Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same songs, different space: Songs From The Big Chair remixed

There was a time when you knew you were getting older when policemen started getting younger. But for the music fan in particular these days, it’s the reissue of a favourite album that provides the starkest of reminders of advancing years.

Every so often, however, a record company will repackage an album of genuine nostalgic value. Some - like this year’s re-release of Led Zeppelin's first four albums, lovingly curated by Jimmy Page and stuffed into sumptuous boxes with a bounty of extras - happily prise open the wallet.

“If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag,” says Steven Wilson, who when not making records of his own has developed a neat sideline remixing the back catalogues of rock luminaries such as Yes, King Crimson and Jethro Tull.

Now he has turned his attention to a classic album of the 1980s - Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair, which has just been re-released for its 30th anniversary (yes, 30th) in a variety of formats including a six-disc “super deluxe” box set featuring four CDs, two DVDs, tour programme and book - with Wilson supplying stereo and 5.1 surround sound remixes of the original album.

© Steven Wilson
For someone so closely associated with progressive rock - either through his own albums (including Porcupine Tree, which he founded, and Blackfield with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen) and remix projects so far - working on such a quintessential 80s album (both in form and sound) might come as a surprise. When Universal Music offered Wilson to take his pick from a list of 80s ‘catalogue’ albums, Songs From The Big Chair stood out.

"I think people have assumed I'm only interested in working on albums from the 70s progressive rock era,” says Steven, "but nothing could be further from the truth. I like all kinds of music, and grew up with bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division and Tears For Fears. As much as I love [the prog bands], doing this and the XTC catalogue has been a bit of a breakthrough in getting to do the music I enjoyed as a teenager.”

Recorded in 1984, with the first single - Mother’s Talk - released that August, Songs From The Big Chair was Tears For Fears’ second album. But far from being the "difficult" sophomore effort of tradition, the follow-up to The Hurting went on to sell nine million copies, with hits like Everybody Wants To Rule The World and Shout pitching Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith to global heights only U2 could rival them for at the time.

"Songs From The Big Chair and its successor Sowing The Seeds Of Love were - along with the albums Trevor Horn was producing at the time -  the gold standard for anyone of my age aspiring to be a producer,” says Wilson. "I never aspired to be a musician or a guitar player, I aspired to being a writer and producer, someone who made these epic records. Albums like this and Propaganda’s Secret Wish or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasure Dome all conveyed a sense of musical journey. They were clearly made by people who’d grown up listening to the classic albums of the 70s but were bringing the new technology of the 80s into the studio. Pop records that had the same ambition and scope of those great progressive rock albums of the previous decade.”

For the remixes, an album as sonically quintessential 80s as Songs From The Big Chair presented an interesting array of challenges. "There was a massive difference in terms of recording philosophy,” Steven says. "Even though there was only 15 years between an album like [Yes’s] Close To The Edge and Songs From The Big Chair, the philosophy of recording had completely changed.”

Part of that change with the Tears For Fears album was the changing technology used on it: "You have to listen to every sound on the master tapes,” says Steven. "Suddenly I've got this album where some of the sounds are difficult to identify, because this was recorded at the birth of sampling and digital synthesisers like the Emulator and the DX7. Now you’re listening to more impressionistic sounds because of the advent of sampling technology.”

The other big change is the amount of cavernous echo producers were using."Artificial reverb was used very sparingly in the 70s - a little echo on the voice, a little on the guitar, but that's about it,” Steven explains. “Then in the 80s, everything sounded like it was being played at Wembley Arena. Trevor Horn started that massive cinematic sound. The intimacy of 70s recording had gone - the drums sound massive, the keyboards sound massive, the vocals are huge, everything's enormous.”

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
Although Wilson’s stature in rock music has come about from performing with Porcupine Tree, his solo albums and numerous side projects, his focus as a producer and writer informs much of his remixing work.

“Firstly, it’s always an honour to remix an album that I genuinely think is a masterpiece, as I do with Songs From The Big Chair,” he says. "Secondly it’s wonderful to be working with the people who created the music, and to be able to learn something about how they made the record.”

"You learn in two ways: firstly, by communication with the artist,” Steven says of Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal who personally oversaw the remixing project. “But you also learn from the act of deconstructing and reconstructing the music, figuring out how they put the tracks together. Being able to get inside the music is such an education. I’m the kind of person who likes to feel that there is something I can learn and bring back into my own music."

When the original album was released in early 1985, Songs From The Big Chair figured heavily in my sixth-form listening, an experience I share with Steven who is eight days my senior. Almost 30 years on, and with modern digital audio replacing the poorly copied cassette tape I listened to while working on A-level homework, there is much to enjoy about listening the album all over again.

"The nice thing about going back to an album like this now is that you hear references that you totally missed at the time you first heard it,” says Steven.

"When I hear I Believe now, it’s completely Robert Wyatt. It was actually written for him to sing [Roland’s favourite album of all time is Rock Bottom]. Clearly I didn’t know that at the time - I just heard it as a classic 80s pop ballad - but now of course I hear Shipbuilding.

"Similarly, when I now hear Listen I hear influences from Pink Floyd or David Bowie’s Low; when I hear things like Working Hour I hear references back to classic rock music filtered through a ‘modern’ sensibility.”

