Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Building a Better Filter
Recently, while checking the analytics for this here blog, I noticed that an old post had attracted a few Google searchers looking for information on how to build a decent Max/MSP filter.

This was a little worrying because - as previously mentioned - I'm hardly the most virtuosic Max programmer. Frankly, the filter demonstrated in that post never sounded particularly great. It only ended up on the blog because - for better or worse - it's a particularly representative example of what I do with Max.

Said filter received a major upgrade recently, so I'm posting some images of the slightly less embarrassing new version. As usual, you can click on these images to see full-size versions.

The basic principles are the same and it's still far from perfect but (a) it sounds a lot better than the old version and (b) it offers far more user-interface flexibility. This is because (a) it now combines its low-pass filter with a band-pass filter and (b) its allows the user greater control over the partially randomized modulation of the cut-off frequency.

You can find out what it actually sounds like when the fifth connect_icut album comes out as a by-donation digital download later this year.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Not Me Virtual 12" Number One: "New Music for Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly" b/w "My Bitching"
This post represents the first in a series of 'virtual' 12" singles by Not Me. You can listen to the tracks online...

...and/or download them.

The real point of the Not Me project is collaboration. Therefore, you are invited to remix or re-imagine these tracks in any way you see fit. Email the results to the usual address and you may find them cropping up on a future release in this series.

Hopefully, there will be another Not Me project starting up later in 2008. Additionally, the coming year should bring some new releases (both virtual and actual) from connect_icut and The Bastion Mews. Watch this space.

And listen.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Two of a Kind: "Outdoor Miner"
Wire's status as a classic avant rock act has become so accepted in recent years, it's easy to forget that - in the 90s - they were a key influence on pop music. Or, at least, Britpop music. Camden chancers like Menswe@r and Elastica made a career out of copping Wire's moves and sometimes their tunes too.

The point is that Wire were - at their height - really fantastic tune-smiths. It's no exaggeration to say that they've been responsible for some of my all-time favourite pop songs.

Interestingly, my favoured versions of these songs aren't the Wire originals but cover versions. Weird that the songs of such a great band - such a sonically groundbreaking and distinctive band - should actually sound better as covers.

Honest though, I really do prefer Fischerspooner's effortless reading of "The 15th" to the rather mannered original. I'm not exactly a huge Fischerspooner fan these days (having had the misfortune of seeing them "live") but it's hard to resist the allure of that recording.

"The 15th" was originally featured on Wire's 1979 album 154, which I'm oh-so-controversially going to posit as their masterwork (it's the only one I actually have my own copy of). 154 also featured the entirely extraordinary "Map Ref. 41N 93W", which is quite possibly the ultimate Wire pop song, insofar as it combines a bizarre, possibly nonsensical lyric with one of the catchiest melodies ever written.

Of course, the Wire version is fantastic but it doesn't stand a chance against My Bloody Valentine's astonishing, crystalline cover. Whereas the original is a really striking mix of the cerebral and the sensual ("Interrupting my train of thought..."), MBV's version abandons itself fully to realm of the senses, resulting in one of Kevin Shields' finest productions.

As far as I know, this particular recording has only ever surfaced legitimately on a Wire-sponsored tribute album called Whore, which came out in 1996. The quality of the tracks on Whore is wildly variable but it's an interesting document because instead of featuring the Britpop bands who had recently brought Wire back to prominence, it showcases a bunch of avant-rock nonentities, including a number of prime-movers from the original post-rock scene (UK post-rock being the anti-Britpop). Laika are there, alongside Main and Bark Psychosis (doing a totally whacked, Ween-esque version of "Three Girl Rhumba").

And then there's Transformer doing "Outdoor Miner", from 1978's Chairs Missing. "Outdoor Miner" is another of my favourite Wire songs and I'm surely not alone in my affection for this particular tune. It was also covered by Lush, who appear on Whore doing "Mannequin". To my mind, though, the ultimate version of "Outdoor Miner" is Transformer's.

