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John Foxx update January 30, 2009

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My Lost City

John Foxx: My Lost City

A few posts back I talked about John Foxx’s early albums being reissued. This year, he’ll have at least three new albums. The first one out will be My Lost City, a collection of instrumental tracks that Foxx has accumulated over the years. That will be followed by A Secret Life, a collaboration with Steve D’Agostino and Steve Jansen (the latter a former member of Japan with his brother David Sylvian), and Mirrorball, a collaboration with Robin Guthrie, known for, among other things, the Cocteau Twins, Violet Indiana, a few solo albums, and several albums with Harold Budd, who has himself worked with Foxx.

Like a lot of other musicians these days, Foxx has taken to the Internet to promote and sell his albums rather than trying to stay signed to one of the troubled major labels. Many of his recent CDs, in fact, have been limited runs of a thousand copies, selling primarily to a core fanbase who’ve been following his music for years. (Me, for instance.) He’s been using the web to get his message out in a variety of ways (Myspace, the Quiet Man blog, a youtube channel). There’s also the Metamatic website and bulletin board.

I hope all my favourite musicians don’t follow Foxx’s lead; there have been years when I’ve had to buy four or five of his CDs. I couldn’t afford to keep up with that kind of output from too many musicians. Well, if Kate Bush, for instance, put out a series of reasonably priced limited run CDs of previously unreleased music — outtakes, demos, experiments, whatever — I’d find a way to afford them. His Name Is Alive has released a lot of that kind of material, and I’ve only bought a bit of it, focusing on the major albums instead, because of concerns about quality vs quantity, cost, etc. For now, though, I don’t mind that Foxx is really taking advantage of the possibilities a small but devoted fanbase offers.


My favourite mix tape January 23, 2009

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Ride: Nowhere

Like many other obsessive music fans, I occasionally feel the urge to make a mix tape, but I’m rarely completely happy with the finished product. Sometimes I find myself including something because it seems to be a good representative sample of the type of music involved, but it just doesn’t flow. Other times I get a good flow going but don’t have quite enough music to fill the tape and end up moving away from the original concept to avoid blank tape. Not that I use tape these days, of course.

Anyway, in March 2004 I finally finished the CDR version of an old mix tape I first recorded back in the mid- to late 1990s. Took some time because some of the songs I taped were on LP, not CD, so I couldn’t just rip them to my hard drive for a mix CD. I hunted down mp3s and bought CD versions of albums I had on LP. Then I expanded the concept. The original was one side of a cassette. With a CDR, I had more time and room. So I added new music I’d discovered in the interim that fit with the rest of the songs.

And here’s what I came up with:

U2, “I Will Follow”
Echo and the Bunnymen, “Crocodiles”
Mighty Lemon Drops, “My Biggest Thrill”
Lush, “Hey, Hey Helen”
Teenage Fanclub, “Star Sign” (not on the original tape)
Stone Roses, “She Bangs the Drums” (not on the original tape)
Catherine Wheel, “Show Me Mary”
House of Love, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” (not on the original tape)
Soft Boys, “Queen of Eyes” (not on the original tape)
Primitives, “Crash”
Jesus and Mary Chain, “My Little Underground”
Sonic Youth, “Silver Rocket”
My Bloody Valentine, “You Made Me Realise”
Sloan, “I Am the Cancer”
Dinosaur Jr., “Freak Scene” (not on the original tape)
Boo Radleys, “Lazy Day”
Swervedriver, “Duel”
Adorable, “Sunshine Smile” (not on the original tape)
Kitchens of Distinction, “Drive That Fast” (not on the original tape)
Ride, “Taste”
Darling Buds, “Sure Thing”
Guitar, “House Full of Time” (not on the original tape)

I think of it as the shoegazer tape, though only half of the bands on it were ever considered shoegazer. Some (U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, Soft Boys) were considered neopsychedelic for a few minutes circa 1981. What they share is the use of guitar for texture as well as noise. There’s a progression from melodic to noisier and back out the other side to melodic again, with the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine providing a heart of darkness while still maintaining some catchiness. This mix always makes me happy.