Pop music in the 1980s may get depicted as sugary froth, but Steven notes the darker hues that Tears For Fears - and many others - were painting in the era of Cold War and Thatcherism. "Shout is SO dark, not just lyrically but musically too; not just in its lyrics but in its almost Wagnerian music, too! That was something people seemed to pull off in the 80s, especially with a band like The Cure. Today we don’t hear any of that in the mainstream. Pop is pop, it is happy, jolly. Back in the 80s, some of the mainstream pop music was so dark - Two Tribes for example. A lot of that had to do with Bowie’s Berlin period - Low and Heroes. They had a big influence on many of the bands like Tears For Fears and Gary Numan."

The actual process of creating a surround sound remix of a classic album like Songs From The Big Chair is, says Steven, a careful process. "The hard part is not letting down the people that know the album like the back of their hand. That is where the fans’ perspective is so important. That’s why I won’t work on albums I don’t love. If I’m not a fan, I’m not the right person to do it, because you’re trying to create a new experience from an old record. You don’t want it to be jarring - you don’t want people to say 'that’s wrong' or 'that’s not how I remember it'.

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
"The objective is trying to make it seem like if someone didn’t tell you it was a new mix, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Of course, if you’re intimately familiar with an album, you will pick up on small details, but I wouldn’t want a more casual listener jumping out of their chair screaming 'that sounds different to how I remember it’.

"With surround sound, you can’t please everyone - so the challenge is to create something that feels cohesive, that doesn’t feel like all the glue has been taken out, all the ingredients have been pulled apart and sounds fragmented in surround sound. You have to try and make it feel like it’s coming from the same place sonically, but still get that immersive feeling as well. That’s something which comes from personal preference and personal taste."

There are, of course, music fans who’ll scoff at the idea of turning an album they once listened to in a flat, analogue form into something with a somewhat different soundscape. And there will be those who will be jaded by the battles of the 1990s and early 2000s as consumer electronics empires took each other on with rival formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. But while mainstream entertainment might, today, be more about downloads and streaming, there is still space for high-quality physical formats. "Anyone who says they don’t like multichannel sound should remember that we’ve been listening to multichannel for 50 years,” says Steven. "Stereo is multichannel sound!”

While the consumer masses are quite willing to go out and buy the latest high-definition TV and buy Blu-ray Disc box sets, high-definition audio still feels like a minority interest. "It’s probably down to the marketing people for not pushing audio excellence in the way they’ve pushed video excellence,” Steven feels. "Early on a lot of record companies rushed to release albums in surround sound, and a lot were done quite badly. When this began there were plenty of movies that could be easily released on DVD or Blu-ray Disc in surround sound, but to do music and rebuild the music from scratch, there were a lot that were just rushed."

"It feels like it’s taken ten years for the concept to catch up with itself,” he adds. "Now you’re seeing Blu-ray releases loaded with value. Of course there are examples of people looking to issue ‘yardage’ rather than quality, but if you look at the XTC reissues that I’m involved with, Andy Partridge is putting an extraordinary amount of extras on them. The Drums & Wires album that has just come out as a Blu-ray Disc and a CD package, it’s got something like 120 tracks on it. Demos, instrumentals, sessions, alternate versions, B-sides, outtakes, video material it’s like a box set on a single disc.

"With the first generation of SACD releases record companies seemed to rely on just putting out the album with perhaps a bit of tweaking to the mastering, and that was going to justify people spending £15 on an album they’d already bought 12 times before. You’ve got to offer something new, some extra value too. That’s why these deluxe edition box sets have done so well. If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag. The Led Zeppelin albums are the epitome of this concept - if you love those albums, it will be something you will treasure."

Steven says that, despite the perceived decline in sales of physical music formats, high definition audio is actually growing, along with the hipster trend of vinyl ownership. "I recognise that a lot of the audiophile audience are getting on a bit,” he says, "but they’ve got the time, the money and the inclination to rebuy the albums they used to listen to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They want something new from it and they want some sort of enhanced sonic experience. That’s probably who I’m working on these records for. I also know that these projects can be the catalyst for people going out and buying surround systems, just so they can hear all these great records in a new way."

Wilson's enthusiasm for bringing back to new life old albums comes, he says, from what he gets out of the projects: "Working on these remixes is an education. But they also give me a sense of completing a circle with albums that I grew up being influenced by, that you could say are in my musical DNA. I’ve always used the analogy that it’s like cleaning the Sistine Chapel - you don’t want to change what is there, you just want to make it ‘shine’ brighter, to give something back."

Having just completed recording work on his fourth solo album, due to be released next February, there are still plenty of albums Steven would love to have a crack at remixing in surround sound. "When you think of albums that would sound great in surround sound, shined up and remixed, it’s an endless list!” he says.

"At the top would be Kate Bush’s records, but also Michael Jackson’s classic albums - they would sound phenomenal in surround sound! I’m amazed they’ve never been done, to my knowledge. The classic Bowie albums - the Berlin trilogy for example - as well. These are just some of things I’d love to do. There’s always the possibility, as more of my work gets out there. The Tears For Fears project is in that category - if you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing something like this album I would have said it was extremely unlikely, and yet here it is!"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not quite a riot, but...: The Kaiser Chiefs - Le Bataclan, Paris

Picture courtesy of Mauro Melis/@MauroParis
It's a damp, autumnal evening in Paris. Hats, scarves, overcoats and umbrellas are in evidence as the City of Light reluctantly gives up the seemingly endless summer it had been hanging on to.

The cold season is with us, too, with coughing, sniffing and spluttering conspicuous on the stiflingly packed Métro. God help us if Ebola gets loose down there.

