can lead a pop performer to take on a posse of string players, but it’s actually produced some of the most memorable live music of recent years, from Portishead to Björk to Sufjan Stevens (who performs here later this week).

As the theatre hushes and the half dozen guys in Efterklang take the stage with the 30-plus members of the Symphony, the swirling sound that begins to reverberate in the room (indeed, the band’s name means “reverberation”) is suitably impressive, ethereal and autumnal – somehow crisp and delicate at once. The band’s stuff is a bit like Sufjan crossed with Arcade Fire – playing the flighty experimentalism of the former off the earthiness of the latter, with the moodiness of both – but the orchestra takes the material and shapes it into something effortlessly large and profound and timeless. A chorus of three female singers adds a subtly angelic touch; the sound is enhanced by electronic keyboards and effects, a welcome contrast to the classical instruments that seems perfectly natural. (The further we go into the future, the more electronica devours every other kind of music, but that’s another story.) Geometric shapes projected behind them (the album’s title means “pyramid”) add to the atmosphere.

Competing with conductor Matthew Coorey for space on the crowded stage, dressed in a salmon-coloured dinner jacket and jeans, lanky lead singer Casper Clausen is an impossibly twee but surprisingly charismatic frontman. His mincing steps, comic gestures and infectious energy (comparisons to David Byrne are unavoidable) provide an effective balance with the earnestness of the intricate music. His voice is powerful for such a skinny frame, reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. He and bassist Rasmus Stolberg both sport bowties and possibly un-ironic moustaches, and occasionally sip something out of mysterious metal bottles that rest on the stage. “They’re so Danish,” my friend says. And proud: at one point Clausen reminds us that Jørn Utzon, legendary designer of the place, was Danish too. This fact is also highlighted in the press material, so it’s clearly an important touchstone for them, and a reminder that the Opera House is one of the world’s great buildings.

The performance sags around the middle, some of the songs becoming unsatisfyingly thin and middle-of-the-road. On the one hand ,the more successful numbers come across like orchestral or experimental constructions with pop elements woven in. These seem to be the ones arranged by collaborator Karsten Fundal, who is sitting in the audience (and eventually gets a bouquet of flowers chucked at him by the playful Clausen). The less successful ones reverse that formula, feeling like pop with an orchestra added, and get bogged down with overly cute choruses or melodies that don’t quite click.

I can’t help but be more interested in the Symphony. I’m not exactly qualified to critique them, but the overall effect of the sound is naturally hypnotic. The highlight of the concert is a two-part piece called “Vælv,” written by Fundal alone rather than the band. During the second part, the band leaves the stage entirely and the Symphony launches into a powerful extended movement that swoops and soars and flutters in layered lines of melody like something by beloved 20th- century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (An instinctive comparison, but it sort of makes sense, as Vaughan Williams innovated the practice of adapting folk tunes for large symphonies). The piece is ravishing, and earns the biggest applause of the night.

The closing number, “Monument,” is pretty good too, and features some terrific film projections – black-and-white footage of an expedition in some icy northern sea that suggests a narrative tying in with the music. It would have been nice to see more of this during the rest of the concert. As the performance winds down, the crowd is rapturous, demanding a couple of encores and eventually lavishing a standing ovation on the Danish dudes and the Symphony alike. The Piramida Concert did not hit every mark for me, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening, and it’s impossible not to admire it as a musical achievement. Good on Vivid for making it happen as an exclusive one-off right here in Sydney.

Sunday 27 May: Seekae

Day three of Vivid, and I’m again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building façades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.

There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The band have built up quite a following in the past couple of years among fans of thoughtful electronica; it’s their first hometown gig in a while, and it’s reputed they’ve put together an extra-special show to match the upmarket setting.

As Seekae are joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I recall the Efterklang/Sydney Symphony concert last night, and I marvel at all the energy and ambition put into all the Vivid gigs this week. I do wonder if I’ll be seeing Seekae in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking (if you will) elusive magic.

Not that Seekae play it safe anyway – the music is adventurous as word of mouth has advertised, offering a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop à la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together.

There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming. The string ensemble add an impressive dimension, but as I noted at the Efterklang concert, I am easy to please when it comes to orchestral manoeuvres. Despite the complex feel to the sound, there’s a buoyant sense of fun to the proceedings. I could do without the dubsteppy stuff, but hey.

One thing: the band are dressed as casually as if they were playing in a garage, with rumpled jeans and sneakers. Nothing wrong with that; you gotta admire their unpretentiousness, but come on – if you were booked to play at Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t you want to dress it up a little just for fun? Maybe put on a funky vest, a cowboy tie, some mascara – or all of the above?

The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twentysomethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However as the night goes on, it’s a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such). Rather than being dull or restrained, there’s something cozy about it. The music envelopes the room completely – the acoustics are perfect, of course, and aren’t too loud. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.

That clarity is both good and bad; it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.

The performance has its ups and downs too. The string players abruptly get up leave the stage about halfway through the show without taking a bow. It’s awkward, and disappointing at first, as it seems to derail the whole idea of the special theatrical gig. But in fact, having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them – and they come up with some of their best moments afterwards. The baby grand piano at stage left figures prominently in the quietly beautiful songs at the show’s heart.

Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals accompanied by haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Apparently vocals are new to the Seekae game, but I was impressed. As things wind down, the show picks up with fan favourites from acclaimed albums The Sound of Trees Falling on People and +Dome that are more funky and tuneful. The reception from the crowd is warm. The guys in the band have said that this is their biggest gig ever, and they deserve kudos for having the guts to try out some new sounds on such a stage.

What Seekae sometimes lack in melody, they eventually make up for with atmosphere; and their verve, confidence and willingness to take chances are all the more impressive given their unassuming demeanour. This show did not blow me away, but the key thing is they may have made a new fan. These are some extremely talented, genuine young dudes and they’re going places. During a week when we’ll be checking out plenty of world-class talent at the Opera House, Sydney should be glad to claim them as their own.

Tuesday 29 May: Imogen Heap

UK singer/songwriter and “digital diva” Imogen Heap was invited to perform an informal sunset recital for Vivid in the North Foyer of the Opera House. Heap is known for incorporating a spectrum of organic and digital sounds into her performances via a high-tech setup, including a pair of custom-made gloves wired to let her control the music with Wii-like gestures. But here she’s limited to a baby grand piano and it’s all about the songs – specifically six songs from her latest project, Heapsongs, which she created with input from fans around the world who sent her “song seeds” in the form of words, images and recorded sounds.

At first, the session is hit or miss. It’s too cold in the foyer. The bar right behind us is disappointingly closed, but for some reason the bartender stands there for the entire show anyway. And strangely, given Heap’s trademark technophilia, there are glitches in the matrix. She’s meant to perform the songs accompanied by their video clips on three monitors behind her; it’s as cumbersome as it sounds – she has to synch with a click track in her headset, and simply starts over when she messes up a couple of times. The video feed is straight from her laptop; between songs we see her fiddling with her software onscreen.

Heap talks a lot, explaining each song, and explaining it some more. It’s more like a TED talk than a show (no stretch as Heap is a TED veteran). Her piano interpretations of these intricate digital constructions have a bizarre once-removed feeling; she describes how she sampled a classroom full of kids; we see the kids in the video, but hear only her. As she admits, we’re experiencing the songs “as they were never meant to be heard.”

But I’m soon taken in. Heap’s spacey rambling, which reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s, is funny and charming, at times highly emotional. Her stories about her creative processes are pretty cool; she based one song on a fan’s recording of an unborn child’s heartbeat; another was a sonic collaboration with the citizens of Hangzhou, China.

In the end, the unplugged vibe actually works. Heap treats the piano like just another machine, and there’s something interesting about imagining about all of these sounds and contributors (Bollywood singers, birds, Slinkys) while Heap paints aural pictures to interpret them. The songs themselves are heartfelt, sometimes twee, filled with fantastic lyrical imagery that could be from Tolkien or Miyazaki. People transform into trees. Machines feel emotion. A crumbling wall speaks.

Heap’s boundless desire to share her music and herself with fans and ordinary people, coupled with her ingenious ways of going about it, are ultimately infectious. She concludes by inviting us to participate in her latest collaborative experiment. The Listening Chair, unveiled at the Opera House this week, is an egg-shaped retro-futuristic lounge chair outfitted with recording devices to gather information from whomever sits in it about what songs they think are missing from the world. It’s an idea as weird and wonderful as its creator.

Wednesday, 30 May: Karen O in Stop the Virgens

From the word-of-mouth buzz, Stop the Virgens was clearly one of the hot tickets of Vivid. The brainchild of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and K.K. Barrett, visionary production designer for films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, the show debuted in Brooklyn last fall before coming to Sydney Opera House. It’s billed as a “psycho opera” – a musical fantasia featuring outlandish costumes and sets, a hard-edged score and O’s famous banshee pipes. The band/orchestra includes fellow Yeahs Nick Zinner (one of the music directors) and Brian Chase, along with keyboard legend Money Mark.

Note: you can’t say “There’s not a bad seat in the house” about the Opera Theatre; the view from the balcony is awful. You have to lean over the rail to see anything at all. Before the show I look down: Virgens move about the house with trancelike motions, oblivious to the patrons as they take their seats. Onstage a Sentinel glares at folks the front row. Clearly there’s some scary interactive shit in store for us tonight.

The show kicks in with an ominous whoosh. Where to begin describing things? There’s a gaggle of Virgens and an entire chorus of Virgen Acolytes, with shimmering white toga-like costumes and platinum wigs. Sentinels in flowing purplish robes, resembling the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, flank the stage, which is transformed into a numinous fantasy realm with elemental motifs of trees, snow, water and blood. O is the witchlike Narrator. They interact with ritualistic flair. Symbolic violence is constantly threatened.

The costumes are what get the attention. Karen O has already joined the ranks of meta-fashion plates like Björk, M.I.A and a certain other annoying superstar who doesn’t need any free publicity from me; this show ups the ante. The costumes are crazy enough. O flaunts many variations on the fairy-tale diva/goddess/gangster moll and sings into a bejewelled animal’s horn. The show’s visual and thematic touchstones are Maurice Sendak (obviously), Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Rocky Horror, Wagner and I’m guessing various other actual operas, although I’m less educated on that score.

