Letter to David Lowery

David Lowery wrote a tremendously compelling piece on his blog responding to a self-professed music lover with 11,000 songs, of which only about 15 albums are legally owned.

David:

My mind is all over the place as I write this. I’m troubled as this is the second time this week I’ve read about Spotify’s per-stream rates being dismal, David McCandless put things into perspective with a great infographic, and your own blog puts them at $0.005 per play which is actually about the highest I’ve seen. Spotify, for me, has been the service that I wish I had years ago. I use it primarily as a music exploration tool, and if I find that I’m listening to one album a lot, I buy a digital copy, either through iTunes or Amazon MP3, or occasionally buy physical CDs for their liner notes or if they include something neat like a poster. Spotify has connected me to artists I’d have never found otherwise, and it has saved me from making purchases I would’ve regretted.

The issue, that would seemingly sweep the rug out from under your argument if it were not so, is that Spotify pays the artists a pittance. To this, I ask: How are the obviously failed negotiations between Spotify and the labels my fault? The issue really goes much deeper, when you realize that the big four record labels own a combined 17% of Spotify, and the two founders own 52%, so nearly 70% of Spotify’s decision-making process comes from people that are profiting very, very handsomely from the status quo. These labels simply were not acting in good faith, were not representing the best interests of the artists, and should be the real target of the outrage, here. Spotify is a business whose prime directive is to be profitable, and I don’t believe there were any guns pointed at heads during contract negotiations. The labels saw a huge opportunity for themselves and damn their artists.

I can’t feel like the guilty party here. I can’t. I am involved in this process about as much as I’m involved in the creation of a Big Mac: I consume it, and I leave the paperwork to the people that do paperwork. Also, there’s a false dilemma here; if iTunes offered free, unlimited streaming, or Spotify offered purchasing options, we wouldn’t be talking about this.

There is no monopoly here; I point frustrated artists and conscientious consumers to Bandcamp and their 85/15 revenue split, pay-what-you-want option for albums (set by the artists obviously), and lack of DRM. Piracy is an inevitability in a DRM-free environment, but some clever artists use it as a chance to engage the pirates in a conversation, and surely convert some pirates to paying customers (and it was inevitable anyway, particularly in music).

You write:

I also find this all this sort of sad. Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing. Artist rights.

I do feel for artists in all of this, but if I know my generation (I am a bit older than Emily White), I know that nothing will happen without someone symbolic. We are impulsive and compassionate to a fault; put up a 30-minute video about a Ugandan warlord, and my News Feed is littered with young adults demanding action, without first demanding evidence or context. We are a generation that has to deal with information overload to a level that’s never been seen before. The bite-sized mentality of Twitter is perfectly suited, as are headline-led sites like Reddit and Fark. Nearly all the social issues you provide had iconic photos (I consider things like fair-trade coffee, free-range eggs and cruelty-free shampoo “buying karma”). Why am I only now hearing about Mark Linkous and Vic Chestnutt?

So why don’t we take a stand to get artists more money? I’m not sure, but I make a couple of guesses. One is a general lack of awareness as to how licensing, advances, royalties and all the related business really works, and it’s such a dense topic that I don’t know if we’re going to get all that far in the discussion. I feel I’m better-educated than the average consumer on the topic, but even then I don’t feel I could ballpark how much money any given album has made the artist. Another problem is that those with the greatest reach, those most popular of artists with huge fanbases…are making more on Spotify’s streaming than any other streaming service has made them by sheer volume of plays, your own chart I referenced further up show one label was making three times more from Spotify than the three closest competitors combined. They have no need to speak out, even if they should after seeing what less-popular labelmates are pulling in. Finally, artists choose to be artists. Gay people do not choose to be gay. A current artist really should be aware of the landscape right now. They are all in the bed that they and the labels have made over the last eighty years. I respect any artist that has done well enough to go full-time as a musician (or any art, really), but there’s going to be the widely-held opinion that “Well, if they can’t make it as a musician, they should get a real job.” I’m not opening that can of worms; I am only presenting a possible argument that inhibits “artists rights.”

I generally dislike the use of physical analogies to digital piracy. If I do download a track from a website, the track is still there. So instead, the ‘Net is a magical place where the record stores accept cash, but if you just take one off the shelf and walk out, you get to keep it, and another one magically appears in it’s place. In a Torrent environment, there are even more than there were to begin with. You are using the “unrealized profits” logic that simply doesn’t fly with my generation, regardless of its merit.

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to soapbox about something related that I’ve been meaning to write about for months. I feel no responsibility to keep the local record store alive. None. You are clinging to an outdated business model, ridden with piracy via CD-ripping and returning, you rip off people looking to sell, and many cities will simply not have enough demand in the future to keep more than one used CD/vinyl store around. One particular instance where I feel few qualms about piracy is when the album in question is out of print, and the artist provides no way to purchase it, digitally or otherwise (or the work is in license hell with no way to republish). I am left with three choices:

  • Drive or call from record store to record store in town, end up with a CD that may be scratched, may not have liner notes, and was probably sold to the store at 10-20% of what they’re trying to sell it to me for. If I can beat this system, I have no qualms doing so.
  • Search eBay or Amazon for the album, and find that sealed copies are going for 5 to 10 times retail. The used copies have the same pitfalls as the record store, but without the ability to look at it first-hand before plunking down the money.
  • Browse a music-centric Torrent site, find a perfect, 1:1 rip of the CD, with scans of the cover, liner notes, and disc label. Free.

I’m getting a bit far from the original topic, though. I think that as long as people can find a way to acquire things without paying for them, they will, and the money that wasn’t spent is simply a reward for being clever (or a punishment for not coming up with a better system). Human nature is guided by self-preservation, and saving money, to me, is an extension of that. People want the finer things in life, and if they don’t have to pay, even better. It is, to me, a minor percentage of people that buy albums for the main reason of supporting the artist; I am one of these people. The majority of paying customers are paying because they either don’t know how to pirate, or piracy is too complicated, with smaller percentages being people that like physical collections and people that do just think it’s the right thing to do, or fear somehow getting caught pirating music. You want these people to all buy their tracks at a dollar apiece at iTunes, and I just have to be the cynic that’s seen the range of opinions. There are probably hundreds of reasons people could come up with for not doing so.

Is there a solution? Not a clear one on the horizon. I’ve imagined various third-party alternatives to Spotify, maybe even run by the labels, but you run into issues with fragmentation (Spotify is popular because it has such variety), existing contracts with labels, and the very real fact that Spotify must burn through a ton of money to maintain their servers, staff, and bandwidth. I think a better option is in there somewhere. But to believe that Spotify will increase it’s payouts of it’s own volition is like thinking the fox in the hen-house will eventually leave out of sheer altruism. The artists, not the labels and certainly not the listeners, are going to have to shake the tree. I’m just the guy eating the Big Mac, while I will put it down and raise a fist for my favorite artists when they call for my support, I can’t fight this battle for them.

Music Club?

I’m thinking about starting a Spotify-centric music club. They’re a lot of fun, they get you to listen to stuff you wouldn’t normally listen to, you get to share your favorite artists with others, and you get to do some critical writing. I’m in favor of all these things.

The format would be something like so: Each round, there is a theme, as vague as “Favorite Album” or something like “Guilty Pleasures”, “Favorite Release of the last 12 Months” or “8 Favorite Covers”. Each week, we listen to one member’s selection and review it. The order is determined at random for the first round and then the order is reversed every round after. So a big club can take a while, but there’s no real rush and a week gives everyone time to listen and write, and if everyone’s done early you can start the next persons entry. There’s a standardized grading scale to use, as well.

I’m probably gonna start this idea whenever I use up all my Spotify invites. If you know you’re interested now, let me know and I’m gonna start a Facebook group.

Spotify: Renunciation Now Optional

I don’t remember when I first heard about Spotify, the all-you-can-stream free music service that friends across the pond may refer to as the dog’s bollocks. If you don’t yet have a subscription, you can get an invite code within hours thanks to the Googles. Justin Bieber invited me.

Who invited you?

Anyway, I’ve been playing with it for the past four or five days and while there’s a lot to love, I have a few nitpicks. I’ll start with the good though. First and foremost, it’s a free service that lets you play exactly what you want. Pandora has it’s place but more often than not I’m going to have something in mind to listen to.

Second, the application is super-responsive, every track I’ve played has started within a second of hitting play. I’ve had local files take longer due to the HDD spinning up.

Third, the social innovations are great; the service connects with Facebook, Twitter, Audioscrobbler (AKA last.fm), and its own in-built social network. Drop a song, album or playlist into someone else’s inbox to share it with them directly. Collaborate with a friend or music club on a community playlist. So many great ideas, cleanly implemented and unobtrusive at the same time.

Fourth, the audio quality is good for a streaming service, if I had to guess it’s 128 to 160kbps, and I’ve had absolutely no pauses for buffering, something I can’t say of MOG which would do it every other track or so.

Finally, the selection has been, overall and for the kind of stuff I look for, impressive. There are gaps but they’re either the old farts who are vehemently against this Internet business (looking at you, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and co.) or rather obscure acts who aren’t licensed on here. Licensing is something that generally improves with time, and when you look at it in the context that it’s been available in the US for less than a month, the selection is incredible.

Now the criticisms. I think my biggest gripe right now is the lack of ability to browse by genre, or anything remotely resembling such a feature. One feature I really like on Napster is their full Billboard lists, they have the Hot 100, Heatseekers, Album 50, and then a lot of genre-specific, Billboard-provided lists. This isn’t a feature that comes up all that often, but I do have to keep track of what’s hot at the moment, and having to bounce between Billboard and Spotify is a hassle.

The second piece regards the advertisements. Not the ads themselves, because they’re a brilliant solution to the business of satisfying the free crowd. I would like the ability to choose what type of advertisements I get. I’m less interested in hearing about how good Coca-Cola is (I’m familiar with it at this point), but I’ll sometimes get ads from new artists, or currently hot tracks/albums. Much more up my alley, and it’s the reason I’m here after all. One thing I learned in the business a long time ago is giving your customers the ability to choose the ad segment they prefer is not only going to lead to more conversions, but just lead to happier users and advertisers.

Third, I do plan on upgrading to one of the paid plans soon, but the way their pricing structure is laid out, the key feature I’m looking for (320kbps streaming) is only available at the top-tier plan, where I’d much prefer to buy that feature as an a la carte service in the range of $2-3 additional a month. I don’t honestly need the offline/mobile features, if I like an album enough to want it offline I’m going to buy it and support the artist. The difference between $7 or $8 and $10 a month is honestly not much, but mentally it feels like I’m overpaying for that one feature. Conversely, I suspect there are a lot of Premium members that don’t hear or care about the difference between the 320kbps stream and the 128 they were getting before.

But that’s really it. The good far outweighs the bad here, if you can get an invite I definitely recommend the service.

Great Music Has Emotion. Emotion Makes Great Music.

If you and I were ever to have a long talk about good music, you’d find that I will forgive a lot of sins if there’s real, unfaked, unabashed emotion and energy present. Case in point would be something as American as…grits. (We had a discussion that few to no things were truly an American contribution) Consider blues music, a genre that at it’s most typical is very, very structured. Even the solos are generally confined to one scale. But the great bluesmen of generations past told stories that moved the soul. Maybe it’s my internal old fogey talking, but I think if the generation of teens and 20-somethings took the time to listen to some B.B. King, some Lead Belly (Miss you, Jon), John Lee Hooker’s unique take on it, or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s modern-take on the art, they might find the prefabricated pop and rap they listen to now…somehow lacking.

Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind (Live)

I deeply regret not having an interest in the music of Ray Charles while he was still alive and touring. I reference this live take of Georgia On My Mind for two reasons. One, you can feel the emotional connection between the man and a song he’d become attached to. Many don’t know that it was actually a cover of a much older song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, about Hoagy’s sister, named Georgia. But Ray took his love for the south and left no question. Two, improvising on a long-practiced piece, personally, only happens to me when I’m inspired by the song itself. To be blind but be so spellbound as to not let that be a hindrance for improvising new solos…I can hardly fathom it.

Rob Dougan – Left Me For Dead

You left me for dead, but I don’t wanna search no more,
There’s nowhere to hide, so why don’t you come quietly, my love?
I wanted to say, to say that you sure proved the death of me,
Cause now I’ve reached a dead end, and I can’t go back,
But if I’m goin’ down, you’ll come with me.

Rob Dougan is best known for his contributions to the Matrix trilogy. Few knew that he had an album of his own, a wonderful blend of classical and electronica. He has a great Leonard Cohen-esque voice, and when he gets emotional at the end of Left Me For Dead it’s both chilling and moving. The album, as a whole, is the most depressing thing I’ve found thus far.

Nine Simone – Feeling Good

Only a few minutes after posting the first version of this I remembered Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, to be covered many times thereafter. She was an amazing talent, and amazingly unknown by many in this generation. Word to the wise, the scat fill at the end is much more difficult than it sounds.

Staind – This Is It

One of those overattacked, underrated bands, Aaron Lewis has a gift for telling the story as much with tone as with lyrics. “It’s Been A While” had a conciliatory tone, but “This Is It” is a heartbreaking acceptance of giving up, finding the mediocre to be a good enough life. It makes you just want to shake the guy, tell him “No, there is more to life than this.”

Joe Satriani – Love Thing
Juno Reactor – Song For Ancestors

And sometimes a song can be full of emotion without any lyrics at all.

Alter Bridge – Ab III [88/100]

Alter Bridge is a group that I was unaware of before starting the 30 In 30 project. Formed in 2004, they’re the oft-maligned God-rock band Creed minus unintentionally hilarious frontman Scott Stapp. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from them as a band, and knew nothing of their new lead singer, Myles Kennedy. Suffice it to say their new album, Ab III, was probably the best rock album I listened to this year (okay, I’m considering this late 2010. What of it?)

“Slip To The Void” opens with strings reminiscent of an electric harpsichord. Soft vocals on a delay give a beautiful ethereal quality. Acoustic guitar joins in and overdriven electric guitar soon after, really beautiful composition and the soundstage was used to it’s fullest. Breakdown transitions the song into melodic hard rock. The bridge going back and forth between choral one-liners and a slick electric guitar solo is fantastic. Huge emotional ending breaking down to the strings it started with. Tremendous opener.

“Isolation” is much harder rock, Drop-D or maybe Double-Drop tuning and the distortion is paired with an octave effect for a great big mean sound. After the first chorus we find double-bass speeding up the feeling of the track. Vocal work is great, adding a nice melodic counterpoint. Bridge is more excellent guitar work, the solos have been great on the first two tracks. I’m digging the freeform feel of the composition here, the bridge is ill-defined but not jarring when we return to the chorus. Unexpected noise gates at the end keep the futuristic rock sound alive. Another solid one.

“Ghost of Days Gone By” is yet another different style, we’re in much more mainstream rock, something I could see Daughtry or someone of the sort doing. But that they’re willing to do it is good, and for what it is, it’s very well-done. As we get to the bridge there’s a much moodier feel, and sure enough the vocals give it a downright chilling feel for a good fifteen seconds, really changed the complexion of the song. What appears upbeat is truly sad and haunted, an interesting allegory for the story within. I take it back, the mainstream wouldn’t dig something like this, I think it’s great.

“All Hope Is Gone” has a very interesting rustic 6/8 feel, the vocals are stealing the show here, we have more of that booming low sound that creeped me out in a good way in the previous track. The bridge is fascinating, Tool-esque levels of innovation but with an accompanying guitar solo Tool would never do. Fascinating is the best word I’ve got for this one. And listen-worthy, for sure.

“Still Remains” uses the same scale that opened Isolation, but with clean electric guitar, and the second half of the intro has a more dramatic feeling. We’re back in hard rock, good vocal presence, and Myles Kennedy is putting in good work yet again, the vocals soar, and Mark Tremonti’s work on guitar is the sort of stuff he probably wanted to do with Creed for years. I get a bit of a rock ballad feel from the vocals, this one feels a bit loose compared to the first four tracks honestly. Beautiful, but not as focused.

“Make It Right” defies categorization in the opening, overall it’s an upbeat and fun-feeling track, dominated by a tricky little guitar run. For that matter, the song flat-out defies categorization. But it’s good. Trust me. Tremonti closes it out with a solo that reminds me of some of Joe Satriani’s work, and I listen to a lot of Satch. He does too. Good intriguing song.

“Wonderful Life” is a slower rock song with overdriven guitar transitioning into a rather simple little song of love and mourning, even in this they do quite well at blending the norms of the genre with their personal touches. “And though our days come to an end, / No, I’ll never love like this again, / What a wonderful life, my friend.” Gotta admit, even as the song evolves and changes towards the end, I feel it’s a good 32 bars too long.

“I Know It Hurts” isn’t typical hard rock, you have a strong bassline and a plucked melodic guitar line over the vocals, a favorite of mine. They’re not afraid to layer lots of guitar tracks, and when you’re as talented as Mark Tremonti you shouldn’t be. Tempo change at the chorus, and another one at the bridge. They’re tackling all those things that set a group apart as technically gifted instead of merely proficient. Even the drummer gets to have a little fun in this one. Would’ve liked this one to be longer! Maybe it could borrow some time from “Wonderful Life”.

“Show Me A Sign” attempts to throw my timing off early though it’s 4/4, with some tricky deviations from normal rock. Reminded of Tool again, but actually I’ve been listening to The Gracious Few’s “Tredecim” a lot lately and there are some obvious parallels to draw. Beautifully done, everyone is putting in 110% here and it shows. Might be my favorite on the album so far just based on my tastes. Something for everyone here, give this one a listen for sure.

“Fallout” opens with a pretty electric guitar riff, distinct from the others so far, the chorus is a bit of a letdown, I was hoping for something beautifully melodic and it’s a bit too similar to a few other choruses so far. The bridge is that same moody scale they’re using to good effect throughout, again little touches like dropping the beat for a quick riff or two shows these guys have their own ideas on the future of rock. It transitioned into a harder rock song so subtly I forgot how different the beginning was versus the end.

“Breathe Again” is a bit more mainstream-sounding, just this side of soft rock. This one’s not landing with me like the others have. The chorus was a bit predictable. The bridge was quite a bit better, but this one’s still the low point for me so far.

“Coeur D’Alene” has a great melodic hard rock opening, the band drops out for Myles Kennedy’s singing over simple strumed chords at every bar. It’s a beautiful, even sexy rock song. Hard to categorize, but really enjoyed it.

“Life Must Go On” opens with a clean electric guitar solo and transitions into overdriven guitars that fill the soundstage a bit too much for comfort. The verses are clean, but the choruses are honestly a bit poorly mastered, the guitars are too far forward and drown out the vocals, bass and drums. Maybe I’m being a bit mean to their pop-infused tracks, but it really doesn’t feel like their strong suit. They’re not having the kind of fun they had in “Slip To The Void”.

“Words Darker Than Their Wings” opens with an interesting 12-string acoustic guitar that is panned around the stage effectively. This one’s really interesting, different from anything else so far. Moody is what they’re good at, and this one does it with a different set of sounds. I even get a bit of a System Of A Down sound out of it, reminiscent of “Hypnotize.” This one was clearly an experiment, and good for them for putting it out there for us to experience. One of the best tracks on the album really.

“Zero” starts out as standard hard rock but the verses have an interesting trick, for the first half they eschew guitar entirely, leaving just vocals, bass and drums. The bridge and solo are inspired, even driving for the first time in several songs. Glad they didn’t just pad the end with filler, this was a solid song.

“Home” starts out with tons of promise, the intro’s my favorite on the album and we’re at the last song. A simple message, beautiful performance all around. The chorus is slightly less satisfying than the verses, but the bridge makes up for it as expected (they’re quite handy with bridges). The album closes with one last solo by Mark Tremonti, and it’s a good one. This album took me on quite an emotional trip.

Tone and Overall Sound: 20/20 Points. Given my criteria, less than full marks is impossible. Innovation in spades here, and innovating while having a beautiful sound is no mean trick. I particularly liked the variety of sounds they went for with the guitar, we covered a pretty darn respectable chunk of what you can do with a guitar on one album.

Melody and Harmony: 16/20 Points. There’s enough repetition in the choruses to merit a bit of a ding here. They use a great variety of melody, helped in part by branching out into several genres.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Good mix of time signatures and variation of rhythm, either through syncopation or through little drum riffs and double-bass runs to break up the time. Notable that given all the ground we covered I didn’t pick up much of a change in the drum kit.

Mixing and Production: 16/20 Points. The one big gripe I had in “Life Must Go On” is more than balanced out by a bunch of good decisions in post-production. Effective use of pans and dynamics throughout. Album flow was good, we covered so much ground I don’t know if it could’ve really been improved, but it definitely could’ve been worse.

Theme and Concept: 10/10 Points. I love when a group moves past the normal confines of a genre in search of a theme. The focus on faith, or a lack thereof, makes for great moving messages.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. I’ve gotta admit, I’m a sucker for a black and gold color scheme. Along with some beautiful intricate details on the album cover, it does really feel like a good fit for the group and album.

Total: 88/100 Points. I’m really glad I listened to this album. There’s still plenty of room for innovation in rock, and Alter Bridge shows one path to it. Many reviewers cite grunge as an influence here, I see more rock ballads from the ’80s and early ’90s, some electronica-inspired decisions in mixing and production, and guitar riffs that have equal parts attitude from the ’60s and technical mastery of the guitar virtuosos of the ’90s and ’00s, Satriani, Malmsteen et al. The composition here is a good one, and much like The Gracious Few shows off their talent without the singer that they were a rhythm section for, Alter Bridge are a group of genuinely talented musicians that shed the Creed name for a shot at rock history. This one might be looked back at as something altogether influential in the shaping of rock in the 21st century. Mark Tremonti’s guitar skills here are put on display as honestly the best guitar work I listened to from the 2010 releases. Highly recommended, buying a copy myself.

Setup:
Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Time Management Fail

I should be getting ready for work right about now, but I feel like writing too. So writing wins for now. I’m getting myself psyched up for 2011 with plans and ideas for how I’m gonna keep things interesting for this Monday-Wednesday-Friday regularity of posting. My work schedule actually calls for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off, and I have no plans to change that. So I’ll be writing a week ahead or two.

Mondays are gonna be fairly mixed with regards to music. Reviews of varying formality, top 10s, that sort of thing.

Wednesdays, my wildcard days, will likely have a lot of gaming. That’s for sure. That and whatever else I feel like writing about.

Fridays will be split between reviewing fragrances and a journal tracking Diana and I as we attempt to make custom perfumes, we’ve got about a year of off-and-on experience with it and I think we’re going to be stocking up on some new oils too. We haven’t broken out the EOs since we moved in together, so we’re both excited to get back to it.

Unrelated note, but if you haven’t been following the Steam Holiday Sale, you’re missing the true reason of the $ea$on. You can buy 55 games for $55, for crying out loud.

Audio Infinitum (Or, Five Songs Forever)

Music lovers know exactly what someone means when they say “I love the song, but I can’t listen to it all that often,” or something to that effect. Then there are comfort songs, songs to listen to when you’re happy, pissed off, maybe even drunk. (I’m not here to judge.) But what about a song to listen to forever?

It’s funny, this is actually a project I do inadvertently when I make compilation CDs to put in the car, or playlists to listen to on repeat. There will inevitably be weaker songs that I’ll grow tired of well before others. So I’ll tweak the selections, and try to come up with that perfect playlist to represent a genre. I know myself well enough to say I could listen to these five songs, on repeat, more or less perpetually, in this order.

BT – Dark Heart Dawning

Dark Heart Dawning is a relative sleeper track of BT’s, it never appeared on a single or EP after being released on the album Emotional Technology in 2003. While I have other favorites off the album (P A R I S and The Last Moment Of Clarity in particular) none of them exhibit the understated beauty of Dark Heart Dawning. Downtempo pedal steel guitar and a simple story segue into a powerful second half with a heavy gospel overtone. That’s off-putting to some, but I love the emotion you find in a song like this. Deep down I hope BT likes this one as much as I do.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Riviera Paradise

I became a fan of SRV not long after I started playing the guitar, probably around age 14. I had a copy of Couldn’t Stand The Weather that I still think is one of the most complete displays of skill by a bluesman, from the slow, somber tale of “Tin Pan Alley” to upbeat rock riffs like “Scuttle Buttin'”, and a cover of Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile” that rivals the original. But it’s his instrumental work that surprises me the most. A guitarist listening to “Tin Pan Alley” or “Cold Shot” might come away thinking Stevie has a “bag of tricks” that he doesn’t want to deviate from. But listen to something like Riviera Paradise and you’ll find he’s talented enough to work his way through a beautiful, slow nine-minute instrumental without repeating himself, and displaying some chops that you rarely see out of him. I’ve spent plenty of time with Riviera Paradise on repeat by itself, this one would make it for sure if I had to narrow it down to three or two songs.

Joe Satriani – Why

Trying to narrow down my Satch discography to one song was tough, but I’ve listened to Why more than any other song of his, it’s timeless, it has a ton of memories attached to it, it’s just a work of pure talent by a guy that has no lack thereof. His more recent work has moved away from the shredding, pitch-axis dominant stuff he helped pioneer and into more thoughtful stuff, but listening to him play this one live in 2003 was nothing short of an honor.

Guns ‘N Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Having worked tech retail while Guitar Hero II was on demo, I got to listen to Sweet Child O’ Mine no less than 20 times a shift. And I can’t think of a time where I thought to myself, “That’s about enough of that.” I don’t know what it is about it, a beautiful memorable melody, great energy and emotion, and a great guitar solo with tons of soul, Slash at his best. It puts a smile on my face pretty much every time I hear it.

Onoken – Vijore

Readers that had heard of every artist up to this one, don’t take it personally. Onoken is a Japanese electronica artist known primarily to folks in the Bemani scene. Most of his work has never made it out of Japan, but his album “Swell Strings” did, and out of a great album I find this as his best work, maybe ever (don’t hate on me, K8107 fans). The song has an underlying complexity that is beautiful as it is challenging to decipher, there’s something new to listen for every time. And there’s emotion, and tons of it! If you don’t feel anything from the dynamics and pitches used, you’re being really stubborn. In an age of dubstep and hardcore I point to this and say, “This is original and beautiful. And simple. And accessible.”

Food for thought, I hope. Feel free to think it over, and try commenting back with five songs to listen to forever.

30 in 30: Lazersword – Lazer Sword [86/100]

By request I’m putting line breaks between track descriptions. Sorry about that.

Notes: “Tar” opens up with chiptunes aplenty, transitioning into a moody electronica sound, definitely on the experimental side, a lot going on that I wouldn’t be able to really explain but that’s typical of the genre, not bad at all though you do need to be a fan of the genre to appreciate a lot of what’s going on. If you’ve listened to Infected Mushroom or Shpongle you’re suitably prepared for what’s going on here. Good opener.

“Agrokrag” opens up very heavy on dropping the beat altogether, this one’s less the realm of Shpongle and more like a Squarepusher or Flashbulb sound. The crystal synth they chose gives them an interesting sound, the track would be less palatable without it. Nice buildup to a bridge with time-stretched handclaps. Solid ending. This one’s not quite as solid as the first track but should have its share of fans.

“Surf News” has a watery opening true to its name, and the first vocal sample I could understand. This one’s even more experimental than the last, we’re getting into some obscure stuff like Prabhamandala. These are admittedly hard to grade, but the song isn’t bad.

“I’m Gone (Feat. Turf Talk)” has a wild bass drum sound opening up the track which is the first electro-rap song on here. Soundstage is a bit cluttered, instruments are drowning the vocals in the verses. The last minute or so serves as an outro and it’s top-notch.

“Batman” has a great syncopated rhythm section, with little vocal stings and pad synths throughout. This one’s pretty different from anything I’ve heard in the genre, the rhythm gives it a hypnotic quality. If you’re the sort that prefers better living through chemistry, you’ll probably have this song as a go-to track. Very interesting track, but it feels a bit drawn out towards the end.

“Topflites (Feat. M Sayyid)” has a name that makes me hope we’re covering Arabian trance. Doesn’t appear to be the case, we get a second electro-rap song with a very different feel, less instruments on the stage and it’s much easier to hear to vocals. Some hot lyrics here, but we are still in very experimental electronica. It’s a “learn to love it” genre.

“4loko” is a slower track, very syncopated rhythms and an acid synth are the bulk of what’s going on. The rhythm almost feels spasmic, quite an interesting track honestly given the short length.

“Machine (Feat. Zackey Force Funk)” has an industrial sound straight from Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, complete with samples. It’s actually a bit comforting to have a less experimental track to listen to, and they do a really good job taking an established genre and adding their sound, in this case adding their synthesizers with pitch bends. A really solid track, I’d like to hear them do more in this space.

“Web Swag” opens up with a lot going on, samples, instruments, synths, chiptunes. It’s got some of the trappings of rap, you keep thinking it’s heading that way, but this one’s a melodic experimental sound that is one of the high points of the album. No good comparison to make here in terms of another artist, I honestly haven’t followed the genre closely recently. Worth a listen for sure though, with the caveat that goes with the rest of this album that you like the sound or aren’t afraid to listen to something totally different.

“Skybox” opens up with endearing chiptunes, more of a video-game sound than any of the other tracks have had. Simple melodies and simple instruments, it’s not even two minutes long but it’s quite unique from anything else on the album. These guys are covering a lot of ground in experimental.

“Def Work” has an opening with bells and cleverly placed synthesizers that remind me of Amon Tobin, but when it transitions it’s closer to acid house than anything else on the album has been, though we’re still a bit too syncopated to fit neatly in that genre, with a bridge full of that crystal synth from the first few tracks, bringing the song to a much more brooding sound, big sweeping bass synth, the synths change scale into something more menacing. Very complex song in terms of arrangement.

“Fubu” opens up dominated by synthesizers, big acid synth in the front with little stings from a spooky pad synth, other little Neptunes-esque cosmic sounds going on in the back. If I were DJing this song has about as much promise as anything on the album so far. There’s an arpeggiated synth that’s giving the song tons of character, it’d have a lot less impact without it. Good gated ending that ends it on a good note.

“Owl Tats” once again has a ton of stuff going on, we’re knee deep in experimental with more emphasis on vocal synths than in previous tracks, about halfway through the song it changes character but even it’s not enough to get me on board with this one. Not enough setting it apart from previous tracks.

“Cosmic Ride (Feat. Myka Nyne)” opens up with a sort of synthesized harpsichord sound climbing up and down scales, transitioning into more of a future-house rap sound. Really not bad, the strongest of the three rap tracks by a fair margin. Much easier listening than the last few tracks.

“Beast’s Reprise” opens up with brooding plucked strings, joined by a crunchy acid synth, and finally some nice mellow chiptunes and vox box. Actually quite a solid little song, and a good closer to a pretty good album.

Tone and Overall Sound: 16/20 Points. They did a really good job in a genre where it’s tough to srtike a balance. I had one or two times where the soundstage was too cluttered for comfort, but this is innovative stuff from a pair of up and comers.

Melody and Harmony: 16/20 Points. Little use of harmonies meant that brilliant melodies save the score here. Good varied approach.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Had to dock a few points for not bringing anything new to the table in terms of percussion instrument choice. What they did use was solid on nearly every track and on a few of the more syncopated tracks it stole the show. Good job here.

Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. I’ve already made mention of there being a bit too much going on on the soundstage, so I’m not taking off points in this section for it. Lots of good use of synthesizers of all kinds, which is harder to get a feel for than most people realize. It’s far too easy to have two or three to use all the time, but they went above and beyond. Effects were solid and dynamics were used well.

Theme and Concept: 8/10 Points. Theme in a work like this is less about a story and more about overarching musical themes, and the brooding, spooky sound they went for that gave me that Amon Tobin feel is consistent throughout. The four songs that used lyrics were each good but not quite standout material.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. Beautiful cover art, very appealing aesthetically and it does feel like a good fit.

Total: 86/100 Points. In an earlier life I’d have been listening to this with the company of some plant friends and a bag of Chewy Chips Ahoy with the lights out. For newcomers to the genre, it’s easy to be turned off by all the noise, all the stuff going on, the nonstandard rhythms, instruments and melodies. I encourage you to expand your horizons, that’s part of this 30 in 30 project for all of us, to listen to stuff we wouldn’t normally. For experimental fans, there’s something new here for you, give it a listen, and soon, so you can say you heard these guys when they were just putting out their first EP because they have tons of potential.

Setup:
Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Lazersword was a pleasant surprise from a new band. Tomorrow was supposed to be the new one by Machinae Supremacy but I can’t find it anywhere on MOG, so an emergency substitute is called in, the band is Avey Tare and the album is called Down There, released back on Tuesday. If the new MaSu shows up I’ll see about working it into the project.

30 in 30: Eric Clapton – Clapton [94/100]

Notes: “Travelin’ Alone” opens up the album with a tricky little blues run and organs, Clapton’s vocals are as inspired as ever, he may even be improving with age. Maracas and bongos give character to what might be a pretty sterile Lil’ Son Jackson cover without it. High hopes for the album after this opener. Arrangement is even slightly different from standard blues (that’s a good thing). “Rockin’ Chair” is a slower affair, giving homage to the original Hoagy Carmichael version of 1929. Brushes on snare, piano and clean electric guitar. Eric’s looking a bit older on this cover art but this is more of a morbidly humorous song than your typical blues. “Old rockin’ chair’s got me / cane by my side / Fetch me my gin, son, / ‘fore I tan your hide” Simple but good song. “River Runs Deep” opens up reminiscent of an old Carlos Santana song, with touches of modern strings. This one covers JJ Cale’s “River Runs Deep”, and the tone is fascinating, if you’ve heard Santana’s stuff around the Abraxas era you’ve got a good idea what’s going on here. Electric organ, vocal harmonies, latin blues riffs, even a couple of horn stings. Long chanted ending with some reversed guitar for good measure. An early favorite on the album. “Judgement Day” opens up with a gospel-blues sound, standard blues scale and harmonica, choral opening. Call-and-response chorus, as solid a harmonica solo as I believe you can really manage with the thing. I’m thrilled to hear four totally different approaches to the blues in four songs, people that say you can’t innovate in a genre like this have never given a master like Clapton a thorough listen. “How Deep Is The Ocean” opens with acoustic guitar, upright bass and piano. This covers Irving Berlin’s 1932 hit, and it’s appropriately modernized while respecting the original work, a solid cover that can be added to a long list of covers for this song. Absolutely love the horn solo over strings and guitar, gives the song a classic character, I’m really stopping to respect the amount of polish put into all of the songs so far. “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” is another 30s hit, this one by Fats Waller in 1935. Blues shuffle with tuba and horns, much more of an old-timey feel than the previous track. Quite a humorous track given the age. “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” is an interesting blend of slow standard blues with accordion, big punches of percussion, piano, and distorted electric guitar, great hat-tip to Little Walter. Subject matter is much more in line with typical blues, a solid song with interesting instrument choices to make it stand out. “That’s No Way To Get Along” is an offbeat blues shuffle with Clapton and JJ Cale on vocals, covering a bit more recent work in The Rolling Stones. Big band sound here, lots of instruments, drums are masterfully done. “Everything Will Be Alright” is a big band sound, everything tastefully done with regards to dynamics, the strings in particular are really solid through the solos and keep the song moving along at a good clip. Clapton’s electric guitar solo at the end is an understated beauty. “Diamonds Made From Rain” has more of a ballad sound than anything else, hard to categorize. Sheryl Crow joins us in the chorus, but Clapton’s singing is some of his best, it’s humbling to hear the man say he hates his singing, guess it happens to all of us. EC’s solo at the end is fantastic, the backup is tremendous, I totally understand why this was the first single off the album. “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” takes us back to the 30s, complete with Louis Armstrong-esque trumpet provided by Wynton Marsalis. This is not a new cover for Clapton, my dad recalls hearing him play this Fats Waller piece about five years ago. Tons of talent evident in the song, the piano, the shuffling drums, the vocals, a solid standout. “Hard Time Blues” has with a more upbeat sound than the name indicates, largely from the first mandolin appearance in the album. This is a fairly sparse song when you’re comparing it to the big band compositions of the last few tracks, acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano and drums. Despite it they do a good job of filling the soundstage, with a lovely distorted slide solo. This one’s not landing with the impact of the previous tracks, nothing wrong with it, just personal preference. “Run Back To Your Side” feels like an Allman Brothers song, largely because Derek Trucks joins on the slide guitar with a sound that’s inimitable. Clapton’s vocals have a totally different feel from the rest of the album, the whole thing feels pulled right out of the 70s in the best possible way. The rhythm is great, tapping my feet for the first time on the album, this is the feel of the Clapton songs I grew up listening to. For that matter, it feels like the Allman Brothers songs I grew up listening to, too. Great song, love it. “Autumn Leaves” should be a familiar title to any oldies fan, the Johnny Mercer standard has been covered by Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong among many others, and Clapton’s version opens up tremendously faithful to the original, tremendous work on the brushes, Clapton moves from tenor to baritone and gives the song the voice it needed, he’s a tremendously talented baritone. Strings in the background give the song edge and emotion, and piano gives it a somber tone. Clapton closes out the last two minutes of the album with a solo on a muted, bluesy electric guitar. This may well be the best solo on an album full of great solos, as it’s got the most soul, the most in-tune with what the sound needs. Album closes out with me wishing I had another 5 or 6 tracks to go.

Tone and Overall Sound: 20/20 Points. Clapton gives his strongest vocal performance in years, maybe ever, and at 65 the man’s showing no sign of slowing down or running out of source material.

Melody and Harmony: 20/20 Points. So many instruments had tremendous presence on the album, harmony was used effectively when it was used and wisely omitted when it wasn’t needed.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Couldn’t give the full 20 because while we had wonderful rhythm, we were working with a pretty limited set of instruments and timings throughout. This didn’t impact the enjoyment of the album, though.

Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. Everything on this front was done with love and effort evident. On high-end headphones the sound was a pleasure to listen to, all the instruments were crisp, even the work on the brushes didn’t go muddy as they have a tendency to.

Theme and Concept: 8/10 Points. Even though it’s an album largely made of covers, choosing the song does also give the artist control over the lyrics and theme. It’s in play here, though we covered a lot of ground that didn’t always meet in the middle.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. The album is largely a self-portrait of Clapton’s past, and a simple portrait of the man under stage lighting is quite effective. Good use of Rule of Thirds, text is legible with timeless serif style.

Total: 94/100 Points. This album was not only an absolute pleasure to listen to but an exciting introspective tour of the music Clapton grew up listening to, and taking the time to reinvent with the tools he’s picked up over the last fifty years. This one was nothing less than a privilege to listen to. Go get it.

Setup:
Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Well, this one’s going to be a tough act to follow, and for many of us this may be the last touch of the familiar for a while. We trade in the Les Paul for…something else. Who is Lazersword? I have no idea, but we’re listening to their self-titled album tomorrow. Have fun!

30 in 30: 10 Years – Feeding The Wolves [84/100]

Notes: “Shoot It Out” starts out feeling much darker than their past releases, dissonance and repetition used effectively. Angrier lyrics and vocals have me quite intrigued if their sound has changed drastically. “The Wicked Ones” is downtempo rock in 4/4 that reminds me of Switchfoot more than anything, in a good way. Chorus is in double-time and pretty different from anything in their past works, and there’s a screaming aspect that wasn’t there in previous albums evident in the first two tracks. Not a bad track at all. “Now Is The Time (Ravenous)” has a more Division-esque sound than the last two, complete with betrayal theme and lyrics that are generously described as hit-and-miss. Good vocal arrangement though, interesting rhythms arranging the vocals in dotted 16th notes through the chorus. Solid melody improves the track, I’m admittedly a big fan of Division so the fact that I like this one isn’t surprising, take it with a grain of salt. Interesting to note they closed this one out with a scream too. “One More Day” has Jesse singing over clean electric and acoustic guitars, transitioning into another downtempo rock song. Interesting chord choices which they’ve done well for quite a while, with a well-done bridge, but the arrangement is far from a new one for 10 Years, I’m hoping to see some innovation in this aspect on the album, though it’s admittedly tough for a songwriter to rework the arrangement they get comfortable with. Ends with violins, interesting choice. “Fix Me” goes for a hook early with catchy melodic electric and bass guitar. This does sound quite a bit like the last track honestly. Bridge has slight tinges of electronica, then dropping everything but piano and vocals and picking back up with the works 4 bars later. Not great. “Chasing The Rapture” starts out higher up the fretboard, rhythm and vocals are immediately more engaging, they used a similar rhythm in “Drug Of Choice” on Division, this sounds like a mashup of a few of that and “All Your Lies”, but this one has character all his own, and there’s that screaming again. Arrangment’s still the same as it ever was. “Dead In The Water” has more of a traditional rock opening but transitions into some thing more typically 10 Years, clean reverb’ed electric guitar stings panned out wide over vocals and minimal instruments. This one does have a different feel in terms of rhythm, going from a frenetic chorus to a short half-time bridge. I admit that if I wasn’t a fan of them already I probably wouldn’t be much for that track. “Don’t Fight It” opens out sounding like it’ll be an acoustic guitar song and it is…for a good 45 seconds. Then it becomes a rock song that’s reminiscent of but not slavish to “Beautiful” from Division. Strings in the bridge are a nice touch, as is the vocals and kick drum section. Actually quite original, and unique on the album thus far. Solid. “Waking Up The Ghost” has a tricky thing going on the vocals, a slightly overdriven part in harmony giving it that dissonant sound we heard in “Shoot It Out”. This one has great attitude, especially in the choruses and vocoded guitar straight out of the Joe Walsh cookbook. (Good for them.) We’ve had a consistent theme throughout the album, religious themes especially exorcism, they’re doing a good job toeing the line. “Fade Into (The Ocean)” is clean electric guitar and vocals for 24 bars or so, bringing in the band in a track that I was enjoying just fine without them. Big floor drums and that 10 Years electric guitar set a great atmosphere for Jesse to sing on, and a rare guitar solo is giving this track tons of character. I’d swear I heard Sully from Godsmack in the background, or someone doing their best impression. The arrangement on this is really cool, and this is the innovation I wish they’d moved further up the track list, rather than right at the end of the album. More of a Tool sound which I think they were actively moving away from in the earlier tracks, even though they do quite an impressive copy job.Good way to close the album. Note: Bonus tracks are not graded. There are two solid acoustic covers on the deluxe edition that are worth a listen though, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Tone and Overall Sound: 16/20 Points. There is innovation in areas beyond the arrangement, their tone has changed rather drastically. Their sound is unique in rock right now, I get more of a Switchfoot or Skillet sound than I did earlier but that’s more to do with their choice of theme than the tracks themselves, I think.

Melody and Harmony: 16/20 Points. I didn’t hear much here that changed from their past works, but it’s still solid on both counts and I remind myself I’m grading not the album versus their past works, but versus the genre. In that regard they’re putting more effort into melody and vocal harmony than most.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. They do a great job of keeping the rhythm varied throughout the album, it’s nothing groundbreaking but they mix it up enough that they’ll get every bit of 16 points.

Mixing and Production: 16/20 Points. No real issues with post-production, but some issues with repetitions in the arrangement adversely affect the flow of the album. Good decisions throughout with regards to effects and supplementary intruments.

Theme and Concept: 10/10 Points. They chose to give this one a religious cast, and there’s a risk there of becoming offensive or pretentious, but they did a good job of balancing it out. Consistent overarching theme means full marks.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. While it’s quite different from their first two album covers, this one does a good job in preparing you for the rougher sound they aim for, and it’s really quite pretty. Glad to see a more direct connection in this album than previous ones.

Total: 84/100 points. Higher than I expected, honestly. There may be some issues with the rubric not giving enough weight to not mixing up the arrangement of songs, but I’m going to stick with the scoring method as-is for this project anyway. If you’re a fan of 10 Years, this one’s quite interesting to hear a sound that’s changing, but less drastically than from The Autumn Effect to Division. Their third album lets us know they’re not out of steam yet.

Setup:
Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Sorry for being late in the day in getting this one up, the album for tomorrow is Eric Clapton’s “Clapton”. Give it a listen tonight, and be ready for my review earlier in the day tomorrow.