But on that gloomy note, please consider the remedy: the energetic midweek party that are the Kaiser Chiefs, who kicked off their European tour on Tuesday night in Paris at that venerable salle de spectacle, Le Bataclan.

It's one of the many old theatres that provide manna from heaven for the expatriate muso in this city. This year alone I've seen both Robert Plant and the Manic Street Preachers at the Bataclan, and Paul Weller at the same venue two years ago. With other venues like La Trianon, La Cigale and the Flèche D'Or, you can enjoy the company of A-list acts in an environment of intimacy and exclusivity you would only otherwise experience with a private club show.

Of course, the choice of venue is largely made by the bands and their tour promoter. No-one wants to get stuck with bald swathes of empty seats or floorspace and a stack of unsold T-shirts. But for my somewhat agoraphobic avoidance of the aircraft hangars that bands play in on my home island, to be both a few yards away from the lead singer of Led Zeppelin as well as the front door is a blessing I treasure every time I visit one of these modest music palaces.

Most bands will start out in venues like Le Bataclan, honing their craft and building their live reputation. Blessed with a musical charisma and an appeal that transcended both pop fans and the festival grebos who hanker after something less accessible, the Kaisers appeared to arrive fully formed in 2005 with their hit-laden album Employment. And after an apparent dip in commercial form with their previous two long players, this year's Education, Education, Education and War returned to form, along with a February tour of the UK's biggest metal sheds, including the 20,000-seat behemoth that is London's O2.

However, beyond home borders, things might be different: one local blogger noted that Tuesday's Bataclan show was far from a sell-out, arguing that the Kaisers' creative hiatus had impacted their popularity in France. On my evidence, it was hard to tell: the Bataclan looked packed and the 1,000 or so punters crammed onto its floor seemed excited enough to be there.

As did the Kaiser Chiefs themselves. Condensed onto the Bataclan's relatively small stage, there was plenty of playscape for a combination of the communal participation-bearing hits of Employment and the more mature-sounding return to form of tracks from the Education... album. 

Such a stage also provides a compact hamster cage for Ricky Wilson to race about in manically, thankfully back to the day job, after his excursion into the artistically questionable realm of Saturday night light entertainment.

In the best traditions of the lead singer Wilson is the obvious focal point of the Kaisers, something he works at with aplomb, from leading the audience in Freddy Mercury-style lyric-free singalongs, to his apparent party trick of appearing in one of the balconies during The Angry Mob.

From start - The Factory Gates - to finish, Wilson is breathlessly engaging, drawing out of the band a solid chug of music that is unpretentious, uncomplicated and utterly enjoyable for it.

Everyday I Love You Less and Less gets the crowd joining in early in proceedings, with the equally audience-friendly Ruffians on Parade turning the Bataclan into a microcosm of communal chanting. Na Na Na Na Na brought more vocal support from the floor, a reminder of just how packed Employment was with top quality pop hits of the calibre of, say, Madness or Squeeze in their prime.

Thus, Modern Way and I Predict a Riot, plus their biggest post-Employment hit, Ruby, come bouncing along to the audience's inevitable delight - including besuited office workers shaking off the daily grind for a while to frug about, carefree. There's a moment of relative tenderness with the single Coming Home from Education... One reviewer has described this song, unfairly, as "generic". I disagree: while it might bear a strong similarity to Toto's Rosanna, and even positive similarities to latterday Genesis, it would be wrong to think of this almost-ballad as middle-of-the road. Actually, it's just a great song.

So is Misery Company, which kicks off the encore, and adds more damage to the untrained vocal chords in the crowd with its "Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-hah" refrain (reminiscent of the old Charles Penrose music hall number The Laughing Policeman), before setting the floor ablaze with Oh My God.

And that's what you come along for. Whether standing in a muddy field in Somerset, surrounded by the great unwashed and their herbal recreation, or packed into a historic French theatre on a schoolnight, the Kaisers are never going to be about lighters-aloft schmaltz (sorry, I should update my reference points - iPhones-aloft...).No. What you come to see the Kaiser Chiefs for is pure, unadulterated entertainment. As solid as The Who, as playful as a panto, and utterly worth losing the use of your vocal chords for the following 24 hours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Do you expect me to talk? No, I expect you to die! Goldfinger turns 50

So let me hit you with this statement: Goldfinger is the best James Bond movie. Ever.

Yes, Skyfall was a brilliant piece of drama; From Russia With Love was the perfect Cold War thriller; Diamonds Are Forever had the right mix of action and goofiness; The Spy Who Loved Me had the Lotus Esprit and Goldeneye successfully rebooted the whole franchise. 

But pound for pound, scene for scene, gag for gag, Goldfinger - which had it's world premiere in London 50 years ago today - contained all the right elements to make it the most perfect Bond film of all time, providing the source code for not only the 20 'official' films that have followed (plus 'Bond 24' due to start production later this year), but all the many spoofs and blatant (and not-so blatant) ripoffs.

Although Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had established Bond as an action hero for a paranoid 1960s two years before with Dr. No (which opened 11 days before the Cuba missile crisis almost plunged the world into the ultimate world war), Goldfinger, the third Bond film, delivered the goods that we've now come to expect from the series - gadgets, girls, extraordinary plots and understated humour.

To start with, it stars Sean Connery, for most people, the perfect Bond. The first two films had catapulted the former milkman, body builder and bit-part actor to the front line, but Goldfinger shot his star even higher. Think Tom Cruise today. Only taller. And a lot less annoying.

