Saturday 22 December 2012

The Herbert Bail Orchestra - The Future's In The Past

Following last year's EP release, LA-based collective The Herbert Bail Orchestra have now provided us with their debut album 'The Future's In The Past': eight tracks of courageous and imaginatively-orchestrated americana.

Opener 'Holy Smokes' begins the album with a series of fun broken chords of vocal "bom bom"s that are soon superseded by some livening accordion. Trying not to - at the very least - tap your feet to the rhythm is seemingly impossible, and anyone who dares try will surely give in when the vocals begin their wonderfully loud and guttural ascent.

Quick to provide juxtaposition, second track 'The Big Sound' is a much more sombre affair, though some defiance and strength remains in the way the lyrics are thrown out at us, at times somewhat reminiscent of early David Bowie.

This peak and trough of beats-per-minute continues throughout the album and lets each tune stand solid and separate from the others whenever they wish, yet they all share common themes that hold them together: change, the learning of life's lessons, and acceptance.

'Epic Diva' takes us towards the final track with a short musical parable of damsels and demons, accompanied by steady guitar strums, head-nodding accordion, and clatters on the cowbell. Although perhaps the simplest and briefest of the album's offerings, its story keeps it interested and amused.

"And these fair ladies are like wild animals,
Try and take them home and they'll scratch your eyeballs out.
And this kind of gallantry is gonna kill me.
The next time you see a diva drowning, brotha',
Let her be."

The album fittingly ends with cries of "woah woah woah" on the danceable title track; yet again managing to couple a sense of despair with some rock n'rolling instrumentation.

Whilst their initial EP may have given us a glimpse at The Herbert Bail Orchestra's skills, it is this album that truly gives the group a time to shine. 'The Future's In The Past' is a narrative-filled journey with poetic lyrics towed by some gloriously danceable melodies.


"Go ahead and play the blues if it'll make you happy" - Dan Castallenata as Homer Simpson

Monday 17 December 2012

Goto80 - Last Christmas (Hot Digi Remix)

It's that time of year and, once again, there is a definite slew of Christmas-themed records vying for our attention from all the latest and greatest singers and bands out there.

With that in mind I've ignored the whole lot of them and gone back almost a decade to enjoy 2003's release from Goto80 - a Swedish chiptune musician who works primarily with the Commodore 64 computer (my own personal favourite). Although listed as a 2005 release in his discography, Goto80's cover of Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' was included on the 2003 compilation 'The 8bits of Christmas' from 8bitpeoples, a collection of eight Christmas songs created by artists on a variety of different classic machines (NES, GameBoy, Spectrum, VIC20, etc.).

I've chosen to highlight Goto80's song because it not only gets my nostalgic juices flowing for the Commodore 64, and I also happen to quite like the Wham! original anyway, but because it's a pretty good cover version within the chosen medium. Naturally - considering the limitations of the equipment used - there are no vocals, but the tune progresses nicely from a relatively simple interpretation of the chorus before introducing different elements to vary and fill out the sound. The verses are mostly ignored, but I think that was the right decision to take in this case where voice cannot be included.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and festive song from a highly regarded composer within the chiptune scene and well worth a listen by anyone with a hankering for something a little retro.


"Pop music is aspirin and the blues are vitamins" - Peter Tork

Monday 10 December 2012

Phosphorescent - Song For Zula

The sheer volume of music produced and published every day is both a blessing and a curse. It means that, statistically, even scratching the surface of what's out there is impossible. But it also means that you might hear the latest song from an artist you'd never heard of before, then go on to investigate who this chap is, and suddenly discover a decade's worth of back-catalogue. At which point you naively ask yourself, "How have I managed to miss this for so long?".

Which is exactly what has just happened with the new song from Phosphorescent; the recording name of Alabama-born and Brooklyn-based musician Matthew Houck.

Taken from his seventh album 'Muchacho' (the fourth LP with label Dead Oceans) due for release in March next year, this first single hints at a departure from previous album 'Here's To Taking It Easy's more traditional folk/country sound. A simple but echoing bass and drum line gradually guide the song along its course, helped in no small part by a soaring violin that takes centre stage whenever Matthew's vocals take a moment of silence. Speaking of which, his delivery (often compared to the likes of Springsteen, Waits, Oldham and Petty) is pleasingly gravelly and relaxed while still focussed with every honest word. And it's this obvious openness of his lyrics, combined with the majestic instrumentation, that gives 'Song For Zula' a welcome hold on its listener... and is therefore responsible for me hitting the 'replay' button more times that I can possibly count.

"See, honey, I am not some broken thing
I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee
No my heart is gold. My feet are light
And I am racing out on the desert plains all night"
(full lyrics:

"I don't have to compete in the charts. I can just be myself as a musician, a songwriter and play with the musicians that I really love." - Elton John

Sunday 9 December 2012

Nick Williams - Anniversaries EP

Folk musician Nick Williams has a habit of taking his songs on a route that you weren't quite expecting. But it's a welcome habit: sudden syncopation cleverly diverts from the beat you were anticipating, that high note you were waiting for is avoided in favour of one that gently shakes you, and sometimes even the song ends at a point that might be deemed unconventional. And with a band that covers violin, mandolin, double bass, piano, drums and guitar as well as providing beautiful vocal harmonies, it sounds as though Brighton-based Nick has everything he needs to express himself however he desires.

He describes his Anniversaries EP as a "study in the poetically fragile", and it was recorded in the Summer during a time of family tragedy. As a result, the theme of loss unavoidably predominates the music, and - as is the folk tradition - it glimmers with sincerity and the self-acceptance of emotion, backed up by Nick's sympathetically restrained falsetto voice.

Although the four tracks explore grief and death in different ways, the record does not leave you with overriding feelings of sadness or morbidness. 'Anniversaries' talks of nostalgia and inadvertent distance. 'Birthday Letters' speaks of acceptance and satisfaction of a life that may be reaching its end, but was filled with love. 'Ghosts on the Water', although the most lyrically sparse, feels like the most emotionally complicated song. The line "you never stayed when we're sleeping" hints at a sad memory of disconnection, yet the departed one persists in surrounding the singer. Finally, the aptly-named closing track, 'Closing Time', seems to carry the thoughts of someone that stands blinking at how joy and heartache can coexist.

As the piano strikes the final chord you are forced to marvel at how Nick Williams and the band have delicately created such a tight collection of thought-provoking songs; and they've done so whilst steering clear of producing the kind of contrived tearjerkers that many others attempt.

More... please!


"I'm just a very primate, infantile folk singer." - Robert Wyatt

Saturday 8 December 2012

Zelliack - Noir Tone EP

Texas duo Zelliack are striving to inject a little soul into our downtrodden lives. Their name might be a little unoriginal and cliched in its source (a portmanteau of the pair's forenames: Zack Ordway and Elliot Coleman) but their music takes jazz's relaxed approach to structure and combines it with a unique concoction of smooth guitar grooves, melodic acrobatics, and vocal playfulness to ensure that what we hear is anything but hackneyed.

There's always a worry that anything experimental might just push our boundaries a little too much; but whilst Zelliack definitely seem to enjoy writing themselves out of any genre-defining pigeon-holes (soul? r&b? progressive rock? jazz?... they cover a lot of ground), they are also very careful to ensure that no second on their EP is superfluous.

Zack's work with the instruments is hard to fault. Whether we are being beautifully sedated in some of the quieter moments or pumped up during the busiest sections, every strum and slap seems to have been chosen with a cunning precision. This guy knows what he's doing, and he's doing it well.