Looking at it after a few more years, I’m still pretty happy with it. It’s not perfect. The Darling Buds track could probably be dropped. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just a bit too straightforward alt girl guitar pop in this context. For that matter, some of the bands are represented with, well, unrepresentative songs. Lush’s song is an Abba cover, and Catherine Wheel’s is way more catchy and poppy than their usual output — but the songs fit in well here.

What this calls out for is some sequels. There’s been a lot of music in the last few years that would fit on this mix, of which the Guitar track is the only example here. Asobi Seksu, Sereena Maneesh, Mahogany, the Raveonettes, Ulrich Schnauss, M83… might be possible to do an all-new stuff mix in a similar spirit.

The other sequel I’ve been mulling over is the other side of shoegazer — the long, slow, oceanic stuff. Think Bowery Electric’s first two albums, Flying Saucer Attack, stuff with great texture but not catchy and upbeat.

The thing is, in an age of ipods on shuffle and hundreds of albums on hard drives, does it even make sense to make something as fixed as a mix tape for myself these days? Or is it better to make large playlists with complementary collections of songs and albums, and have randomly generated mix tapes, always following some sort of theme, but always a bit different?

Free music from The Caretaker January 23, 2009

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Recollected Memories from the Museum of Garden History

The Caretaker: Recollected Memories from the Museum of Garden History

(I could swear I blogged about this somewhere before, but I’m not sure where.)

Remember the scenes in the ballroom in Kubrick’s version of The Shining? The kind of distant sound to the music? That’s one of the inspirations for some recordings by The Caretaker. He starts with samples from old ballroom music and distorts them, buries them in layers of noise, and sometimes lets almost recognizable bits emerge. It’s music that hovers between ambience and noise, and can be at times surprisingly beautiful and poignant. It can also be harsh and abrasive. It’s easy to imagine it being used as an alternate soundtrack for the underwater Art Deco city of Rapture in the videogame Bioshock.

The Caretaker’s music has been classed by some as part of a movement called hauntology. I haven’t yet heard many of the other artists who are being tagged with that, but I like the idea. There’s a good article on it here.

The Caretaker’s music has been released on CD and LP, but a lot of it is also available for free from his website. If you’re at all interested (hey, it’s free!) start with Recollected memories from the museum of garden history. If you like it, buy a CD, too.

Wire (recycled content!) January 23, 2009

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Object 47

Wire: Object 47

From the LJ, shortly after seeing Wire in October, 2008:

Back in the spring of 1980 I heard a record playing in a record store and really liked it but didn’t have the money to buy a copy. Instead, I remembered the name of the band and album and when I got home I wrote them in a notebook. Months later I bought a copy, and 154 by Wire is still one of my all-time favourite albums. It was their third (and, for a few years, their last) studio album, what at the time seemed to be the peak of a short career that saw them develop from short, fasty, spiky, catchy punk tunes to much more experimental sounds. The band members started a wild variety of solo careers and have reformed Wire every so often for a few more albums, no album ever sounding like the previous one. Their newest album, Object 47, is so named because it’s the 47th release in their discography, but there are dozens more from various band members under their own names and side projects. And I own a lot of them.

And last night, for the first time, I saw Wire live. Not quite the original lineup — one member has been replaced — but the substitute guitarist has a pretty good track record of her own, as a member of the band Laika, among other things. The 21st century Wire has been stripped down to drums, bass, guitars, and not much more, after many years of electronic experimentation. They’re doing a very precise and fast form of punk much of the time, but with a lot more intelligence than the kids less than half their age bring to that sound these days. And a lot of energy, considering the three original members are well into their 50s. It was a great show, with a strong mix of new material and old songs from half a dozen classic albums overhauled to fit in the new sound. Contrary to Laura’s expectations, the audience wasn’t just a lot of 40-somethings looking for some class of 77 punk nostalgia; there were plenty of people in their 20s and 30s there, who may have heard of Wire as an influence on many of the new postpunk revivalist bands, or who know them as the band covered both by REM and Minor Threat. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and (despite blowing the beginning of one song) I think the band was having a good time as well. And they played “The 15th,” one of my favourites of theirs, and the song that inspired the URL and name of this blog.

