Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Music snob?

I like to think that I know a bit about music. That I may have some obscure bootlegs and rarities in my collection. I listen to vinyl and can think of few better ways than to spend an afternoon knee deep in dusty record sleeves in my local used record store. It is to like-minded individuals that Michael Crowly of the Times wrote this piece.

iPod came and broke your heart

Michael Crowley

Rock snobs’ days are numbered when their collections can be downloaded in minutes
“SINCE THE DAWN of rock, there have been individuals, usually young men, of argumentative tendencies who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others.” So states the introduction of the Rock Snob’s Dictionary, compiled by David Kamp and Steven Daly. I like to believe I’m not the insufferable dweeb suggested by this definition. But I do place an unusual, perhaps irrational, value on rock music. I take considerable pride in my huge collection and carefully refined taste. And I consider bad rock taste — or, worse, no rock taste at all — clear evidence of a fallow soul. I am, in other words, a certified rock snob. But I fear that rock snobs are in grave danger. We are being ruined by the iPod.

While the term “rock snob” has a pejorative ring, the label also implies real social advantages. The rock snob presides as a musical wise man to whom friends turn for opinions and recommendations; he can judiciously distribute access to various rare and exotic prizes in his collection. “Oh my God, where did you find this?” are a rock snob’s favourite words to hear. His highest calling is the creation of lovingly compiled mix CDs designed to dazzle their recipients with a blend of erudition, obscurity and pure melodic dolomite. Recently, I unearthed a little-known cover of the gentle Gram Parsons country classic Hickory Wind, bellowed out by Bob Mould and Vic Chestnutt, which moved friends to tears. It was rock snob bliss.

In some ways, then, the iPod revolution is a rock snob’s dream. Now, nearly all rock music is almost instantly attainable, either via our friends’ computers or through online file-sharing networks. Music swapping on a mass scale allows my music collection to grow larger and faster than I’d ever imagined. And I can now summon any rare track from the online ether.

But there’s a dark side to the iPod era. Snobbery subsists on exclusivity. And the ownership of a huge and eclectic music collection has become ordinary. Thanks to the iPod, and digital music generally, anyone can quickly build a glorious 10,000-song collection. Adding insult to injury, this process often comes directly at the rock snob’s expense. We are suddenly plagued by musical parasites. For instance, a friend of middling taste recently leeched 700 songs from my computer. He offered his own library in return, but it wasn’t much. In rock snob terms, I was a Boston Brahmin and he was a Beverly Hillbilly — one who certainly hadn’t earned that highly obscure album of AC/DC songs performed as tender acoustic ballads but was sure to go bragging to all his friends about it. Even worse was the girlfriend to whom I gave an iPod. She promptly plugged it into my computer and was soon holding in her hand a duplicate version of my 5,000-song library — a library that had taken some 20 years, thousands of dollars and about as many hours to accumulate. She’d downloaded it all within five minutes. And, a few months later, she was gone, taking my intimate musical DNA with her.

I’m not alone in these frustrations. “Even for a recovering rock snob, such as myself,” Daly told me, “it’s a little disturbing to hear a civilian music fan boast that he has the complete set of Trojan reggae box-sets on his iPod sitting alongside 9,000 other tracks that he probably neither needs nor deserves.”

But resistance is futile. Even the rock snob’s habitat, the record shop, is under siege. Say farewell to places like Championship Vinyl, the archetypal record store featured in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. “The shop smells of stale smoke, damp and plastic dust-covers, and it’s narrow and dingy and overcrowded, partly because that’s what I wanted — this is what record shops should look like,” explains Hornby’s proprietor, Rob.

Like great used bookstores, the Championship Vinyls of the world are destinations where the browsing and people-watching is half the fun. Equally gratifying is the hunt for elusive albums in a store’s musty bins, a quest that demands time, persistence and cunning, and whose serendipitous payoffs are nearly as rewarding as the music itself. Speaking of book-collecting, the philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of “the thrill of acquisition”. But, when everything’s instantly available online, the thrill is gone.