So what’s the story about? Beats me. The visual scheme and choreography suggest rites of passage, primal emotion and pain, universal forces like death and menstruation – but nothing adds up. Like a music video, it doesn’t really have to be about anything I guess. But it dances a bit too close to camp for my taste. There’s only so many ways a chorus of Virgen Acolytes can gesticulate wildly and writhe around onstage before it gets silly. At times the whole thing seems nothing more than an elaborate ode to the joys of fabric: the costumes, the curtains, the swathes and swatches and bundles of many-coloured fabric that are constantly wrapped around the characters and danced with and chucked all over the place.

On its own terms, Stop the Virgens delivers the goods. It’s dynamic, it’s fabulous, it’s a feast for the senses. If you’re into spectacle, noise and fabric, this is your thing. Did I mention the costumes?

But it’s lacking depth, to say the least. As theatre or opera it doesn’t work without narrative; the music kicks ass but keeps getting upstaged. The raucous curtain call at the end gets the crowd pumped, but spoils the otherworldy atmosphere and goes on for way too long. The one real, undeniable thing is Karen O’s explosive voice. The rest seems frivolous and disposable. How did the Yeahs get to the rock-opera stage already? In simpler times they unleashed a transcendent cyclone of sound with just two instruments and that voice. There’s more power and fantasy in that voice alone than in all the costume changes you can dream of.

Friday 1 June: Future Classic Studio Party with Isolée, Jacques Renault and Flume

When I get into the Studio for the Future Classic Studio Party, the place is packed and the dancefloor is lively. Sydney up-and-comer Flume is mid-set, rocking Biggie Smalls over an electro-breakbeat track mash-up style, and it’s a bit overmixed and noisy. More breaks follow, on a tangent somewhere between dubstep and G-funk. The crowd is pumped. The tracks are not bad, although some of them sound a bit like commercial R&B, but the kid doesn’t seem to want to mix tonight – relying instead on echoes and effects between tracks. And I could really do without him doing the hands-in-the-air thing like he was headlining a festival, and getting on the mic. Call me a purist.

While the Future Classic DJs mix things up between sets, I head out to grab a drink and check out the DJs in the lounge. They’re playing some choice classics of the ’80s garage and electro-disco variety. Wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more of that inside, honestly.But when I head back into the studio, Isolée (otherwise known as Rajko Müller) is on and things have turned around. The agenda is deep as expected. He’s playing his own material, which he has years’ worth to draw on, and it’s scintillating stuff. The nice thing is the crowd is really into it – people say minimal or deep stuff is over, but get someone who knows how to rock it and see how it moves people. The interesting thing is, here on the dancefloor this stuff doesn’t actually sound very “minimal” or “micro” at all. It’s chock-a-block with gorgeous strings, playful synths and keys, tribal drums and haunting soulful vocals. It just sounds like really beautiful and well-done house with a tech edge. And thankfully he’s one of those producers who knows how to play a live set like a proper DJ – the set is smooth as butter, with terrific buildups and breakdowns that stretch out the vibe expertly.

Jacques Renault comes billed as Mr. Disco, but during the 90 minutes or so I catch of his set it’s not really disco, garage nor even old-school house he’s rocking. Instead it’s an interesting simulacrum of the bright, bold big-club house of the ’90s, the stuff we heard at Twilo or the Tunnel in a bygone era. We’re talking hard-hitting drum sounds with huge kicks and dry, untreated high-hats; power keyboard riffs and strings; predictable but totally effective buildups and breakdowns that ooze drama; sexy diva vocal samples. These days it’s hard to tell if DJs are playing this kind of stuff ironically – you know, with air quotes – or if they mean it. The reason it’s OK either way is because it’s exactly a million times more real and soulful than the horrible progressive stuff that a majority of jocks hammer; and when a party is packed at peak time, sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed. It’s a proven formula and a hell of a lot of fun.

The downside? Same as back then: the predictability, the dry sounds – after a couple of hours, it starts to sound too much like commercial club music; and makes you pine for the sinister magic of old-school and deep house. Which is why the “minimal” sound of Isolée and his ilk was so revolutionary when it first hit in the late ’90s. (Actually, now that I think about it, the dynamic between the two schools just shows the typically clever and thoughtful programming of the Future Classic guys).

But give Renault credit: he’s a really good mixer – not only smooth on the fader but making good narrative choices, alternating the diva-y stuff with (good) progressive or tech (even working in some breakbeats). He builds the vibe section by section, knowing exactly when to tease the crowd with a bit of EQ action and when to just let ’er rip. And I’m sure this was just a taste of his repertoire – would love to catch him on the next go round and hear him dig in the crates.

We Ain’t Dead Yet

Just had my review of Planet E’s fantastic 20th-anniversary compilation published on inthemix:

20 F@#%ing Years of Planet E

I love the sleeve design:

A number of tunes on the album have Youtube or Soundcloud links embedded in the review. But since I also mention several Carl Craig and Planet E classics that didn’t make the album, but were a huge influence on me back in the day, I thought I’d link them here. I’ve also thrown in a few more favorites for good measure.

