Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Various Artists, Rekids Revolution

In the previous review I wrote about how my enjoyment of Ewan Pearson’s We Are Proud of Our Choices mix for Kompakt led me to search out his Fabric 35 mix. This was a good idea because I enjoyed the Fabric mix as much or more than than the Kompakt mix.  I’d also written recently about how much I’ve liked Radio Slave’s Fabric 48 mix.  So, following the same strategy that worked so well with Pearson, I bought a copy of Rekids Revolution which is a three CD set compiling the music of Radio Slave’s Rekids label.  If following up a great mix with another mix from the same artist was a good idea, following up a great mix with a whole label’s worth of music from the same artist would be a better idea, right?  Wrong.  This was a bad idea.

Radio Slave is Matt Edwards,  Rikids is his label and he is featured on a good amount of the music on Rekids Revolution.  The first disc in the collection is a set of unmixed label originals; the second is a set of unmixed remixes, and the third is a mix built from label tracks by Spencer Parker.  Each of the discs presents 70+ minutes of music.

The major problem I have with Rekids Revolution is that too many of the tracks have about 30 seconds of ideas buried in something like 7 to 10 minutes of mind-numbingly repetitious music.  It is tedious beyond belief and getting through all three discs at least once in order to write a review was a chore.  As an example, the lead track on the compilation is Radio Slave’s “Bell Clap Dance”.  It starts with a nice rhythm pattern that then repeats endlessly as once every four measures a little fillup of rhythm (a hand clap with a fading delay or a minor variant on the cymbal/bell pattern) is dropped on the fourth bar.  This goes on for 64 (!!) measures and then a six note pattern that is too simple to even qualify as a riff is introduced which repeats over and over in different instruments until you’re ready to stick nails in your ears rather than have to listen to it again.  It’s enough to make you denounce the invention of  MIDI as the end of Western Civilization and thank whatever gods may exist for the inclusion of skip-track buttons on CD players.  It appears that this track is considered to be a highlight of the set because it is the only one that appears in various forms on all three discs.

It’s not all bad, however.  The Prins Thomas Disko-Tek remix of Luke Solomon’s “Spirits” is pretty good and Spencer Parker’s mix on the third disc develops some good moments.  But it’s not nearly enough.  “Bell Clap Dance” may be the worst example but too much of the music in this collection shares its problems.  Rekids Revolution holds over 210 minutes of music that has maybe 30 minutes of something interesting scattered here and there.  Maybe.  As evidenced by his Fabric 45 mix, Radio Slave can turn out terrific music.  Too bad it didn’t happen here.

My response to “Bell Clap Dance”  and Rekids Revolution has been pretty negative and it may say more about my tastes and interests than it does about the track or the collection.  Here’s the track so you can decide for yourself.  If you like this, you might really like Rekids Revolution.  If not, save your money and your time.

05/31/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Ewan Pearson, Fabric 35

I very much enjoyed Ewan Pearson’s mix for the Kompakt label, We Are Proud of Our Choices, so I looked for other mix CDs by Pearson and found Fabric 35.  Good move.  Pearson creates masterful mixes and Fabric 35 is a terrific CD.

There isn’t any part of putting a mix together that Pearson isn’t good at.  His segues from one track to the next are seamless even when the tracks are wildly disparate.  I bought Fabric 35 as a single track download (in wav format) from Juno Downloads and in places his transitions are so smooth I’m not quite sure where one track ends and the next begins.  Pearson also rarely lets interest flag with tracks that repeat the same few bars over and over again or sequential tracks that are highly similar in timbre or rhythmic structure.

A major part of what makes Fabric 35 so enjoyable are the tracks Pearson has chosen.  With the single exception of  100Hz’s “Trustlove” which hits the dancefloor DOA like a corpse dropped from the rafters in midset (at least for me, others like this track) every track on Fabric 35 is interesting and fits in the flow.  Many of the tracks feature dynamite vocals beginning with set opener Jahcoozi’s Robert Johnson’s 6Am X-Ray Italo Rework of “Ali McBills”, and moving through the Prince inspired Konrad Black Mix of Snax’ “Honeymoon’s Over” and Tobi Neumann’s Swinging Remix of Johannes Heil’s “All for One” and finally ending up with the astonishing “Berghain” from Aril Brikha.