So that’s one more all-time fave band that I’ve seen live now (I’ve seen David Bowie, the Smiths, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cocteau Twins….) Maybe Killing Joke can do a North American tour.

Recent eMusic downloads January 23, 2009

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I love eMusic. If you like mainstream music on major labels, stay well away from it; it’s not Itunes, and you won’t find a lot of big names there. But its low price and subscription model make it easy to justify trying out albums you wouldnt necessarily pay $20 to buy on CD. Every so often I’ll post briefly about what I’ve gotten there lately. In some cases I’ll write longer reviews, but those will probably come after I’ve had time to really get into the albums.

So… some quick thoughts on some recent downloads.

Ladyhawke: gloriously cheesy 80s revivalism by a woman from New Zealand who wasn’t born yet when this stuff happened. Think Kim Wilde, Berlin, Pat Benatar, lots of synths, mopey dance tunes.

Geeneus: Volumes: One. Keeping up with the way UK electronic and dance music evolves could be a fulltime job. Geeneus used to be known as a grime and dubstep producer; this album, however, is the first single artist album in the newer style known as funky house, or funky for short. No connection to James Brown or George Clinton funk, though. This is club music that doesn’t sound a hell of a lot different from the house and disco I’ve heard in the past. Listenable, at times quite enjoyable, but not likely to become a staple sound hereabouts.

Hauschka: Snowflakes and Carwrecks and Goldmund: The Malady of Elegance. Intrumental, piano-led music with occasional strings and electronics, somewhere between ambient, classical, and experimental music. Hauschka is a bit livelier, reminiscent a bit of Satie’s more playful moments, whereas Goldmund has the subtlety and austerity of Harold Budd’s music. I need to listen to these more.

Basic Channel: BCD-2. This is a collection of techno singles by a group that absorbed a lot of dub influences and created a highly influential blending of minimal techno and electronic dub. This is more on the techno side and doesn’t do as much for me as some of their other work. Still, given how regularly Basic Channel gets namechecked in electronic music reviews, it’s worth having a better idea of what’s being referred to.

Improvisators Dub Meets Iration Steppas: Inna Steppa Dub. I read about Iration Steppas in Woofah, the grime/dub/dubstep/reggae zine, and couldn’t find much by them. This is a collaboration between the UK-based reggae soundsystem crew and a French dub band; it’s a slightly updated take on roots and dub reggae. Sounds pretty good so far.

Jah Shaka and Mad Professor:Jah Shaka Meets Mad Professor at Ariwa Sounds. Haven’t really listened to this dub reggae album yet, but it’s another Woofah-inspired download (they interviewed Jah Shaka about the UK reggae soundsystem scene).

Stereotyp: My Sound. Needs more listens. This is a 2002 album blending electronica, reggae, and dancehall, and it’s been called a prototype for dubstep. I love a lot of dubstep, so that got my attention.

Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It (2008) January 23, 2009

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The Way I See It

Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It

I’ve never seen The Big Chill, but I remember reading about the scene with the yuppie who loves Motown and classic rock and says there was no good music after 1970. I’m not a fan of that attitude. I’m also conscious of the attitude that the blog Stuff White People Like lampooned not too long ago: white people like black music that black people stopped listening to, like jazz and blues. And Motown. As an almost middle-aged white guy, I do think about this stuff sometimes.

So… yeah, this is an album that a lot of white people will like. It’s got that classic Motown style, reminding me of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and the occasional non-Motown influence like Curtis Mayfield. The thing is, it’s a brand new album.