Even a short playlist of old Planet E tunes (or new ones for that matter) quickly becomes a pretty formidable collection – the range and quality of this music never ceases to amaze me. I don’t get tired of it – there’s nothing quaint or kitschy about it. In that sense it has much in common with the timelessness of classic garage and house. In general this compilation really brings out how huge C2 and Planet E have been in my life.

69 – “My Machines”

Quadrant – “Hyperprism”

Paperclip People – “Throw”

Paperclip People – “Throw” (Basic Reshape)

Paperclip People – “The Climax”

Maurizio – “Domina” (C Craig’s Mind Mix)

Moodymann “I Can’t Kick This Feelin’ When It Hits”

Innerzone Orchestra – “Bug in the Bassbin” (Street Mix)

Recloose – “Can’t Take It” (Carl Craig Mix)

The Future of Music

All right, let’s get one thing straight. Below you will find a short video clip of an interview with Jim Morrison, which I’ve embedded into this blog post. Though I encourage you to click on this video and watch it, and find what he’s saying interesting, admirable and thought-provoking, as I do, this is in no way an indication that I’m a fan of the man. That I endorse the cult of personality built up around him in the forty years since his death, which I found ridiculous even as an impressionable teenager and budding music head. (In fact, I was the one who was taking the Doors out of the tape machine at the dorm party so I could rock Public Enemy, much to the consternation of the frat guys who were getting comfortably numb. Yeah, that was me. Sorry.)

I respect the Doors’ contribution to rock history. I’m still amazed by “Break on Through” and “The End” (even if I sometimes suspect Francis Ford Coppola has a great deal to do with the impact on me of the latter). I can see why their leader’s persona was so astonishing and captivating when he first arrived on the scene – coming out of the mid-20th century, when people generally kept their shirts on while singing in public, his shamanistic performance art and primal outbursts must have been like a hot knife through butter. It probably had to happen.

But I think a lot of their music was kind of lame – almost like lounge music. (I mean, really – “Touch Me”?) And Morrison’s lyrics are OK, but not really poetry (as his fans always maintain), and his poetry was pretty bad. And then he OD’d in a bathtub.

So I won’t be mewling about his grave in Paris anytime soon. But now that we’ve got that established, take a look at this video:

Quite apart from the fact that he’s exactly, eerily right about the way music would evolve a few years after his death, what I really like is that in 110 seconds he basically covers every kind of music that’s ever mattered to me, from American roots music to rock and electronic and hip hop, and ties it all together. I mean, how often do you hear someone talking about country and electronic music in the same breath? Yet that summarizes my entire music experience; it’s something I think about and puzzle over ever day, but have hardly ever found someone I can share it with. Always wondering how to explain why I hear similar things going on in the sounds of Gillian Welch and Boards of Canada, not to mention all the other kinds of music I’m passionate about from Handel to Chicago house. And yet, here it is, as plain and simple as you like, from the mouth of Jim Morrison – before it ever happened. Talk about breaking on through.

So yeah, just this once, in the words of my friend DJ I-Cue who first posted this video: “Jimmy knew the deal.”

He’s a Superstar

I got to see Roy Ayers in concert here in Sydney last week. My review was just published on inthemix:

Roy Ayers @ The Basement, Sydney, 20/2/11

I had issues with the show, as you’ll see from the review, but still it was a treat. Since then, I’ve naturally been revisiting Roy’s old tunes.

Here’s a classic, one of those primal creations that sounds as fresh now as it must have back in the day, thanks to its bulletproof groove and off-kilter, melancholy orchestration:

I love these kinds of Youtube videos, where you just watch the record spinning on the turntable. Having spent a lot of my life staring at records while they play, I’m right there with the fans who upload this stuff.

“We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” is from one of my favorite albums: Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s He’s Coming, released in 1971. I first got it when I was living in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. I was broke, and trying to make it, baby – and I can’t explain how much its lyrics and atmosphere meant to me. The sound of it takes me right back to the smell of the brownstone I lived in, the sound of the kids playing and the roosters crowing in the back.

I love the non-sequitur quality of these lines:

Days have passed
And all the queen bee’s drones are dying

I don’t think Roy anticipated colony collapse disorder. I’m not sure what it means, it’s just a funky lyric. I was disappointed when he left that line out of the song last week – as if it would have been too weird for the occasion.

Here’s another one from the same album. Righteous lyrics, an arrangement that just keeps building, an incredible bassline. Try to listen to “Ain’t Got Time” without feeling something:

“What war?”

By the way, the “he” in the album’s title refers to that he. You know, the one who makes the whole thing happen. Same goes with “He’s a Superstar”:

I was listening to this the other day, and got to wondering, what happened to this kind of music, this kind of message? I take it for granted that gospel is a part of soul, but now if someone released a song like this, it’d be a big deal. But back then you got direct affirmations of faith in the music of Stevie Wonder, the O’Jays, Curtis Mayfield, all the heavy hitters. That is some of the best music ever recorded, documenting a profoundly urgent epoch in American history, revolutionizing black culture and inspiring people everywhere – and it was powered by faith. So what the hell happened?

Oh, well. It’s a question for another day. By the way, on the same album, Ayers/Ubiquity do an instrumental version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar, which was still new at that time. Maybe that’s where Ayers got the concept for “He’s a Superstar.” In general I don’t have much to say about the phenomenon of that musical, as I’m not too familiar with it. (I don’t really do showtunes. Sorry.)