Secondly, it was directed by Guy Hamilton. No disrespect to Sam Mendes for his intellectual, theatrical approach to Skyfall, or to Terence Young who captured the darker, less playful side to Ian Fleming's character with Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball, but Hamilton turned Bond into movie gold, if you will, perfecting the balance of humour and action (something some later Bonds got wrong, especially during the Roger Moore era).

The opening scene, in which a wet-suited Bond emerges from the water to blow something up, before getting out of his wetsuit to reveal himself to be already dinner suited and booted, prompted as many laughs as it did gasps. But nobody thought it was silly.

And there is Shirley Bassey's theme song - "Gold-fing-gah!" - which not only established Dame S as the quintessential Bond theme singer, but John Barry's formula for the instantly-recognisable Bond them, all strings, brass and drama.

With lyrics by Anthony Newley (one of David Bowie's earliest influences), Barry wrote the music without much direction from the film's production team, short of the name 'Goldfinger' as the core of the song. Michael Caine, then Barry's flatmate, was the first to hear the distinctive "ba-bah-bah" motif, and reportedly dismissed it as sounding like Moon River. Harry Saltzman was even more dismissive, apparently branding it the worst he'd ever heard, but agreeing to using it simply because there was no more time to write something new. Which, I think, we shall be forever grateful.

Goldfinger's characters also defined the panoply of casting that would become the formula for the series. We can discuss the politics of the term 'Bond girl' all day long, but despite the iconic appearance of Ursula Andress in Dr. No and Daniela Bianchi's simpering role in From Russia With LoveGoldfinger established the notion that being Bond's love interest wasn't necessarily a long-term role.

I'm talking, of course, of Shirley Eaton - until Goldfinger, a pretty blonde British actress who'd appeared in Carry On and St. Trinians comedies - and who, thanks to her character Tilly Masterson getting too friendly with Bond, ends up painted gold (trying saying that without thinking of Goldmember...) from head to toe, nude and very dead. All within the first 20 minutes of the film.

Masterson's death in Goldfinger may have propelled Eaton instantly to pin-up status, but it was Honor Blackman who created, for me - and, let's not mess about - the sexiest Bond girl of all: Pussy Galore.

Ian Fleming's novel established her as one of the greatest double entendres in literature, but in the film, she also became one of the most brazen characters to appear in mainstream cinema. In the book she's the leader of an all-lesbian circus troupe; in the film, of course, she's the leader of an all-female flying circus. From Russia With Love had flirted with lesbianism with Lotte Lenya's shoe-stabbing Rosa Klebb, but Pussy Galore made things a lot clearer - "You can turn off the charm, I'm quite immune" she tells Bond. This after one of the greatest exchanges in any Bond film: "Who are you?" says the spy. "Pussy Galore" she replies. "I must be dreaming...." comes the retort.

This isn't, however, the most famous line in Goldfinger. That comes courtesy of Gert Frobe, the portly German who played the film's antagonist, Auric Goldfinger. Shortly before he attempts to laser-cut Bond from the nuts up he is asked by 007: "Do you expect me talk?", responding jovially with "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to DIE!". The best ever Bond line? Yup.

Auric Goldfinger cast the mould for future Bond villains, be it the various incarnations of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the deranged Hugo Drax in Moonraker, the web-handed Kark Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, Christopher Walken's unhinged Max Zorin in A View To A Kill and Yaphet Kotto's brilliant Dr. Kananga in Live And Let Die. However, none of these baddies would be anywhere near as sinister without their henchpersons, and for that we must thank Goldfinger's Oddjob.

Played by Hawaian wrestler Harold Sakata, the mute chauffeur-come-assassin with the guillotine blade in his top hat was a truly frightening creation, the pure evocation of fear and a genuine threat to Bond's health and wellbeing. Oddjob set the benchmark for terror, to be later approached by Tee-Hee and Baron Samedi, by the darkly camp Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, by Grace Jones as Mayday and, of course, the-now late Richard Kiel as Jaws - seemingly unstoppable, even to our hero.

Last, but not least, we must remove a hat and thrust it upwards for Goldfinger's part in giving us the ultimate Bond gadget: the "modified" Aston Martin DB5. A quintessentially British car with Italian design (Superleggera), the Aston, with its forward-facing machine guns, bullet-proof shield, oil slick spray, and tire-shredding wheel hubs, was a preposterous piece of creative design by John Stears, combined with equally smart marketing by the manufacturer. Of course none of the gags, save the revolving number plate (have that, speed cameras!) would have worked in reality, least of all the passenger-side ejector seat that would have scorched Bond. But that's not the point.

Like Tilly Masterson, the DB5 doesn't last very long in Goldfinger, but it enjoys enough screen time to make it the most must-have toy of the last half century. Just about everyone of my age - above and below - has owned Corgi's die-cast replica at some point in their lives, and managed to lose the blue-suited miniature Goldfinger henchman that it sprung out of the roof. No wonder, then, that Sam Mendes resurrected the DB5 - registration plate BMT 216A - for Skyfall, celebrating the franchise's 50th with a true hairs-on-the-neck-raising moment that pleased an entire generation of Bond fans.

Compared with all the CGI nonsense filling up your local multiplex, Goldfinger might look old. But for an action film to remain as vibrant, as engaging, as exciting and as damned-good fun for 50 years as Goldfinger has says something about how if, sometimes, you throw everything including the kitchen sink into a movie, you are left with something that is not only utterly memorable, but can set the benchmark very high for many years to come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hootie who? Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland

This I know about Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz: he is very tall (he once stood next to me - to my surprise - at a Who concert); he has made social media a confessional for some, at times, pretty intense thoughts about his life; he did not inspire Sideshow Bob, Bart Simpson's dreadlocked arch nemesis.