Raphael Saadiq is a former member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, a commercially successful R&B band that wasn’t really on my radar, and an in-demand producer. He’s had a few other solo albums, but they don’t sound like this. Since buying The Way I See It I’ve bought his previous album Ray Ray as an eMusic download, and it’s a much more wide-ranging, self-indulgent album, drawing on a variety of styles, at times reminding me of old school funk, psychedelic soul, Prince, modern soul balladry, and so on. The Way I See It is much more tightly focused. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, having 13 songs in 42 minutes, all but the last falling so perfectly within that retro Motown sound that you could put them on a mixtape with the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, etc, and they’d fit right in. The last track is an alternate version of one of the album tracks, with Jay-Z rapping. I think the album arguably needed a bit more of this sort of thing to make it a bit more modern and relevant, but that said I don’t actually care much for the track. I think they picked the wrong song to punch up; they should have gone for one of the more upbeat tracks, and I don’t actually like Jay-Z’s style on this one. It’s not a matter of not liking rap; Raekwon and Lupe Fiasco work perfectly well in their bits on Joy Denalane’s sublime 2006 album Born & Raised, as does Kanye West in Estelle’s “American Boy.” I just don’t think this particular track works as well as it might.

But the rest of the album: wow. I can’t dance, but it’s hard to sit still through the upbeat tunes, and the slower tunes recapture the style of the Motown love songs quite well. Plus you get an appearance by popular UK soul revivalist Joss Stone and the legendary Stevie Wonder providing a link to the real Motown. Okay, so it doesn’t blend classic old-fashioned and modern soul and R&B styles the way Estelle’s Shine does, it just recreates the past. But it does it really well, and why should Amy Winehouse have all the fun?

Rock and roll: The Gaslight Anthem January 23, 2009

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The '59 Sound

The Gaslight Anthem: The ’59 Sound

Stephen King in the latest Entertainment Weekly:

I wish for a rock & roll renaissance — probably a vain hope in an American Idol-dominated decade where too many singers (both male and female) sound like 1985-vintage Michael Jackson, but is it impossible to think some neo — E Street Band might capture a rock-deprived generation stuck with Kanye West and the Pussycat Dolls? Do I really have to face the fact that three-chord rock is dead? Man, I hope not.

The band he’s looking for is called The Gaslight Anthem, and their album (which got a lot of good press) is The ’59 Sound. It’s got a classic rock and roll sound, balanced somewhere between Springsteen with less bombast, the Replacements’ more heartfelt songs, and Social Distortion with less punk roar. The songs are catchy, full of passion and energy but refreshingly free of the overproduction so many rock bands go for these days. No remixes, no special guest appearances. I’d love to see them in a bar while drinking a few beers, the way I saw the Replacements, the Asexuals, Jr Gone Wild, and other bands with punk roots growing up in public way back when.

Now, if King (who insists on referring to himself, somewhat creepily, as “your uncle Stevie”) can take something a bit louder, there’s always the BellRays’ blend of punk, hard rock, and soul, but that’s a topic for another time.

1980 never ended: Ultravox and John Foxx January 23, 2009

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John Foxx: Metamatic

In 1979, Gary Numan’s song “Are Friends Electric,” with its icy synthesizer sound, damn near changed my life. But this post is not about Gary Numan. It’s about a band I first heard about in interviews with Numan, who named them as a key influence: Ultravox.

Imagine young musicians working under the influence of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, and punk, and you’ve got early Ultravox. The original version, led by John Foxx, recorded three albums to widespread apathy. Foxx left the band for a solo career; the other members regrouped and brought in new lead singer/guitarist Midge Ure.


Ultravox: Vienna

Foxx’s first solo LP was in stores before the first new Ultravox LP, but the latter was a much bigger commercial success, thanks to the album’s title track, Vienna. Over the next few years Foxx released three more solo albums and the Ure-led Ultravox released four more albums, but after 1986 or so both disappeared from the public eye, as Foxx withdrew from the music world and Ure left Ultravox for a solo career of his own.

And that’s where the story doesn’t end so much as take a long rest.

