Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: SOS, Club

Ministry of Sound began as a dance club in London that was modeled on New York’s legendary Paradise Garage.  The club opened in 1991.. Ministry of Sound and has since grown to be a multimedia entertainment brand with a record label, radio network, clothing brand etc.  The record label has put out numerous DJ mix series over the years with their Club series being the latest.  CDs in the series are projected to include two discs; one containing a mix the DJ would do on a Saturday night in the club and the second featuring the DJ’s own compositions and remixes.  The collection by SOS is the first in the series.

SOS, which stands for SexOnSubstance, are Omid “16B” Nourizadeh, Demi Hajigeorgiou, and Desyn Masiello.  They were a good choice to kick off the Club series.  Disc 1 does just what’s it’s supposed to do – lay down a dance floor mix that’s tight, right and peak night.  SOS ease you in for maybe two minutes and then hit the 4/4 and start to ramp up the intensity.  Ramp it up , hold, ramp it up, hold  . . . hold, hit it!  Rinse and repeat.  These guys know what they’re doing and they do it well.  Disc one is a straightforward house club mix seasoned with nu-disco and funk and it rocks.  If this one doesn’t get your ass in the air go back to Mom and Dad and ask for a reboot ’cause something ain’t right.

Although the idea for disc 2 was to present a collection of the DJ’s compositions and remixes that’s not really what we get.  SOS are only credited with 2 of the tracks on the second disc.  Five of the remaining 11 tracks were written or co-written by Omar 16B and the rest are by other people.  Some of these are tracks that were released on Omid’s label SoulOnWax.  What connection the others have with SOS is unclear.

As expected of a set that compiles original compositions and remixes, disc 2 doesn’t have the linear drive and power of the club mix on disc one.  If you listen to disc two right after disc one it’s easy to go “meh”.  But that would be a mistake.  Taken on its own terms – in other words, don’t listen to it immediately following disc one – it has its own strengths.

As with disc 1, the music on disc 2 is fairly straightforward house music.  As with a good deal of straightforward house music, there’s a tendency to let 2 bar patterns go on for too long with only minor, if any, variation but this isn’t as big a problem for SOS as it is for some other music producers.  Omid B’s “Sequential 002: Same as You” does a nice job of combining a heavy 4/4 house backbeat with a jazz sax solo.  While still clearly in the House mode, the final three tracks introduce more variation than the others in terms of rhythmic patterns and sonic palattes.  These are the three tracks that don’t have any apparent connection with SOS and they sound like they were mixed by the trio but didn’t fit on the first disc.

Based on Club, SOS’s strengths lie more in the DJ than the music production realm but there are more than a few good tracks on disc 2.  Which is gravy, really, because disc 1 is good enough to justify giving the set a try.

To get a feel for a mix you have to listen to the mix, not individual tracks, but here’s Silver City’s “Pendulo (Pete Herbert edit)” to give you an idea of the kind of music on disc 1

From disc 2, the SOS edit of Latenta Project’s “Beach Combers”

07/23/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Juan Maclean, DJ-Kicks

DJ-Kicks is a series of mixes by DJs, music producers and musicians that, at least at the beginning, were designed to be listened to at home.  Juan Maclean’s mix is the 32nd in the series which kicked off in 1995.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is a pretty straightforward uptempo party mix of house music that has occasional disco influences.  The set has generally received very positive reviews but it’s just not doing it for me.  The mix starts promisingly with Still Going’s ‘Spaghetti Circus” which does a good job of ramping up the dance intensity.   However, Maclean seems to have been enamored of tracks that feature short vocal phrases that are repeated monotonously throughout the track when he put this mix together.  He uses this techique on track after track and the mix sinks under the weight.

I get the idea that vocal snippets are being used as rhythmic elements and rhythmic elements tend to repeat.  But endlessly repeating rhythm patterns are the bane of this kind of music and shoving the repetition in the listener’s face by putting it in the vocal (which will automatically attract more attention than, say, a repeating kick) just makes the tedium all the more apparent.  When used judiciously, a vocal rhythm part can be very effective.  When it’s used on track after track it’s an invitation to find something else to listen to.  As an example, on Sonny Foderra’s “Everybody Get on the Decks” the phrase captured in the title, or a minor variant of it, is repeated 126 times over 4 mins and 44 secs.  Add to this the 40 times the phrase is repeated at the end of the previous track as Maclean mixes the transition between the two tracks and you end up with a circumstance where it’s hard not to yank the CD out of the player.  Of the 12 tracks that precede “Everybody Get on the Decks”, 10 feature endlessly repeated vocals as rhythm elements.  It’s too much.  Get another idea.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is the kind of CD I might drop in the box during a party when you want to keep the crowd moving but are  reasonably sure no one is paying any attention to the music.  If anyone was listening, even halfheartedly, I’d give them something more interesting to listen to.