Moving on to another era, can’t forget about this one, probably my favorite of all:

There’s no other record like it. How can I wax poetic about that percussion, that bassline, the tension between the sweetness of the track and the weird drama of the layered vocals? Just listen – and try to keep from knocking over stuff in your living room while dancing.

Like much of  Roy Ayers’ music, “Running Away” was ahead of its time, or out of time – I’d say 1977 seems unbelievable, but I think it would seem unbelievable no matter what year it came out. Not only does it foreshadow house, but it kind of is house in a way, just as “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” is part and parcel of hip hop. It’s fitting, because Roy went on to record house in the 90s.

Speaking of that, here’s the original version of “Sweet Tears,” which later became a hit when Roy collaborated with Masters at Work/NuYorican Soul on a reworked house version:

Just to be pedantic, the remake:

It’s pretty cheesy – it threatens to collapse into disco house, which was never my thing, and it can’t even come close to matching the smoking-hot vibe of “Running Away” – but I like it anyway.

And just to end things on a completely different note, here’s Roy in electro/R&B/smooth operator/comedian mode in 1984:

Trust me, I wouldn’t post a tune with the phrase “poo poo” in the title if it wasn’t worth your time.

The Sound

I’ve got to hand it to Detroit techno legend Kevin Saunderson for his response this week to the piratical Italian “producers” who jacked his 1987 classic “The Sound.” Here’s the story on inthemix, the Australian dance music website that I write for:

Kevin Saunderson rages against rip-offs

These Italian hacks, who roll under the name Supernova, sampled and looped the hook from Reese & Santonio’s “The Sound” (produced by Saunderson and released on his label, KMS Records) without permission, and without adding much of value of their own, and are passing it off as a piss-poor original tune called “Beat Me Back.” Saunderson’s vengeful response was to take Supernova’s tune and guerilla-upload it to SoundCloud, offering it for free in order to circumvent its sales. (He’s also offering “The Sound” for free, I imagine to increase its distribution and visibility in hopes of educating younger generations.)

Here’s the classic Derrick May mix of “The Sound”:

Here’s the Supernova hack job. (I apologize that you have to look at the cheesy photoshopped picture of President Obama and Colin Powell, apparently the work of “DJ Beatmaster B,” who uploaded this track. But anway, it kind of says it all about the culture of bad club music.)

Here’s the letter Saunderson posted on his site explaining his actions. I love the way he attacks the pirates while yet defending the practice of sampling:

Dear friends, fans and members of the music industry,

Today I’m giving away as a free download one of the productions I am most proud of: “The Sound” by Reese & Santonio. I recorded “The Sound” back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New York’s Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems all around Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.

The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of “The Sound” by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release “Beat Me Back” on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from “The Sound.”

For me to hear “Supernova” taking an extended loop of “The Sound” and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps naïve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable; we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale ripoff go unchallenged and tolerate “artists” who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.

I have a huge affection for sampling – it’s how some of the most inspiring and groundbreaking tracks of our times were created. We’ve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone else’s music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it, and try to have success entirely off the back of another artist’s efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of “The Sound” to SoundCloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… This is not their track to sell.

Is it really such a crime that they ripped off Saunderson’s record? Am I not usually philosophical about sampling, even when it’s unauthorized? True, the history of dance music is filled with unauthorized samples and steals and ripoffs, and some great sounds have resulted. Think about all the great hip-hop breaks from the old days, when samples weren’t necessarily licensed. Take the entire history of reggae – there have been so many brilliant reggae “versions” (“borrowed” instrumentals with new vocal tracks) because there are no copyright laws in Jamaica.

But that argument breaks down when you consider that the spirit of hip hop and reggae is innovation – adding your own twist to a classic record or break and passing it on. Being part of a culture that’s shared outside the bounds of music “ownership.” So even though I have issues with the idea of “copyright,” and even though I’m a fan of a lot of pirated music, I’m on Saunderson’s side here. What sucks about the Supernova track isn’t so much that it uses a sample, it’s that it does it in such a lazy and boring way. Sampling (even without permission) is much more justifiable if you’re going to do something new, add to the culture. If I had a nice recording studio and an Italian record contract, I’d sure as hell do something more creative with it. This is just nightmarishly bad club music that has no sense of history, no regard for the culture. And at the end of the day, crap music or not, why didn’t they just get permission?

So these clowns deserve everything they get. And I just love Saunderson’s in-your-face protest. My first thought when I saw this story was, Middle Eastern dictators, Tea Party governors – and now, Eurotrash dance producers.

Check out Kevin Saunderson’s website, where you can find the download of “The Sound” (as well as the link to the guerilla SoundCloud track of “Beat Me Back,” if you happen to be interested).