Reigning over all of Fabric 35‘s many strengths is the groove.  It’s low, dark and relentless.  Ewan Pearson is a master and Fabric 35 is a masterclass in how to put together a mix.  Recommended.

05/28/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Choired Taste

“A Choired Taste” is built around three guitar-led sections separated by brief rhythm breaks.  The track got its start when I was experimenting with making instruments in Native Instrument’s Kontact and added a choir voice to a bass.  I liked the sound of that and began to explore a variety of bass plus voice combinations.  The bass in “A Choired Taste” is built from a combination of two basses and one voice; the main guitar is a combination of three guitars and two voices.  The second guitar which comes in during the third segment is a telecaster from East West’s Goliath.  The drums are from Native Instrument’s Battery.  The bass and guitars were played through a Novation SL MkII controller and the drums were programmed using the SL MkII, a Korg padKontrol and the keyboard.  The track was built in Ableton Live and a number of Live’s effects were used throughout.  EQ and compression at mixing were applied using FabFilter’s Pro-Q and Pro-C.

A Choired Taste

05/24/2010 Posted by | music | | Leave a comment

Review: Various Artists, Work It Baby 10th Anniversary

Work It Baby is a French record label operated by DJ/producer Kris Menace.  Work It Baby 10th Anniversary is a standard label compilation spread over two discs that celebrates ten years of  survival in a difficult business.

Work It Baby (the label) is variously characterized as a purveyor of electro house, nu disco, funky, and club house music.  If you’ve paid any attention at all to electronic dance music you know that it has a bewildering array of micro-genres with names that seem to vary with who is using them and are of virtually no importance to anybody other than the partisan fanbois who are ready to go to war at any perceived application of their favorite label to a track they don’t approve.  What ever you want to call it, Work It Baby puts out music that has its sights set squarely on the dancefloor.

In addition to operating the label, Menace is an active participant in the music it releases; 11 of the 35 tracks on the compilation list him as songwriter, co-songwriter, remixer or editor.  His work is very varied ranging from the piano-driven disco thumper “Enamored” which he co-wrote with Fred Falke that opens the collection, through his own “Maybelline”, a drum and percussion workout that kicks ass, to his remix of Patrick Alavi’s “Power”.  Although presenting a wide range of electronic music, or even of electronic dance music, is not Work It Baby’s aim, there is a more variety here than you might expect.  Thirty-five tracks and you never get the feeling that you’re hearing multiple variants of the same three or four basic ideas.

One thing the engineers at Work It Baby do very well is the bass drop.  There are several points in these tracks, Xinobi’s disco anthem “Day Off” is a good example, where the lead in and the eventual drop will have your booty out of your chair and your hands up in the air before you know what happened.  I’d like to give you an example to hear but it ain’t gonna happen with MP3.

Overall, Work It Baby 10th Anniversary is a solid collection of dance music from a label who clearly knows what they’re doing.  If you like this kind of music, give it a listen.

Romantic disco – Lifelike’s Running Out from Work It Baby 10th Anniversary

05/22/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Radio Slave, Fabric 48

Now this is what I’m talkin’ about.  Radio Slave is Matt Edwards, a prolific producer of an astonishingly wide variety of electronic music.  In addition to Radio Slave he is also know as Rekid, and Matthew E, as well as being one half of the duos Quiet Village (with Joel Martin) and Sea Devils (with Thomas Gandey).  Fabric 48 is his entry in fabric’s long-running studio mix series and it’s a killer.

The set opens quietly enough with the Michael Cleis Deeper Remix of Baeka’s “Right At It”.  It then quickly turns to the deep tribal rhythms that define the set with Radio Slave’s “DDB”.  The next track up is again Radio Slave with “I Don’t Need a Cure For This” which is about as good a characterization of Fabric 48 as anything I could come up with.  “I Don’t Need a Cure For This” is the first of four tracks that is one of the better sequences I’ve heard in a mix in a long time.