“Spaghetti Circus” by Still Going

07/21/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts, Breaking the Fourth Wall

Time and again I’ve expressed dismay because producers of electronic dance music rely on the same sound palettes or, even worse, repeat the same 1, 4 or 8 bar pattern so many times that the listener becomes stupefied by monotony.  Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts doesn’t have this problem. Breaking the Fourth Wall is rich with different timbres and compelling grooves.  It’s one of the most exciting and interesting single-artist CDs I’ve heard in the dance music category in months.

Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts is a musician out of Montreal named . . . wait for it . . . Guillaume Coutu Dumont (Ringo should have thought of this).  He started out as an anthropology student, began playing percussion at age 17, got involved in a funk band, dropped anthropology and was accepted into a music program in percussion, and then shifted into electroacoustic composition.  Finding the academic environment too narrow and limited, he split and began making his own music.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is his second album.

If I had to give a single characterization of the type of music Dumont produces on Breaking the Fourth Wall I’d say something like tribal but that doesn’t really do it.  He uses a variety of percussion instruments, synths and even vocal lines to build layered grooves that are often very strong in rolling, propulsive rhythms.  He also makes exceptionally good use of jazz-influenced horns.  Before firing up Tuned In To Music I spent many years deeply involved in listening to and learning about jazz.  My first Parametric Monkey track, “Horns of the Moon”, is built around the interplay between an alto and tenor sax because of this background and I’ve often wondered why dance music producers don’t make more use of jazz instrumentation.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is an excellent example of just how well jazz-influenced horns can work in dance music context.

While not everything on Breaking the Fourth Wall works for me, the album is filled with original and interesting tracks.  Album opener “Mindtrap” combines a Miles Davis style muted trumpet with a powerful driving rhythm.  “32 Tonnes de Pigeons” is moving  along nicely on what sounds like a Farfisa organ based groove when Dumont drops in a ghostly trumpet that is very reminiscent of Nina Rota’s instantly recognizable theme from The Godfather.  He then works in a smokey late-night sax and it all hangs together beautifully.  “Walking the Pattern” and “Decennie” are built around samples of either a preacher addressing a congregation or an organizer motivating an audience.  “Radio Novela” features vocalist Dynamike over a groove that’s so deep and funky I simply cannot stop playing it.

When you delve into the software that is available to electronic music producers you immediately realize that the possibilities for manipulating rhythm, timbre, instrumentation, groove, melody, and just about anything else you can think of are virtually limitless.  You also realize that the producers of electronic dance music have barely scratched the surface of what the tools they use will allow them to do.  Guillaume Coutu Dumont ain’t like that.  He’s thinking outside the box and the result is that Breaking the Fourth Wall is a solidly grooving album that doesn’t sound like yet another genre-driven dance music CD.  Check it out.  Recommended.

“Radio Novela” featuring Dynamike

“32 Tonnes de Pigeons”

07/20/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: M.A.N.D.Y., Fabric 38

M.A.N.D.Y.’s  Fabric 38 is an intriguing mix.  It has quite a different sound from M.A.N.D.Y.’s Mix Collection for Renaissance and on first listen it didn’t really grab my attention.  There was something about it though.  It faded in and out of our listening cycle over many weeks until I decided I had to either shelve it or review it.  During a day or two of focused listening the strengths of Fabric 38 began to reveal themselves.

M.A.N.D.Y.’s Fabric 38 isn’t a straightforward House mix although it adheres pretty consistently to the typical House 4/4 equal-emphasis kick-driven format.  Throughout the mix M.A.N.D.Y. layer multiple polyrhythms over the kick which give the entire set more of a varied feel than a run-of-the-mill House mix.  As the set goes on M.A.N.D.Y. get more and more into synth lines and timbres that are atypical and the mix gets increasingly mysterious, deep and dark.  Strange sounds briefly appear and then disappear.  Ominous pads lurk in the background.  You’re on your way down the rabbit hole.

Fabric 38 may take some time and patience but it’s worth it.  As your familiarity increases, previously hidden nooks and crannies reveal themselves.  M.A.N.D.Y. have put together a mix that continues to entertain well after the newness has worn off.

“War Paint (Claude Vonstroke remix) poxyMUSIC Ft. Gina Mitchell

07/17/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Scouting for Girls, Everybody Wants To Be On TV

Scouting For Girls is a trio (guitar/keyboards, bass, drums) out of London.  Everybody Wants To Be On TV is their second album.  They have achieved success in the UK where their first album briefly reached number one in the charts.