The other thing I know about Duritz is his tendency to write impenetrable lyrics that tie themselves in knots of verbal complexity, which is one of the first things to hit you about Palisades Park, the sprawling opener of the Crows' seventh studio album and their first in a long time, Somewhere Under Wonderland.

It's a dewy-eyed romp through childhood memories of a New Jersey theme park and, in an instant - well, an eight-minute instant - re-establishes Counting Crows as one of America's finest purveyors of wholemeal rock (and, as I quickly concluded on my drive north from Lake Tahoe to Oregon, the perfect accompaniment for a road trip - "Keep going till we hit Reno, Nevada" Duritz sings helpfully, just as Reno passed by my right-hand window.

Reminiscent of Elton John's Madman Across The Water, and with the New Jersey reference inevitably drawing comparison to Bruce Springsteen's heartland storytelling, the song jumps manically like a big dipper as it recalls friendship lost in a typical Duritz style - a mixture of melancholy and dour wrapped in a bouncy rocker, as much of this album is.

For a native of Baltimore, who made his name in San Francisco, has lived in LA and only recently relocated to New York, Duritz spans the American geography throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland. But whereas plenty before have documented America in song, America - and California in particular - act as a vast backdrop for the exploration of his own neuroses, in particular a chronic sense of loneliness.

It seems odd that for someone who has lived in the second most populated city in the US, and now lives in its first, this should be an issue, but as anyone who has followed him on Twitter will attest, social detachment has been a challenge for most of his adult life. Here, then you find Duritz at his most confessional. Earthquake Driver talks of the restless spirit that took him "skipping and diving and bouncing back to New York City", unsure whether he wants to be " earthquake aquarium diver...I just don't want to go home", but living along "hungry for affection... I just struggle with connection 'til the water calls me home/Down into ocean among millions of other lonely people/Drowning among the only people we are ever going to know."

It sounds morose - and it probably is - but the Crows as a band - in particular, Dan Vickrey's southern blues-infused guitar - lift Duritz's lyrics up with infectiousness.

Even on a song as dystopian as Elvis Went To Hollywood ("When Elvis went to Hollywood, that's when everything went wrong") the seven-piece contrive to make something vibrant.

There is more than a lot of classic 70s rock to like about Somewhere Under Wonderland, with glimpses of The Doors on Dislocation (which also borrows from the J Geils Band's Centerfold - "So I write to all the girly magazines/Splash my passion on the pages in between") and even Lynyrd Skynyrd on Scarecrow. There are also more contemplative moments, such as John Appleseed’s Lament and Possibility Days, which set Duritz's lyrical intensity against reflective musicianship, with neither overdoing the other.

Unlike the bland and even uninspiring nature of the last new album I listened to, U2's Songs Of Innocence, this one is immediate, even when you have to listen for a second or third time in the hope of unravelling the intricacy of Duritz's words. This is earnest rock-pop, a kind that American bands do best, be it Wilco or Phish, Dave Matthews or Hootie & The Blowfish, and you can even throw Kings of Leon into that pool. Like so many things in the US, familiarity is key to its appeal, but don't take that to be an accusation of homogeneity.

Whether it's the tonal comfort of listening to a classic rock album while on an American road trip, or simply the perfect storm of brilliant songwriting and brilliant performance, Somewhere Under Wonderland is an instantly enjoyable record, and without doubt Counting Crows best for a long, long time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The end of Rock'n'Roll as we know it: U2's Songs Of Innocence

The control room of Studio 5 at Tyne-Tees Television in Newcastle was heaving. Members of The Tube crew, various associates of that week's studio guests (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, Robert Cray, Mick Hucknall) and me, crammed in for what was, undoubtedly, An Event.

In silence, and with hairs upright on almost every neck in the room, the screens faded from black to Bono in monochrome: "See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side. I'll wait....for you." The Event had begun.

Malcom Gerrie's weekly music show on Channel 4 had secured the worldwide premiere - on Friday, March 6, 1987 - of the first single from U2's soon to-be-collossus, The Joshua Tree, which was released the following Monday.

Live Aid, two years before, had already elevated the band into the upper echelons of pop's elite, but The Joshua Tree would take them even higher. Achtung Baby, the gargantuan Zoo TV tour, and the Zooropa album would follow, cementing their position as The Biggest Band In The World ™. Then came Pop, with Discothèque and its quasi-Village People video, and Staring At The Sun and If God Will Send His Angels. And then?

U2 remained The Biggest Band In The World ™, but on scale alone. The tours got bigger - the U2 360° tour concluded in 2011 was the highest-grossing concert run in history, with 7.2 million tickets sold worth $736 million - but the creativity levelled off. As have the album sales - The Joshua Tree sold 25 million copies worldwide: No Line On The Horizon, their last, barely touched 5 million. For some that would still be a tidy return, but not for U2.

Which raises questions around the sort-of surprise arrival, this week, of Songs Of Innocence, the band's 13th album. Unlike the heart-pounding drama of that Friday afternoon in Newcastle, the appearance of U2 at Apple's iPhone event in Silicon Valley on Tuesday and the subsequent free giveaway of the album to iTunes subscribers was as much a statement of how the music industry today - beholden to technology - as it was the launch of an album by one of the biggest acts of the last 30 years.

Picture: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The days of multi-million-selling records is probably long behind us, and I don't just mean sales of 'physical' format albums, either, which means it probably makes sense to give it away and hope to recoup the cost through ticket sales and merchandising. Songs Of Innocence will actually go on sale in October, but given that there are somewhere in the region of half a billion iTunes subscribers worldwide, it's a doubt as to who will actually go out and buy it.

Apple and U2 have palled up before, launching a special charity edition iPod ten years ago; then - with Steve Jobs still at Apple's core - there was more than a hint of middle-aged technology executives trying to look cool. Tuesday's was no different, and no amount of awkward-looking badinage between Tim Cook and Bono can mask the fact that this was, at the end of the day, just a marketing exercise.

Even now, it's hard to know who the carefully stage-managed stunt aimed to benefit. Perhaps U2 hope it will stimulate back catalogue sales; perhaps it really is just an expensive (as in $100 million  expensive) attempt by Apple to look clever (thus masking the fact that neither the iPhone 6 or the Apple Watch are all that much in the way of breakthroughs). But, really. Is this the same rock band that so brilliantly mocked mass marketing barely a decade or two ago?

There are, inevitably, serious questions to be addressed as to how and why Songs Of Innocence ended up in my iTunes library without my agreement, since it's in there, I might as well give it some some consideration.

Is it any good? Actually, it is, but it takes time to get to that part. In their blurb U2 say that that the eleven new songs constitute "a kind of musical autobiography" charting "their earliest influences from 70s rock and punk to early 80s electronica and soul".

So quite why the opening track, The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), sounds more like Adam & The Ants' Kings Of The Wild Frontier than anything the Ramones unleashed is puzzling. The second track, Every Breaking Wave, California (There Is No End To Love), certainly brings the U2 story full circle in so far as it sounds more like Coldplay than U2, replete with "whoah-oah" stadium singalong moments and the now generic bass-and-guitar thuddery over-adopted by the junior group. Indeed, the idea that Coldplay want to be U2 has now been answered. Perhaps they should just merge, like some humungous corporate M&A exercise, and call themselves ColdU2play?

I'm sure there are those who will delight in these first two tracks, but for me, they seemed to perpetuate the lack of real adventure of the band's most recent outings. And as for the idea that they dip back into their musical influences...none that I could tell.

But, like me in the morning, perhaps this album just needs time to wake up and drink some coffee. The first tinges of caffeinated interest appear three tracks in with the ballad Song For Someone. Yes, a ballad. While lacking the melodrama of One or even Without Or Without You, it does at least engage the listener, rather than deflect through lack of interest, and draws you into the narrative Bono (as, one suspects, lyricist-in-chief) is trying to address, "themes of home and family, relationships and discovery", as the band's website explains.

Family and history certainly figure in the reflective nature of Iris (Hold Me Close), a heartfelt tribute to Bono's mother, and Cedarwood Road, which recalls his Dublin childhood with a somewhat sepia-tinted melancholy as he concludes by noting that "a heart that is broken is a heart that is open".

The chief complaint about U2's recent output has been the lack of conscious reinvention that marked their transition from The Joshua Tree's Americana to Achtung Baby's dystopian Berlin. Songs Of Innocence won't do much to change the perception that the Dubliners have become bland in their latter career, but there are some genuine moments of reassurance. Volcano - and try avoiding the word "erupts" with a title like that - erupts with the sort of industrious rock U2 once were known for (or at least adapted from Echo & The Bunnymen...), while Sleep Like A Baby Tonight trundles through sonic experimentation, the like of which the band has shown precious little time for since their 1990s zenith.

It's here that you notice that U2's signature sounds - The Edge's trademark guitar delay and Adam Clayton's often under-appreciated bass - have been reigned in. U2 albums always seemed to be more Bono's than the other three's, but the reflective nature - or, perhaps, the melange of producers (Danger Mouse, Adele's Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and lifelong U2 collaborator Flood) - has contrived to smooth out the harder edges of their canon.

The final track, The Troubles even includes a guest vocal. Not their first (BB King guested on When Love Comes To Town) but in keeping with television's recent obsession with all things cold, dark and Nordic, U2 add Swedish singer Lykke Li, who is not cold and dark, to my knowledge, but is Nordic, to add some tonal variation to Bono's own singing (which takes off into Thom Yorke territory). Despite the title suggesting another attempt by Bono to commentate on Northern Ireland, the song itself is actually an amalgamation of thoughts on the women in his life, in particular wife Ali and mother Iris.

The overall impression of Songs Of Innocence is an album not rushed (it's taken two years to complete) but forced out because U2 have something to say. My question is whether anyone is listening. If they are, I can't help thinking that they - as I am - are wishing the band had something more dynamic to offer. Bowie returned with a surprise single and an even better album. U2 have returned with more of what they left us last time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Try to keep up - you're on Valley time

Apple Watch picture courtesy of Apple

The irony wasn't lost on me: just as Tuesday's Apple event was getting underway at what appeared from the air to be a large crime scene tent in Cupertino, I was just a few miles down the road at the Intel museum, looking at, in many respects, the history of Silicon Valley.

© Simon Poulter 2014
The museum tour commences in front of a giant photograph of the company's original staff - men in suits and ties, and a large and progressively encouragingly group of female employees in beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed spectacles. That was 1968. 46 years ago, perhaps, but a blink of an eye in a part of the world that still boasts the largest distribution of dinosaur fossils.