Benjamin also savoured the physical element of building a collection — gazing at his trophies, reminiscing about where he acquired them, unfurling memories from his ownership. “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed,” he said. But there’s nothing magic about a formless digital file. I even find myself nostalgic for the tape-trading culture of Grateful Dead fans who used to drive for hours in their VW vans to swap bootleg concert tapes. My older brother still has a set of bootleg tapes he copied from a friend some 20 years ago during a California bike trip. Having survived travels from Thailand to Mexico, the tapes have acquired an almost totemic quality in his mind. I feel the same way about certain old CDs, whose cases have become pleasantly scuffed and weathered during travels through multiple dorm rooms and city apartments but still smile out at me from their shelves like old friends.

Soon our collections will be all ones and zeroes stored deep in hard drives, instantly transferable and completely unsatisfying as possessions. And we rock snobs will have become as obsolete as CDs themselves.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Glen Hansard live in Lisburn

ARTIST: Glen Hansard
VENUE: Lisburn Island Arts Centre
DATE: 17 August 2005

I think what keeps people going to live shows is the
idea that it can break down barriers and provide a
transcendental experience. That’s a bold claim but
there are moments, often too few, where the music
unites singer and audience, where the crowd is not a
collection of individuals, but one. Where people leave
behind their differences and focus on the same thing.

“This moment right now, this is my favourite part of a
gig,” said Glen Hansard lead singer of The Frames at
the Lisburn Arts Centre last night, “where I’m not
playing anything but we’re all involved”. He stood
alone on the stage with his hands in the air as the
audience sang a simple melody. The guitar dangled
loose and silent, and for a moment everyone was

The Frames have often been described as the best live
band in Ireland, including U2. What they lack in 100ft
video screens and light shows they make up for in
camaraderie. They know their audience intimately, and
every time Frames gig feels like you’re at home with
your friends again. Even more so when Glen plays alone
to a small, packed, seated auditorium. He bantered
with the crowd, changed his set list to their whims,
told stories from his childhood and exchanged tips on
the best way to speak in a Northern accent.

Earlier in the day he had recorded an interview about
Van-the-man Morrison. “He’s the greatest man from your
part of the world!” Glen exclaimed before performing
another Van cover. He was on top form, his vocal range
stretching far and wide, singing with passion until
occasionally having a fit of the giggles. “I can’t
believe I just wrecked a perfectly intimate song” he
confessed after an impromptu end to what was meant to
be the very last tune of the night, but agreed with
the audience that he would have to do just one more.
Even that wasn’t the last, to a standing ovation he
brought his Czech friend on to sing Lenoard Cohen’s
Hallelujah completely unplugged on bended knee, very
much as Damien Rice ended many of his shows.

The comparisons between Glen and Damien grow
increasingly. The Dublin songwriters have toured
extensively together, use the same live tricks with
female backing singers, and now have co-written a
number of songs for a film; but Glen wasn’t meant to
say that. He drew mainly from the Frames glorious and
extensive back catalogue with a few covers thrown in
for good measure.

Every Frames gig is an amazing experience, and even
without the other three Frames, Glen still has
the charm and charisma to summon the magic that keeps
us coming back for more.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Superman Sufjan Stevens

Christian Rock. Christians in rock. Rockers who happen to be Christians. Mention those phrases and sharp line is drawn down the sand. NME and its ilk love to jump on the God squad as do-good Bible Bashers who can’t sing ‘Get your hands off my woman motherf****r’ and really rock out. But then the Christian right loves to rally around and complain about the secular industry who keeps sub-standard artists from the airwaves apparently because they’re Christians.

So Christians make their own record labels and in America there is a highly developed contemporary Christian music genre, a little clique all to its own. Occasionally someone is good enough to break out and receive some success, Jars of Clay were perhaps the last and U2 is a debate on its own, but every so often a Christian makes undeniably great music.

He’s called Sufjan Stevens.

