Saturday, 30 April 2011

Guest Blog: Jack Stewart's Mercury Challenge

Boredom is a terrible thing, and can so often drive people to do things they regret. For Jack Stewart of the wonderful Just Like TV blog, it meant the opportunity to listen to every album (available on Spotify) ever nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Despite this harrowing experience, he was happy to offer Tones of Town a few thoughts on the experience:

Late last month I had another one of my ideas. I always have 'ideas'. You know the sort. They seem good at the time but once you put them into action you know you've made a huge mistake, but you're too stubborn to give in once you've started.

Thinking that it would be 'a bit of fun' and 'a laugh', I decided to listen to every Mercury Music Prize nominated album. Well, the ones that were available on Spotify anyway, which turned out to be around 60%.

The Mercury ceremony has always entertained me over the years. I like that there is recognition out there for great British albums and it's certainly given a lot of smaller acts a well-needed boost into the mainstream in the time that it's been running.

The merits of the winners have been well-documented so I won't cover old ground, but I thought I'd let you know the full extent of the torture that I went through, just in case anyone was thinking of making the same mistake.

First off, no, I didn't really discover any gems hidden in the Mercury collection. That's not to say that there aren't any, no. The majority of the greatest British albums since 1992 have been included in the shortlists, from Dummy, OK Computer and Parklife in the early years to the sounds of Asleep In The Back, In Rainbows and XX this decade.

My personal musical journey owes a lot to the Prize. My dad unearthed many classics because of it whilst I was still forming my tastes, and then passed them on once I became interested in music. Helicopter Girl, Goldfrapp, Tricky, The Delgados and Doves were all passed down purely because of the increased press and recognition that the nominations gave each artist.

There's a few albums that I listened to during what I dubbed the 'Mercury Challenge' which I will re-visit, but not many. On a first listen The Auteurs, Villagers, Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell all sounded like they had something else to offer.

As much as it was nice to listen to some classic albums, the Mercury Challenge was mostly a thankless task. Sting, M People, Spice Girls, Roni Size, Robbie Williams, Stereophonics and Richard Ashcroft all took the wind out of my sails, and that's just the first eight years. Some of the later shortlists were horrific. 2004 and 2005 in particular- the Keane/Snow Patrol/Joss Stone/The Streets/Ty/Amy Winehouse run in 2004 did not please me, and the Hard-Fi/Kaiser Chiefs double header in 2005 would be enough to destroy a lesser man.

But no. I, Jack Stewart, bravely battled on in the face of adversity. I took it all in my stride (well, aside from the odd despairing tweet) and I am proud to state that I completed my challenge last week.

They say whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That's not true. I am scarred, I am bruised, I am weak and I am tired. But none of that matters, because I completed an entirely arbitrary challenge that I set myself, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

For my next test I will listen to every track on every Now That's What I Call Music compilation. I'm a sucker for punishment.

Top Mercury Challenge tweets from Jack:

"I am officially listening to Stars by Simply Red. Two minutes in and the saxophones have started. Kill me."

"Two tracks into the Barry Adamson album and I've already heard 'negro' and 'gaping hole'."

"If you'd like to hear the worst song ever recorded, I'd suggest you look up Sting's 'Love is Stronger Than Justice'."

"Wrapping up 1997 with 'Spice'. Hold me."

"Pretty sure I'm listening to Robbie Williams singing about Charlie Sheen #losing"

"MJ Cole- Sincere. I sincerely think this album is a sub-Artful Dodger piece of shit."

"Hard-Fi. Remember them? No, me neither."

"Christ on a bike. It's another Dizzee Rascal album next. Not sure I'm strong enough to do this."

"Mumford & Sons are so shit it genuinely makes me angry. GET YOUR BANJO AND FUCK OFF, RUPERT."

"This is the kind of thing people do for charity, isn't it. Not something that people do just for the hell of it."

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

April Albums: The Bloodening

So, welcome to the halfway mark of April Albums, the listening experience that sees a 20-something with far too much time on his hands take his life off shuffle and tries to spend the month listening to nothing but full albums. At least 100 of them in fact.

How are we* (*I) doing then? Well, 14 days have passed, and we're 50 albums down (51 is playing in the background as I type this). If that's not sticking to schedule, then I don't know what is. My listening patterns have varied from 3-4 a day when I've been working, and up to 7 or so when not. The morning shift at work means I have a clear block of listening time from lunchtime onwards, which has worked out really nicely. The afternoon shift less so. The 2pm starts have meant getting up early, and getting 2-3 done before work, and having just enough time when I get in for one more between dinner and bed. In a way it's quite weird how such a whimsical project has altered my daily schedules.

Believe it or not, there are even a set of rules to go with the project. They are as follows:

One album per artist (this is proving something of a headache when I have two albums I've not heard in ages that I want to put on and have to choose between them)

No E.P.s (there was an attempt at making some kind of formula to equate a number of E.P.s to a full album depending on time/number of tracks. But it became laughably laborious pretty damn fast so I gave up)

No compilations either of the various artists variety nor the single artist best ofs/collections kind.

If an album is an expanded format, I will only listen to the original album (this originally started off as an exercise in hearing an album as it was originally intended, but has since become more a matter of time management. Don't say I'm anything but honest)

50 albums in 14 days makes it sound like all is going swimmingly. That's not strictly true. For one, one of my prime listening opportunities – a train journey to Manchester and back – saw my mp3 player lunch itself. The ensuing fallout, purchase of a new one, and filling it all back up (an ongoing process) put me back a fair amount. Only a late listening charge on Tuesday saved it. Some dodgy work shifts (8pm finish one night, then 5am start the next morning anyone?), and breaking off to listen to/write up review albums all contributed to some days where it all looked a bit iffy to say the least. But hey, we're here so all is well.

The main thing I'm experiencing at the moment is guilt. It's rare for me to listen to an album while not doing something else at the same time. While it's sad, it's also impractical to expect anything else. If that were to happen the whole of April would see me achieve nothing else except go to work and listen to albums. It'd be great if I could afford such luxuries but life admin and the like sadly have to have a space made for them. That said, while I'm not necessarily 'connecting' with albums in the purest sense of the concept, I'm at least actually listening to many for the first time in years, and forming opinions and judgements about them. I'm still experiencing them, just not perhaps in the puritanical lights off, eyes closed, everything turned off manner that the newly-fashionable record clubs have banged on about.

The more I think about it, the more I probably should've made greater headway in the last couple of weeks. At somepoint in the next couple of weeks the house is being reglazed (not sure when, just waiting for the army of workmen descending on the place at any given moment) so that could (and probably will) jeopardise proceedings a bit. But I'm not here to make excuses. One way or another each obstacle will be overcome, even if it means me going on walks with a discman or something equally demeaning.

What's actually surprising, having gone through the vaults* (*plastic crates) is how many of my favourite artists I've not yet played a record by. There's not been any Clash, Hefner, or David Bowie in the mix so far to name but three. This is pleasing as it means I haven't gone and played all the good stuff at the start and been left with the insufferable shit at the end which in turn harms my motivation. There's still a lot of great stuff still to explore. Happy days.

If you'll excuse me, I'm off to go and make some more headway. Before you ask, no I don't know what I'm going to play to send off the whole experience. Or if I'm going to stop at album 100 if I arrive there before the end of the month or just keep going until the 30th.

Update: In the space of time it's taken me to write this I'm now almost up to album 70. I'm not sure if this says more about my album listening work ethic the past couple of days or my insanely good procrastination skills.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The World's Most Cultured Lobotomy; and a Los Angeles hire car

I'm always amazed at people who have this seemingly endless appetite for new music. Once upon a time I'd have probably doubted it possible to really appreciate music that way, but we can put that one down to the “oh, no-one can possibly appreciate music differently to the way I do” youthfulness. Arrogance, basically. Nonetheless, as I get older I listen to less music, and I listen to music less. Gone are the days of 400 scrobbles a week, now if I tip 100 I'm doing well. And that's without an mp3 player, too (I have an mp3 player, I just have no headphones and keep forgetting to buy them, being a lazy bugger in the evenings when I could be looking).

In any case, I generally struggle to synthesise too much new music. It's like modern art, in a way. Wandering around the Tate Modern's a pretty powerful experience, as the sheer variety and vivacity of the art combines with the fact you're generally looking when the place is really busy. The whole thing's awe-inspiring on one level, but it's more than a little asphyxiative, too. You wander out thinking “that was cool, but thank FUCK I'm out of there”, and go amble along the South Bank in the hope of getting your synaptic functions back. It's like the world's most cultured lobotomy.

And too much new music can have the same effect – I don't necessarily mean stuff that's recently released, trawling through a whole heap of 70s stuff would probably have the same effect. Especially if I took leave of my senses and stuck Tales from the Topographic Ocean on. But I guess everyone has a tolerance level for music, and I'm quite happy listening to a couple of albums a day. It does mean I'm listening to less stuff for the first time, and that might not be a good thing, but I'm not ready to crank out the Ellie Goulding and live on a coffee table forever more yet.

Anyway, to take a post tangentially in a different direction, I'm going to say a bit about a couple of discoveries I have made while tentatively dipping my toe in the ocean of Spotify. Spotify's an interesting matter, but with rumours today suggesting that free use of it could be capped in the not-too-distant future, I'm making hay while the sun shines and catching up on stuff I've been meaning to listen to for roughly 4 years.

First up is Clem Snide's “The Ghost of Fashion”. God knows how I first heard their 2005 album “End of Love”, but it's one of my all-time favourites, the world-weariness and general resigned feeling play out alternately with despair and the grudging acceptance that hey, the future might not be what you wanted but it's alright. It's wonderful, and I'd not heard any Clem Snide that matched it. But I'd never heard The Ghost of Fashion, which keeps up the themes to a similar standard. As a recent discovery I've not listened to it much, but it's one of those oh-so-they-did-do-something-else-good moments of relief.

The main one I wanted to enthuse about is Shack's “Waterpistol”. It's one of the all-time great 'lost' albums, mainly because it was. Originally, post-completion, all but one of the master DAT tapes were lost when the studio they'd recorded the album in burnt down. Then, the album's producer lost the last remaining master tape in a Los Angeles hire car. It turned up, but then the label folder. This was all in 1991. The album wasn't released until a tiny German independent label stepped in, in 1995. The story's regurgitated often and every sod seems to have heard it, but it's absolutely unfortunate.

And a terrible shame, because bugger-all people have heard Waterpistol (even compared to later albums HMS Fable and Here's Tom With The Weather) yet it's fantastic. It's jangly guitar music in the Liverpudlian tradition – Shack were pretty closely subsequent to The La's, for instance, and lead songwriter Mick Head's got a hell of a knack for melody, if slightly less so on how to construct a song. I'd recommend Sgt. Major, Neighbours and Walter's Song as tracks to listen to, but go stick the entire of Waterpistol on your Spotify while it's free. It's a wonderful, major-key, upbeat but not remotely saccharine. I can't recommend it enough.

Here endeth the ramble.