Sound Affects

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Lisa Mitchell @ The Basement (16/10/08)

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I hadn’t been to The Basement for several months before tonight – not since Laneway Festival in March, which was quite a different scene. The place has been renovated, the main entrance now at the other end of the room so that one comes into the club via a rather plush foyer, rather than descending those stairs and coming through those big double doors. Now, on one hand, the renovations are shiny and new, and certainly spruces the place up a bit. On the other hand, they’re shiny and new, and spruces the place up a bit, which seems to contravene everything The Basement ever stood for. I always loved a poster on the wall advertising a 1987 Dizzy Gillespie gig, and dreamed of listening to the great jazz masters in a dim-lit, smoky room, with a glass of whiskey in my hand – sadly, however, government legislation and renovations seem to be conspiring to kill my dream.

But I digress.

Supporting duties tonight fell to Matt Walters, a young chap from Melbourne who seems enrolled in the John Mayer School for Earnest, Scruffy-Yet-Loveable Singer Songwriters. Accompanying himself on guitar (and once on the old pi-ano), Walters still managed to fill the place with just his voice and instrument – always tough when competing with those in the expensive seats who haven’t finished their dinner yet.

His set was a brisk half-hour of breathy acoustica, never overwrought or over emotive, but never really breaking out into anything extraordinary – exactly the sort of thing that the vaguely-knowledgeable music fan could buy for their mothers for Christmas. But not in a middle-of-the-road, sentimental tacky crap way – Walters seems like a really nice guy with nice songs about girls who used to waitress in a small café near his flat in Melbourne.

Lisa Mitchell always seemed small, shy and a little bit scared when she was on Australian Idol in 2006, and I always thought it was holding her back from making the ‘brave’ choices that the judges always crap on about as being essential. And that shyness came through in her stage patter – but disappeared when the music started. Her music is still very much grounded in the ‘shy little girl’ motif, but this Mitchell is using her shyness as an artistic tool, rather than it holding her back.

But as each song is tentatively introduced (bagging Mitchell the coveted Reviewer’s Award for Consideration of Scribes Unfamiliar With Artist’s Catalogue), it becomes clear that Mitchell is bolder than she lets on. Her voice, so quiet in conversation, leaps around in her songs – by turns shy, small, loud, breathy, frail, indignant and strong. Love Letter is a beautiful song, sung solo by Mitchell sitting at a piano, with fleeting moments of Martha Wainwright-esque vulnerability and sadness. Slow is equally gorgeous, if perhaps a touch undisciplined as Mitchell occasionally fumbled her guitar accompaniment.

But, surprisingly, Mitchell is also a band-leader. Playing with drums and bass and later joined by another guitar and a piano, a couple of numbers establish a groove that I was not expecting to hear. So Jealous exhibited a strength in Mitchell’s voice not seen in any other song, building to a rollicking harmonica part from one of her guests on stage, while Edge Of My Dreams and Oh Hark showcased a tightness in the band that will only get better as the tour continues.

But the highlight of the set was, unquestionably, Neapolitan Dream. The opening cascade of notes on xylophone were greeted enthusiastically by the crowd, who immediately got up on their feet and began dancing, stomping and clapping, momentarily transforming The Basement into a barnstorming hoedown.
At 18, Lisa Mitchell is already an accomplished singer, songwriter and bandleader, oozing with potential. There were occasional moments of sloppiness tonight, but certainly not enough to diminish the entire show.
Her music is lovely, her voice full of potential and her lyrics full of pretty images, but it is quite clearly the music of an 18 year old. I’m eagerly anticipating Mitchell growing as an artist, and channelling life’s inevitable hardships and heartbreaks into her music.
I think that could be something special.

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October 19th, 2008 at 5:42 pm

ACDC – Black Ice (album review)

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ACDC return with 16th studio album.

World is now a better place.

Men and women of Australia –

Rejoice! For the years of unleavened bread are over!

On October 28, ACDC will release their first studio album since 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, bringing surely the darkest days of Australian music to an end.

And what an album it is.

Despite all the members of the band rivalling Methuselah for age, this album shakes, rattles and rolls with all the chutzpah of a band that know exactly who they are, what their sound is and where they stand in the pantheon of rock. Not for them the stripped-bare minimalism of Kanye West’s Love Lockdown. Not for them the lush, atmospheric departure from rawer beginnings, a la Kings of Leon, nor the disturbing new trend of everyone in the world being produced by Timbaland (Bjork, Duran Duran, Coldplay). ACDC knew what we wanted from them, and they have delivered.

