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Music

Childish Gambino’s This is America and how the internet killed the cultural critic

How considered criticism has been replaced by mindless churnalism collating stuff an under-pressure journalism has hurriedly gathered up on Twitter.

Floating to the top of my feed was an article in the Guardian: “This is America: theories behind Childish Gambino’s satirical masterpiece”. This video is popular, it said, then asked: “But what does it mean?”. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what I’m here to find out. But instead of an answer, I got a summary of tweets and notes from Genius. No interpretations were drawn, no conclusions reached. Was it a masterpiece? The headline said so, but the piece just linked to tweets by Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu.

I grew tired long ago of news stories that are basically just lists of other people’s tweets. I have even noticed BBC News doing this. Yet again, I’m left wondering if most of the media’s problems are with their own unwillingness to pursue quality.

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This was England ’90

How the Stone Roses story was bastardised by the music media. I’m not a Stone Roses fan, so I don’t recognise this specific account. But you often do get the sense that at least half of what music journalists say about music is… well… made up?

It was around this time that I started to get the first stirrings of a nasty feeling that my past was being sold back to me…. Suspicious accounts were given of the Spike Island concert as some kind of harmonious pilgrimage to a utopian musical bliss, without a single mention of the smell, the dodgy sound system, the deep techno warmup acts, or the gangs of ne’er-do-wells who clearly weren’t there for the music (and, conversely, referring to the venue as a ‘derelict wasteland’ when it had actually been reclaimed as a ‘green space’ several years previously), almost as though they might not actually have been there.

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Cousin Chris — The Fiery Furnaces

It was a delight to listen to Adam Buxton’s recent podcast interview with Eleanor Friedberger, half of the Fiery Furnaces (with her brother Matthew) and now a solo artist.

The Fiery Furnaces are one of my favourite bands. Their quirky and decidedly different music was actually quite important to me as I struggled my way through university.

Despite that, I’m don’t think I have ever heard an interview with either of the Friedbergers. I don’t often seek out interviews with musicians because (with a few exceptions) it is often disappointing — a topic touched on in the podcast. So I found it quite strange to learn new things about the Fiery Furnaces, whose music I know so well to listen to, but whose story (I have suddenly realised) I don’t know too much about.

This is one of my favourite Fiery Furnaces songs. Unfortunately for some reason the music in this video is really glitchy, but the visuals are awesome.

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The gardens where ideas grow

We tend to think of musicians as architects, who fully control the sound they compose. But here, Austin Kleon outlines how it is in fact more like gardening. Top musicians like Prince, Ralf Hütter and Brian Eno appear to subscribe to this approach.

Brian Eno says:

One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.

The analogy certainly works well with Brian Eno’s generative music. I remember a radio interview where he described being the opposite of a control freak — a surrender freak. (This is the only reference I can find to it.)

It also reminds me of how Autechre appear to make music. In an Ask Autechre Anything session on WATMM in 2013, one person asked:

I would like you to tell me how you feel about “see on see”.

Sean Booth replied: “surprised”.

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The guide to getting into Autechre

That question when someone is trying to get into a band — “Where should I start?” — is perhaps especially difficult to answer in the case of Autechre. Their music is unique and uncompromising. You almost need to learn to read Autechre, because it is sonic world lives by itself. It is difficult to relate it to anything else.

That situation escalates when the artist has 13 albums over 25 years under their belt, the latest of which is eight hours long.

This article makes a good attempt at introducing Autechre to the uninitiated, by splitting their music into different types: club-friendly, austere, strangely beautiful, melting computer, endurance test.

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The Rip — Portishead

They say a song is like a fart — if you have to force it out, it’s probably shit. So when a band leaves a gap of 11 years between albums, it means one of two things:

  • Option 1 — They have been enduring the worst form of musical constipation, and the album will be shit.
  • Option 2 — They have taken their time, let it come to them, and the album will be excellent.

When Portishead’s Third came out, there wasn’t much indication that option 2 would be on the table. In the words of Armando Iannucci, the second album by Portishead had nothing new to say.

Portishead were pioneers of trip-hop, but by 2008 it had become a cliched genre.

But Portishead avoided all those traps with their third album, which is actually probably their best. It conspicuously avoided the now-cheesy trip-hop tropes. It was a new sound, but still unmistakably Portishead.

The album was released 10 years ago today. There is no indication of when their fourth album will arrive. But we are still ahead of schedule by Portishead’s standards.

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Boards of Canada ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ turns 20

More on the 20th anniversary of Music Has the Right to Children.

The music imprints ideas in your head, subliminally or through uncanny association: opener “Wildlife Analysis” sounds like an old TV ident left to wander into the woods, the treated, wobbly synth harmonies of “Olson” could’ve come from a half-remembered Stevie Wonder or Gary Wright song heard as background music during some family car ride, and “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” sinks its minimalist, graceful melody in so deep through repetition that the realization you can hear indistinct voices in the background is almost startling. There’s something deeper in the music than just music…

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An Eagle in Your Mind — Boards of Canada

Music Has the Right to Children (cover detail)

It is 20 years to the day since Boards of Canada released Music Has the Right to Children.

Seminal is a word that is bandied around easily when talking about music. But it may be genuinely applicable in this case. Simon Reynolds in Pitchfork notes how the album seemed to kick-start a transformation in electronic music.

Before this point, electronic music was unashamedly futuristic. Boards of Canada set the template for a nostalgic yet dark genre known as hauntology, since explored further by the Ghost Box label among others.

The album’s cover, featuring a weathered, decades-old family photograph with each person’s facial features redacted, sets the scene. Following a short introductory track, Music Has the Right to Children introduces the listener to the Boards of Canada sound in uncompromising fashion, with An Eagle in Your Mind.

A wistful drone slowly evolves into a darker, brooding melody. Crunchy, syncopated beats and glitching speech samples then take precedence, while narration from a nature documentary subliminally slips beneath. Things get psychedelic, before an unpredictable abstract hip-hop vibe takes over. A childlike melody discordantly tinkles on top, hammering home the sense that something has gone horribly wrong.

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Rock On — Tortoise

Tortoise’s most recent original music may not be as good as their material from the 1990s. But they have developed a knack for producing some excellent cover versions. This cover of Rock On is the highlight of their most recent album, The Catastrophist.

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Every Recording of Gymnopedie 1 — Hey Exit

Today is Piano Day. I am in favour of this. The piano is the best instrument. 🎹

The clip above is of every recording of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie № 1, put together by an artist called Hey Exit. Each recording is timestretched to the length of the longest one, and they are placed on top of each other. It’s a brilliant idea, with a truly ethereal sound.

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1/1 — Brian Eno

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is 40 years old this month.

1/1 artwork

It is spurious to claim that Brian Eno invented ambient music. Erik Satie’s furniture music deserves mention. Eno himself recognised the role of Muzak.

Music for Airports is not even Eno’s first ambient album, despite its Ambient 1 moniker. But it certainly is the most important.

Music for Airports is both experimental and timeless. Bold yet gentle. You can consciously listen to it. But it may also affect your mood without you consciously being aware of it. Or in the words of Eno, “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

It was a genuinely new idea. It introduced the notion of designing music for a specific purpose, yet was still packaged as a pop album. A stunning concept.

But how would we feel if music like this was played in an airport? Would it be a calming influence? Or would it grate like Muzak?

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OK — Micachu and the Shapes

I have been shamefully late to discover Mica Levi, and Micachu and the Shapes. This is a track from the band’s 2012 album Never. It contains a lyric that made me laugh out loud, which doesn’t happen very often.

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My original iPod is a time capsule from 2002

What happened when one person started up his iPod for the first time in 15 years.

…I also came across music and artists which made me wonder what on earth I was thinking of when I loaded their tracks into iTunes. If I could talk to my 2002 self, I would sit him down and explain that Limp Bizkit’s album Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is an abomination and not at all funny (my London music buddies and I thought it was hilarious at the time)…

…looking back through the playlists on my first and oldest iPod I was struck by the fact that some of the music from 2001 and 2002 seemed far more dated than some of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

I certainly have a memory of music from 2001/2002. In fact, because of my age, it is precisely when a lot of my favourite music was released. But I do wonder what I would discover if I found my iTunes library from that period, warts and all?

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In — Brothomstates

This is the opening track from the 2001 album Claro by Brothomstates. That was a special purchase for me, because it was the first IDM album I bought. I already knew I liked this sort of music because I was exploring what I could with whatever clips of tracks I could find online. But Claro was the first full album of this genre that I had heard. This was opening up a new world of sonic possibility to me, and I never looked back.

Wintry weather brings this album to mind. I have vivid memories of walking around my home town of Kirkcaldy in icy weather while listening to Claro on a Discman.

In particular, this opening track, In, epitomises the chilly vibe. The piercing synthesised staccato whistles may as well be icicles falling from the sky.

When thinking of what jam to feature this week, as the Beast from the East descended on the UK, I could make no other choice.

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Shuffle mode has just reminded me of the time Richard D James (best known as Aphex Twin), using the pseudonym DJ Smojphace, opened for Björk at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2003.

From the YouTube video description:

For almost 2 hours Richard played nothing but “noise and feedback” from the backstage, only appearing in stage to cheerily wave goodbye in front of a very, very pissed audience.

Listen to the booing! Delightfully funny.

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Bittersweet Bundle of Misery — Graham Coxon

Bittersweet Bundle of Misery — Graham Coxon

This song is a little bit too close to Coffee & TV for comfort. But after having left Blur, perhaps Graham Coxon wanted his own version of his own song, which I guess is fair enough.

Looking back, this song almost seems like a last gasp of the Britpop sensibility — an unashamedly, straightforwardly good pop song.

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Count It Up — Field Music

Count It Up — Field Music

When a band you like releases a new album and it’s really good then count it up.

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Harsh Reality — Claro Intelecto

Harsh Reality — Claro Intelecto

A delicious slice of minimal techno. Perfect for a chilly night time walk through the city.

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Sense — The Lightning Seeds

Sense — The Lightning Seeds

The Lightning Seeds were one of the first bands I really liked. They don’t seem to have as much indie-cred as I think they deserve. Maybe that’s what happens when your biggest hit is a football anthem.

Sense is a little bit before my time, but I still think it’s one of their finest songs.

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Everywhen — Massive Attack

Everywhen — Massive Attack

A lot of bands I liked wilted somewhat after Radiohead released Kid A. Not Massive Attack. 100th Window may not be their most admired album. But I thought it was one of the few that successfully met the Kid A challenge.

Gone were the trademark trip-hop beats that made them so successful in the 90s. In came a more clinical, experimental electronica sound. It switched some people off, but I think elements of this album are superb. It was an impressive reinvention, but it was also still unmistakably Massive Attack.

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Modified Blue Jam artwork

There may be no real science behind the concept of Blue Monday. But there is definitely something strange about mornings in January.

I always go back to work as soon as possible after the new year. On my morning walk to work, the streets are dark unlike any other time of year, and eerily quiet.

It’s now a new year tradition of mine to spend my first morning walk of each week listening to Blue Jam. Chris Morris’s peerless radio programme of the late 1990s mixed dark comedy with downtempo music. It was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in the small hours of the morning, maximising its unsettling vibe.

That vibe seems to suit these weird, dark Mondays in January.

The programmes are available to download via Cook’d and Bomb’d.

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Roundabout — Yes

Roundabout — Yes

I used to think I got my proggy tendencies from my dad. However, he was recently dismayed to learn that I like Yes, who he says are too noodly. I guess I developed an excellent taste in music all by myself.

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Conditions of a Shared Belief — Soulwax

Every Friday evening I’m going to post a tune that I’m digging right now. Because why not?

Conditions of a Shared Belief — Soulwax

I’d never taken notice of Soulwax before. But after reading a review of their latest album From Deewee in an end-of-year list, I decided to check it out on YouTube.

Wow! The motorik beat grabbed me; the climactic melody hooked me. I have become obsessed with this tune.

The album, supposedly recorded in one take, is also magnificent. This is bold, uncompromising electronic music that
commands attention. It continually surprises without being pretentious.

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