Tuesday, 14 September 2010

My 'Favourite' Song

I have over six and a half thousand songs in my iTunes library. But I only have an all consuming obsession with one of them - 'The W.A.N.D.' by The Flaming Lips.

Never mind Flaming Lips I hear, more pursed lips. Lips pursed with indignation. 'It's not even very good!'. Quite right, it isn't, within the grand cannon of wondrous, splendid and thrillingly moving couplets in Wayne Coyne's armoury, no one's reaching for 'you got the power aw yeah, waving that wand in the air' to sum up how they feel about the big questions. No one's life is affirmed by the synth chord progression in a way that it is by, say, the bullish sugar hit of 'Race for the Prize'. It's not my favourite Flaming Lips song. It isn't even in my top ten.


But every time I'm at a want for which of those six and a half thousand to turn to, it's there in my head - 'play The W.A.N.D. again', and fuelled by sheer instinct I've clicked through. And then it finishes. And then I play it again and I think to myself, whilst waving my hands aloft, 'you don't even like this fucking song'. And then I play it again. Normally four or five times before I get bored and that bassline turns up ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. It's in all six and a half thousand songs in my iTunes library.

On occasion as my brain idles (which happens relatively often) it's there too 'dum, dum, duh-duh, der' , raising the same approximate feelings as the embittered realisation that you've just been caught humming 'Go Compare' at the water fountain. On boring phone calls, it's there, 'sorry could you just go over that again. Was inwardly humming the all pervading bassline to The W.A.N.D.' My brain even has a clever little trick it plays - starting me off on the intro to 'Marquee Moon' which it knows I adore and lures me into thinking the unthinkable - 'wow, this isn't the fucking W.A.N.D.' But then, of course, it is The W.A.N.D. again. For at least an hour.

I've tried W.A.N.D. aversion therapy but I get 'W.A.N.D. hallucinations'. Oh, I think, this sounds a bit like 'The W.A.N.D.' (it doesn't, it's the kettle boiling or a dog farting) and then we're off. My brain's back in it's immovable cycle of 'wavin' that waaaaaaaaaaaaaand in the air' for a good 20 minutes and if it isn't on my iPod I start get facial twitches.

The W.A.N.D. is ruining me. I watch 'Strictly Come Dancing' and I chuckle that Paul Daniels should dance to it - I spend 20 minutes scratching my face - I like it, not a lot, not at all in fact. I walk through a hen do riddled Leicester Square and the spawn descended from my native North wave it in motion. At me. They're fairies but in my mind they're witches and they only know one spell and it goes 'dum, dum, fduh-fucking, der'.

Master wandmaker Mr Ollivander told Harry Potter that a wand picks its owner. It appears that this one's either found me or that Wayne Coyne wants rid and is trying to foist it on me by shoving it into my brain through my ear.

If you want me for the next six months I'll be at home listening to the 'We Buy Any Car' jingle on loop. If you see my hand aloft, do us a favour and put me back in prone.

All Of Your Thoughts *Are* In Tone In Town

Three charming young Mackems. I presume they're charming - I've never met them. Can't imagine them being divas though. Do they look like divas? What do moderately unsuccessful indie rock divas look like?

Is it a bit naval-gazing to write a blog post based on the album that gave your blog its name? Um, probably. Well, whatever. It's naval-gazing time.

It sometimes feels like call centres have invaded every single pore of our lives. Maybe it's just because the rise in social networking, the Internet and instant communication has meant it's a lot easier to vent frustrations, and generally when we do, it's a sight louder too. And god knows call centres make enough people want to vent, often enough. Anyway, there seem to be two different types of call centre – the first, the outsourced, is generally somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent, and company has gone there because it fills one important criteria: cost. This isn't meant as a judgement on that, I should probably add. Anyhow, if they've not outsourced, the chances are you'll be speaking to someone from that forgotten part of England known as “the North East”. Far from the “here be monsters” (unless you're stuck in the Bigg Market of a Saturday night) such far-flung corners generally provoke, apparently it's because the north eastern accents, be they Geordie, Mackem, Smoggie, or whatever the hell else they call themselves, tend to sound friendly, jovial, sympathetic, and most importantly persuasive. If you can sooth the temper of someone calling a call centre and try to put doubt in my mind, I guess you win the customer service thing.

