I’ll Never Subscribe to a Streaming Service…

All right, we’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime but then I’ve got kids and there’s Ninjago and Paw Patrol and, god help us, Horseland… And The Good Wife, Designated Survivor, Jessica Jones, Touch, Sense 8, but that’s beside the point. I mean, I’ll never subscribe to a music streaming service. 

I like to own my music. I like to feel the product in my hand, to run my fingers along the fissures in the brittle jewel cases, to read, braille-like, the indentations in the squidgy cardboard sleeves born in the early-00s. There’s no substitute for battered bits of plastic and paper lying around, their erstwhile contents getting scratched as careless hands replace them in the wrong boxes.

Then my phone provider (EE, to give them a call out), sent me a message inviting me to access Apple Music for free for six months. In the process, not only have they committed me from July 2017 to paying £10 per month to access my music, but they have re-invigorated my interest in “new” music. I say “new” because little of it is truly “new” but rather is those albums that, in the last twenty-years or so, I was never quite ready to splash hard-earned cash on. Those albums that, when faced with in the CD exchange in Wimbledon never quite made it to the top of the list – often leapfrogged by albums I’d never heard of by artists I knew only by association through written reviews in Uncut, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

So, now I am truly hooked on this nagging Apple drug, here are the top five discoveries I have made – and should have made (for the most part) 10-20 years ago…

Can – Ege Bamyasi

I really don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe Can. Suffice it to say that the album sounds ahead of the curve, insistent and infectiously flirtatious; frighteningly danceable rhythms, fluid and free – no Can, no Pavement, no Siouxsie, no mid to late period Radiohead (or a thousand other bands now at the forefront of modern “post”-“rock”). It is almost impossible to believe you are listening to an album from 1972.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

I don’t really like what has come to be known as R&B (as distinct from rhythm and blues), and while iTunes has it that Freetown Sound is an “alternative album,” it has strong elements of what I think of as that genre. But, what I really hear is soul. Curtis Mayfield’s version of soul, with something of his intensely political but affirmative voice, guided along the pathways opened by Massive Attack and refined by Dev Hynes in his Blood Orange guise. 

It’s not an album designed, I think, to speak directly to a middle class, middle aged white man like me, but like Janelle Monàe’s The ArchAndroid, it transcends my limitations. I don’t understand it. The reference points I do get – Michael Jackson, 80s funk… – are not highlighted on my musical map. But, damn, it’s great to listen to.

Calexico & Iron & Wine – In the Reins

Phew. After Can and Blood Orange, I feel like I back on familiar terrain. Guitars? Check. Shuffling drums? Check. Pedal Steel? Check. Calexico is one of those Uncut championed bands I never quite got around to. I had a few tracks from the magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed CDs and, whenever they came up, I nodded along and thought “I like this.” Similarly, Iron & Wine was a band I knew more as a reference point for bands that I liked than because of any particular listening experience.

Listening to these two bands working collaboratively has led me to downloading more of each back catalogue, but this is the album I’ve most frequently come back to. I suppose at 28 minutes, I should probably call it an EP rather than an album, but it feels whole and complete. The harmonies between Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Calexico’s Joey Burns are tight and prove more than the sum of their parts, the bursts of stax horns on History of Lovers have the transformative quality that I find in all my favourite songs.

Case/Lang/Viers – Case/Lang/Viers

Skimming through my record collection reveals a soft spot for singer songwriters, and specifically for the literate, intellectually engaged ones, such as Thea Gilmore, Cat Power and Sara Watkins. And here are three of them, working together: Neko Case, KD Lang and Laura Viers.

I know each to some degree or other, with Neko Case being my strongest suit but Lang perhaps the best known. I know none well enough to easily pick out who might be leading each track. But that hardly matters where there is no weak link (in absolute or relative terms) and the true magic is the way they blend their voices in service of the material, the harmony’s recalling Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with the Watson Twins, while never allowing one voice to stand above. 

If the Case/Lang/Viers moniker suggests the dusty offices of a regional firm of accountants, there is nothing about the songs that sounds as if bean-counters have been at work. Each song sounds crafted, the songwriting and arrangements mapped out to punch in the right places and lull in others, the guitars, bass and drums foundation supplemented by inventive string arrangements and pedal steel. Just beautiful.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour

I first heard of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker via Jim Moray’s Low Culture Podcast. Like Moray, C&W take folk music in a direction where more is seen as more. However, where Moray is, on occasion, a folk McCartney with no-one to hold him back, C&W introduce a little more light and shade, though mostly shade. NCBBTH is a melancholy listen, but not a depressing on.