I haven’t been listening to much of this type of music lately and perhaps that is the problem.  Scouting For Girls sounds to me like a band with a desperate desire to have their songs featured during the last minute of some crappy TV show.  It’s all pop hooks, overwrought emotion, and yearning choruses and, at least to me, it sounds like a zillion other bands who are grinding the same career path.  Opening track “This Ain’t a Love Song” is a solid track with a good vocal hook for a chorus but once you’ve heard it you’ve heard just about everything the band has to offer.

Somewhere there is an industrial plant that churns out these bands and the songs they play on a monthly schedule.  If you blew it up, they’d just build another one because this is what the big musak business is all about.

“This Ain’t A Love Song”

07/14/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

First Impressions: Crowded House, Intriguer

Today was a long, and possibly decisive, stage as far as the top two positions in the GC in the Tour de France so I only had time to hear Crowded House’s new album Intriguer once.  Based on that single hearing, my response was very positive.  This one could be a solid winner.

Everyone who has spent any time listening to music knows how deceptive first listenings can be.  Sometimes an album sounds terrific the first time or two and you quickly lose interest.  Other times an album sounds like nothing at first and grows into a long-term favorite.  And sometimes you get it the first time you hear it, good or bad.

Keeping that in mind, Intriguer sure sounded fine the first time out.  Some bands go on and on cranking out the same old thing looking increasingly ridiculous singing songs for 20 year olds when they’re in their 60s.  Others reunite for nostalgia cash ins and embarrass themselves with cringe worthy Super Bowl half-time shows.  However some musicians and bands continue to make vibrant music for decades.  Although not easy for anyone, it’s a bit easier for an individual to pull this off than for a band.  Crowded House may be doing it.

It’s early days for Intriguer yet, but first impressions are good.  Stay tuned.

It’s all good – here is the review of Intriguer.

07/13/2010 Posted by | First impressions, music | , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Low Frequency in Stereo, Futuro

Start with a blender.  Add a  good amount of deeply stoned psychedelic rock of the kind played by the great late ’60s San Francisco bands at their peak.  Add healthy dollops of Velvet Underground and Shoegaze à la My Bloody Valentine.  Flavor with a post-rock sensibility and a garage rock attitude.  Add a few bits of the Doors, Can, and Stereolab.  Season with discord to taste.  Set the blender on low so you end with recognizable chunks in the mix.  What do get?  The Low Frequency in Stereo, a band that flat out kicks ass.

The Low Frequency in Stereo is a five piece out of Norway.  Futuro is their first full length album.  Whatever images Norway brings to mind, forget about it.  These guys transcend space.  The retro influences named above may also bring images to mind.  Forget about those too because these guys also transcend time.  You can hear the band’s influences but they are not making derivative music.  This isn’t The Low Frequency in Stereo doing Velvet Underground or Stereolab.  It’s a  creative band making original music.

It’s rare to find a band that can internalize a style from the past so deeply that they sound like they could have been one of those bands.  It’s even rarer to find a band that can do this for more than one style.  And it’s rarer yet for a band to be able to do this within the confines of one song and make it sound like an organic whole rather than an bolted together, unwieldy mess.  The Low Frequency in Stereo is one of those ultra-rare bands and Futuro is one of those terrific albums that doesn’t have a bad cut on it.  Recommended.

“Solar System”

07/13/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Danny Howells, 24:7

Another day, another DJ mix series from one of the prominent club/record label conglomerates in the international dance music scene.  This one didn’t do so well.  The conglomerate is Global Underground.  The idea was to mix a “Day” disc and a “Night” disc of contrasting types of music that would then be released as a two disc series.  Danny Howells inaugurated the series in the summer of 2003.  The second entry in the 24:7 series was mixed by Lee Burridge and released two months later.  That was it.

The idea of a day-in-the-life mix seems to have great appeal in the dance music world as there are any number of mixes that are supposed to take you through the DJ or the average club-goers day.  James Zabiela, for example, seems particularly fond of this idea.  I’m guessing that this stems from the idea that a mix should “take you on a journey”.  The problem with this idea is that the journey that will seem most familiar to the average club goer who is the marketing target of these mixes – a journey through their typical day – isn’t really much of a journey at all.  It’s more like an endless loop of basically mindless fun followed by recovery, fun, recovery . . .  This can be a great way to spend your time until you realize that the world is a much richer place than that, with a whole lot more to offer.  As a result, the listener who likes this music but who has a life outside the club scene is likely to hear these day-in-the-life mixes as just another collection of dance music.  Maybe that’s why Global Underground’s 24:7 series only has two entries.