It's one of the things you are conscious of when visiting America in general: time and history are relative. Years ago I was with a group of American journalists visiting Bruges, where we went past what is believed to be the world's first stock exchange, the bourse, which opened in 1309. They genuinely appeared to struggle with the concept of 1309.

And yet here in Silicon Valley, ten years is a lifetime. When I moved into my Sunnyvale apartment almost 14 years ago there were protests - not against me, you understand - but against the condominium complex which had been built on the site of one of the last of the town's original agrarian cherry orchards. That was when I realised that Silicon Valley, as a concept, dated back no further than the 1960s - and I had grown up in a suburb of London that had evolved during London's great concentric expansion in the 1930s.

Since I was last here five years ago companies have come and companies have gone. Shiny corporate headquarters have sprung up while others have been torn down to make way for $3,000-a-month condos catering for the junior end of the Valley's über-wealth scale. Even the San Francisco 49ers have moved from San Francisco to the recently inaugurated Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

The contrast of fortunes is even greater since 2003 when I left the Valley to move back to Europe. Then, the local economy was still reeling from the twin effects of the dot com bubble bursting and the post-9/11 impact on Bay Area companies.

In 2003 companies like Sun Microsystems and Palm were tech bellwethers. Today, neither exist. Yahoo! was the search king, and Google was simply a start-up built around smart mathematics. Facesmash - Mark Zuckerberg's college prank predecessor to Facebook - was barely a dorm room idea. Netflix had just got going with a clever postal-based DVD rental service. Tweeting was simply something birds did.

And Apple? Even in 2003 there were plenty in the technology industry dismissing Steve Jobs' yet-to-be behemoth as a boutique business. It's hard to remember this now, but the prevailing view was that Apple had a share of less than 5% of the personal computing market back then. The PC - in the Microsoft sense of the name - was still king.

Apple's products were, then, just making the transition from expensive but highly desirable professional tools to being expensive and desirable devices for the new 'digital lifestyle'. The foundation of this transition, of course, was the 1998-launched original iMac.

But on October 23, 2001 Apple launched its first iMac peripheral, the iPod. It was met with a relative murmur of excitement: 9/11 had occurred just over a month before and the world - and especially Americans - had other things on their mind. And critics weren't slow to recognise that Apple's click-wheel MP3 player was simply a nicely packaged interpretation of other entrants to the nascent 'portable jukebox' industry.

Things have come full circle. As Apple's current CEO Tim Cook was introducing the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch on Tuesday, his company were quietly retiring the final incarnation of that original iPod. In 13 years it had shrunk, physically, but expanded its capacity from 5Gb to 160Gb, catering largely for the serious muso who has to carry their entire music collection with them at all times. Today, it is something of an anachronism: a bulky, hard drive-based music player, lacking Internet connectivity, still using the click-wheel (which was never all that good to begin with), and even still using Apple's old 30-pin connector. Yes, it's that old.

But it's been interesting to use this week's Apple event to reflect on how time passes in Silicon Valley. Indeed, this is the first time I've been in the area during an Apple launch since that original iPod unveiling in 2001. Back then, Apple had a share price of just over $10. Currently it's hovering around $100, with the company worth an extraordinary $550 billion.

Despite it's enormous value, the question remains - can Apple truly continue to innovate? And by innovate, I mean make jaw-droppingly interesting new products? Hacking into our iTunes account and giving us a free U2 album whether we want it or not is not innovation. In fact, it's the ultimate example of the fears critics expressed when iTunes was launched, that the platform could become too-dominant and unhealthy for consumer and many artists alike.

Indeed, U2's appearance on Tuesday had the air pseudo-rock'n'roll marketing. The idea of a group of middle-aged technology executives, dressed more for the corporate barbecue than the corporate boardroom, trying to connect with a disinterested and disaffected youth market. I mean, U2?

The band and the brand have been close friends for some time, so to be honest, there wasn't that much to be seriously impressed by. And I'm not altogether sure it worked: after all, there were only two stars of the show on Monday, and neither were much of a surprise anyway.

iPhone 6 picture courtesy of Apple
The iPhone 6 - long expected and much rumoured - will no doubt do well. Apple consumers are stupendously loyal. You can argue all day long as to whether it's Apple's world that Samsung are chasing or the other way round, but there are enough of us who bought into the Jobs/Ive world when the iMac came along in 1998 and were then seduced by the iPod three years later.

From those two devices - hub and add-on - we've willingly added iPhones and iPads, MacBooks and Apple TVs. There is no such thing as "the cult of Apple" - there is just a slick marketing machine, one that is happy to build on its own formula.

The Apple Watch is an interesting idea, but like the iPod to begin with, an amalgamation of others' ideas. It was possible to buy a wristwatch-style case for the previous square iPod Nano, which you could then wear as a watch. It just didn't have all the healthcare and fitness tracking stuff. Nor did Apple have an expensively-acquired Senior Vice-President of watches overseeing it.

The idea of wearable electronics is interesting as well, from a long-term health and fitness point of view. But as much as I appreciate the benefits of such technology, this whole 'machine-to-machine' and 'Internet of things' business starts to get creepy after a while. After all, isn't an electronic tag something you attach to prisoners out on parole?

It's now two full days since Apple held its event. This means two things: one, the first queues are probably already forming outside Apple Stores with (mainly) bearded hopefuls sitting in lawn chairs anticipating being the first to walk out with their new toy on the day it goes on sale next week. And second, the rest of the world will have moved on to the next new subject of fleeting excitement. Because, as the marketing and PR cliché goes, it's no longer revolution, it's evolution. And, really, that's just not as interesting.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Long live the king: Robert Plant - Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar

In an excellent recent interview with Uncut magazine, Robert Plant was depicted walking through the remains of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire. Ludlow is a place I know well, having spent the first year of my career in the pretty - and now gastronomically-engorged - market town on the Welsh border.

The castle itself holds a strategically commanding view over the River Teme and into the Welsh hills, where famously, Led Zeppelin disappeared to get their heads together and creatively recharge while on hiatus from marauding through the western hemisphere.

Uncut’s location for the photoshoot and interview was, then, perfect: the still-leonine king, surveying a more modest kingdom to the one he once ruled.

Moreover, Plant is seemingly content with his world, a 66-year-old rock god making jokes about his entitlement to free senior citizen concessions. This from the onetime viking warrior who travelled across land and sea in a Boeing 707 known as ‘The Starship’.

There is, of course, the slightly thorny issue of Jimmy Page appearing to accuse Plant of "playing games" over committing to one last, lucrative Led Zeppelin crusade. "I'm not my brother's keeper,” he told the magazine in an attempt to defuse things. "And he, really, as a pro, should know better than that... I feel for the guy. He knows he's got the headlines if he wants 'em. But I don't know what he's trying to do. So I feel slightly disappointed and baffled."

The point of all this is that Plant is actual more than comfortable in his more modest kingdom today. The days of the ‘Riot House’ Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard being Zeppelin’s own Xanadu have long gone, as has the Boeing. Today he and his band The Sensational Shape Shifters tour by train and evoke a camaraderie more akin to Robin Hood's Merry Men. Having seen them twice this summer - in Paris and then three weeks later at the Montreux Jazz Festival - it’s clear that this is Plant’s court now.

Plant hasn’t, however, completely abandoned Led Zeppelin: his live set contains quite a number of the band's songs. Some, like Going To California and What Is And What Should Never Be, were recreated in much their original form. While others - notably Rock and Roll - were infused with the world music vibe that pervades Plant’s new album, Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, released today, and which he recorded with the Space Shifters.

It’s a product of both contrasting textures and ethnicity, a blend of African rhythms, Celtic adventure and Middle Eastern exotica. And it starts with Little Maggie, a song from 1948 by two brothers, Carter and Ralph Stanley, from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia.

It is typical of Plant's latter work - taking something old and blending it with seemingly incongruous ingredients to turn it into something which looks exotic and tastes sublime. This, on Lullaby’s opener, Juldeh Camara - the Gambian who plays the single-stringed riti fiddle - blends with Plant’s breathy vocals to reinvent American bluegrass as a music form from thousands of miles away.  

The irony of this is that Plant describes Lullaby as something of an English homecoming. Having spent the last few years bi-located in the UK and Austin, Texas, where he was in a relationship with the musician Patty Griffin, his return to the West Midlands he grew up in has provided fresh perspective - and a wider palette to choose from.

"Now I have a whole index, an absolute rainbow, of influences,” he said recently. "I need to talk about what's going on in my life, in my lap, speaking from my experience; it's far more honest and much more appropriate.” In this spirit Rainbow - another track previewed on the summer tour - takes a gentle and reflective romantic tone, pleasant while the brooding, piano-based ballad A Stolen Kiss, draws on Plant’s break-up with Griffin.

Break-ups are always inspiring, but rather than being Plant’s own maudlin Blood On The Tracks or Face Value, there is a sense of renewed freedom in Lullaby, even playfulness. Thus, Turn It Up finds Plant’s current guitar muse, Justin Adams, having fun Bo Diddley riffing on a song about the great American road trip, "I’m lost inside America…I’m stuck inside the radio, turn it on and let me out!”, touring through the South with nutjob Bible Belt radio stations for amusement.

Over the last two or three solo albums, Adams has been, to a certain extent, Plant’s musical director. Like another former guitar-playing sidekick, a clever sorcerer of influences. “He saved my life, musically,” Plant recently said of Adams in an interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormack. "His contribution, as a positive force in my time, has been second to none,” noting “he doesn’t think the guitar begins and ends with Clapton, Beck and Page.”

That’s no dig at Page, or any of the other two former Yardbirds. It’s simply Plant’s declaration that his musical life has been a journey, one that started in Birmingham as a teenager, seeing blues legends like Son House and Bukka White bring their Mississippi blues to the English industrial heartland, and which now comes to a 10th solo album featuring afro-beat tracks like Arbaden (Maggie’s Baby) which includes the Delta-like line “I’m going down to the station with my suitcase in my hand”.

Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Road is by no means the perfect. Somebody There and the decidedly soft rock House Of Love nod back to the material Plant was producing in the immediate years after Led Zeppelin’s demise - slick 1980s, MTV-friendly pop. They’re not bad, but far less interesting than the diversity elsewhere, and stronger tracks like Embrace Another Fall, a powerful blend of tribal rhythms and walloping guitars or, arguably, the standout of the record, Up On The Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur), with a searing Saharan heat evoked by Adams’ guitar.

Plant has suggested - possibly mischievously so - that this could be his last album, but I don’t think so. Instead of reaching the end of the line, there is a curiosity, still, in him to discover more and encounter new. His live shows this summer weren’t farewells, or even grand, O2-sized attempts to recreate past glories. “It seems to have some sort of finality,” he says of his journey, but that doesn't mean it's over. Long live the king.