By know you have surely heard Runaway Train, the album’s first track and lead single. Happily, though, the metaphor was not autobiographical, and ACDC continue to stay on track, flying down that highway to hell that has lain stretched out in front of them since long before the late, great Bon Scott donned pigtails and a pinafore on Countdown in 1974.

They revisit all the old stomping grounds that made them what they are today – cash (Money Made), roads and other modes of transportation (Rock N Roll Train, Wheels) and wild partying (Anything Goes) – but, in what must reassure us all in these politically, economically and socially turbulent times, a full quarter of the album’s titles involve rocking (Rock N Roll Train, She Likes Rock N Roll, Rock N Roll Dream and Rocking All The Way).

There is nothing new here. But, with apologies to Bob Hawke, anyone who attacks this album for its sameness is a mug. We do not want bold experimentation from these titans of rock and roll. We want ACDC to restore our faith in good old-fashioned RAWK! To banish the rising tide of fluoro and synthesisers that threaten to sink us all.

So go! Buy this album when it comes out. I defy anyone to press ‘play’ and not start grinning from ear to ear the very instant Angus Young’s Gibson SG roars into life.
This is one for the true believers. Australia, and the world, is better for having Black Ice in it.

seriously, though, how awesome is this cover art?

seriously, though, how awesome is this cover art?

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October 10th, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Elvis, Hound Dog and questions of intended meaning

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Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equalled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humour of his country.”

President Jimmy Carter
August 17th, 1977 (the day after Elvis’s death)

—————————————-

‘Hound Dog’ is often cited as THE song that precipitated the enormous generational, cultural and social upheaval that took place the in the 50s and 60s. It was the first song in history to simultaneously reach number 1 on all three Billboard charts – Pop, Country & Western AND Rhythm & Blues – and sold over 4 million copies. Clearly its status as cultural phenomenon is unimpeachable, but a close analysis of the music itself reveals very little that could be considered either revolutionary or explicit.

Instead, the entire song is geared towards dancing – hardly a novel concern, nor a dangerous one, not even in 1954. The twelve-bar blues structure is even, measured and perfectly geared towards dancing, especially when the tempo is as quick as it is here. The double bass provides a steady, constant backbone for the song, both through the chorus and the guitar solo section. The drumming is simple and unadorned, striking deliberately and precisely on the beat before exploding in tight, machine-gun bursts at the end of every verse, announcing the start of the next twelve bars. The lead guitar solo (anything but virtuoso) serves this same purpose of compelling people to dance simply by the fact that it is simple, rhythmic and does nothing to distract from the beat. The rhythm guitar is also working towards this goal of kinesis, providing a compulsive, driving impetus. Indeed, the rhythm guitar may be the most interesting aspect of the instrumentation as it is only being played for nine bars of the twelve bar pattern. When this rolling, strutting riff is being played it adds depth and body to the song as a whole, but when it isn’t being played it is conspicuous in its absence.

In considering ‘Hound Dog’ in light of its tremendous cultural and social impact, it is difficult to find a reason for this among the instruments mentioned. None are unique or particularly distinctive, the twelve-bar blues is already (by 1954) the basic structure for rhythm & blues, rockabilly and indeed most forms of what was considered ‘popular’ music, and there is nothing in the instrumentation that hasn’t already been heard at a slower pace in numerous Buddy Holly songs, or even at speed in Bill Haley’s hit ‘Rock Around The Clock’.
Of course, the one instrument that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Elvis’s voice. Perhaps the most distinctive voice of the 20th century it is the driving force of this song, with power, perfect control and just a touch of grit. It bounces, jumps, growls and rages in a way that Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and the rest of those 50s velvetine crooners couldn’t compare to.

And when coupled with his gyrating, thrusting, shaking dance moves, which Frank Sinatra attacked as being “deplorable…a rancid smelling aphrodisiac”, you could really understand why Ol’ Blue Eyes, along with most of suburbia, was so terrified of this man who “fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people”. If the estimates are correct, and 40-60 million people watched each of Elvis’ appearances on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows, then the smack in the face with SEX that was Elvis Presley could never possibly have been stopped. This was music that didn’t give two hoots about Como and his cardigans, Russians, MAD, whitegoods or cocktail parties. This was music that wanted to dance and fuck. Elvis knew what time it was. The people promoting him knew what time it was. Milton Bearle, Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen knew what time it was – and they wanted to be riding whatever wave this doe-eyed boy from Memphis was on. It was swagger, braggadocio, cojones– and it was money.

‘Hound Dog’ isn’t a song with intended meaning. It is a song with intended feeling. A song that shakes, rattles and rolls like a one eyed cat peeping in a seafood store. It’s a song sung by a young, good looking white boy who sounds like a young, good looking black guy. It sounds dangerous, even with singing these nonsense lyrics. And that is the meaning that people took from it. Teenagers were coming. Sex was coming. And Elvis was already here.

OLD STUFF (review): Veya – Slanted City

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(written August 1, 2007)

If Wolfmother is the crazed, hyper-active love child of Led Zeppelin, ACDC, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep, then the Sunshine Coast 4-piece VEYA is the result of some serious sexy-time between the ‘Mother and, say, At The Drive-In.

It’s a sound that seems acknowledge the direction that the rock market is currently moving in, while at the same time longing for the riff-a-licious, solo-happy days of yore. It’s the sort of instantly marketable sound that makes you wonder if there is an astute producer or manager behind the scenes, steering the band towards the money.

But after one listen to Slanted City, any such thoughts are immediately banished. VEYA’s new 6-track EP smacks of independence and passion, ideologically reminiscent of the sheer fury of The Sex Pistols, with a Ramones-ian habit of being known only by their first names. This vitality, coupled with raw, unadorned recordings leaves you in no doubt that these boys are doing their own thing.

The music is remarkably tight and accomplished for a band of teenagers, with the drum and bass partnership of Skot and Leon seemingly telepathically linked, driving the songs with a furious energy. On top of this is Eddy’s seriously impressive guitar work. Each track could be an audition tape for Guitar Hero III, complete with classic riffs and blistering, perfectly-structured solos that recall a bygone era while still managing to sound fresh and interesting.

The one area where this album falls out is on the only soft track, Come Home. While the guitar part is very sweet, the lyrics doesn’t do it justice. The chorus “nothing can scare me/more than the army has already done” is not exactly Shakespeare, and the vocals during the bridge are strained, and slightly painful to listen to. And while Veya can hardly be accused of being the only band in the world singing with a fake American accent, it never sounds good.

Generally though, Dominic’s vocals match the urgency of the music, with a current, vaguely emo sound to it. This isn’t meant as a derogatory term, despite the current penchant for emo-bashing in music media. However, it must be said that Dom’s rock and roll wail needs a little bit of work. His upper register isn’t particularly strong, but for the most part this simply adds to the unrelenting energy of a band that seems desperate to speak their piece.

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August 30th, 2008 at 12:27 pm

OLD STUFF (review): k-os – Atlantis: Hymns for Disco

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(written September 4, 2007)

Just a quick note to all aspiring musicians: naming your album Hymns for Disco is a terrible idea. My first thoughts upon seeing this album were something along the lines of “Oh dear God, please don’t make me have to listen to this thing.”

However, my attitude changed from despair to intrigue when I opened up the case and saw the following inscription on the back of the booklet: “to the pantheon – Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, you left great maps…”

But, demonstrating that you can’t judge an album by its bizarre title or rock and roll dedications, Hymns for Disco turned out to be one of the more fascinating hip-hop albums I have ever heard.

k-os is the stage name of Kevin Brereton, a Canadian of Trinidadian descent who has achieved impressive sales in Canada over the fourteen years of his career. And after one listen to this album it is easy to see why. While always retaining its roots in hip-hop, it moves seamlessly through reggae, rap, soul, rock and funk, with moments of beat poetry and spoken word creeping in to “Ballad of Noah” (featuring Buck 65, a brilliant Canadian rapper/beat poet).

But even with these myriad styles the production never slips. From the Phil Spector Wall of Sound on soulful “The Rain”, to Jamaican dancehall on “Fly Paper” and the Kings of Leon-esque “Valhalla”, this is an album that will keep you guessing right to the end, and an album that is impossible to pin down in one style. It is a precocious album, with k-os showing off the sheer breadth of his abilities.

Also notable is the fact that the whole album is recorded with a live band and avoids all pimps, hoes and cop-killers, two things that are sadly uncommon in hip-hop. The way that k-os’ voice raps over the irresistible guitar riff in “AquaCity Boy”, coupled with a tight, funky drum-beat makes it one of my favourite tracks of the year. And it has been a damn good year for favourite tracks.

If you are in to hip-hop, buy this album. Hell, buy it even if you aren’t in to hip-hop. This is the sort of music that deserves to be supported. It’s the single most creative thing you are likely to hear for quite some time.

Music analysis – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

U2 and The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons

As Jean-Jacques Nattiez says, no matter how a song appears to those who made it (poiesis), it is impossible to predict how it will translate esthetically to each and every potential listener. However, by focusing on what is immanent in the music we can perhaps hazard a guess at what was intended by its producers.
U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is a giant of a song – instantly recognisable and usually featuring prominently on any “Greatest Songs Of All Time” list. Throughout the song, as with much of U2’s music, Bono’s voice is the primary instrument – straining, yearning – hungry for what he has searched so hard for but to no avail. Whatever he is searching and yearning for is clearly desperately personal – Bono has perhaps the most distinctive (and ubiquitous) voice of his generation, and given that the lyrics are written in the first person certainly brands this search as Bono’s own search. However, from the very first chorus more voices join in, softly singing with the same phrasing and the same timing as Bono –suggesting that Bono’s unattainable goal is shared by countless others. The Edge’s guitar line compliments, rather than dominates the mix (another U2 trademark), but it is the bass and drum combination that keeps a constant rhythm, rolling along without ever changing tempo, reinforcing the meaning inferred from Bono’s voice and the voices of the choir – that this song is about something that, perhaps, can never be definitively found.

The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons version, though clearly dripping with affectionate irony, actually manages to highlight certain aspects of U2’s original that have perhaps been lost due to its status as an iconic, canonical rock song. The banjo is an unavoidably “folk” instrument, and furthermore can come across as “hokey” and slightly backwards. However, in this instance, it plays a similar role to the choir of voices in the original: it clearly underlines that this is a song about both an individual longing and the longing of a much, much larger group. The banjo is “folky”, but this merely serves as a reminder of the community-based nature of country/bluegrass bands, playing standards at town dances in the early twentieth century. This sense of community is only reinforced by the backing vocals, which adopt a call and response style reminiscent of Southern churches. Hearing Bono’s lyrics in this new form means that the lyrics are listened to, not just heard, and thus both the lyrics and their religious content are brought to the fore.

However, it would be misleading to state that the SNAC version is simply U2, but Now With Added Religion. Indeed, this religiosity seems an entirely unintended consequence, given that SNAC are a comedy troupe from Australia, and have built a career out of self-proclaimed “wacky” cover versions of everyone from ABBA to Hendrix. The poiesis of this song is perhaps aimed at extracting the greatest comic value out of the juxtaposition between the original classic and the new, irreverent cover. However, there can perhaps be no better justification for Nattiez’s argument about esthetics than this analysis of the song – that a bluegrass comedy band can be interpreted as bringing religion back to one of the classic anthems of rock and roll.

Thoughts Upon First Hearing Usher’s ‘Love In This Club’

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(with apologies to Passion of the Weiss, who is much better than me at this sort of thing.

1. Dude can sing. I mean, really, he is good.
2. Dude can dance.
3. I heard it 20 minutes ago, and it’s still stuck in my head. This I hate Usher for because…
4. The lyrics suck.
5. If Usher did, in fact, fulfill his desire, he’d probably get arrested for it.
6. Referring, as the song does, to the successful sexual conquest of a woman as bagging groceries (as Young Jeezy does in his terrible, insipid 16 bars), is probably not the best way to get into anyone’s pants.
7. A thought. Usher is married. Usher has a son, also called Usher. What does Mrs. Usher think of this making love in clubs? Is the song directed at a woman other than Mrs. Usher? If so, this is a problem. If not, can’t he just wait until he gets home and save himself the legal rigamarole?
8. Young Jeezy is possibly the least talented rapper alive. As opposed to Weezy Baby, Lil’ Wayne, who is terrific.

UPDATE

Have just heard Part II of this opus. Thoughts?

  1. It’s not Part II of anything. It’s a completely different song with the same chorus. Come on O’ World of Rap/Hip-Hop/whatever – let’s not be too lazy about this sort of thing, hmm?
  2. Beyonce can really sing.
  3. Lil’ Wayne sounds like he is suffering from advanced emphysema.
  4. Even so, he if much more interesting than Young Jeezy, who just sounds like a dick.
  5. Lyrics like “come a little closer, let daddy put it on ya” really don’t do Usher any favours, especially when Justin Timberlake has spent the last couple of years redefining this sound, and this genre, and taking it to ridiculously sophisticated heights. LoveStoned it ain’t.

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May 7th, 2008 at 5:58 pm