How does this link to anything? Aha, this is where the fact I've put at least a little thought into a blogpost for the first time shows. Field Music, for those not in the know, are a pair of brothers (and occasional support musicians/temporary members), from Sunderland, right in the heart of persuasive-accent land. They emerged during a glut of vaguely angular bands, and in terms of sales sit in the shadows of peers like the Futureheads and Maximo Park. But as far as critical acclaim goes, Field Music have always been right up there, and for me, their peak is their excellent second album, Tones of Town. You may have heard of it. You probably should recognise the phrase from somewhere not a million miles from here. In any case, the Brewis brothers that form the backbone of Field Music have soft Mackem accents, and, gentle and persuasive, they're the perfect kind to lull me, Derren Brown-victim style, into really buying into a message. Especially when it's one I could probably relate to even if Tom Waits were singing it in maximum gruff mode.

The interesting thing about Tones of Town is, for me, the sort of suite of four songs in the middle of the album. Maybe it wasn't intended as a suite, but while the whole album generally deals with issues of the banality, the routine and the apathy you find when embarking on the first few years of adult life – your first job, the drudgery of getting home after annoying commutes and the like – tracks 4 through 7 really nail the feeling.

Music's generally burrowed a snug warren in my heart because it depicts moments I relate to. I imagine it's the same for a lot of you. And it's because of that, that Tones of Town abides so well – it continues to revisit the themes we never escape, and it does it with such deftness of lyric, melody, and most importantly, rhythm, that it's completely irresistible. Take “Kingston”, for example. It's under two minutes, but the ornate strings and drums which eschew the first of the bar to wobble slightly merely set a scene for an eerily accurate description of not seeing your friends enough, because they live not too close or too far away to warrant the effort. The protagonist fails to maintain a friendship, asking “the tube is fast, the distance small – so why should I come?”. The whole song sounds a bit withdrawn, he works hard, gets paid, and it makes no difference to anything, and then the urge to visit a friend passes, and anyway he finds that “you haven't the time”.

Hardly overwrought, flowery prose is it? But it doesn't need to be – a few words here and there, and it's a universal feeling – I have a friend a couple of miles away, why haven't I visited them? And I can say, oh you know, this and that, there hasn't been chance. Absolute bollocks, and the character in the song knows this, knows how ridiculous it all is.

“A House Is Not A Home” sums up the soullessness of living on your own about fifteen times within the one song, observing things that just aren't the same as being somewhere chock full of characters. Tinkling pianos, occasionally emphasised bars, and voice reminding you that “on your own, you only learn to like what you know” - well, of course you do. But you don't always realise that, do you? And maybe “you recognise the smell”, but again, “a house becomes hotel when you make it what you want to”. Yes! Somewhere that has entirely your own personality, it's as creepy as the hotel room that has none of your own personality.

And what about “Working to Work”? Again, it's a rather simple idea, and one done to death by a million bands, mostly pretty crap, but it's not crap here. Jerky guitars, stop-start rhythms again perfectly sitting alongside the lyrics. What are they suggesting? Among other things, that “Leisure is useless/When nothing is easy/When you're working to work”, and that you're “Taken to task/To spend another day going home and/Diving to drown/I'm coming up for air”. It's not really about the time you're losing during the days, though we're all aware of that, it's the effect is has on your life outside work. You're being taken to task, probably in a pretty remedial admin job, and it just leaves you completely unstimulated when you get home, where slumping in front of the telly feels like coming up for air, or when your leisure activities, sports or dancing or whatever just feel like you're putting off the inevitability of work next day.

It's “In Context” that brings these three themes together, marrying them all with all the disconnection of being stuck in that twentysomething rut. And yeah, it's pointing out “you're a long way from home/all of the thoughts you had were not your own”. A simple plucked guitar and off-kilter rhythm rumbles through the song – it's not quite hypnotic, but it's a little bit relentless. The song itself almost sounds like a love song to someone – someone not really alluded to – but the protagonist couldn't quite fall in love because life, mistakes, the feeling of not quite 'getting' their lifestyle, just sort of got in the way.

Music's a personal thing. I can sit back and analyse how good the music is – and it is, Field Music are a bit of a thinking man's band but there's plenty of melody and plenty of “hmm, interesting” moments to take you by surprise on each listen. But...that's missing the point. I've picked the middle third of an album alone here to show how the combination of music and lyrics feel like they're echoing part of my existence, and as wanky as that sounds, that's the appeal of music. Yes, I've felt slightly discombobulated in houses I've moved into – A House Is Not A Home knows how I feel. Yes, I've seen friendships kind of drift into nothingness because I don't see friends for months on end even though they live in the same city – but the protagonist from Kingston's been there too. Yes, I've felt stifled by shite jobs I've had in the past that've resulted in nothing really cutting it as escapism – Working to Work pretty much sums it up for me. And yes, it's all come together to stop me really...settling into life at times, just like it says during In Context. But what's really the key for me is that they feel like universal themes. I'm almost dead certain they are. We've all been in similar positions, and the feeling we have isn't that of tearing our hair out, or collapsing in floods of tears necessarily. It's the sort of vague feeling of impotence – the discontentment from just looking around and asking “is this it?” But not in such a way that it makes us angry, more that it makes us sigh. And that's the feeling this captures for me, and it's why you should probably embrace this album – especially those middle four tracks – into your life.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Emerging From A Barren Spell

This charming bunch are Seattle band, Grand Hallway. I talk a bit about them in this post. Hence the picture. Duh.