For the most part Fabric 48 is jungle music.  Not jungle as in drum and bass electronic music-related jungle but rain forest-type jungle.  Maybe tribal would be a better word.  Forward-driving propulsive and loping rhythms keep the set in a solid groove that is very hard to resist.  The set lets down a bit with one of those laid-back spoken raps by the chick with the sultry voice things that some producers of electronic music seem to love with Nina Kraviz’ “Pain in the Ass” but it gets it’s groove back when Kraviz loses the rap and gets to the rhythm late in the track.  If you focus on a segment o fFabric 48 it can come across as repetitious and boring.  However, if you relax your attention a bit the music can carry you away and once that happens it’s hard to stop playing it.

To my eye the CD art is particularly ugly but the idea is to listen to it, not look at it.  Fabric 48 may hurt the eyes but it’s a treat for the ears and those parts of the body that have a tendency to move in sinuous and uncontrollable ways when in the presence of a mighty groove.  If this sounds good to you, check Fabric 48 out.

Segment from Fabric 48

05/20/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Mortimer Rhind-Tutt, Music Technology from Scratch

Music Technology From Scratch is well named because the title tells you exactly what the book is about.  It is also well designed and well written.  As long as you understand that this is a book written for someone who knows virtually nothing about how music is produced, you should not be disappointed.

Music Technology From Scratch is designed as a primer that covers a basic introduction to an extraordinarily broad range of topics having to do with music production.  The coverage is really remarkable given that it’s only a 140 page book.

The book is divided into two parts based roughly on theory and practice.  “Theory” isn’t such a great title for the first section of the book because it is more about a basic introduction to equipment and how it works than to what people might imagine when they think about “theory” in regard to music.  Chapters in the first section are devoted to topics such as the basics of sound (including things like how sound waves are transduced to electricty and then back to sound waves, analog and digital, sound amplification etc.), how gear is hooked together and the types of wires that are used, different kinds of microphones and how they work, basic pieces of equipment like mixers, EQ, and compressors, MIDI, and how to set up a computer-based studio at home or wherever.  The second part on practice covers recording, mixing and mastering, sequencing, and composing and arranging.

All of these topics are dealt with at an introductory level.  If you already know about all of this stuff and know your way around a home or professional recording or production studio, you won’t find much of interest here.  If you don’t know about any of this stuff or are good with some of it but still not sure about some aspects of the music production process, Music Technology From Scratch can be very useful.

Music Technology From Scratch is designed to be a teaching aid and from this standpoint it is very well done.  Descriptions and explanations are very clearly written and do not assume the reader has the jargon of music production down pat.  (If they did, they wouldn’t need this book.)  Virtually everything discussed is illustrated with clear, well labeled and easy to understand graphics.  This is especially useful in illustrating things like the signal path through a basic mixer or what a patch bay is and how it works.  Every chapter is color coded and references to material from another chapter are coded with the color that identifies the chapter where you can find the basic info.  As a learning tool it’s exceptionally well done.

At one point Rhind-Tutt’s use of terminology seems a bit odd.  The term “digital audio workstation” or DAW is commonly used to refer to a much enhanced software sequencer like Ableton’s Live, Pro-Tools, Cubase, Reason, Sonar or Logic to name a few.  However Rhind-Tutt’s discussion of DAWs focuses on the computer and the digital audio interface.  He discusses software DAWs in his section on sequencers.

Music Technology From Scratch is a book that is targeted at a very specific audience.  If you read articles about music production or reviews of software and gear in magazines or websites like Computer Music, Music Tech, Future Music or Electronic Musician and don’t know what they’re talking about some of the time, or if you have a good understanding of the software end of things but are not so clear about the hardware (or vise versa), Music Technology From Scratch may be very useful to you.  It won’t be a book you’ll return to again and again over the years because once you’ve mastered the basics you’ll have gone beyond what Music Technology From Scratch has to offer.  Until then, however, Music Technology From Scratch can be a great help moving away from the place where you’re not quite sure what all of this is about.