Ok he’s been around for a bit. He released a few records on an indie label, had his first UK release last year with the overtly Christian Seven Swans, and has just released his second American state series, Illinois. You see last time he sung about Michigan, and joked in interviews that he would do all 50 states. Everyone thought he was a good sport, and low and behold it looks like he just might do it. Albeit there are 48 states left to go, but if these 2 are anything to go by, we’re in for a treat.

He approaches music and songwriting more like a bricklayer than Newton waiting for an apple. "I don't view myself as an artist; I view myself as a technician” he says. Illinois is 22 songs, 74 minutes and 30 instruments, its not as if he has any trouble filling every inch of the CD with music, and its not even filler.

His brand of folk/pop could draw comparisons with the contrived Devendra Banhart, and the song titles read like The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. He has researched the peculiarities of towns like Jacksonville, prarie fires near Peoria and UFO sightings, captures the feel of the big cities and empty plains.

His music is uplifting, reminiscent of early Mull Historical Society, but with the lyrical intensity of Bright Eyes. He sings of progress and regress, hopes and regrets, sucides and killers and, over progressive listens, his faith emerges. “It's the most important thing in my life. It's unavoidable."

But instead of praise and worship, Stevens sings of grief, embarrassment, doubt and hope; themes that believers atheists alike can recognize. In ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ he struggles to recount how "Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens."

After Seven Swans the focus began to shift from the music to the shock of a good ‘Christian artist’, a tag he may be trying to avoid by drawing attention to the states project.

I’ve been listening to it for a while now and I love it. I was bowled over by the simplicity and beauty of Seven Swans but am equally impressed by the orchestration, complexity and technicality of Illinois. Even more so as he played almost every note.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this is a really good record. And Stevens is devout in his faith. And the two can go together. And we shouldn’t be making a big deal of it.

Just a thought.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Knock knock. Who's there? It's Jo & Danny!

ARTIST It’s Joe and Danny

ALBUM The Quickening

LABEL Double Snazzy Records

Don’t be put off by the album cover - a middle aged man and woman sitting under a tree with a guitar in aged sixties clothes. Jo Bartlett and Danny Hagan conform to most stereotypes of hippie children. They dabbled with major labels, but now prefer to release their records themselves from the seclusion of a farmhouse in rural Wales. They rarely perform live, except at their own Green Man festival, and link the Friends of the Earth and the Lentil Protection League on their website.

Their music though, does not conform to stereotypes. Their mix of beats, synth and acoustic inspired the likes of The Beta Band and The Bees. Sure it’s laid back and acoustic, but it’s beguiling in its simplicity. The album opens with the first single ‘God’s closed his eyes’, and gently draws the listener in. It features beautiful harmonies and simple descending melodies; a theme continued on the rest of the album. Other standout tracks are Dying Kiss and In Spite of Love. The album feels relaxed, perfect for a summers day, or as the cover suggests, sitting by the river under a tree.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Deadman cd review

ARTIST: Deadman
ALBUM: Our Eternal Ghosts
LABEL: One Little Indian

Before recording The Joshua Tree, U2 extensively listened to American ‘roots music’; old gospel, folk, Americana, Woodie Guthrie, Gram Parsons et al. Deadman’s latest album, Our Eternal Ghosts comes from the same musical seed and could be a cousin to the Irish groups breakthrough record.

The Texan duo’s second full-length is produced by Mark Howard (U2, Bob Dylan, Emmy Loy Harris) and his influence is everywhere, it would be no surprise is Daniel Lanois turned up in the credits. The opening track When The Music's Not Forgotten sounds like an old Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou number, written for the late, great Jonny Cash on the day he died.

Steven and Sherilyn Collins’ melodies combine beautifully, but the best tracks are found at the grittier edge of Americana, with a nod to Neil Young and Springsteen style electric guitar. The later part of the album can meander into monotony, but on the whole it’s a worthy effort and a short education in American music.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

La Dolce Vita

From the speldour of the Spanish Steps

the beauty of the Piazza del Duomo

to the high hills of the gran piano

This was Italy 2005.

More photos can be found here