Equally, Elliot shows off his vocal range to glorious effect and does so with no arrogance: it's satisfying to hear him belt out several higher-pitched lines on one song, and then flow flawlessly through his lower range. In fact, some of the key points on the EP are those that push and pull us through pitch and tempo - a flurry of words and beats here, a focussed pause there.

Lyrically there is a charming lack of brevity in Zelliack's words that, importantly, steers well clear of pretentiousness. It seems that they want to say as much as possible in each song and - whilst metaphor and imagery isn't used particularly often - their directness gives the music an honesty which fits perfectly.

This debut EP is full and gratifying, with Zack and Elliot complementing each other in a way that resembles the best moments of Tears For Fear's Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, and with a smooth style that's been profoundly absent until now.

Since the release of Noir Tone in February this year, Zelliack have kept us interested with the release of a further track ("Smoove") as well as covering Michael Jackson's "Baby Be Mine". I hope to hear a great deal more from them in 2013.

"The best songwriting comes from being as creative as you can and editing it down to the good bits, essentially" - Alex Kapranos

Friday 7 December 2012

The Bold Type - Welcome Back

Massachusetts quartet The Bold Type (Travis Richard, Ben Dicke, Antonia Navarro, Schuyler Whelden) have been working on their debut album for much of this year, funded in part by eager backers on Kickstarter, and it is now available for digital download as well as CD. Describing themselves as playing within the broad genre of rock'n'roll, their ten tracks show some pleasing diversity whilst avoiding disparity.

Album title and opening track 'Welcome Back' throws us some soulful vocals and little hints of Motown-esque melody, then 'Don't Be A Stranger' surprises us with a combination of rock guitar and gently harmonising "ooh"s and "aah"s. And just in case we still feel like we know what to expect, third track 'Love Is Meant To Last' goes all jazzy and signals that we should just go with the flow and throw all our musical assumptions aside for the next seven tracks.

Other highlights include 'I Won't Follow You' where a female lead vocal from Antonia shakes things up a little in a bluesy ballad; and the super-strummed shout-out 'Mind Your Business' with its amusingly nonchalant middle section with whistles, deep breaths, and a muttered urge to "keep cool" that comes just moments before it all kicks off again.

The beauty of The Bold Type's album is that it's able to show off an array of styles and sounds whilst still retaining a sense of its own theme, and the band members clearly play to their strengths throughout their music. They are confident, cool, and (it had to be said) bold.

"Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest" - Neil Diamond

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Google Play Music

Today, Google launched its music store to the UK through its service: Google Play - where Android users already download their apps, and acts as the equivalent to Apple's iTunes. Considering the dramatic rise of Google since 1998 and its recent foray into the world of smart phones, there was a certain inevitability that it would provide us with a music service. Remembering that Apple had lost favour by the start of the century, its resurgence and return to profitability can almost certainly be pinned down to the introduction of the iPod and establishment of iTunes. Apple's new life of success began with music, so perhaps it is surprising that Google has taken so long to start its assault in this area.

The US have had the music service for a year now, but today is Europe's first chance. Is Google doing anything different, or special, to encourage users away from iTunes and Amazon's MP3 service? Personally, the most interesting aspect is the new cloud feature which lets you to store up to 20,000 songs online, allowing you to stream them to a device wherever you are. Significantly, this is a free service. I believe Apple grants a very small number of files (250?) before it requires you to start paying a subscription, or certainly limits you to songs that have been bought through iTunes. Admittedly, it is very rare that I think to myself, "I wish I could access all my music right now" since I do have an mp3 player with significant storage space. But I can see how Google's cloud service could be useful to many, particularly with the higher number of files allowed for free.

For many I suppose, the key question is how they compare price-wise. And there's not an awful lot in it, although it depends on how you like to buy your music. For instance, here's a couple of recent albums and a couple of 'classic' albums:

Take Me Home: Yearbook Edition
by One Direction
iTunes: £10.99 or 0.99/track
Google: £7.99 or 0.79/track

18 Months
by Calvin Harris
iTunes: £7.99 or 0.99/track
Google: £7.99 or 0.79/track

Off The Wall: Special Edition
by Michael Jackson
iTunes: £6.99 or 0.99/track
Google: £4.99 or 0.99/track

Pet Sounds (mono/stereo edition)
by The Beach Boys
iTunes: £6.99 or 0.99/track
Google: £4.99 or £1.29/track

For the most part, things are fairly equal. Sometimes Google wins over iTunes, and sometimes iTunes comes out on top. Occasionally, Google throws up some per-track prices that are questionable yet counters this with a cheaper album price - and it does seem that, generally, Google is trying to encourage a full album purchase rather than single tracks. However, if you were restricted to just using one service for your device, I don't think there would be much to sway your vote either way. Google has kept itself in line with the competitors, knowing that a price war would only end up damaging everyone, but perhaps the cloud service might be a deciding vote for some people.

"Music is the prayer the heart sings"

Sunday 11 November 2012

Rhonda Merrick - They Said Bon Jovi Died Today

I do tend to arrive a little late to the party. It's almost the end of 2012, and today I discovered what Rhonda Merrick spent each day of 2011 doing.

Born in New Orleans but currently living here in England, Rhonda Merrick - having decided that becoming a musician was something she really wanted to do - made it her mission to record a song everyday throughout 2011 and as a result has given herself several hours of material to sort, review, critique, and possibly rerecord to a standard suitable for broadcast. Given the nature of her undertaking, the often improv-style of her writing, and the raw setup of her own home-studio the quality of those daily musical moments varies in both the audio and the content, but there's no denying her motivation and commitment, and her thousands of fans appreciated her perseverance and frankness when watching her go through the whole process.

Her music is bluesy, soulful, jazzy, and she lists many of the greats as her musical inspiration: Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye. When it comes to what she writes about Rhonda is sparked by everything around her from news reports, celebrities, and self-harm to natural-disasters, sexuality and throwaway messages online. The song that struck a chord with many of her listeners and has since been rerecorded with a video to accompany it, is '27 Club': a song written on the night Amy Winehouse died.

Of the few tunes that I have made my way through so far, the one that I have particularly enjoyed is 'They Said Bon Jovi Died Today'. A song written following a false online report, it speaks of the lies within a relationship and the positivity in moving on, and was the 354th song for that year. I like the Jovi reference, I love Rhonda's soulful vocals, and it feels more substantial and complete that some of her other work.

As far as I am aware, 'They Said Bon Jovi Died Today' has yet to be rerecorded or shared anywhere else except on Rhonda' own website. The link below directs you to the page featuring the audio player and lyrics for the song, though I must sadly warn you that the website isn't the easiest to view or navigate. However, it is well worth ignoring the site's aesthetics and instead just take notice of the music whilst remembering that it is just a demo so the audio is a little rough at times.

'They Said Bon Jovi Died Today' :

I hope to hear more from Rhonda Merrick as she continues to write, perform and release music.

"Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable" - Janis Joplin

Friday 9 November 2012

Family Machine - Skeletons And That

Somehow, unintentionally, I have found myself listening to (and commenting on) the output of bands from Oxford. ToLiesel, Message To Bears, Perfect Fiction: they all hail from the city of dreaming spires, which also just happens to be the place I was born. I've stepped from one to the other via links between them so it  was inevitable that they'd all be from the same area, and Oxford has an excellent musical history, so I could do a lot worse than focus my attentions there. Thus I have no qualms in mentioning Family Machine's acoustic/indie-pop.

It's been four years since their LP was released, "You Are Family Machine", but they have kept their audience interested since then by releasing the occasional single track. 'Sleep' was short but unwaveringly sublime. 'Quiet As A Mouse' kidnapped We Aeronaut's Anna Log for some sweet vocal work. And, on October 31st, they released a new free download: 'Skeletons And That'.

Although the lyrics do talk of ghosts, monsters, and skeletons, the link to Halloween ends there - this is not a song of thrills and horrors. No. This is a song of loss, growing up, and regret. Whilst certainly mournful, the vocal delivery is so beautifully sincere and the instruments so softly bridled, you can't help but think that there's an adjacent joy being expressed at the existence of memories. As the guitar strums the final chord, it is clear that Family Machine weren't trying to throw us head-first through three-and-a-half minutes of forced forlesing; rather, they were nudging us gently with an acceptance of loss and grief. Through subtlety this band have achieved more in a single acoustic song than some do on an entire album of angst-ridden blues.

"Love is like a violin. The music may stop now and then, but the strings remain forever." - June Masters Bacher

Monday 5 November 2012

Perfect Fiction - Another One

A friend of mine on Facebook had an upcoming gig, and mentioned the other bands attending. That's how I came across the music of Message To Bears. Later, browsing Message To Bears' Facebook page showed me a similar list that they had provided, with some bands they'd been sharing the stage with. That's how I discovered the song by ToLiesel. And then, recently, the guitar player from both those groups followed me on Twitter. Viewing his profile, I saw that he had his own solo material...

And that's how I found Perfect Fiction - the music of Adam Harvey James.

It's rare for me to explore the details of my (currently very few) Twitter followers, mostly because there tends to be a lot of accounts that come and go which mainly exist for the purposes of spam. However, on this occasion I did take a look. And I'm glad I did.

Adam's music stands defiantly, and happily, within some classic genre labels: raw, stripped-back, and acoustic. In the same way that so many have done before him, the songs consist of just him and his guitar, but there's no shame in following the mould set by his influences (Neil Young, Jose Gonzalez) if the final result is worthwhile. And when it comes to this particular song, "Another One", I feel it is.

As the first track of his debut EP 'The Sound Of People', "Another One" is a wonderful start and also my personal favourite. Later songs explore Adam's lower register, or cover potentially more sombre themes, but this song is far stronger musically, lyrically and - crucially - vocally. Adam's key talent clearly lies in his strumming and plucking; a skill that is wonderfully showcased during the lyric-less guitar portion of this song. His singing style throughout the record is appropriately rough and untouched but, in this particular song, it deals out the words with a glorious aptitude that outshines the others on the EP.

Whether he focuses on his own work or chooses to concentrate on the bands he is involved with, Adam James is proving that he has a lot to offer.

"Life is like a piano: what you get out of it depends on how you play it" - Tom Lehrer

Monday 22 October 2012

Coldplay - Things I Don't Understand

I was a late-comer to Coldplay: game-changing debut Parachutes had been and gone, and second album A Rush Of Blood To The Head was nearing the end of its shelf-life. Their third album, X&Y, was looming on the horizon. Although I had certainly heard their music here and there, my own musical journeys had somehow kept me away from exploring it further - partly because, prior to this point, I hadn't been particularly overflowing in the wallet department, and so very much relied upon the music I already had.

But then I started having singing lessons. And Coldplay's In My Place was the first song I worked on. I really liked it, and felt that it would make sense for me to explore their back catalogue. And thus, a new Coldplay fan was found in me. I began trying to get copies of their old singles so that I could listen to different versions, or b-sides. I continued this habit with X&Y, buying the single of Speed Of Sound. And it was there that I heard this song for the first time.

I can certainly see why Coldplay chose to leave out Things I Don't Understand when choosing the tracks for X&Y. It can easily be compared to Speed of Sound and, whilst it definitely 'fits' with the rest of the songs on the album, I think it would have unbalanced it a little. Nevertheless, it ranks as one of my favourite Coldplay songs.

The guitar riff, particularly in the intro, always puts me in a good mood despite the fact that - conversely - the lyrics talk of confusion and despair. Indeed, I find the whole song's sound to be rather uplifting even though the content of the vocals might suggest otherwise. Perhaps the key to this juxtaposition is that the final words are:

"But I love this life"

Even though the world can be difficult to understand, with so much that can fall apart around us, life can still be (and should still be) worth living. Generally speaking, if a Coldplay song sounds morose and forlorn, or positive and joyful, then the lyrics will reflect that. However, I think this song deserves recognition for stepping out of that mould a little by pulling us along with words of unsettling uncertainty, accompanied by a relatively exhilarating melody. It's only really when we hit the end of the chorus that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

"The guitar is such a great friend, easy to carry from room to room, from house to house." - Pete Townshend

Saturday 20 October 2012

Reviving Stuff 60s (Brooke Bond D) - Various Artists

Brooke Bond D - Reviving Stuff
Brooke Bond D - Reviving Stuff
You've got to hand it to my mother: why spend money on music if she could get it for free? Hence I grew up on a musical diet fed via promotional cassettes from Weetabix, Smiths, and Brooke Bond, and there is no doubt that they all played a part in the forming of my musical tastes. The Weetabix Top Trax tapes and Smiths' Kid Jensen tape pushed some 80s music into my ears when I otherwise might have been too young to notice. But Brooke Bond, via their Brooke Bond D brand of tea bags, went for the 1960s.

I suspect that my mum had thought to herself, "Ah! Some music that I can appreciate," as I don't remember her ever being a huge fan of 80s rock and pop (despite the numerous times we played the tapes at home or in the car). So maybe the Reviving Stuff tape, with its "12 Smash Hits From The 60s" was exactly the kind of thing she was hoping for when it was given away in 1988. As it happens, like all the other music tapes, my sister and I commandeered it and we were both more likely to be listening to it than my mum would be.

Of the twelve songs on the cassette, at least seven of them remain with me as firm favourites. I dislike none of them, but those remaining five wouldn't rank highly amongst my "most played".

Side One
1. Len Barry - 1-2-3
2. Righteous Brothers - You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'
3. The Walker Brothers - The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore
4. Tom Jones - It's Not Unusual
5. Mamas and Papas - California Dreamin'
6. Lulu and The Luvvers - Shout

Side Two
1. Amen Corner - Bend Me Shape Me
2. The Flowerpot Men - Let's Go To San Francisco
3. Eddie Cochran - Summertime Blues
4. Dusty Springfield - You Don't Have To Say You Love Me
5. Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto - The Girl From Ipanema
6. Little Eva - The Locomotion

As far as picking twelve songs from the 60s goes, I think the guys at Brooke Bond did a pretty good job. But I certainly thank them for providing me with wonders like The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore (that song is simply beautiful), and Bend Me Shape Me (so many memories of singing this at the top of my voice during long car journeys). Whilst I'm sure that I would have come across It's Not Unusual, and California Dreamin' at several points during my life, I think it is possible that The Walker Brothers or The Flowerpot Men could have passed me by.

"I write songs so that the person I didn't say those words to can hear them" - Taylor Swift

Dean Freeman - Give Me Time EP

Back in the day, I used to frequent a music website called PeopleSound (as mentioned in this previous post). The site no longer exists anymore, but I used to enjoy visiting it and using its search tool. By inputting the name of a band or artist that I liked, it would recommend something to me. Not something obvious that I might hear on the radio, but something new from an unsigned or just-signed artist that regarded my chosen band as an inspiration.