05/15/2010 Posted by | book reviews, music, Music production, Music technology | , | Leave a comment

Review: Carl Cox, Black Rock Desert

Carl Cox is DJ who has been on the scene since the early rave days in the UK.  He played at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 2008, dug it, and returned to play again in 2009.  Black Rock Desert is a two CD collection of mixes that are based on the sets he played at Burning Man in ’09.

Cox is widely known as a techno DJ and Black Rock Desert is a techno mix.  How well you like the set is going to depend on how much you like this type of dance music.  Techno is fundamentally about rhythm and techno tracks have a tendency to feature a prominent equal-emphasis quarter-note rhythm with various rhythmic patterns intermixed and laid on top.  Rhythm licks fade in and out and melodic content is often limited and simple.  In hands less skilled than Cox’s, you can end up with thudding music that seems to plod along with slowly and aimlessly modulating rhythms.  But you’re in Cox’s hands here and he rarely lets the mix stagnate in a rut.  Disc one gravitates toward tracks with a tribal feel early on which would seem to synch right in with the crowd at Burning Man.  Compared to something like Radio Slave’s Fabric mix the tribal groove is pretty tame but it’s there and Cox works it into his techno mix very smoothly.  He gets away from it fairly quickly, however, which is a shame.

Another aspect of techno that can give it the feel of being repetitious is that it tends to rely very heavily on synth drums, basses, pads and leads.  While the genre is also known for the creative use of effects and new sounds, the heavy reliance on synths results in an artificially limited timbral palette.  Cox can’t completely avoid this but he does a nice job of mixing sounds, effects and timbres up so that the inherent limitations in the soundscape rarely become intrusive.  We have a fairly nice sound system with quality speakers and a clean signal path in our main listening room and while Black Rock Desert sounds terrific there, I get even more out of it when I listen through studio monitors.

I find that I can easily forget about the music on Black Rock Desert and let it fall into the background.  If I do this, the insistent emphasis on a quarter-note rhythm pattern and the unrelenting use of synths to produce much of the sound you hear can become annoying.  However, with Black Rock Desert I also find that if I stop and listen there is a lot going on in these two mixes.  Cox knows what he’s doing and if you give him the time and attention he will entertain you from start to finish.

Black Rock Desert comes in an elongated package that includes an extended essay about Cox and Burning Man along with a lot of photos taken at the festival.  It’s a nice package but the dimensions of the thing – it’s a bit more than the height of a plastic CD jewel box and about two jewel boxes long – mean that it isn’t going to store easily in a place where you’re likely to keep your CDs.  Why labels package their products in ways designed to annoy customers is a mystery to me.  If the idea is to give the consumer something they can’t get with a digital download, why not give us something useful like an alternative mix designed to sound good on a decent sound system as opposed to music that’s been mixed to sound good as an MP3 heard through ear buds?

Lance Blaise & Rod B., “Faaktree” from Black Rock Desert disc 1

05/13/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music business | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Time and Space Machine, The Time and Space Machine

The Time and Space Machine appears to be (there’s not much info included with the CD) a duo out of London composed of Richard Norris (vocals, guitars, keyboards and programming) and Wildcat Will (drums, percussion and vibrations).  Norris also wrote most of the tracks.  There are also occasional singers and an added guitar on one track.  Your guess is as good as mine about the Wildcat’s “vibrations” but the credit gives you a pretty good idea of what The Time and Space Machine is all about.

If you thought sun-kissed psychedelia you got it in one.  All of the earmarks of this type of music are correct and accounted for: hazy synths, creative use of delays, flutes, chanted refrains and song titles like “Children of the Sun”, “Trip Sideways”, “Set Phazer to Stun” and my favorite, “More Cowbell”.  That last is a rhythm track that could lead you to think more cowbell isn’t such a bad idea.

The CD opens with “Time and Space” which features a vocal by Norris that might make you wish you had left the disk in the store.  Aside from his work in The Time and Space Machine Norris is part of remix masters Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve.  He clearly has multiple talents but singing isn’t one of them.  His vocals don’t bring The Time and Space Machine down, however, because the rest of the tracks either have guest vocalists or are mainly instrumentals with chanted vocal lines which he carries off without difficulty.  Although some may be tempted to call The Time and Space Machine a one-man band because of Norris’s many contributions to the album, Will’s drumming and percussion are critical to the success of the set.

With one immense exception The Time and Space Machine is a pleasant album of psychedelia that is well performed and avoids the excessive self-indulgence that can plague this type of music.  The Time and Space Machine’s most prominent weakness at this point in time lies in their arranging.  Several tracks come across as a collection of good ideas that don’t quite lie down well together.

The exception is their cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Raissa Kahn-Panni on vocals.  It opens with the instantly recognizable chiming two note introduction to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” which is an especially nice touch as Young was first introduced to the musical world at large as a member of Buffalo Springfield.  The Time and Space Machine’s cover is a show-stopper that blows away everything else on the album.  It’s let down by an arrangement that has a break that’s much too short for all of the good ideas present in the song that really should have been explored further and a weak ending that simply fades out aimlessly.  Even with these shortcomings it’s terrific.  They own this song.

If you like psychedelia, The Time and Space Machine is a set you might very much enjoy and with their cover of “After the Gold Rush” you’ll have one of the best tracks you’re likely to hear this year.

“After the Gold Rush” from The Time and Space Machine

05/10/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Sade, Soldier of Love

Another eight years, another Sade CD.  Sade burst on the scene with mega-hit “Smooth Operator” in 1984.  Several relatively fast albums followed and then she slowed into her current groove.  Eight year gaps have separated each of her last three albums.  This isn’t a sound business strategy if you’re an act trying to maximize visibility and income.  For a mature artist like Sade who is apparently interested in making music when and how it suits her, it works just fine.

Although she has not been prolific, most listeners will know what to expect from a Sade CD: that lovely, mellow, and somewhat exotic voice, lilting rhythms, and smooth mid-tempo arrangements.  That’s pretty much exactly what you’ll get on Soldiers of Love.  For the most part Sade sings love and relationship songs and much has been made of the darker view of these topics she takes on Soldiers of Love in comparison with her earlier albums.  I don’t know her lyrics well enough to know if this is the case and lyrics for any artist tend to get through to me only if interest in in the music has led me play the album many times.  Listeners who enjoy Sade for her lyrics will not be helped much by this review, I’m afraid.

I listen to Sade for rhythm, groove and the sound of her voice.  On these grounds Soldiers of Love is a qualified success.  The voice is there and for the most part that’s enough.  I think I would find it pleasant to hear Sade sing her grocery list.  There are more downtempo numbers on Soldiers of Love than I would like which lessens the lilting groove content.  This may well reflect the less optimistic view of relationships mentioned above and so may find favor with listeners who are tuned into Sade’s current lyrical focus.

Soldiers of Love is soft pop that is professionally, elegantly and quietly sung, played and recorded.  If you are a Sade fan there is much here to like and even if not much is all that different from the CDs she has made in the past, the opportunity to hear new Sade material after an eight year wait may justify buying the album.

“Babyfather” from Soldiers of Love

05/07/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Review: Sasha & John Digweed, Renaissance: The Mix Collection

Renaissance: The Mix Collection is a remarkable DJ mix in more ways than one.  Originally released in 1994 it was one of the first CDs that presented a collection of music that was fully mixed for CD by a DJ.  There had been others but none had attracted the attention that Renaissance: The Mix Collection received when it was first released.  In many ways it established the DJ mix as a viable format for sale on CDs.