As a parting shot, and hopefully to erase the Supernova track and the photoshopped Obama from your mind, here’s another supreme classic produced by Saunderson – Inner City’s “Do You Love What You Feel”:

 

I Dream a Highway

Watch this fan video of Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway,” the rambling, apocalyptic conclusion to her masterpiece of postmodern country and folk, Time (The Revelator):

This is what a fan video should be. Simple but powerful concept, well-executed. No still photos of Gillian, no random footage of somebody’s high school reunion, none of the typical stuff that makes other fan vids so cringeworthy. The highway footage is endlessly watchable – as hypnotic as the song is. I imagine it would be even better projected on a large screen in a dark room. It’s just an unexpectedly brilliant piece of minimalism. About the only bad thing I can say is that edit of the 14-minute song is slightly awkward. (And now that the time limit on Youtube videos has been increased to 15 minutes, it’s also unnecessary.)

Here’s another outstanding fan video of another haunting tune by another alt-country queen, Emmylou Harris (who, by the way, is mentioned by way of tribute in the lyrics to Welch’s tune). I found these two videos on the same day and they make great companion pieces. This is the title track of Emmylou’s 1995 album Wrecking Ball, a Neil Young cover with hazy, shimmering production by Daniel Lanois.

The footage was shot in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Again, the element of restraint is very important – no voiceovers or clips from news footage, no explanations, nothing to break up the spare, elegant construction of the film. And the complete lack of human subjects lends an awful, apocalyptic undertone to the scenes of this calamity. That Young’s lyrics are vaguely (if darkly) romantic, and quite abstract in any case is actually perfect. If there was a more literal interface between word and image – say if it was a blues song about a flood – it wouldn’t work quite as well; it wouldn’t have the same aching atmosphere.

We’ve got nowhere to hide
We’ve got nowhere to go
But if you still decide you want to take a ride
Meet me at the Wrecking Ball

But wait. The really cool thing about this video is the “fan” in question is Cinqué Lee, Spike’s brother! No wonder it’s so spot-on! I looked, and could not find any link or any other reference to this project online. I’m pretty sure he just made a great short film and decided to set Emmylou’s music to it and put it up on Youtube. Even better, his user name is Jedi26. I love the internet!

Casio Daisy

Gold Panda
Lucky Shiner
Ghostly International

Electronic music has often been a domestic phenomenon, at its best produced on secondhand equipment in ambitious kids’ bedrooms. But as it’s evolved over the past 20 years or so, it’s become domestic in another sense: no longer limited to imagining future worlds or utopian dancefloors, but increasingly reflecting personal lives and intimate settings. The laptop-driven noise symphonies of Fennesz, the refracted/desaturated beats of Boards of Canada, Four Tet’s folktronic psych, Herbert’s found-sound groove – this is the work of musicians who seek inspiration in their kitchens, their friends and families, their summer vacations in the country. It’s the real indie: made by and for people at home. The accessory and the lifestyle have become one and the same.

This homey vibe is epitomized by the suddenly-hot Gold Panda. Read any article about him and you’ll get the same idea: he’s a normal guy named Derwin from London. His checkered employment history (nonchalantly working in a sex shop because he was desperate, getting fired from HMV) is often used as a lead. In interviews like this one, he’s almost too humble, going on about how he’s thankful to have some success with his “hobby.” His sampladelic new album Lucky Shiner was recorded in rural Essex, in a cottage owned by his elderly aunt and uncle. It’s all as if to say that we shouldn’t feel threatened by him – he’s not a rock star, he’s one of us – and a nice guy, too. Yet there must be something special about him because Lucky Shiner is one of the most damned listenable albums to come to light recently.

Many of the (overwhelmingly positive) write-ups on Lucky Shiner are charmingly clueless about electronic production, often breathlessly highlighting the process of sampling itself – as if it’s something new, as if Gold Panda is the first one to sample his auntie talking or some exotic stringed instrument over a funky beat. The technique is fine, but that’s not what makes Lucky Shiner so good: it’s Panda’s aptitude for inhaling a wide range of sounds into his music, moving confidently through different styles and tempos, nimbly chopping up influences, reconstituting them into something organic and refreshing.

“Snow and Taxis” is an uptempo track that moves with the lithe grace and melodic repetition of The Field’s post-minimal techno. “Vanilla Minus” starts as a Daft Punk-style loopy house track before expanding into something as achingly atmospheric as Orbital in their heyday. With its cascading vibraphone sounds and choppy drum patterns, “Same Dream China” doesn’t bother hiding its debt to Four Tet.

Gold Panda isn’t quite as accomplished as most of these influences. But that’s all right; it’s a sound that’s thrillingly in-process. This is what the electronic music revolution is all about: discovering genius and beauty as an experiment, a pastime, a daily habit. There are awkward moments, rough patches, but the music is very light on its feet – quirky, adventurous, ultimately uplifting. His enthusiasm and overriding love of music – the joy of discovery as he puts the sounds together – are palpable, the strongest qualities on Lucky Shiner. There’s some of the cheeky experimentalism of Four Tet or Squarepusher, but the compositions never stray so far into glitchy beat-bop and noise that they neglect music: most of the tracks have melodic basslines and lovely tinkling keyboards, and there’s a fine atmospheric swoosh reminiscent of Kompakt’s Pop Ambient sound.

Even better, Panda’s got a great instinct for dynamics: his tracks often rely on one element – one sampled vocal or one breakdown – that doesn’t repeat, or doesn’t repeat the same way. This tantalizes the listener with possibilities, creates fascination, makes you want to hear it again, makes the music more lifelike. It’s an underrated skill perfected by many of the greats including Hank Shocklee, Derrick May and 808 State, but it’s funny how many modern producers – with their perfectly layered, perfectly repeating tracks – seem to have no idea of its importance.