During one of my first visits, I was basking in the back-catalogue of Tears For Fears, so I naturally asked PeopleSound what it could offer me. One of the first results was a guy called Dean Freeman, and his song How Does It Feel?. After listening, I soon downloaded a couple of other tracks he was offering, then found his official website which had one extra track on offer.

Today, his website no longer exists. I can find only a couple of references to Dean and his music that aren't just within a list of mp3 files. His career as a musician, it seems, was shortlived. I recall that he was also involved in production and so perhaps he continued to walk down that avenue instead.

Really, I shouldn't mourn that he didn't release any other music. There are hundreds of thousands of musicians that release good stuff and yet never "make it", or fail to be discovered by the right person, or decide not to pursue that particular dream, or just lose motivation and allow it all to fade away. It's a fact of life in the music industry: only a very, VERY, tiny percentage of people ever approach a point where they might call themselves "a success".

But as for this guy...

Dean Freeman was one of the first artists that I listened to away from the radio, or from personal recommendations. His music represents one of the first times that I felt I was discovering something for myself and, at that time (potentially anywhere between 1999 and 2003), that was a big deal for me. I tried to find out as much as possible about his music but, naturally, found very little. In my somewhat childish naivete, I started to set up a fan page and contacted Dean by email requesting the possibility of conducting an e-interview. From what I remember, his reply was understandably cynical; asking what form my website was going to take, and what I intended. I saw sense in the end, and didn't proceed with the 'project'.

My fan-website never saw the light of day and, unusually for me, I don't think I have any old floppy discs with the files on it. His own website no longer exists. All that remains is a couple of old references on websites such as EmoSonic (2008) and The Muse's Muse (2007).

So here I am now, talking about a musician that very little people have probably ever heard of, that never really made it, and that doesn't really seem to exist anymore. And yet, somewhat amusingly, his music actually means something to me because it represents a period in my life when I started finding music with a little more independence. Perhaps then, this is my eulogy for his career as a recording artist.

His one release which was available digitally and as a physical CD (which I stupidly never purchased, so I guess I'm as much to blame for not fully supporting his endeavours!) was his EP: Give Me Time.

Give Me Time EP
1. Give Me Time
2. Rain
3. Something I Can't See.
[currently seems to be downloadable at EmoSonic and CampFame, amongst others]

Curiously, the first track that I ever heard, and my favourite, is How Does It Feel?, which doesn't actually seem to feature on the EP. It definitely had the production values of both the early and revived forms of Tears for Fears, some nicely distorted background vocals, and a confident guitar. From the EP, the title track stands out above the others , but Something I Can't See is notably different due to a piano taking control. If you were to pressure me into making a comparison (which, to be honest, I'm generally quite happy to do) I'd draw a strong parallel with White Ladder-era David Gray.

Maybe someone else out there also downloaded the mp3s like I did, and still enjoys them the way I do. Maybe there's some CDs of his EP still floating around in the world, regularly listened to by someone else who wishes there could have been more.

Whether an artist "makes it" or not, their music still could have something to offer.

Thanks, Dean. You were one of the first important steps along my own, personal, musical road.


Sadly, there's no YouTube video I can link to, no SoundCloud widget to play his music. So I shall reiterate that the Give Me Time EP can be found to download at a couple of places such as:

Enjoy :)

"Dance to the movement of the stars. Sing till the walls around us ring. Pray that it never fades away until we sleep" - David Gilmour

ToLiesel - The Light

After writing the previous blog post about Message to Bears' song Wake Me, I visited their Facebook page.  Scrolling through the latest posts, I saw a link to a recent gig that listed the other bands that performed with them. I searched one of them, ToLiesel, clicked the link to hear their song, and very quickly fell in love with it.

Sometimes it is tough to put a finger on exactly why I like a particular track. Other times I can easily declare, "The chords are wonderful!" or "The voice is heavenly!" or "It fills me with joy!", etc. etc.

In this case, I am ashamed to admit that much of my enjoyment is because it reminds me of another band. Making comparisons seems to be a staple of music commentary, yet usually frowned upon; it is often considered lazy, and too reliant on the reader's knowledge. And yet music is sometimes phenomenally difficult to describe in words that the only way around it seems to be, "They sound like [this band], only rockier/funkier/darker/...".

ToLiesel's The Light reminds me of Big Country, a Scottish band that were mostly successful during the eighties. The similarities were first obvious to me in the vocals, but even the guitars take me back to songs like Look Away and Wonderland. Yet it is important to note that, firstly, I may be the only one that even thinks they sound similar and, secondly, it isn't a bad thing. I could also, just as easily, suggest that the guitar is reminiscent of Parachutes-era Coldplay.

The Light is ToLiesel's only output so far, but I am certainly keen to hear more from this band. The harmonies are unforced and gentle, the guitars ring out with the comfortably familiar indie-echo, and the heavier sections of the tune remain focused and in-keeping with the rest of the tune. It's impossible to make any judgement of a band based on a single track, but I look forward to what comes next.

Oh, and they have kindly made this song free to download. So do it!


"He who sings scares away his woes" - Cervantes

Friday 19 October 2012

Message to Bears - Wake Me

Previously, I mentioned how I have changed some of the ways that I look for or discover new music. One of them was: "A friend on Facebook is in a band of his own, and mentioned the other bands he is sharing a gig with". That is exactly how I heard this song for the first time.

Outrageously, I don't even remember which friend it was that led to me arriving at Message To Bears' website. I recall reading a list of bands playing at one particular gig and, of the bunch that were mentioned, it was definitely the music of Message to Bears that seemed to stand out and, in particular, this track.

The song begins with the sounds of a woodland: birds singing, a stream bubbling away, and it is almost as if you can hear sunlight coming through the treetops. An acoustic guitar is quick to join in with a slow and gentle series of notes. As the tune continues, the pace picks up a little with further instruments joining in, some simple vocals build the sound, and we soon find ourselves at the crescendo. And then everything suddenly falls away and we are left with the guitar occasionally providing a note, a cello carrying us through, and the final "aaaahs" of the vocal line.

Some songs follow a similar progressive pattern to this one, and yet end up with the listener feeling like they haven't really experienced anything - as though it has just been pieced together with little creativity at all; more of a block-by-block approach to music. Jerome Alexander (the multi-instrumentalist behind Message to Bears) has avoided this and, whilst the tune does seem to pass you by almost without realising it, you do reach an ending that leaves you feeling content and satisfied. For me, the biggest surprise was that the woodland sounds continue throughout almost all of the track, when I was expecting them to just act as an introduction and soon fade away.

As the title perhaps alludes to, Wake Me is the perfect soundtrack to starting a day... albeit the kind of day when you have no job to do, and are perhaps vacationing in some idyllic log cabin at a forest's edge. Regardless, it should serve to calm even the most frantic of minds.

"The function of music is the release us from the tyranny of concious thought"

Sunday 7 October 2012

Kid Jensen's Chart Blasters - Various Artists

So far, the most popular post here is about the Top Trax cassettes that were given away by Weetabix in the 1980s. Judging by the comments left on the page, I can only assume that there are lots of people out there that get as nostalgic about these kinds of things as I do.

Those Weetabix tapes got an awful lot of play when I was a child, but if there was one other cassette that could possibly have been put in the player more times then it would have to be yet another tape that was given away back in the 80's.

Smiths crisps (which later became part of the PepsiCo group, and thus some of the products became labelled as Walkers instead) gave away a 10-song track cassette in 1986. David "Kid" Jensen was the celebrity used to give the mix some credibility as he'd been a radio regular throughout the 70's and 80's and, when this tape was released, had made a move from Radio 1 to Capital FM as well as making a start in television.