Music's not a lifelong obsession for me.

Ah, shit, I've started with a grandiose statement that's not strictly true again. What I'm getting at I – and I imagine most music fans – go through stages where music's barely incidental to their lives, where they listen to about 3 albums a week, and they're old favourites that are more a comfort blanket than a, uh, multi-sensory experience (in a way that, say, I imagine listening to Ladies and Gentleman we are Floating in Space while on DMT/Acid/Other drug I've also heard of but never come remotely near trying, is). I was going through one of these a couple of months ago, and yeah, this is the bit where I pass off the gap in blog-writing as caused by that, as opposed to the more honest answer of a combination of laziness and ennui.

Obviously the gap's done nothing for my tendency to write long, rambling, multi-clause sentences that make about as much sense as any kind of logic trying to explain how that Simon Amstell sitcom got a) commissioned and b) broadcast.

I picked up just one album in that time, by a little-known Seattle-based band called Grand Hallway. Crap name, great band. The album's called "Promenade", which is better. They're very much of the current Pacific Northwest in tone, performing florid, textured indie-pop songs, making use of beautiful melody and an occasional jawdropping grasp of dynamics (just go on Spotify and listen to “Raindrops (Matsuri)”, please!), and creating a wonderful album with the spirit of Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, and anyone else who can use a multi-instrumental backing band/tons of instruments, parts, textures, counter-melodies blah blah blah. I realise this is a bad time to say this post isn't about them, but it isn't; it's just a personal thing about what's going through my head while listening, and other magubbins relating to them. But it's not about them.

(Though before I go any further, I should say that one of my favourite things about Grand Hallway is that when you mention them – recommending them to a friend, say – on Twitter, they always retweet your tweet. And as I'm a creature of shallow, easily-placated ego, that appeals to me. Hell, even though most of my tweets are complaining the album's not available in the UK – I don't know who I'm complaining to – they still retweet. There's going to come a point where I'm like “hey, why don't you follow me”, and then the circle will be complete, and my life will have officially become classified as 'pathetic'.)

First things first, it's the first album I've ever bought on import. As I said (if you read things in brackets – and if you don't, you'll miss this clause so I don't know why I'm typing it...verbal diarrhoea I guess), it's not available in the UK. And yeah, I was never one of those music fans who Have To Hear Everything First; I remember downloading the first Bloc Party album before it was released, like, and felt so bad about it, I went out and bought the album when it came out. I'm not even sure why. 2005 was a weird year. Anyway, I'm not even sure how I heard of them – in fact, if anyone had heard of them before 27th April this year, tell me, because you probably recommended them and I need to thank you.

I'm emerging from the end of a phase of playing far too many computer games. This isn't unusual for me, but that's something that saps your will to listen to music. It's hard to explain why, but I think there's a couple of reasons for this, so here goes:

  • First one's pretty obvious, that you're listening to the in-game music to add to the atmosphere; it's part of the all-important immersion. Any activity, from TV to art galleries to music or computer games, requires you to buy into the vision it's trying to create in your head in order for you to get the most out of it. Appreciating this, I always listen to the music.

  • But beyond that, computer games are a pretty overwhelming activity, insofar as you're giving them 100% concentration; all of your mental energy and it's kind of draining. So when you're not playing, you're sort of unwittingly doing whatever you do in relative silence, because it doesn't occur to you to listen to music.

That's really bad, in a way, isn't it? Makes it seem like I don't really like music. But I do, I swear! Sometimes, and yeah, the lives we live, the changes to our daily routine; to work, the people we meet, the activites we partake in socially and professionally, they all affect what we're looking for, and while I'm sat here listening to music and doing no'ver'much this evening, and it's something I love doing, it's not something I've had much compulsion to do. I mentioned Grand Hallway because theirs was the only new album I acquired – yes, bought via Import – during this time, and I'm kinda grateful that I still had some anchor in music. Now I'm buying stuff, going to gigs and proms and having conversations again, and it feels a bit more....like I'm used to.

But yeah, thanks Grand Hallway.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Classical Music Is Something You Don't Think About Enough

The European Union Youth Orchestra's viola section. Did you know there's a whole subculture of jokes about viola players in orchestras? Well there are. My favourite is the one my old A-Level music teacher (a conductor himself) told me:
Q. You see a viola player and a conductor standing in the middle of the road. Which one do you run over first?
A. The conductor. Business before pleasure.

So, classical music then.

Wait, come back! I don't know if I'm projecting, but it seems there's this inherent fear of classical music from most if not all quarters of the young music fan community. Certainly around the music I tend to go for, anyway. I should qualify this a bit, so here goes.

I've been to a couple of Proms this summer, at the Royal Albert Hall. I've got one more planned too, next week, and it's a unique benefit of living in London that you get these 70-odd events mostly fairly affordable (I paid £11 a ticket, you can get them for as little as £7 if you don't mind restricted view). It's a couple of hours, in an absolutely lovely venue, listening to the sort of stirring dramatic music of styles that essentially persevered – and changed perceptibly many many times during this time – for a couple of hundred years. And still does today – not only is a vast majority of computer game, TV and film music essentially influenced by or styled upon various eras of classical music, many many bands incorporate it into their music. Every fucker has a string quartet at some point, and think how bands like Mercury Rev, Sufjan Stevens, The Delgados, Vampire Weekend have built music around it rather than just using the odd flourish.

Where was I? Oh yeah. No-one talks about it. Maybe when I was about to rail about inherent fear, what I meant was this kind of apathy towards classical music that I see in fans of pop music and its derivatives. I want to be ageist and say “especially those in their twenties”, but I have no idea how applicable that is. I remember reading a thread on a music message board when the Prom line-ups were announced. It was full of people getting excited about Stockhausen and Webern. I say 'full', but there were about 5 posts. On a popular site. Stockhausen and Webern are composers of contemporary music, and contemporary classical music is to classical music what modern art is to, er, art. I don't want to detract from contemporary music, purely because I'm a bigger fan of 19th century era music, but 20th century contemporary stuff probably has more in common with what you'd call the most popular experimental acts. Hell, Squarepusher's performed with the London Sinfonietta before. What I'm getting at here is, yes, it's people dipping into classical music, but it's the kind of classical music that probably isn't that much of a logical leap for them from the music they like. I realise this is sounding like criticism; it's not. Or at least, not meant to be.

Later today I'm going to an all-dayer. It'll be a good gig and a lot of fun, but I'm quite tempted to try and start up conversations about Prokofiev, Haydn, J.S. Bach. Mainly this is because I'm a contrary fucker, but just because no-one'd be bothered to get involved, or maybe some would express sort of vague intention to go to a Prom in the future. Now, my taste in 'indie' music is pretty narrow, I'm more than willing to admit that. So, why do people who have more diverse tastes than me have a classical music blind spot?

Well, maybe they don't. Maybe it's just something that never comes up; if you're getting enough joy from a relatively diverse area of music, you're in your mid-twenties or something say, there's not really any need to think “whither classical music?”. People come to classical music later in life, perhaps. Or maybe it's the fact that there's a different atmosphere that emanates from classical music than say, going to see The Thermals or something. That's a no-brainer. And yeah, you don't really want to be stuck watching the Proms surrounded by Talkers, people who aren't interested but just want to say they were there.

What do I get from classical music? Well, I'm a bit of a beginner, but I can be stirred by the wonderful swooning motif from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasia Overture; I can thrill and be entertained by the joyous Barber of Seville. Popular classics like Ravel's Bolero, Beethoven's Symphony No.5. But it just gradually seeps in, the vast dynamic differences, the changes in mood and the way it rises and falls, whether you've got a stirring, dramatic piece, or something light and whimsical. Sure it's not as full of hummable tunes but everyone knows fucking...Peter and the Wolf, or Dvorak's New World Symphony or something. It soothes the soul.

I seem to have lost the run of myself a bit in this piece. I'm just...I just don't really know why classical music isn't even considered by the people I talk music with, that I see at gigs. Yes, it's a different atmosphere and type of appreciation of music, but it's – okay, not valid, but I think more people would appreciate classical music earlier than they expect they would. Are you in your 20s? Never considered giving classical music a chance? Well, maybe I wouldn't either. And yes, maybe I wouldn't choose to listen to it while sat at home or something, but the unique experience of sitting in the Royal Albert Hall, as a whole host of amazingly talented musicians create such a vast collage of moods, it's a wonderful experience.

So, classical music then. Anyone fancy giving it a go? Proms next year?