Transformer featured the "other two" from UK post-rock trio Disco Inferno. The official story of DI's demise says that they were forced to call it a day when their samplers were stolen, while they were on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees. It's hard not to feel that there's more to the story than this. DI's lead visionary Ian Crause always seemed like a prickly character, given to rather didactic lyrics, often lambasting all forms of religion and spirituality. In the sleeve notes for Whore, ex-DI dude Paul Wilmott describes how Tranformer "had prayer sessions asking for guidance and maximum love vibes" while recording their contribution. Forgive the expression but God knows how that would have gone down with Ian Crause.

I think I've heard all of Crause's post-DI solo work. It's great stuff and a logical progression from Technicolour, his band's poppy swan-song album. But it's all pretty straightforward indie pop and none of it comes close to Transformer's truly heavenly take on "Outdoor Miner" - all dub echo and dream-pop twinkle.

Sadly, I don't think Transformer ever released anything else. I'd be delighted if someone could prove me wrong by revealing the existence of some more material by this great lost UK post-rock band.
Transformer weren't the only UK post-rock act to cover "Outdoor Miner". It was also the lead track on a 1995 four-song EP by Bristol's Flying Saucer Attack. Their version certainly doesn't surpass either Transformer's cover or Wire's original. Actually, it's not even the best track on the EP (that honour goes to the gorgeous "Everywhere was Everything").

I vaguely remember FSA head honcho David Pierce acknowledging the recording's shortcomings in an interview at the time. That interview may have been with the Blissbolgga, come to think of it. Whoever it was, the interviewer quite fairly pointed out that, whatever the relative shortcomings of FSA's "Outdoor Miner", it's still really quite lovely in its own right.

Pierce's whispered vocal is particularly effective in the context of the recording's distinctly lo-fi ambiance. It reminds me about those stories of how an early home recording pioneer (Thomas Leer, perhaps?) would record all his vocals in the dead of night, singing as softly as possible, so as not to disturb his sleeping girlfriend.

In any case, the loveliness of "Outdoor Miner" is resilient enough to withstand a little tape hiss. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What Am I? A Farmer?
Excuse me while I drop a truth bomb. Tina Fey's 30 Rock
was the only network TV show to win any Golden Globes this year. There were 11 TV awards at the 2008 ceremony (such as it was) and 10 of them went to cable shows.

Presumably, this whole thing is a case of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (whatever that may be) showing support for the writer’s strike, while helping network TV's best-written show to stay on the air, in spite of its pitiful ratings.

The actual award – Fey, Best Actress in a Comedy – was fairly arbitrary. Alec Baldwin had already won the Best Actor gong and one assumes that the HFPA wanted to share the love around a bit.

Shame they didn’t acknowledge loose-cannon comedian Tracy Morgan’s portrayal of loose-cannon comedian Tracy Jordan. Admittedly, this performance may be a simple case of Tracy being Tracy - compare TV Tracy's "I am a stabbing robot" incident to real-world Tracy's antics. Still, as a portrayal of mental illness, Morgan playing Jordan has the unique distinction of being both hilarious and scarily believable.

You can stream lots of 30 Rock content from this part of the NBC site but you really ought to fork out for the season one box set. I was previously of the opinion that 30 Rock was a patchy sitcom with brilliant moments. Watching the DVD (a thoughtful birthday present from Kris) was enough to convince me that the show is pretty much 100% gold.

Viewed as a satire of the effect capitalism has on creativity, 30 Rock is pretty heavy-handed. It's interesting, though, that Fey's explicit satire seems to freak out studio execs far less than the more subtle critiques encoded in certain other low-rated shows of recent years. Maybe it's because Jack (Baldwin) - the embodiment of Capital - is portrayed as basically a good person, who usually has Liz (Fey)'s best interests at heart.

Anyway, the real appeal of 30 Rock is that it's honest-to-God consummate TV comedy: great writing plus virtuoso performances.
Seeing all the episodes in sequence is much more satisfying than getting dribs and drabs from the Internet or reruns. There are whole characters and running jokes that I totally missed the first time around. Who knew that the relationship between Frank and Toofer was so nuanced?