And, yes, the pastoral, folktronic, groove is in effect here, with many acoustic instruments incorporated into the mix. “Parents,” the album’s third track, is simply a sweet-sounding folky guitar interlude that would fit on any indie-rock album. It sets an appealing tone and ices the whole package as a fantastic home listen. Or maybe something to rock on your headphones on a walk in the woods; like such an excursion, this is music that’s relaxing and bracing at the same time. And it’s probably what its creator had in mind while working in that country cottage. We should all thank Derwin’s aunt and uncle for their contribution to our personal soundtrack.

Mirror Face Is the Place

The other day my old friend DJ FTL, a tireless champion of conscious hip hop, posted this video by Madvillain on his Facebook page:

As you can see it’s a tribute to the legendary cosmic jazz progenitor Sun Ra. The footage is from the 1974 film Space Is the Place, which was written by and stars Sun Ra and features his music. Here’s the original footage:

Sun Ra is well known for combining pan-African consciousness with some wild intergalactic personal mythology. Throughout his life he claimed in all seriousness to be from the planet Saturn, saying he realized his unearthly origins during an out-of-body experience. Just so you know he may have not regarded this film as science fiction.

Whether he was a visionary or a little crazy is up for discussion. The important thing is he paved the way for Afrofuturism, and made the world safer for freaks of all kinds, from Jimi Hendrix to De La Soul to Underground Resistance. And in any case, he was a musical genius and innovator when he was back on Earth composing and leading his famous Arkestra. Check this out:

But the real reason I bring it up is that while watching the footage from Space Is the Place, I couldn’t help but notice that the hooded figure with the mirror for a face seems to be the very same creature seen in Janelle Monáe’s brilliant video for “Tightrope”:

(I’m really sorry for the stupid ad that precedes the clip; there doesn’t seem to be a way around that. And it drives me nuts that the blasted record label has disabled embedding; I’ll work on finding a bootleg video, but for now at least it only opens a new window instead of taking you to another page.)

Pretty cool! I knew Janelle was on some future-freak stuff, and of course the music-video industry perpetually absorbs avant-garde influences. Still, it’s amazing to discover a direct visual reference to Sun Ra of all people in a hugely popular commercial video. And, speaking of strange beings with artificial faces, it figures it had to be Madvillain that brought it to light for me. (Is there anything that motley crew can’t do?) I haven’t yet heard Monáe’s debut album, The ArchAndroid (a high-concept set of “suites” about time travel and liberation inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but this makes me want to go out and get it.

I quickly googled “Janelle Monáe Sun Ra,” but could not find any direct explanation of the connection between the mirror-face creatures in the 1974 film and the 2010 video. Nor could I find any good images of the creatures themselves. I did see some more general musing about how Janelle fits into the cosmic pantheon, including this densely academic article that has a lot to say about the relationship between pop music and Afrofuturism – a lot of it very interesting, but read it at your own risk. (I actually love to see stuff like this. I often worry that I’m too wordy; this guy makes me feel like I’m doing all right.)

FTL is based in Brooklyn. Check out his blog page, Faster Than Light Music, featuring lots of downloadable hip-hop mixes.

Spaceship out the House at Night

Sufjan Stevens’ concert at the Sydney Opera House last month was a dream fulfilled, a celebration, a journey into space and sound and color, an ecstatic revenge of the nerds, with go-go girls and balloons.

I’d been waiting years for this (as I mentioned in this ode to Sufjan written the day of the gig), but my timing was just right. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, thanks to the synergy: a musician at the peak of his powers, perfect sound, a warm and adoring crowd inside an iconic edifice.

On his new album, The Age of Adz, Sufjan blasts into uncharted nebulae of orchestral weirdness, electronic beats, visionary raving about pain and too much love and murdering ghosts, supernovas of obsession and heady sonic invention. He sings about Mount Vesuvius, mixes up the pronunciation with his own name. It’s about creative energy spilling out, the fire of emotion, the destruction of self, the end of the world. Maybe not in that order.

Eno, Bowie, Zappa, Björk, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Danielson, Flaming Lips? Animal Collective? TV on the Radio? Uh, Beatles? There are touchstones, but it’s hard to keep track; Sufjan has a way of incinerating his influences and scattering the ashes. The album’s raising eyebrows, making new fans. He sold out the Concert Hall at the Opera House, twice. Then sold out the State Theatre. It’s a beautiful thing when an artist decides to get really weird, only to see their popularity go on rising.

As 2671 (or so) delighted people greet Sufjan when he takes the stage, no doubt the question on their minds is, how is this weirdness going to come across live? The answer is meticulously plotted and arranged: 10 musicians are scattered all over the huge stage. Two drummers, brass, backup singers, more keyboards than I can count. But the operatic acoustics combined with Sufjan’s perfectionism as a bandleader make for awesome sound: each instrument balanced in the mix, the arrangements complex but warm and visceral, vibrant, colorful.