The key hooks here are the clarity of Clarke’s vocals (neither overly mannered, in the way that makes us impure-folkies cringe a little, nor a faux American sop to Anais Mitchell’s reviled “poppers” in Hadestown), the musical complexity of Walker’s guitar lines and Clarke’s multi-instrumental flourishes. Added to these, traditional arrangements aside, Clarke’s lyrics are thoughtful, the glass half full, but still filled with a sweet liquor. Time moves on, losses are felt and it is well worth joining Clarke and Walker on the journey.

So, I was wrong. I owe my friend Pip an apology for being so absolute in my conviction that nothing good would ever come of music by subscription. And I owe EE for dangling Apple Music before me. I will still buy music that enthrals me so that I can hold it and turn the pages of the liner (something digital has yet to provide with any great facility). 

That aside, the entity I will doubtless end up owing most to is Apple. From what I can see, Apple Music pays artists around the same as Spotify, within a band running from around $0.0010 to $0.0019 and, according to data on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net, has a reach exceeded only by Spotify and YouTube. 

Is that enough? I’m not sure and those that can afford to challenge the business model should do so. Doubtless the market will finally assert itself over the artist, but there is little doubt that, through Apple Music, I will listen to a wider variety of music, more often than I would have done without it. Maybe that’s a contribution of sorts.  

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Always Meet Your Heroes

Mark Kermode is a film critic – and yes, they really do matter – for the Observer and BBC TV and Radio, and he has a book out: Hatchet Job, in which he asks whether critics remain relevant (yes), whether they can sink a stinker (no) and how their role is evolving while even the content of a good review remains constant. And tonight my friend Rhiannon and I went to see him in conversation with Andrew Abbott, with whom Kermode had made the documentary The Fear of God, amongst others.

You aren’t meant to meet your heroes, but here he was, albeit Mayo-less, be-quiffed, as black as a Johnny Cash-a-like and large as life in the V&A holding forth before a rapt audience, selling familiar jokes with studied confidence and always referencing the work of others: Roger Ebert scoring best, but closely followed by Philip French with nods to Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Alexander Walker and Chris Tookey. Simon Brew of Den of Geek should also grab a copy of the recording whenever he’s next feeling a bit low.

And alongside the familiar jokes, the intellectual capital advanced was also familiar. If you have read The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex and Hatchet Job, and indeed had them read to you by Kermode himself via the audiobooks; if your iPod is groaning under the digital weight of multiple podcasts (that’s if hard drives get heavier the more information that is on them…); if you are that, er…, dedicated then there was nothing new.

But that did not mean it was fresh. More it was comfortable without lulling the audience to sleep, knowing without being smug. Kermode is an excellent raconteur and, with Abbott allowing him full flow in front of an audience well primed to survive the erudition and insights without the need for Mayo’s always relevant intercessions for the casual listener on the a Radio 5 show, easy on the ear.

The evening ended with a relaxed Q&A:

Can films be so bad they’re good? Mostly bad films are just bad… Cannibal Women in The Avocado Jungle of Death gets a mention as a possible exception to that rule.

Any tips of would be film critics? Keep plugging away. After 6 months most wannabe film critics don’t want to be film critics, but persevere and you’ll probably make it if it’s really what you want.

A run through some good old Trotskyite views on the value of labour and the anecdote about Werner Herzog getting shot during an interview and time has flown by.

So, Mark Kermode… Tick!

Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to say hero, but Kermode is certainly one of my touchstones, that endlessly BBC, Guardian-toting list of cultural icons that would leave a hole if they decided enough was enough and exited, stage left.

Some, Alan Coren, Humphrey Lyttleton… have already made that exit leaving only the memories of learning to dance with Sergeant Wronga or King Alfred’s proclaimation: “I have the Hampton of a Norse!”

Maybe one day the heady recollection will be of Kermode’s reviews of Transformers 1, 2 and 3, or Sex In The City 2, or anything by Gore Verbinski (and I’m sorry Mark, but it will always be the rants that remain longest in the mind).

But for the moment he exists with the others on the touchstone list still creating new insights, humour, poignancy and affection: Jeremy Hardy, David Sedaris, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Jesse Bearing, Armand Marie Leroi, Terry Pratchett… and Mark Kermode.