I wanted to make a long list of my favourite season one moments but it started to get out of hand, so I decided to slim it down to a top three faves of the moment. And here they are:
  1. Jack's corporate video gag real ("Didn't seem like a week, did it?")
  2. Tracy at lunch with Liz in the pilot ("It's meant to distract us while white dudes inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets. That's a metaphor!")
  3. "Muffin Top". Ghostface! To Bad Catholics must cover this song!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Two of a Kind: "Idumae"
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts, each comparing and contrasting two versions of the same song. Here we're dealing with "Idumae" an apocalyptic song of Christian worship written by one Charles Wesley, who wrote literally thousands of hymns in his lifetime (1707-88).

Although Wesley was an Englishman, "Idumae" didn't achieve long-term popularity in British Churches. The song's extraordinary apocalyptic vision found a more receptive religious climate in America. Eventually, it was brought home by the peerless Waterson's.

Their version of "Idumae" appears on the CD of 1965's Frost and Fire, although I think it's one of the bonus tracks recorded in 1977, with Martin Carthy among the line-up. Whatever period it actually comes from, this has to be one of the most extraordinary recordings in the Watersons' back-catalogue. The harmonies are absolutely hair-raising. I've read about the "rough harmony" used by early American Christians but I've never actually heard it put into practice. This is exactly how I always imagined that pioneer devotional music would sound. Voices from the very edge of the Christian world.

Given the song's apocalyptic subject matter and it's connection to the British folk revival, it should come as no surprise that "Idumae" came to the attention of The Artist Formerly Known as David Tibet. In fact, TAFKADT was so taken by Wesley's hymn that he placed no less than eight versions of it on Current 93's epic Black Ships Ate the Sky. Each version was arranged and sung by a different guest artist - notable participants being Shirley Collins and Will Oldham.

All of the versions have their merits (actually, Marc Almond's is a bit much). By far my favourite C93 "Idumae", though, is the one by Clodagh Simonds of '70s acid folkies Mellow Candle. Simonds' rendition is backed by the kind of resonant drones that will be familiar to fans of her truly admirable Fovea Hex project. Really, though, its her effortlessly forceful vocal delivery that blows everything sky high. Very different from the Watersons' version but equally extraordinary.

Both of these recordings need to be heard to be believed, so here they are for your online streaming pleasure.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Popol Vuh 1971
A new release from Peter Rehberg's ever-reliable Editions Mego label is always something to await with anticipation. Still, the news that Mego will be putting out a 12" of Popol Vuh remixes by Mika Vainio and the mighty Haswell/Hecker is even-more-than-usually exciting. What a bizarre and wonderful idea! Surely, I'm the only person who loves Mego's digital abstraction and Popol Vuh's new-agey Krautrock in equal measure. Let's not look a gift horse in the mouth, though, let's just celebrate by watching this rather wonderful film of early PV that Josh Rose hipped me to.

Sorry about the dearth of "proper" blog posts. I really do have a lot on my plate right now.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

All Noisy on the Western Front
Unmissable for avant-minded Vancouverites: Fake Jazz moves up in the world!

And I quote...

"Fake Jazz Wednesdays presents … Fake Jazz Friday @ The Western Front
Friday January 11, 2008 at 8PM
Western Front, Vancouver

An evening of experimental, underground and collaborative DIY music guest curated by Jeremy Van Wyck and Bill Batt, creators of Fake Jazz Wednesdays. This special edition of the weekly series features four local groups, Totally Ripped, Black Dicks, her jazz noise collective and B.C.V.C.O."

Did they say "Black Dicks"?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Mysterious Case of the Pink Handcuffs
In the comments box for my 2007 best-of-the-year list,
some wag took me to task for forgetting the latest Britney Spears album, Blackout. Ha ha. Well, I assumed he was joking, anyway. But given how many smartypants bloggers actually did rate Blackout as one the year's best, you have to wonder.

I've been meaning to write about this for a while. Unfortunately, I must confess to not having an informed opinion about Blackout because I haven't actually heard any of it. Honestly, I don't go out of my way to avoid hearing mainstream pop/R&B hits. Somehow, my life seems to have become structured in a way that ensures I would have to actively seek out what is utterly unavoidable for millions of people.