Color is a big part of Sufjan’s new vision. He and the band and their instruments are plastered with day-glo accessories and florescent electrical tape in wild future-tribal patterns and shapes, glowing matrices, like a Tron Mardi Gras. The light show and video projections are all color and geometry and science fiction, including the work of the paranoid visionary artist Royal Robertson, a major influence on the new album.

So the band is gathered, the fuel loaded, the colors primed, and we’re ready for a ride into the dark electric heart of the new material. So it’s a surprise when they start playing the melancholy opening to the title track of 2004’s Seven Swans, a mostly acoustic meditation on mystic-Christian themes. But as the song gradually builds in intensity, we’re reminded that its lyrical allusions to the Biblical Apocalypse, its slow-burning orchestral climax and its swooning haunted chorus make it an early harbinger of The Age of Adz. It’s actually a perfect preface.

Pulling us in with a classic, Sufjan then launches into the single “Too Much,” one of the brightest and biggest of the new songs, the meta-pop video projected huge over the stage, and we’re off. The rest of the show will be almost entirely new material, and powerfully effective it is. The baroque/folktronic sound is wholly integral, somehow avant-garde and arena-ready at the same time – it feels like a new paradigm. The intricate arrangements, the buildups and breakdowns, the many changes of the sprawling songs are played with grace and aplomb by the garishly-outfitted band. The new album, which I had considered kind of difficult, starts to come to life for me.

As each song ends, the applause becomes louder, the whoops and whistles from the crowd more shrill and enthusiastic. This is a great cross-section of unpretentious Aussie fans – some of them in their class-A hipster uniforms for the Opera House, some not dressed up at all, swilling champagne in their trainers – and they’re right there with it, loving it. There’s something about Sufjan that all kinds of people connect with. It’s pretty gratifying to see someone so nerdy and utterly himself win affection from the punters.

When he talks between songs, he has a good deal of (nerdy) charisma, but also an utter sincerity. And a rambling pressured way of talking, like he’s thinking too fast, imagining things, trying to find ways to share what he sees with the rest of us. He tells us how amazing it is to be playing in this, this spaceship – over and over he calls the Opera House a spaceship – and says he’s so happy to be in Australia, such a warm place, he can feel the warmth in this room, the warmth of beating hearts, the warmth of love.

Something about his presence feels like a challenge. Am I living up to my potential, being creative enough? Speaking freely enough? Striving hard enough to share it with love? I’m filled with an acute urge to go out and create and live every moment of my life.

I’ve been a fan of Sufjan’s for years but didn’t notice until this night how good a singer he is. His voice is reedy, and twee, yet surprisingly strong, and he has a lot of control over it. The concentration, the obsession he shows when performing is captivating, and the emotion and poetry within shine. He sings,

When I die, I’ll rot
But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got
Gloria, gloria, it rots
Victoria, victoria, it lives in all of us

and the place is absolutely hushed, his choral falsetto swirling around the spaceship cathedral’s rafters. How can music be so melancholy and euphoric at once? Sufjan tells us the tune is about the end of the world. But don’t worry – it’s going to be OK, it’s all going to be OK, we’re not going anywhere. He says it with conviction.

The set list flows, epic overload freakout followed by quieter stuff in the aftermath, just his voice and one or two other instruments. “Futile Devices,” a brief acoustic number on the new album that harks back to Sufjan’s earlier work, becomes a highlight. Chiming, ringing, plucked strings, simple piano playing, Sufjan tenderly confessing to a friend that he loves her (or him?) but can’t say it out loud. With the Concert Hall hanging on every word and note, Sufjan is quietly, slyly approached from behind by a bearded, face-painted space traveller in mirror shades – a keyboardist – holding a little Casio up to the mic, finishing off the little tune with a low-fi electro-jazz improv. It’s so melodic, such a perfect interface between folky and futuristic, heartbreaking and hilarious. The crowd erupts into boisterous appreciation. Tears form in my eyes.

Shortly after this it goes completely electro, big-beat, kicking out the jams, the backup singers become plastic-and-silver-nylon-clad go-go girls, as Sufjan sings, I must do myself a favor, I must get real, get right with the Lord. He gets us up to dance and clap and sing along, and the Sydney Opera House has become a cross between a hootenany, a church revival and a rave. It earns him his first standing ovation of the night. Sufjan – applauding the crowd right back like a high-school music teacher – can do no wrong. He announces he will now play a 25-minute tune, and everyone smiles and claps some more as if he’s promised free champagne. “Impossible Soul” takes the show into hyperspace, and all over the place, with Reichian experimentalism, Flaming Lips-esque prog-power-pop, Autotune R&B stylings, the stage transformed with screens and partitions and light, costume changes and – finally – a folky conclusion. No one gets bored. Boy, we can do much more together – it’s not so impossible.

Another standing ovation. The call for more is long, loud, amazed, heartfelt. When the band comes back out, it’s time to come back to Earth and simply celebrate, and sure enough they’re playing “Chicago,” and balloons – balloons! – thousands of balloons are pouring from the rafters, bouncing all over the hall, volleying back into the air, getting knocked around by the crowd, the climactic power of the anthem subverted, replaced by the childlike glee taking over the place. Sufjan singing, I made a lot of mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes, like we have a right to be this happy all the time.