The album's title is incredibly eighties: "Kid Jensen's Chart Blasters"
"Kid Jensen's Chart Blasters... from Smiths!"
"Kid Jensen's Chart Blasters... from Smiths!"

My sister and I adored this tape and, as with the Weetabix cassettes, I am certain that my relationship with music was forged and moulded by it.

Before the music began on Side One, Kid Jensen himself provided a little introduction that still remains deeply ingrained in my brain. Sadly, the actual tape itself was accidentally left in a car that got sold/scrapped and so no longer can I listen to those immortal words:

"Hi, I'm Kid Jensen, and I've got together with the people at Smiths to bring you a hot selection of chart blasting hits. You'll be hearing from The Bangles, King, Cyndi Lauper and Paul Young, D.C. Lee, Bonnie Tyler, Shakin' Stevens, Dead or Alive, Alison Moyet and Michael Jackson! So get on your feet and jump to the beat with Kid Jensen's Chart Blasters... from Smiths!"
And then The Bangles' Manic Monday would begin.

In fact, we became so used to listening to the tape that whenever I hear one of the songs being played today, I always expect to then hear the intro to the next track off the tape. It seems a little wrong when Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun doesn't begin as King's Taste Of Your Tears ends. But then, that's what custom digital playlists are for these days.

So, for those of you who remember the tape but don't remember what was on it, here's the track listing:

Side One:
1. Manic Monday - The Bangles
2. Taste Of Your Tears - King
3. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun - Cyndi Lauper
4. Every Time You Go Away - Paul Young
5. See The Day - D.C. Lee

Side Two:
1. Holding Out For A Hero - Bonnie Tyler
2. Turning Away - Shakin' Stevens
3. You Spin Me Round (Like A Records) - Dead or Alive
4. All Cried Out - Alison Moyet
5. Thriller - Michael Jackson

"Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die" - Paul Simon

Sunday 9 September 2012

Habits : Finding new music

The radio still retains its position as being my main source of new music. Without it, I suspect my music collection would consist solely of a growing number of albums from the 1980s. No bad thing perhaps but, as I've mentioned previously, I start to get an itching urge to hear something new. So the radio, notably BBC Radio 1, tends to be where I go to for the new stuff.

BBC Radio 1
BBC Radio 1
Except... I'm aware that it's not enough. As the critics will repeatedly say, Radio 1 isn't especially diverse in its genres. Or at least, to be fair to the station, it's main daytime shows are the narrower ones (specialist shows tend to occur late at night or early morning). And of course there's also the fact that you are likely to hear the same tracks played several times throughout the day, as if they are insisting that you like them. Despite these flaws, I still prefer Radio 1 over any other station. But it does mean that sometimes I still feel like I'm missing out on something else.

So where to after radio? How do I find new music? Well... until very recently, I've not been entirely sure.

PeopleSound CDs
PeopleSound CDs
Way back in the mists of time, when downloading music was becoming possible thanks to new broadband internet connection, I spent a lot of time on a website called PeopleSound. Now it appears that the site no longer exists, but I especially enjoyed it due to a search function which allowed me to type the name of a particular artist I liked, and it would then find people that were creating music in a similar style. Many of the bands and artists were unsigned or quietly releasing EPs, but the quality was generally pretty good. The website even created (monthly? I forget...) a handful of compilations CDs with their own recommendations. At a time when I felt like I was still struggling to catch up on the previous decade's music, finding and enjoying this brand new music filled me with glee.

As time went by, and people started to realise just how lucrative the downloadable-music industry could be, PeopleSound - and other similar websites - started to become less about the new and/or unsigned acts that wanted to promote themselves, and more about existing acts that could buy up some feature space. And so I found myself moving away from such sites.

There are still sites out there that are doing something similar, and even offering more by allowing the artists to sell their music directly to the consumer. But whilst you can browse genres, or see who is currently the highest rated, I don't find it easy to find something that I enjoy. I could trawl through for hours and still not feel like I've discovered something golden.

Until not very long ago, YouTube was definitely the next-best-thing to those old websites I enjoyed. The community aspect of it, the huge volume of videos, and the ease at which you could find something 'related' (and therefore, hopefully, equally enjoyable) to what you were listening to, made it an easy way to lose time to new music. Except, for some reason, YouTube recently changed the format of the music section and now, unless it is in their top-rated/top-viewed charts, it is very difficult to just discover something for yourself. No longer is it simple to just see what the latest upload in the 'music' section is. And for that reason, it frustrates me.

And so, despite the plethora of music-promoting/selling websites that continue to pop up, I've found myself actually going back to the old-fashioned way - albeit with a little Internet-quirk: individual recommendation. Except, it isn't just the case of having a friend with similar tastes say to me, "Hey! Have you heard of a band called...?".

No. This is how I've found new music recently:

  • A band I already enjoy used Twitter to mention a group that they've just begun listening to.
  • An artist I already like tweeted about how he enjoys the work of his newest label-mates
  • A friend on Facebook is in a band of his own, and mentioned the other bands he is sharing a gig with.
  • Facebook's ticker showed me that a friend was using Spotify to listen to an artist I hadn't heard before.

No doubt these methods aren't exactly new and I'm sure many people have been using Twitter (and similar sites) to find new music for quite some time now. But for me it's a new place, and new way, to explore.

plug in music
That's not to say that there isn't a place for music websites anymore. Far from it. I have plenty of time for individuals that blog about the music they personally enjoy, or for websites that are happy to diversify from what I can easily find every hour on Radio 1 (e.g. I still regularly return to Plug In Music, and have been doing so since it began in 2001). I will even risk some time by exploring the 'spolight acts' suggested by the big names in online music because there's still a chance I might find something I really like. But a recommendation from someone whose opinion I respect - whether via Twitter, Facebook, blog, face-to-face, self-run website, etc. - is far better for me than to just check the "most-listened-to" on iTunes.

"If your life had lyrics, would they be any good?" - Doug Coupland

Monday 27 August 2012

The Jezabels - City Girl

Over a decade ago, I used to tune into American radio stations over the Internet in order to listen to music I hadn't heard of before. I'd be listening to bands that were unheard of in the UK, hearing songs that still floated within my little comfort bubble of Western popular music, discovering tunes that a massive nation had already regarded as popular and/or successful. I did it not only to try and find something new, but also because I found the whole experience a little amusing and interesting. It was somewhat curious that a song could exist just across the ocean: listened to, enjoyed, and bought by millions; yet 99.9% of the English population had probably never heard a single note of it. That's not to say that we weren't soaking up tonnes of American imports at that time. We were. But generally the American airwaves were entirely disparate to the British.

Now, things are a lot more similar. Leading music station Radio 1 might not play every single released by the top American artists, but chances are they've digitally spun at least some of them. Browse through their weekly playlist and there's a lot more airplay for our transatlantic neighbours, and of course plenty of British music too. Tune into an American station today as an English person and, if you happen to be keeping up with current popular music, there won't be an awful lot that takes you by surprise. Good thing? Bad thing? I'll leave that up to you (or for a later post, at least).

The Jezabels
The Jezabels
What it does mean is that the USA is no longer my go-to for that fix of something-new-yet-"Western". With the slot empty, Australia has piped up. And it has shoved The Jezabels to the front as my initiation.

For an indie-rock band that have existed commercially for around four years, have won the Australian Music Prize for their album 'Prisoner', and have relentlessly toured the festival circuit, it really seems like they should be deserving of a little more recognition over here - perhaps that time has now come after being Garbage's support act last month in their UK tour. It's certainly easy to tell from the broadening swells and crescendos of their music that The Jezabels have concentrated on being a live act; but they have done superbly well in translating this onto a record and still maintaining that epic feel.

The most recent single, City Girl, stands comfortably beside their previous releases and shouldn't shock their fans at all. However, its sound surges into something much bigger and more anthemic than the likes of Trycolour or Endless Summer, and thus could well be the song that builds their popularity with newer listeners.

The lead singer has been likened vocally to Paramore's Hayley Williams, and although from her strong delivery it is easy to see - or hear - why, it would perhaps be more complimentary to suggest she shares a similarity in voice with The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde. Furthermore, the band as a whole has much more in common with the likes of Arcade Fire, The Killers, or (White on Blonde-era) Texas when you take into account the expansive orchestration and jumps in range.

Will the UK get treated to a little more from The Jezabels, or will they remain solely the joy of our antipodean friends? I personally hope that it is the former, and they've definitely put the hard work in to become a treasure that Australia shares with us.

"I feel like an actor when I'm onstage, not a rock artist. It's not much of a vocation, being a rock and roller." - David Bowie

Sunday 26 August 2012

Charli XCX - Stay Away

Marina and the Diamonds.

There, I've said it.

Anybody that has been following the progress of Charli XCX's music and - in particular - her recent releases in the approach to the debut album in October, will have undoubtedly come across comments (and possibly criticisms) that suggest her vocal style lies very much within the same category as Abergavenny's popular female export. But although the similarities are certainly apparent, it wouldn't be fair to the new girl (full name, Charlotte Aitchinson) to just label her as a Marina-copycat, particularly when you take into account the darker tone of her work so far and the more-surprising elements of her previous material.

Charli's music and image definitely nestles neatly into the current circle of new-wave, female synth-pop: bold, brazen, and beautiful. The 1980's inspirations sit plainly and unashamedly in view, and she vocally cuddles up to everyone from Kate Bush, to Gwen Stefani, to Alison Goldfrapp; and from love-her/hate-her Lana Del Rey, to La Roux's Elly Jackson, and of course the aforementioned Marina.

Dip into her past and it seems as though her modus operandi was to do whatever she damn well liked and to hope that maybe someone along the way will also connect with it. Judging by the current buzz, it blatantly worked for her. However, it would be safe to suggest that she's recently toned herself down just a touch, and in turn has allowed her music to have a slightly broader appeal. Ignore the yelps and critical sighs of those who claim it is solely a case of selling-out to commercialism, and instead give Charli the benefit of the doubt by assuming that perhaps she's found "her sound" and it's just a little less selfish now.

The expectation is that she'll net more fans via the happier and dancier story of You're The One - even if it does confuse itself with grungy verses amongst its praise-ridden chorus (which the video at least recognises with its bipolar visuals), but I suspect that Stay Away is closer to what Charli would like to continue releasing. It is far darker, far more emotional, and far more mature. Whilst You're The One could come and go in an instant, Stay Away could make a more permanent presence in angst-ridden bedrooms and earphones across the country. And rightly so; for although it might not offer any great new ideas or take us on any kind of journey that we've not been on countless times before, Charli's delivery in Stay Away (particularly the sparse Bush-esque calls, and the extra push given on the title's words) suggests a sincerity that needs to be harnessed and applauded right now in the hope that her future is a path that remains easy for her followers to walk upon, but which slowly veers away from all those she is being compared to.

Oh, and what does the XCX after her name mean? According to her interview with Rolling Stone, nothing at all: "I really just chose the name because I thought it looked cool and sounded catchy". Sounds like a perfectly good reason to me...

"All the bad publicity does toughen you up. The only way you can deal with the criticism is by learning not to care." - Simon Le Bon, Duran Duran.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Piracy : Google's Responsibility? Pt. 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the British Phonographic Industry's demands of Google. They requested that the first page of results for a musician or song on the search engine should not include any websites that clearly offer illegal music downloads, regardless of whether such sites are the 'most popular' or not. Google's response at the time seemed fairly clear: they did not support piracy at all, but were not willing to make the changes asked as it undermined the search process (popular sites being ranked higher) and they were not responsible for the visiting habits of their users.

Yesterday, Google seemed to make a u-turn on that decision:

Financial Times: Google acts to reduce pirated content
Gizmodo: Google Lays The Smack Down on Torrent Sites...
Google Inside Search: An Update To Our Search Algorithms

Google plans to make changes to the search results depending on how many valid copyright removal notices they have received for particular sites. Specific pages that are in breach of copyright are already removed from results once Google receive a notice, but the new search algorithm will effect, as a whole, a website's position in their search results.

For example, in the past month, there have been requests to remove almost 4.5 million URLs. The biggest offending domain was, which accounted for almost 300,000 of them (the BPI, incidentally, was the main reporting organisation). Based on this, it would be safe to assume that the next time you Google your favourite artist, will be pushed way down the results in favour of more legitimate websites.

Although generally considered as a good move - particularly by those in the music, gaming, and film industries - there are still some questions and criticisms.

It is theoretically possible that some websites may be unfairly penalised. They may provide a hosting service for video, audio, etc. but have their own strict policies regarding the uploading of copyright-infringing materials. Whilst they may be going through their own battles removing links to illegal downloads from their own users, Google may also be flagging it as a problem-site, and thus lowering their position in the search results. As I touched on in my post about YouTube converters, Google'sYouTube website can often be found to be hosting content that infringes copyright laws. Unofficial uploads of various TV programmes, films, or music videos all cross the same boundaries that Google is trying to take a stance against. Will we see YouTube's position drop in search results? I suspect not...

A cynical surfer might also point out that Google itself is spreading further into media distribution through its TV services, app. store, etc. and so may just be trying to protect its own intellectually property, rather than becoming too worried about everybody else's. Furthermore, there is some worry that the search engine is starting to succumb to pressure from industry and/or government, and thus may no longer be the lauded homepage for quite so many people as a result.

By far the biggest question is whether this will actually play any significant role in reducing piracy. Sadly, I imagine that it probably won't. In the same way that methods of piracy have consistently kept up with changing technologies in digital rights management, it is fair to say that the pirates will quickly find an alternative way to share what they wish. Equally, those people looking for free and illegal downloads will discover new methods to do so.

Good luck Google. Like many, I do not encourage people to download music illegally. However, I also wish to search the web for whatever I want... no matter what it might be.

"Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music" - George Carlin

Sunday 5 August 2012

Nik Kershaw - So Quiet

Before I was about fourteen or so, my knowledge of Nik Kershaw's music consisted entirely of the three songs that came free with the Weetabix Top Trax cassettes from the mid-80s': I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Wouldn't It Be Good, and Wide Boy. I probably grew up hearing them several thousands of times and so - whether by choice or just simply through overdosing - they became favourites of mine. Eventually, a decade or so later, I decided I wanted to explore more of his music and so requested a copy of his 'Best Of...' album for my birthday. On the collection, amongst the familiar songs and the several other hits that had passed me by, were some remixes and B-sides. One of them, So Quiet (a B-side to Wide Boy), I particularly like.

I suspect my enjoyment of it is down to its simplicity. Whilst certainly not trying to take anything away from Kershaw's song-writing or his producer's skills, So Quiet stands apart from the others on the collection (and from the majority of his back catalogue) due to it lacking any of the frills and effects that can be found elsewhere. Aside from some synth-strings emphasising the chorus, the song essentially consists of just Kershaw's vocal and a piano accompaniment of broken arpeggios and occasional solid chords. Had it been selected as an album track, perhaps it would have been subjected to further layers of instruments, but personally I cannot imagine a version with drums or guitar: its wonder is in its simplicity.

(Incidentally, I keep meaning to sit down, listen to the song and try to transcribe the song's piano, as I've never come across any official piano music anywhere. If I get around to it, and if they turn out okay, perhaps I'll post the results here)

Lyrically the song isn't especially verbose, with short verses and the oft-repeated titular lines. Again it seems that simplicity is the key to the song but, despite this, it is clear that it talks of loss. One could easily infer that it is talking of the end of a relationship (certainly there is a great deal of love involved), but I suspect it more strongly implies death.

"I thought I heard a sigh,
As you waved the world goodbye,
While the snow lies o'er meadows like a shroud"

Although perhaps short on lyrics, the words that Kershaw has included seem to be delicately chosen and shine through beautifully (like the one above, and the one below).

"So when I think of you,
I think of violet and blue,
And all the things that make you stand out in a crowd"

There's sadness present in the acceptance of a goodbye, a smile in the memories that remain, and just a brief moment where perhaps the grief is allowed to take over in the calls and wails before the middle-eight. Finally, as the song reaches its end, there is a sense of irresolution with the last chords' weak cadence ringing out - suggesting that nothing is ever entirely over.

"Those who wish to sing, always find a song." - Swedish Proverb

Surfacing - Sarah McLachlan

There are a few albums in my collection that I consider to be perfection. I don't necessarily mean that there's no room for improvement, or that every single song is amazing. It's more to do with my willingness to listen to the album as a whole, without feeling like a track is just filling a gap, without any temptation to skip, without any desire to move on to something else.

Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing is one of those albums.

Her fourth studio album, and with great success preceding it, you'd have thought that maybe I'd have heard of her before. But I hadn't. Whether's it is due to Britain not receiving very much in the way of music from Canada, or just down to my listening habits back then (I was still very much exploring 80's music at that time, rather than anything new), I was entirely unaware of her or her music. The first time I listened to anything she had created was when I put Surfacing in the CD player for the first time.

I was sent the album by a girl from America. I was very surprised to receive it; I don't think I was expecting any kind of gift at all, it just turned up one day. Back then, when I must have been about fifteen, I was involving myself in an online, long-distance relationship with this girl. Regardless of how I now look back on that time and whether or not it was "silly", or "adolescent", and whether or not it could even be regarded as a "real" relationship, the fact remains that for a few months I felt as thought I was in love with someone I'd never even met. At the time, I'm sure it seemed as though it lasted a long, long time but, if I try and remember, I'm sure that it might just have been throughout a Summer. Either way, my fifteen-year-old self felt as though it was all very real indeed.

We had already broken apart by the Winter, but still remained in touch a little. And then one morning in December I came downstairs to find a small parcel with the CD and a Christmas card inside. She had sent me Surfacing, and later mentioned to me that she knew I would like it.

I did like it. I do like it. I love it.

The album is incredibly introspective and, at times, certainly has a rather depressing air about it. For my mid-teens it was probably a perfect choice as - although not actually going through anything particularly horrible or life-changing - I sometimes felt like I needed to be a little forlorn and morose sometimes. Surfacing gave me an easy way to lie down on my bed for forty minutes, and not do anything else except listen intently. The sleeve did not include the lyrics (a pet hate, to be honest), so I scoured the Internet for them and printed them so that I could sit and read along... eventually singing along. I did this goodness knows how many times. The lyrics are now permanently ingrained in my memory, I'll be surprised if I ever struggle to recall them in the future.

The connection between this album and the girl who sent it to me still exists to some extent. I mean, I don't hear a song and find myself thinking about what once was. No. I just remember the circumstances that led me to receiving it, and how it became my solace for an end of a relationship. It later got played a few times when spending time with my first real/serious girlfriend, and probably a few times after it ended I suspect.

Nowadays, I don't often find the time to just sit and listen to an album without distraction. If any chance exists it tends to be whilst driving, but there's a certain amount of concentration that is required for that! However, from time to time, a single song from Surfacing will pop up on my iPod, and I'll feel compelled to listen to the album as a whole once again. 

It peaks and troughs wonderfully from an ever-so-slightly upbeat starting track of Building A Mystery (and therefore the obvious choice of single), sliding down into moments that describe isolation and despair and regret, then pulls you back up into one of my favourite tracks: Sweet Surrender. It takes no prisoners as again there's a dip of sadness, an acceptance of loss, a recovery... then the final instrumental track with the beautifully haunting sound of the saw being played.

I have most of Sarah McLachlan's other albums but none of them compare to Surfacing. Whether the nostalgic links makes it difficult for something to come close, I don't know. Would I feel differently if I had just stumbled upon the album myself somewhere? It's difficult to say. All I know is that it came along at exactly the right time for me to develop a bond with it that still continues over a decade later, and I think that's one of the most meaningful ways for music to exist.

"Music is the fourth great material want, first food, then clothes, then shelter, then music." - Christian Nevell Bovee

Friday 3 August 2012

Piracy : YouTube Converters

Previously, I mentioned Google being under-attack from the British Phonographic Industry for not being more proactive about how it lists websites that promote music piracy.

Today (although it has been murmuring away in the background for a couple of months) it hit the news that Google has been making its own stand against piracy. As owners of YouTube, Google has issued cease-and-desist orders to certain websites that provide tools for downloading the audio from YouTube videos; therefore making it possible for someone to easily get an mp3 just by finding the video somewhere on YouTube.

There is an abundance of websites that offer this kind of service. Some of them are riddled with advertising, thus providing the owners with a decent amount of revenue depending on their visitor counts. Many such sites make it very clear that their intention is to provide a way to get hold of music for free. Other sites are a lot simpler, cleaner, and more professional, and may provide other options for file retrieval and conversion. I've used one such site several times in the past. Admittedly, this has only been for converting my own files and not to download music (the audio quality on YouTube videos tends to be lower than I prefer), but I understand how useful such a tool can be. I also understand why YouTube sees them as a problem.

Firstly, there's the obvious issue of copyright and piracy. Although backing down from the BPI's demands, Google does want to be seen as doing something to prevent this kind of 'theft'. The official YouTube channels of artists and music labels provide a location for the music to be streamed legally. They don't want you go sneaking in and taking the audio for yourself, and therefore not go out and spend money on the recording.

Secondly, and more cynically, if you grab the audio for the song you may be less likely to visit YouTube to listen to it. Therefore, Google's visiting figures could potentially drop, along with their advertising revenue.

Whether the second reason is as important to Google as the first, remains to be seen. But any attempts to maintain and support the integrity of a musician, both in terms of their ideas and their finances, should be seen as positive. However, as with the BPI's own demands earlier, is this the right way to go about it?

Legally, there's a certain amount of personal use of copyrighted material that is allowed. This is particularly the case within education. One site received one of the cease-and-desist letters from Google and did what they were asked, but expressed their sadness at having to do so, making reference to the use of the tool by teachers. Other websites approached by Google have been less submissive.

I think the biggest issue here with Google's approach is hypocrisy. Google Search is a tool that can potentially be used for finding pirated music, but isn't marketed as such and certainly doesn't suggest it is used in such a way. Should Google be held responsible for its malicious misuse by the public? No, I don't think so. Equally, tools that can potentially be used to illegally retrieve copyrighted material - should they be held responsible? Umm... maybe... I think the sites that are clearly marketing themselves for that very purpose are asking for trouble, but others with a more educational viewpoint have a better standing.

More hypocrisy lies in the fact that YouTube has a LOT of content online that does not comply with copyright regulations. It's often possible to find whole episodes of television programmes, or watch music videos, etc. that have not been posted online in an official capacity. In other words: Joe Bloggs rips his DVD and puts the videos online. There's a similar problem with people using music in their own personal videos. Google makes some attempt at preventing this, often removing music from videos if its software detects it, or taking down any videos that have copyright claims made against them. But ultimately, YouTube/Google could be accused of hosting copyrighted material and not just providing a tool to find it. It would make a lot more sense if they concentrated on trying to prevent that happening.

I fully support anti-piracy, and certainly would never wish for any material I might create or own to become freely available against my wishes. But I am not sure if this is the way for Google to approach it.

Plus, anybody with a little computing knowledge could just use some free audio software directly record the music from a YouTube video as it plays through the computer. The online services make it a little easier, sure, but I'm not sure they should be under such a direct attack.

"People haven't always been there for me, but music always has" - Taylor Swift

It's Raining Men - The Weather Girls

Quite simply, I hate this song.

I cannot stand it at all.

Easily my least favourite song of all time.

The song really is rather privileged to have this level of hatred from me since I very, very rarely dislike a song as much. There is a lot of music out there that I will choose not to listen to, or that may not be to my taste, or I feel does not demand my time at all. But for me to hate a song, well, that takes something special. So, congratulations to The Weather Girls for managing it. There's some obvious reasons why I might not take a liking to this song:

The lyrics declare joy at an abundance of men being available... I'm not looking for men.
Therefore, it's considered to be a gay anthem... I'm not gay.
And also, it's sometimes considered to be an anthem for women... I'm not a woman.

However, there are other songs that could be described as such, and I don't necessarily dislike them as a result. In fact, in terms of determining whether I enjoy a song or not, it being a "camp classic" or a "female anthem" really plays very little part at all. Geri Halliwell (of Spice Girls fame), did a cover of this song in 2001. Whilst I'm no big fan of it, I don't hate it the way I hate the original version.

Nope... there's just one single reason why I dislike the song so much. And, really, the music itself isn't even to blame. So what is it? What's the reason why I find myself leaping across the room to turn it off if it gets played on the radio?

The god-awful music video.

There's a chance that, before I saw the video, I might not have minded the song particularly. But the moment I'd seen it once, I could never un-see it. Specifically, it's the awful chroma-keying (aka green-screening) that hits a nerve. From about a minute into the video, The Weather Girls look out a 'window' to see men falling from the sky. Except the angle, perspective and size is ridiculous and nonsensical... not to mention the acting. Then the ladies decide to leap from the building, and they are shown 'floating' down to the ground. At one stage, the chosen chroma-key colour is extremely similar to part of a lady's clothing, and so she's somewhat transparent in front of the city background.

My assumption is that it was an extremely low budget video - the rest of it certainly suggests as much. And clearly the whole thing is all very tongue-in-cheek and not expecting to be taken seriously at all.

But... for some reason... the awful special effects frustrate the hell out of me. And so now, even when it is just the song playing, all I can think of is those moments where things don't quite look right. I'm sure it is terribly unfair, awfully pedantic, and more than a little pathetic to let myself get worked up about some cheap video effect. But I do, so there!

I almost don't want to link the video here, but I will as a warning to you all!

"My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary." - Martin Luther

Friday 20 July 2012

Piracy : Google's Responsibility?

Over this last week, the UK news has shifted some focus onto the debate between the British Phonographic Industry (now calling itself the British Recorded Music Industry, but still abbreviating itself to BPI) and Google. The BPI is pushing for Google to take a more active role in preventing music piracy by preventing websites which are known for illegal file-sharing from appearing as a top result in searches. The example being thrown about is that performing a Google search for "Adele mp3" will provide links to infringing websites before displaying the likes of iTunes or Amazon.

Google already receives thousands of requests from copyright holders for the removal of links to sites that are providing illegal downloads, and has been upholding the majority of these. Theo Bertram, the UK Policy Manager for Google, has offered a reply-of-sorts to the BPI's demand, saying that Google is steadfastly anti-piracy but also pro-freedom of expression - and that the two are not mutually exclusive. Google instead suggests that the source of income that these offending websites have in advertising or payments for subscriptions should be removed, thereby making it financially difficult for the sites to exist. It does not feel liable nor responsible: the sites are indexed by Google, and shown as results based on popularity and relevance. Google isn't hosting the sites, nor is Google purposely promoting them.

My opinion (for what it's worth)?

I don't think Google should be held accountable nor responsible. For a start, keeping a track of all the illegal music-sharing websites and removing them must be a mammoth task. A task that will never end since the websites will just move, become mirrored, or find some other smart way around it. And other sites will also start up. Google is doing a pretty good job of keeping up with the requests for removal, but it's endless. As for adjusting the position of a website in search results... I think that could be the beginning of something dangerous. Is it up to Google (or another organisation/corporation) to dictate what should and shouldn't be a) indexed, b) searchable and c) listed highly (even if the click-through ratio for that site happens to be particularly high)?

Again: Google doesn't provide the content, it doesn't host the content, it doesn't associate with it. Google's search tool is just that: a tool. And although using similes is a lazy, flawed, and incredibly easy way to draw comparisons, I'm gonna' do it anyway...

The Internet is like an unbelievably huge city with billions of locations in the forms of websites, trillions of roads between those sites, and massive diversity between locations. Like any city, there are "bad" areas and "good" areas; places the public shy away from, and places that people flock to; locations with a reputation for wrong-doing, and those with metaphorical halos hanging above them. How do you find ANYTHING in a city like that? You need a map. The map provides you with the location of everything, as long as you know what you are looking for, and then off you go if you want to.

Google is your map. It doesn't tell you to go to the disreputable locations. It tells you where they are. Should our town maps cover up the areas where criminal activity is likely to take place, just so we find it harder to get there?

If I'm going to go really ridiculous with the similes, I could say: "A hammer is a tool. It is not the fault of the tool's manufacturer if someone buys one and then beats someone else around the head with it". But then things start to edge towards discussions about knife crime, or gun ownership, and really that's a little too far...

Google DOES have a certain amount of responsibility towards safe and sensible usage of the Internet, but I do not feel that they should be called up to begin a censorship programme at another organisation's demands. Equally, Google is not the only search engine on the Internet. It's own popularity should not make it a sole target. The BPI should be approaching ALL search engines and, *ahem*, "decision engines" that can be used to reach offending websites if it actually feels they are the root of the problem.

I admit it's a difficult issue, and a difficult battle. Back in the day, Napster was shut down because it provided the tools for people to illegally share music - even though it didn't host the files itself. However, it's intentions for infringement were substantially clearer. But where on earth do you draw the line, if you draw it at all?

I stand by Google's position, and I also feel it is unfair that they should become a target for blame due to the size of the company and its financial success. It is individuals that are pirating and sharing music. The public attitude towards music, it's value, and an artist's worth needs to be changed before anything major will ever happen. Piracy has often been seen as a victimless crime... a non-criminal crime, as such. Until this attitude changes, it's going to be a losing battle.

Incidentally, there's such a ridiculous amount of legal free music available on the Internet, that scouring sites for an illegal download of that latest Rihanna hit almost seems a little silly. Just because it's being freely distributed without any copyright infringement, doesn't mean it's rubbish. I mean, seriously, it's possible to spend your hard earned money on some serious dross, so why not go low-risk and discover something guilt-free too.