And long may it continue.

Old Dogs, New Tricks?

Longevity in the music business is often eyed with suspicion, and particularly for bands still seeking to create new material, rather than reforming or touring extensive back catalogues, relying on familiarity and muscle memory to get you through. Some, of course, do this exceptionally well. The Rolling Stones’ material may be old, but their abilities as a live band, coupled with a still burning passion for the spectacular makes for events (you might hesitate to say “concerts” and still further “gigs”) that justify the steep ticket prices. But what happens when approaching your late 40s and early 50s, you still yearn to let the creative juices flow?

This was brought to mind listening, as I always do, to the Guardian’s Music weekly Podcast. As part of Singles Club, one of the presenters proffered Überlin, the first European single (though it’s getting difficult to keep track of what’s a single and what’s a pre-release taster of what’s to come) of their upcoming Collapse Into Now album.

Now, I’m a confirmed REM apologist, able to find saving graces even in albums as mundane and lacklustre As Around the Sun, and as shiny and forced as Reveal, but hopes were relatively high following what some called the return to form, but for me was more a return of energy, that was 2007’s Accelerate. Misgivings about Jacknife Lee aside, I have listened to the various releases, with the fervid interest of a fan.

Having heard about a third of the album, I’ll reserve judgement – REM for me are an albums band, and the key is how things hold together across the piece. They are, in some ways, not entirely for the iPod generation and the songs released as singles are often the least of the material put down: Wanderlust, Until The Day Is Done, or going back Superman, to name a few. But something did stick from the Podcaster’s generally feelings of “meh”.

To summarise, the general lack of enthusiasm was put down to Überlin sounding a bit like Drive (I can see that from the opening “Hey”) or Losing My Religion (not quite so clear on that – there are minor chords and acoustic guitars, but…). And okay, that’s personal taste and the opinions, whilst ones I don’t necessarily agree with, are perfectly valid. However, I find the judgement of a song by others within a back catalogue in review of fairly little value. Surely the key is: is the song any good?

I’ll give you a for example…

A few weeks back, the same Podcast reviewed January Hymn by the Decemberists. A beautiful song; and a strong album in The King Is Dead. The panel agreed, and pointed particularly to the strong REM influence (Peter Buck plays on three songs, in case you hadn’t heard), particularly on Down By The Water, with it’s One I Love Rickenbacker riffing and in Calamity Song’s Reckoning era twelve strong. It’s good stuff, and as one presenter noted the strong REM influence, Alex Petrides, ever wise in his criticism and champion of really interesting stuff from the mainstream to the margins, added “that’s no bad thing”.

Right or wrong in critical opinion, the question that prompts is: what if REM had made The King Is Dead? Would the extensive quoting of their earlier work (as with the Drive-ishness of Überlin), lead to a sense of “meh”? I think it might.

We all load our preconceptions onto the music that we experience, especially when we have invested in a band and lived with them for so many years. Bob Boilen on NPR’s All Songs Considered, discussing Oh My Heart from Collapse Into Now, said “here’s a band you root for.” In many ways, I cling to the hope that the album will be good.

Perhaps the issue for Collapse Into Now is that it delves back to a later period REM than The King Is Dead. Automatic for the People, Out Of Time, perhaps hints of Monster and New Adventures in HiFi, rather than the critical gold of Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant; a time of great commercial success, but which many hardcore fans seem to see as a sort of chamber pop, MTV-led era of less value than the band’s touring heyday. Well, each to their own.

Automatic was the album that got me into REM, sitting on my first girlfriend’s floor, with her resting her head on my chest while we listened to her brand new copy on cassette. But it’s one I seldom listen to now. In some ways the singles spoil it for me a touch: Everybody Hurts is lovely, but hardly rocket science and done to death, Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight one of the silly, pop-rock songs that are great driving along, but a little saccharine lost in your thoughts on the commute to work. As a result, lovely fragments such as Monty Got a Raw Deal miss out. The REM album that I’ve been listening to most regularly is Live At Olympia, which invests old material with real energy and a sense of ramshackle fun.

So maybe when Collapse Into Now comes out, I’ll be one of those pining for a little more Fables and a little less Out of Time. But, I’ve made a pact with myself to try, as far as is human, to judge the new album on its merits. If I pretend it’s by a new band called MER then maybe I won’t think it’s so MEH after all.