In the 1990s, a new version of Ultravox appeared, with only one original member, and produced two new albums, about which no more will ever be said. Meanwhile, Foxx reappeared with two new albums on his own label, the ambient Cathedral Oceans and the electronic dance music album Shifting City, recorded with his new creative partner Louis Gordon. To the surprise and delight of his fans Foxx entered a productive new phase of his career; he’s released several new albums with Gordon, two more Cathedral Oceans albums, an ambient collaboration with Harold Budd, some “live in the studio” albums, some spoken word interview albums, and a collection of material from before his comeback, a couple of songs of which had been released as singles under the name Nation 12. And more. He has several albums in the works, as well.

Meanwhile, in the Ultravox camp, Midge Ure and viola/synth player Billy Currie each carried on with their own solo careers, making music with little sonic debt to Ultravox.

What makes them relevant now? Well, Foxx has been mentioned as an influence by everyone from Metamatics to Hot Chip, and the Ure version of Ultravox has reformed for a concert tour later this year, selling out shows months in advance.

More importantly, for people who loved their albums way back when and those curious what the fuss is all about, there have been a number of reissues.  The three Foxx-era Ultravox albums, with a lot of great bonus tracks, were reissued in 2007, followed by a series of double CD reissues of Foxx’s solo albums and the current ongoing Ure Ultravox reissue program. Almost every available bit of bonus material has been compiled, filling the second disc in each set. Though some of that bonus material has been previously released, these are definitive editions for longtime fans and educational experiences for newcomers.

To the ears of a decades-long fan, it’s all wonderful. For newcomers interested in early electronic pop, electronic new wave, the roots of synthpunk and electroclash, etc, some of the material on these albums is going to sound really dated. Not only because some of it has been so widely adopted and recycled, but because some of it turned out to be following a creative dead end, and some is simply let down by dated ’80s production. Nonetheless, at their best, albums like Metamatic and Vienna have an almost out-of-time feel that helps them hold up well today. Get started there (and the Foxx-era Ultravox album Systems of Romance); they may be enough. But if you get hooked, there’s so much more to discover.

Events in dense fog: some background January 23, 2009

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Music for Films

Brian Eno: Music for Films

A little background, about me and about this. I’ve always loved listening to music, though my tastes have changed and grown a lot over the decades. I started with K-Tel compilations and my parents’ Marty Robbins and Elvis records, my first proper LP was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, I went through a light progressive-ish rock phase (ELO, Alan Parsons Project, FM — the Canadian one, Queen, Kate Bush) but got into punk, new wave, and electronic music when I was 16. It was 1979 — a good year for those styles.

A lot of the music I discovered in the late 1970s/early 1980s is still among my all-time favourite music, but I never stopped looking for new music, and I occasionally stopped to check out older music from before my time, or that I’d missed somehow the first time around. My philosophy is that there’s always good music; what changes from year to year is how hard it is to find. Some popular stuff is good, some obscure stuff is rightfully obscure, but there’s a lot more to life than what was in the top 40 when you were 18.

So I intend to ramble here (and not to post mp3s; I may do links to youtube or legal sources occasionally) about music I like. Could be Sinatra from the 1950s, or electronic new wave from 1980, or retro soul from 2008, or any damn thing.

Oh, “Events in Dense Fog” is a track from Brian Eno’s Music for Films. Like Wire’s 154 (the album “The 15th” is on), it’s an album I heard in a record store in 1980 and fell in love with.

Before it had sooner been denied: welcome to The Fifteenth January 22, 2009

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Wire: 154

So. Most of the people I know online I know through certain nonmusical fandoms, and their taste in music tends not to overlap with mine much, so when I talk about music on my LJ I don’t get much of a response.  I don’t expect I will here, either, but at least I won’t be clogging up anyone’s friends page with content they aren’t interested in. If anyone does read this regularly, they’ll know what they’re in for: one person’s ramblings about music.

The blog title, thefifteenth, comes from the Wire song “The 15th,” a big favourite of mine. Seeing Wire play that song live a few months ago was one of the highlights of an otherwise miserable, unpleasant year.