The thing is, nothing I've read about Blackout makes it seem worth seeking out. But here's another confession - I haven't even read about Blackout in any detail. See, it's an album that seems to bring out the most dreadful, hackneyed cliches and platitudes in otherwise incisive, intelligent critics. Therefore, I usually only manage to read one or two lines of some forty-something male writer gushing about the greatness of Blackout before I become near paralyzed with ennui, unable to go any further.

Hey, I remember the early '90s when egg-head music journos first discovered R&B-pop as the harbinger of a pornotopian anti-humanist future. I also remember that most of the music associated with the original round of R&B hype turned out to be soul-sucking in its bland, conformist vapidity. Seems incredible that people are still plowing this particular furrow. Has the music actually gotten a lot better in the interim or are these folks simply even more stuck in the '90s than I am? Both options seem impossible.

Anyway, from what little I've been able to force myself to read about Blackout, the album's proponents seem terribly impressed by Spears' brave decision to allow a team of producers to reconfigure her vocals with an array of avant-garde digital science. Seems that she's making a bold post-humanist statement about the relationship between the body and technology in late capitalist society.

Would it be outrageous to suggest that the real reason that Spears' producers have chosen to edit and Autotune her voice beyond recognition is that she's so... far gone that there's little or no chance of her being able to come into a recording studio and sing a whole song, all the way through, relatively in tune?

This is to miss the point, of course. It doesn't really matter why the album sounds the way it does; it only matters that it does sound that way. And - by most accounts - the bloody thing sounds great. Sadly, I'll never know for sure because I'll never hear it - not just because I'm a huge, huge snob but also because
the thought of a grown man sitting down to listen to a Britney Spears album really, really creeps me out. This may be a result of having worked in a record store where I got to find out first hand what kind of person buys albums by The Donnas.

So, yeah, Blackout obviously has some appeal and Britney Spears (along with Rihanna, who seems much more intriguing as an artist) has certainly managed to tap into the critical zeitgeist at the most unlikely of times. What with the Burial album and all, slice-and-spliced vocal science seems to have been the cutting-edge sound of 2007. Bearing that in mind, isn't it strange that my personal album of the year - Von Sudenfed's Tromatic Reflexxions - was almost entirely absent from the top 10s of clever-clogs music bloggers?

Tromatic Reflexxions is absolutely packed with vocal science and one could even argue that it has a lot in common with Blackout. In both cases, we have a charismatic vocalist, apparently plagued with personal issues and lifestyle-related health problems. In both cases some techie producer types have gotten around said vocalists' pathological inability to get it together by assembling a bunch of scattered, half-finished vocal takes into brutalist, hyper-real pop constructions.

Again, this assessment is made from a position of ignorance about what Blackout actually sounds like but you get the point, I'm sure. Certainly, it can't be controversial to state that Mark E Smith has long been unable (or unwilling) to sing a song all the way through from start to finish. Anyone who's seen The Fall play live in the last 10 years will tell you that. I recently re-watched the band's DVD Live at the Hacienda 1983-1985 ("That was one long show!" as Brady once quipped). It was a real shock to see Smith actually knowing what came next in a lyric and being able to follow chord changes/song structures.

Anyway, to my mind, what Mouse and Mars have done with Smith's vocals on Tromatic Reflexxions is absolute genius. And not only is it avant-electronica genius, it's also pop genius. "Fledermaus Can't Get It", "The Rhinohead" and "Serious Brainskin" were absolutely the most infectious and compelling pop songs I heard in all of 2007.* Of course, I wasn't paying attention to actual pop music, so maybe there is plenty that compares in the mainstream. But that does not in any way diminish the massive impact these tracks have on the listener and the deepening fascination they continue to exert.

So why didn't the bloggers get it? I suppose it could be blamed on Popism. Why listen to something made by a bunch of sour-faced avant-gardists hell-bent on producing "work" that has (retch!) redeeming social value when you can have the psychopathic amorality of real pornotronic pop-soul. Honestly, though, I wouldn't have had most of Blackout's proponents down as Popists. Maybe, though, the illicit thrill of Blackout helped to expose a crypto-Popist element in the Neo-Rockist music blogger community.

Maybe for these folks, the fact that Tromatic Reflexxions was obviously the best album of 2007 was - well - a little too obvious. If you dedicate a good chunk of your spare time and energy to writing about music and you come across something that is as obviously brilliant, obviously perfect and obviously right as the Von Sudenfed album, well, it's likely to make you feel a little redundant isn't it?

I'm kidding, of course but - as usual - there's a more serious (and more positive) way of looking at this. A truly serious critic will always shun simple pleasures that they find obviously appealing in favour of something more complex, challenging and troubling. What an odd state of affairs that this impulse would push people in the direction of Britney Spears and away from Mark E Smith!

For whatever reason, it's a terrible shame that Tromatic Reflexxions has become the album to glibly dismiss in late 07/early 08. This is a piece of work with the vitriol and strangeness of The Fall's classic albums plus the macro impact/micro detail concept-clash of MOM's best work. It's a musical and lyrical kick in the pants for the complacent blandness that blights mainstream pop, alternative rock and electronic dance music today.

The fact that it emerged at the absolute artistic nadir of both MES's and MOM's careers seems incredibly apposite - a classic Classic Album story in the making. So, smartypants music crit types: diss this album at your peril. You'll feel pretty stupid when the folks at Domino ask you to write sleevenotes for the deluxe re-issue in 20 years time.

(*Also, according to this post from Momus, "Fledermaus..." was one of the two sexiest songs of 2007. The fact that the other song he mentions is Grinderman's atrocious "No Pussy Blues" rather destroys his argument but the post is still extremely well-argued and relevant to the Von Sudenfed vs. Britney Spears clash that I'm proposing here).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Current Listening
Happy birthday to me. I'm 34. Here's what was assaulting my ears as I entered the depths of my mid 30s...


Blackdown - "The Danger Line" 12"
Tim Buckley - Starsailor 180g LP
Burial - Untrue 2LP
Can - Delay 1968 LP
Cluster & Eno - self-titled 180g LP (my absolute favourite right now - gorgeous '70s science documentary ambiance)
Cluster - self-titled (aka Cluster '71) 180g LP
The Fall - "There's a Ghost in My House" 12"
Ben Frost - Theory of Machines LP
Fairport Convention - Full House LP
Gang Starr - Daily Operation LP
Haswell & Hecker - Blackest Ever Black 2LP
High Places - "Shared Islands" 7" picture disc
Jan Jelinek - Kosmicher Pitch LP
KTL - KTL 3 one-sided LP
Os Mutantes - self-titled 180g LP
Pale Saints - The Comforts of Madness LP (a proto-UK post-rock classic - every single song is utterly, confoundingly lovely)
Scorn - Stealth 2LP (the time seems just about right for
a Mick Harris return-to-form album - deathstep anyone?)
Shackleton - "New Dawn" 12"
The Third Eye Foundation - "Universal Cooler" 7"
3/4hadbeeneliminated - The Religious Experience LP
Caetano Veloso - self-titled (aka Irene 1969) 180g LP
Caetano Veloso - Araca Azul 180g LP
The Velvet Underground - VU 180g LP
Von Sudenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions 2LP (it seems to have become shockingly fashionable to pretend that this wasn't obviously the best album of 2007 but I am not affected by such ridiculous trends)
Scott Walker - 'Til the Band Comes In LP
Iannis Xenakis - Electro-Acoustic Music LP
Richard Youngs - Autumn Response LP

alva noto - xerrox
Francois Bayle - Erosphere

Shelagh McDonald - Let No Man Steal Your Thyme
Black Moth Super Rainbow - Dandelion Gum (not sure I get what all the fuss is about but I'm determined to figure it out)
M Rosner - Morning Tones

Bridget St John - Songs for the Gentle Man
Various artists - Brazil 70 (although it contains a few real duds this is worth hearing as a kind of missing link between the first Soul Jazz Tropicalia collection and those Brazilian post-punk compilations that came out a couple of years ago)