Renaissance: The Mix Collection is made up of three CDs mixed by Sasha and John Digweed who were resident DJs at the Renaissance club in Mansfield, England.  The set was re-released in a 10th Anniversary edition in 2004 that was remixed by Sasha and Digweed using then-contemporary technology to improve the sound and with two tracks by the group M People replaced with other tracks because of copyright issues.  It’s the 10th Anniversary edition that is being reviewed here.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Renaissance: The Mix Collection is how well it holds up sixteen years later.  Club-oriented dance music has changed a great deal since 1994 and Renaissance: The Mix Collection may sound dated to listeners who are into the current dance music scene.  However, the fact that this is music that was popular over a decade ago shouldn’t get in the way of hearing that it’s terrific.  Each of the three disks is filled with get-up-off-your-ass-and-shake-it dance music.  All of the disks are well mixed with smooth transitions and tracks that work well together.  Each mix has a subtly different flavor but all of them are high energy and very good.  They didn’t call this stuff “rave” for no reason.

Renaissance: The Mix Collection was released at a critical time in the history of dance music.  The rave scene had taken hold among the young people in the UK to an extent that some older people were afraid civilization as they knew it was coming to an end.  Massive rave parties with as many as 30K to 40K participants were being thrown in empty fields and warehouses all over the UK.  The ravers were young, they danced in a frenzy all night and day, they liked their music loud, and they scared the neighbors.  Their recreational drug of choice was the untaxed ecstasy rather than the taxable alcohol and this represented a significant loss of income for both pub owners and the government.  The government responded with the infamous Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 that criminalized outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people who had gathered for the purpose of listening to music.  It also permitted police who suspected a person of going to a rave anywhere within a five-mile radius to send that person out of the area or suffer arrest.  As the government did its best to stamp out raves, dance clubs like Renaissance were the viable and legal alternative.

The rave scene that so frightened the good people of England was something of an “everyman” movement.  Raves were held in empty places, anyone could go, and a lot of people did.  The liner notes for Renaissance: The Mix Collection include a remembrance of the Renaissance club as it was in 1994 that draws a sharp distinction between the patrons of the club and the ravers.  Dom Phillips, who wrote the liner notes, goes on and on about how special the club was because it didn’t allow just anyone in.  There was a strict dress code and a very tight door policy so that only the special people were allowed inside.  The smelly hoi polloi ravers who didn’t have the right labels on their clothing or go to the right hairdressers were not welcome.  Phillips is ecstatic in being one of the special people whose superiority was so clearly recognized by his admittance to the club where everyone looked fabulous.

Phillips’ characterization of the Renaissance club as an elitist mecca reminded me very much of the club world in New York during the disco heyday when Studio 54 set itself up as the self-consciously elitist alternative to clubs like Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, David Mancuso’s The Loft, and Nicky Siano’s The Gallery which were places where you could be anybody and wear anything (and even less as the night wore on) as long as you loved music and loved to dance.

My particular bias is that I automatically assume that people like Phillips who are all about being recognized as one of the special people tend to be icons of empty style combined with little substance.  This bias was reinforced when Phillps smugly identified his Renaissance club of 1994 with “the famous New Jersey club Paradise Garage”.  The Garage was one of the most storied dance clubs of all time and its resident DJ, Larry Levan, is still revered as one of the DJ gods so it is easy to see why Phillips would want to link it to Renaissance.  But New Jersey?  The Garage was at 84 King Street in New York City near the border between Soho and the West Village.  While not far in miles, it’s light years from New Jersey in almost every other respect.  Being someone who is knowledgeable about the dance music world and placing the Garage in New Jersey is like being knowledgeable about the pop/rock music world of the 1960’s and placing the Beatles’ Cavern Club in Dublin.  You know the right names to drop which you think indicates that you’re one of the special people but you don’t have much of a clue what you’re talking about.

Then it dawned on me that I was expressing the same level of elitism that I found offensive in Phillips.  If I had read the liner notes and knew nothing about the music, I would have never have listened to Renaissance: The Mix Collection assuming that the music would exhibit the same lack of substance as the people who frequented the club where it was played.  That would have been a big mistake and a just punishment for falling prey to the same snobbery I was condemning in others.  Listen with open ears, live with an open mind.  Renaissance: The Mix Collection is a rich and varied set of dance music that is as enjoyable to listen to today as it was when it dropped like a bomb in 1994.

05/03/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment