Chart for stowaways – 29 September 2012

Generally unexciting charts all round this week. Pet Shop Boys continue their all round chart invasion, and a few little things are shaking around, but that’s about it. Here are this week’s top 10 albums:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Elysium
  2. Apollo 440 – The Future’s What it Used to Be
  3. Saint Etienne – Tiger Bay
  4. Metroland – Mind the Gap
  5. Marsheaux – E-bay Queen is Dead
  6. Jean Michel Jarre – Essentials & Rarities
  7. Pet Shop Boys – Very
  8. The Divine Comedy – A Secret History – The Best of
  9. Various Artists – Electrospective
  10. Saint Etienne – Tales from Turnpike House

State of the industry address

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: I hate to hear it referred to as “the music industry”. Music is not an “industry”. Music is not forged by giant steam-powered machines in foundries in the darker recesses of northern cities and towns. It’s an artform, lovingly tooled by craftsmen and women in country workshops.

This is, of course, nonsense. The likes of Goldfrapp may hide out in country retreats making music suited for hybrid mammals, and Kraftwerk may do all their finest work these days on 100-mile bike rides through the Alps, but it isn’t true for most acts nowadays, and neither should it be.

In fact, if there’s a good reason to refer to music as an industry, it’s that much of the finest music from the sixties through to the nineties grew out of grim, grimey, and secretly very beautiful northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield (oh, and also places like Detroit, Berlin, and the Parisian suburbs if you want to push this outside the UK). Some of the best creativity of recent years has grown from the cruellest urban environments, and to describe that as “industrial” would be completely right.

But when we talk about “the music industry” this isn’t normally what we mean. We’re normally talking about major labels churning out bubblegum hit after hit. Music somehow became very quickly a means for labels to make ridiculous amounts of money by selling consumers the same product time and again, either directly in the form of reissued, remastered, box sets, or less directly in the form of “manufactured” five-piece harmonising boy-band after four-piece indie girl band.

It’s not that I object to the charts being manipulated by these waves of dross. It’s true that I lost interest in the Top 40 about the time that Pop Idol and its predecessors and followers started to gain popularity, but they’re no more at fault than Love is All Around spending its fifty-third week at number one. What I object to is the constant cynical attempts by “the industry” to appeal to their lowest common denominator. The public likes Take That, so let’s give them Boyzone. This week they’re buying Oasis, so why not give them Menswear too? Sometimes perfectly valid artists, but clearly only propelled to stardom because they fitted the particular perception of the time of what should be on the top of the charts.

Meanwhile, “the industry” continued to find ingenious ways to sell us new copies of exactly the same items we owned already. Yes, you may have had Tubular Bells in its original LP form, but do you have the new “CD”? Do you have a tape for the car? Do you have the sequel, or the new gold-plated limited edition? Do you have the special collector’s edition branded sparrow? Oh, and by the way, the original CD wasn’t very well mastered, so why not buy a 24-bit digital remaster, which is available with or without bonus tracks or in a special box with extra paper to prevent you from opening it…

And then, jumping forward to today, they wonder why people prefer to illegally download things rather than buy them.  Perhaps it is because the public is a bunch of cheeky thieving misfits who just want everything for free. Or perhaps it’s because the over-commodified musical “products” of the eighties and nineties managed to saturate their own market? Perhaps the consumers, fed up with being treated as a constant cash cow, finally decided enough was enough, and started looking for other ways to consume their music?

In this occasional series (in the “industry” category on this blog) I’m going to argue that the current state of the music business, for all of their complaints, is the inevitable result of the way that us consumers have been treated for the last few decades. The game has gone full circle to one where the consumer is now able to dictate what they want out of the bands and record companies, and for some reason this has left The Man a little upset…

More to follow…

Free mp3 of the week – White Town

Pay attention! It’s everyone’s favourite Derby-based musician, White Town. There’s loads of great free stuff to download off his Soundcloud, including a brilliant acoustic version of Cut Out My Heart from his last album, and some early stuff too:

Also worth checking out as a bonus, this entirely unexpected and quite excellent garage cover of his biggest hit Your Woman by Wiley featuring Emeli Sandé via RCRD LBL. Yo.

Chicane – Thousand Mile Stare

“What?” I hear you ask, “There’s a new Chicane album out? I had no idea.”

No, me neither. In fact, I’m not quite sure how you’re supposed to work it out. Nick Bracegirdle, or Chicane, as he more sensibly prefers to be known, keeps releasing new albums, and is doing a great job at keeping them secret and ensuring that people don’t buy them.

His story begins in the mid-1990s, when he worked his way up to releasing Far from the Maddening Crowds (1997), a quite exceptional collection of chilled dance tracks punctuated by Offshore and Sunstroke. His debut, as well as its companion mini-remix-album Chilled (1998) would be soon deleted and largely forgotten about by most people.

Then came Behind the Sun (2000), with Saltwater and Don’t Give Up and a whole load of other wonderful tracks, which is quite rightly what Chicane is known for, except unfortunately I think it’s possibly the only thing that he’s known for.

As far as I can make out, his slightly mediocre comeback and difficult third album Easy to Assemble should have been released in 2003, but was leaked onto the internet in promo form, and widely bootlegged, so he and/or the record company decided not to release it at all. This is where the story gets really confusing, because if, like me, you were unaware of the album when it initially came out, you were actually forced to go out and track down a pirate copy. It seems to me that there’s something very odd going on when an artist forces you to go out and find an illegal copy of their album.

Anyway, eventually in 2007, Chicane came back from his bootleg-inspired huff and put out Somersault, which picks up where Behind the Sun left off by including a couple of the forgotten tracks from Easy to Assemble, and adds the wonderful Stoned in LoveCome Tomorrow, and a whole load of other stuff.

In 2010, he then followed this with Giants, capitalising on the success of his reworked Poppiholla the previous year, and including a number of great tracks such as So Far Out to Sea.

Which brings us to his latest, Thousand Mile Stare. If you believe Wikipedia, then in an interesting repetition of history it was again leaked prior to release and nearly didn’t happen, in which case people like me yet again would have known absolutely nothing about it. But it finally made it out, and that’s a good thing.

The album opens with one of several unpronounceable tracks, the first of which is called Hljóp, a pleasant piano and string piece which would probably be the perfect soundtrack to the northern lights. Much of the album still feels flavoured by Poppiholla, as there are a number of very Nordic-inspired tracks, and to be honest a lot of it is so laid back that I can’t think of much to say about it!

Highlights as you dream your way through the album include Sólarupprás and the remix of Going Deep which for some reason is sitting right in the middle of the album and is considerably better than the original version which finally turns up near the end and includes a man talking over it.

If you’re the sort of person who likes exclusive box sets containing limited edition branded live animals and fruit, then there’s a version like that out there. Otherwise, the standard CD and download versions are pretty widely available from places like Amazon.com.

Peter Heppner – Solo

Many moons ago, when I lived in Germany, I became very fond of their large numbers of Depeche Mode soundalike bands, one of which was a duo called Wolfsheim. Is it fair to start a review describing them in that way? Probably not, but to a non-Teutonic audience, I think the comparison is inevitable. But their album Casting Shadows is quite brilliant, as are the singles it yielded, Kein ZurückFind You’re Here and Blind 2004, only one of which is actually on the album.

But of course, as soon as I decided I liked it, they inevitably decided to split up, going through an intriguingly acrimonious breakup involving a very messy lawsuit and a lot of extremely bad blood. You probably never even knew or cared, but the truth is they had matured into a very good band, and the split was really rather frustrating.

So it was pleasing that in 2008 singer and not-founder-member Peter Heppner decided to release a solo album, which for reasons best known to himself he decided to call Solo. He’d been messing around recording with other artists such as Schiller and Paul van Dyk for a couple of years, and had obviously decided that he could go it alone.

The album opens with a great track called Easy, but for me German artists are always best when they sing in their own language, the first of which is second track Alleinesein (‘being alone’), a powerful beat-driven track which was quite rightly the first single from the album.

Vorbei (‘over’) is the first of the truly exceptional tracks on the album. It’s driven primarily by a pad riff, but all the way through the production throws you slightly trippy surprises, and if you understand it, the lyric is nearly as powerful as Kein ZurückI Hate You is a brilliantly moody piece (“… from the bottom of my heart,” Heppner continues). No Matter What it Takes is another strong track, which maybe wouldn’t have felt out of place at the top end of the charts at the tail end of the 1980s.

Towards the end of the album, you get the bizarrely titled Walter (London or Manchester), another anthem in the form of Wherever, and the exceptionally powerful album closer Das Geht Vorbei… All in all, you do have to wonder slightly to what degree Solo was inspired by the problems that Wolfsheim had been having post-Casting Shadows, but lyrically and musically the album is a powerful return to Heppner’s traditional form.

As a postscript, I was very pleased to discover while researching this piece that he’s just released another album called My Heart of Stone. More on that another time.

Unless you’re in Germany you’ll probably have to buy this one on olde-fashioned import, via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.