In the topsy-turvey world of the person whose life revolves around dance clubs, night corresponds to high-intensity, often drug fueled wonderfulness and day is devoted to coming down, torpor, and gearing up for the next night’s go-round.  Accordingly, Howell’s 24:7 “Night” disc is more uptempo than the “Day” disc.  Although, surprisingly, the difference really isn’t that great.  Howells is a first-rate DJ in terms of his ability to put together either a mix CD or a set in the club.  Both of these abilities are based on his wide and deep familiarity with dance music and his skill in sequencing tracks.   While 24:7 may not show Howells’ at his best, it will certainly appeal to his fans or to anyone else who enjoys a good collection of House music.

Honeyroot’s “Starshine” from the “Day” disc

Sam Paganini’s “Into Africa” from the “Night” disc

07/12/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Scissor Sisters, Night Work

lol These guys are hilarious.  After they released their self-titled first album, New York’s Scissor Sisters became a huge hit in Canada, Europe, and Australia.  Scissor Sisters was the best selling album in the UK in 2004.  Didn’t happen in the US. Their second album, Ta-Dah, which opened with the just-about-perfect “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin'” continued their success abroad.   Once again it didn’t happen in the US.

The band’s failure to break through in the American market is widely seen to be the result of the fact that their name, music and stage show are openly, flamboyantly and unapologetically gay.  The idea is that the general sexual conservatism, homophobia and sexual paranoia of the American music-buying market prevents them from breaking through.  Now here they are with their third album, Night Work.  They are using an outside producer for the first time.  They have a new label that is dedicated to putting in the hard promotional work that they think it will take to make the band a success in the US.  So what do the Sisters do?  Take a look at the album art.  Homophobes are gonna have their panties in a twist over this one.  Wouldn’t be surprised if Wal-Mart either bans the CD or demands an alternate cover.  The music, if anything, is even less compromising about the band’s sexual interests.   lol  These guys are hilarious.

The core members of the band are Jake Shears and Ana Matronic (vocals), Del Marquis (Guitar), and Babydaddy (bass, guitar, keyboards and programming).  Paddy Boom who was the drummer on their first two albums has been replaced by Randy “Real” Schrager who is listed on Night Work as an “additional player”.  Their music is usually characterized as club music with strong disco, glam rock and pop influences.

The Scissor Sisters go out of their way to . . .uhh . . . thrust their sexual orientation in your face.  If you cut through the sex, you find that they are a really terrific band.  Their songs are very well written, very well engineered and produced, and often brilliantly performed.  In some respects the Scissor Sisters are what Madonna has always wanted to be –  performers of edgy, cutting edge club music.  The difference is that Madonna has always been a wannabe, hijacking somebody else’s scene and hiring this month’s hot producer when it comes time to “recreate” herself again, while the Scissor Sisters are the real thing.   This is a rock solid band whose music is as hard and tight as their asses.

Will another good album from the Scissor Sisters be enough to overcome homophobia in America?  Probably not.  Too bad, that, because people who won’t listen to Night Work because the album art offends them or they can’t handle a song about anal sex are missing some fine music.  If you’re one of those people, consider that the planet has a lot of people on it and a lot of them enjoy sexual practices that are different from the ones you enjoy.  Hell, if your partner is a different gender than you, he or she probably has different sexual tastes than you do.  Get over it.  Your first step can be treating yourself to Night Work.

“Night Work”

“Sex and Violence”

07/10/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Various Artists, Kompakt Total 10

Kompakt’s Total 10 reinforced an idea I’ve had for a long time – pay attention to your intuitions.  They’re not always right but they’re always worth considering.  Total 10 is the tenth in an ongoing series of yearly compilations from Kompakt Records.  I picked it up after thoroughly enjoying Ewan Pearson’s We Are Proud of Our Choices, a mix put out on the Kompakt label.  I read somewhere that Pearson was trying to create the quintessential Kompact mix with We Are Proud of Our Choices so I thought Total 10 would be a great CD.  It came into rotation and I thought wtf? this isn’t at all what I expected.  It sucks!

I was all set to write a review focused on what a big disappointment the CD was but this intuition I had kept nagging at me to give it another listen.  I did – with the same result.  Didn’t like it.  Give it another listen.  Do it again.  Again.  I was on the verge of writing the review but the sense I was missing something wouldn’t leave.  This was unusual so I set Total 10 aside and came back to it several weeks later and listened to it with fresh ears.  Click!  Free of preconceptions Total 10 came clear.

Kompakt formed in 1998 and came to be one of the dominant record labels in the exceptionally vibrant German electronic music scene in the 2000s.  They are known for hitting the sweet spot that combines micro house and minimal techno with pop music (often in the form of vocals) and ambient.  Their music tends to have a solid dance-oriented groove driving a soundscape that is quieter than peak hour dancefloor House music.  One of their releases, Immer by label co-founder and co-owner Michael Mayer, was named by Resident Advisor as the top mix CD of the decade 2000-2009.  Total 10 fits this image.  It’s a two disc collection of varied electronic dance music that shades toward quiet and is deep in groove and high quality production values.  I sounds very good on good playback gear.

I ended up putting a lot of time into Total 10 and it was worth it.  The CD took me on a voyage of discovery that opened up new musical vistas for me.  Hard to argue with that.  There are still some aspects of Total 10 that I don’t much care for, I can comfortably say I don’t enjoy some of the more loungey vocals for example, but on the whole I’ve come to enjoy this collection quite a lot which is a complete reversal of my initial reaction.  And the good news is that this is number 10.  There are 9 more to explore.

Justus Köhncke’s “Give It To Me Easy”

Gui Boratto’s “No Turning Back” Wighnomy’s Lakkalize Rekksmi

07/09/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Live Anthology

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ The Live Anthology comes in two basic packages.  One has 4 CDs of music.  The other, which is being reviewed here has 5 CDs of music (the same 4 as in the CD-only set plus another), a Blu-Ray disc that contains all of the 62 tracks that are on the 5 CDs in both 5.1 Surround and 96K, 24-bit PCM stereo, a vinyl LP with a remastered bootleg of 4 tracks from 1976, a DVD with an unreleased documentary about the band called 400 Days made in the mid-1990s, a second DVD with an unreleased concert from 1978, a large booklet with “zomg! this band is so . . . !!!”  from various people, Petty’s track-by-track comments on the tracks in the set and full details on when and where each track was recorded and who plays what on the track, and assorted other bits and pieces including silk screened stage passes and a Live Anthology blank-page notebook (?? wtf  ??).

I didn’t watch the DVDs, listen to the vinyl or read the essays.  I did listen to the music on the CDs and both mixes on the Blu-Ray disc.  The Blur-Ray has the nice feature that you can switch back and forth between the stereo and surround mixes and it keeps you at the same point in the song.  This made it possible to do an ABC comparison of the CD, high resolution stereo and surround versions by syncing the CD in it’s transport with the Blu-Ray in the Blu-Ray player.  The Surround mix is very gentle with the rear speakers providing  crowd noise and a much-dampened delay of the front channels in order to give a slight feeling of being in a live venue.  As expected, the high resolution stereo provides greater clarity, depth, detail and dynamic range.  However, this will only be apparent if you have a sound system that can reproduce the sound captured on the Blu-Ray.  The recording engineers did an excellent job on The Live Anthology and the sound on the CDs is very, very good.  The hi res stereo is better but you’re not getting a markedly inferior product if you buy the CDs.  You are getting one less disc of music, however.

The Live Anthology is a love letter from the band to their fans.  In many ways it is the polar opposite of the recently reviewed box set from Kraftwerk.  With Kraftwerk you get nothing but eight of their albums remastered so that the sound is much better than what had previously been available on CD.  With The Live Anthology you don’t get any of the the band’s previously released albums.  Instead you get live versions (and I’m guessing most are previously unreleased) of (some of) their hits, album tracks, and covers.  For many fans, this is all going to be new material.

The collection was produced by Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate and Petty.  The lengths they went to in putting The Live Anthology together and making sure it was a box set that fans would treasure were extreme.  They started with multi-track recordings of 169 live shows stretching over a 32 year period.  Those shows were stored on 245 reels of 2″ analog tape and 36 500-GB hard drives.  The 245 tapes had to be baked in an industrial oven at 130 degrees for 10 hours each in order to play back properly.  Putting it all together they had 3,509 songs.  They did rough mixes of all 3,509 (!).  Played non-stop, back-to-back, that was 12 days worth of music.  There were 245 different songs among the 3,509.  They listened for five weeks and pulled what they considered the best version of each of the 245 songs.  They evaluated all 245 and ended up with a final cut of 80 songs.  These 80 songs were fully mixed (it took 6 months to do the full mixes).  Petty then worked on sequencing the 80 tracks.  He eliminated 19 songs because he didn’t find a way to sequence them that he liked.  That left the 61 songs that are in the collection (the first track on disc one is a band introduction which puts the number of tracks in the set at 62).  All of this took more than a year of work.  That’s a lot of effort and the result is clear for all to hear on the discs.  The Live Anthology is a brilliant collection.  Sometimes obsession can be a very good thing.

Every fan of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers will want The Live Anthology.  There are many ways to build a successful boxed set, but for a set designed to give fans of the band something they don’t already have it’s hard to imagine anything better than this.  Tom Petty has thrown down the gauntlet to every other band with a reputation of putting on a good show.  This is the way it should be done.  Outstanding.

Listening to parts of The Live Anthology while working on the review I thought “This is the track I’ll add to the review”, then another track played and I thought “No, this is the one.”  Then another track played and I thought “I have to have that one.”  This went on for five discs of music.  This is a band that’s all about the live show and The Live Anthology is a collection of what they think are their best live tracks from 32 years of performing.  There’s no way one, two or ten tracks is going to cut it.  So here’s two tracks from the disc that happened to be in the player as I write this sentence.

“Learning to Fly”

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

07/06/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Phenomenal Handclap Band, The Phenomenal Handclap Band

The Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place which isn’t so suprising given that the Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place as well.  The band lists its members as Daniel Collás, Sean Marquand, Patrick Wood, Luke O’Malley, Nick Movshon, Bing Ji Ling, Joan Tick, and Laura Martin.  According to the track credits, Ji Ling, Tick and Martin don’t appear on any of the songs on the album.  Kimi Recor contributes vocals to 4 of the CD’s 12 tracks and isn’t listed as a member of the band.  The track credits list a bewildering array of musicians that appear once and are never heard again.

Things become clearer when you focus on two names.  The Phenomenal Handclap Band are basically music producers Collás and Marquand and whoever they happened to get together to contribute to their tracks.  Collás and Marquand wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks save one (more on this one later) and play keyboards throughout the album.  The band’s website insists they really are a band and maybe an actual band came together in the making of this album but we’ll have to wait for their next release to hear what they sound like.

What The Phenomenal Handclap Band sounds like is somebody’s mix tape who likes 70s funk, R&B, and disco with a healthy dose of psychedelic rock.  Like LCD Soundsystem’s recent This Is Happening, many of the tracks on The Phenomenal Handclap Band sound like The Phenomenal Handclap Band doing their version of some other group.  “All of the Above”  is their version of a Traffic tune; “15 to 20” is like Go Team! with Lady Tiga doing the playground chants instead of a bunch of kids.  And so on.  Also like the LCD Soundsystem CD you can’t help but think that the original bands did it a lot better.

The one track that Collás and Marquand did not have a hand in writing is “I Been Born Again” which was written by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman.  Some listeners may recognize Kaylan and Volman as the duo who formed The Turtles of “Happy Together” fame in 1965.  They joined Frank Zappa in 1970 where they began calling themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie, names they have used ever since.  Kaylan and Volman are the vocalists who appear on the terrific Zappa live album Just Another Band From L.A, Chunga’s Revenge and others from the same time period.

I found The Phenomenal Handclap Band to be one of those albums that sounded pretty good on first listen but got old quickly.  Too many of the tracks are pale imitations of other people’s work.  Maybe with a stable lineup and a refocus on developing their own sound The Phenomenal Handclap Band may generate more interest the next time around.

“All of the Above” from The Phenomenal Handclap Band

07/06/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Kris Menace, Idiosyncrasies

After enjoying Work it Baby, the 10th anniversary set from Kris Menace’s record label, I thought I’d give this collection of his own works a try.  Idiosyncrasies is a three disc set.  Discs 1 and 2 are individual tracks by Menace either alone or in collaboration.  Disc 3 is a collection of Menace’s remixes.  The original tracks are by LCD Soundsystem (“North American Scum”), Air (“Mer Du Japon”), Felix Da Housecat (“Something 4 Porno”), and Underworld (“Ring Road”) among others.  Most of the remixes are straightfoward House remixes without vocals designed for club play.

Actually, “straightforward House” music is a pretty good characterization of Idiosyncrasies .  One of the features that attracted me to Work it Baby was that it showed more variety than I expected.  Maybe I was expecting too much variety  on Idiosyncrasies based on that prior experience.  Most of these tracks appear to be designed for club play.  Menace is an accomplished producer and the music on Idiosyncrasies is professionally executed.  There’s just not enough variety and three discs tends to be too much of a good thing.  I would recommend Work It Baby over Idiosyncrasies as an introduction to Menace’s music.

With three cds, Idiosyncrasies is a very generous collection of music and if you like straight ahead House with a smattering of disco-influenced tracks, it might be right down your alley.  Idiosyncrasies may also be of interest to DJs looking for material for their club mixes.

“Enamoured” by Kris Menace and Fred Falke

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

Review: Kraftwerk, The Catalogue

In 2003 Kraftwerk released their last (to date) album of new material, Tour de France Soundtracks.  The 2010 Tour de France starts today.  Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider are the creative core of Kraftwerk and Hutter is an avid cyclist.  I’m also an avid enough cyclist to have taken a trip to France for the sole purpose of spending a week in the French Alps cycling up and over some of the historic Tour de France climbs such as Alpe d’Huez and Col du Galibier.  Put it all together and it sounds like today is the perfect day to review the Kraftwerk box set The Catalogue.

The Catalogue collects eight Kraftwerk albums that were released between 1974 and 2003.  The albums in chronological order are Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World,  Electric Cafe (which is entitled Techno Pop in The Catalogue), The Mix and Tour de France Soundtracks.  Each album appears on its own disc which does not include any extra material.  All eight albums were remastered by Hutter.  Each album is packaged in a cardboard sleeve with a second interior cardboard sleeve for the disc.  The set also contains large (12″ by 12″) booklets for each album.  The booklets contain large pictures associated with each album and have their own slipcase.  Unless you want to see readily available pictures of Kraftwerk becoming increasingly machine-like in appearance over time, the booklets are pretty much a waste of time and space.

As box sets go, The Catalogue is austere.  All you get is the original eight albums remastered and a lot of heavyweight paper devoted to pointless pictures that anyone interested in the band has probably seen a thousand time before.  There is no information about the band or how they went about making the music, no extra tracks, nothing.  You get the eight albums.  That’s it.

Is that enough to justify purchasing The Catalogue?  That will depend on how much you like Kraftwerk and how good your sound playback system is.  It would be difficult to overestimate Kraftwerk’s importance as a band.  They came out of the exceptionally rich musical hotbed of late 1960s  – 1970s West Germany that also produced the German electronic and rock pioneers who are collected on Soul Jazz’s recent and superb Deutsche Elektronische Musik collection.  While they are sometimes classified with these bands, listening to Kraftwerk’s revolutionary 1970s albums after just having spent several weeks listening to Deutsche Elektronische Musik gave me the feeling that Kraftwerk were not only from a different time, they were from a different planet.

Kraftwerk weren’t ahead of their time, they were outside of time altogether.  They didn’t sound like the future, they shaped the future.  They were the dominant influence in establishing electronic music as a form of popular music.  They influenced the early days of House music and that influence can still be heard in electronic dance music, especially in the techno genres and subgenres.  Some of their music sounds like it could have been made yesterday and there are any number of techno groups with established careers today who are still haven’t gotten to the point Kraftwerk were at 35 years ago.  They were a dominant, perhaps the dominant, influence on the development of synth pop in the 1980s.  They played a crucial role in the establishment of hip hop when Afrika Bambaataa released the Arthur Baker produced “Planet Rock” which ripped off the melody line from Kraftwerk’s immensely influential “Trans-Europe Express” and combined it with the drum track from “Numbers” off of Kraftwerk’s Computer World.  (For more on Kraftwerk, see our review of Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music).

What all this means is that The Catalogue is a great buy for people who have an interest in electronic music or who are interested in the development of any of the kinds of music listed above and who don’t know the band or don’t already have their albums.  What about people who already have this music?

The key factor here is the sound.  Kraftwerk were more than pioneers of popular electronic music in the sense that they were among the first to use electronic instruments.  They weren’t just making sounds and music using the instruments available to them at the time.  In many cases they were building or rebuilding the machines that made the sounds so that they could make the music  they wanted to hear.  They didn’t just create electronic music, they created a significant part of the fundamental alphabet and language of popular electronic music by creating the machines that made the sounds that defined the genre as we know it.  Kraftwerk cared deeply about what it sounded like.

Hutter still does.  His remastering is an enormous improvement over what has previously been available on CD, especially for the earlier albums (and six of the eight, Autobahn through Computer World, were released before CDs became commercially available in 1982).  Sound engineers who mix music talk about making room in the mix for each instrument.  This usually involves using parametric equalization to separate the frequency range occupied by an instrument from the range occupied by other instruments, reducing the overlap in the frequencies shared by different instruments, and panning instruments with similar frequency ranges to different locations on the soundstage.  The sounds Kraftwerk created to make their music are sculpted so cleanly and so precisely out of the frequency spectrum that it sounds like making room in the mix for each instrument wasn’t an issue.  Every sound has it’s own specific frequency range and it feels like you would be left with an empty hole in the mix if you took a sound out, like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.  Panning comes across like it was planned on the centimeter level.  The sound on The Catalogue is brilliant and pristine.

This will only be of importance if you have the sound reproduction gear that will allow you to hear it.  You’re going to need decent speakers, amps that can drive them, and a DAC that is better than what you’ll find in an iPod or a stereo-in-a-box from Best Buy.  If you’re planning on listening on MP3, forget it.

I have enjoyed Kraftwerk’s music for a long time.  We already had almost all of the music contained in The Catalogue and our two main sound reproduction systems are capable of producing the immaculate sound of these remasters.  For me, The Catalogue was not only a worthwhile purchase, it was essential.  The great strength of the collection is the sound.  The weakness is that there’s nothing new here in terms of content.  If you’re new to Kraftwerk, The Catalogue is highly recommended.  If you already know this music the value of The Catalogue will depend on how important the improved sound of the remasters is relative to duplicating music you may already have in your collection.

How do you pick one or two Kraftwerk tunes as illustration?  Impossible.  I’ve been listening to the albums while writing this review so I’ll just rip a track from the disc that’s currently playing.  The sound of this MP3 doesn’t capture the sound quality that is the main strength of The Catalogue.

“Trans-Europe Express”

07/03/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 5 Comments

Review: Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Frictionalism 1994-2009

Something interesting happens if you make music and you get to the point where you put it out there for other people to hear.  You begin to get feedback from your audience telling you that they like this, they don’t like that, and they like this better than that.  When this happens you find that the feedback begins to shape the music.  You want to make music people will like and you start to think in terms of what seemed to work in the past when creating new music.  At first it was about what you liked.  Over time it becomes about what you like that works within the boundaries defined by what your audience likes.  When the music gets picked up by an industry that’s all about making more money, the perceived expectations of the audience change from being a contributing factor to being the dominant factor.  The industry controls the means of “making it” in the music business and the industry is only interested in music that will make money.  As a result, music  is mass produced by the industry to fit narrowly defined genres designed to be marketed to the industry’s perception of what the audience will buy.  Music within a genre is designed to fit the rhythmic/melodic/timbral template that defines the genre.  Within a genre it all starts to sound the same.

For every musician or music producer you’ve heard of there are hundreds, possibly thousands like Parametric Monkey that almost no one knows about.  They make music and their audience is very limited.  Some of these people want to make it in the music business and they create music that is consciously designed to have the characteristics that define popular, mass marketed genres.  The popular forms of music largely determine the music they make.  For others, the focus remains more on making the music they want to hear.  Their music is affected by the music they hear but it is not determined by it.  Their music tends to have something unique and distinctive about it.  Which brings us to Anthony “Shake” Shakir.

Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, the Belleville three, are widely and rightly recognized as the “founders” of the immensely influential style of music called  Detroit techno.  One of the most influential albums, maybe the most influential album, in establishing Detroit techno was Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit released in the UK in 1988.  Legend has it that the term “Detroit techno” came from the title of this album.  Atkins, May and Saunderson were involved in the production of nine of the twelve tracks on Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.  One of the remaining three, “Sequence 10”, was written produced and mixed by Anthony Shakir.

Shakir’s career didn’t follow the same path as Atkins. May and Saunderson’s.  He didn’t get the recognition, he didn’t get the industry support (not that the Belleville three got much in the way of industry support compared to, say Madonna), he didn’t always have state-of-the-art music production gear or know-how.  When the other pioneers of Detroit techno put their energies into building their careers in Europe where dance music found a much more enthusiastic audience than it did in the USA, Shakir chose to focus on Detroit.  (He has multiple sclerosis which may have been a contributing factor).  What Shikir did do was continue to make music.

Shakir’s music has a quality you sometimes find in music made by people who remain focused on making the music they want to hear at the expense of music that fits more neatly into the recognized mass-marketed genres.  It’s unique.  Shakir’s music isn’t unique in the sense that it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  He listens to dance music, particularly techno-oriented dance music, and makes music that is strongly influenced by what he hears.  However, he adapts the sounds, structures and styles he hears to make music that is uniquely his own.  The result is music that is wonderfully fresh.  It’s like music you know looked at from a viewpoint you’ve haven’t considered before.  If you don’t pay attention, the familiar elements can lead you to categorize what you’re hearing as just another example of this or that style of music.  If you stop and listen to what you’re hearing, a new world opens up before your ears.

Frictionalism 1994-2009 does what its title proclaims; it collects fifteen years of Shakir’s music on three discs.  Shakir may have been largely unknown throughout much of his career but it wasn’t because in following his own muse he was making music that would appeal only to him.  He has a profound musical sense and Frictionalism 1994-2009 is an extraordinarily rich collection of music.  This isn’t the kind of collection that has a large production run and unless lightening strikes where it did not before, it’s unlikely to get a second production run when the first one is gone.  If you like techno-oriented dance music, have open ears, and are prepared to give this collection the time and attention it deserves, pick Frictionalism 1994-2009 up before it’s gone.  It’s a treasure.

There’s so much variety and such high quality on Frictionalism 1994-2009 that I’m completely at a loss to choose a representative track.  Here are a couple chosen basically at random.

“March Into Darkness”

“Spectre”

07/01/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment