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