Chart for stowaways – 15 June 2013

The albums this week look a little like this:

  1. Marsheaux – Inhale
  2. I Monster – Swarf
  3. Kevin Pearce – Pocket Handkerchief Lane
  4. Depeche Mode – Delta Machine
  5. Air – Moon Safari
  6. Zero 7 – Simple Things
  7. Saint Etienne – Casino Classics
  8. Skywatchers – The Skywatchers Handbook
  9. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
  10. Enigma – A Posteriori

More next week!

Copy protection

Copy protection refers to a means of preventing material – generally digital material – from being copied by the end user. The original incarnations were used way back in the 1970s to protect floppy discs containing copyrighted software. But back in the early days of copy protection, a lot of systems relied on the honesty of end users, and even then they were generally easy to circumvent.

Music had only ever really suffered from the claim that “home taping is killing music,” which nobody ever really believed anyway, and by the late 1990s everyone was doing “tapes for the car” or even copying CDs from their friends onto MiniDisc or CD-R. And of course then came Napster and the world of music downloading.

So somewhat inevitably, at the start of the 21st century, copy protection finally came to the world of music. The big record companies now printed large messages saying “thank you for buying this CD but please don’t copy it or anything” on the cases, and in the meantime they invested huge amounts of money in developing systems to prevent users from copying them.

Which is where they shot themselves in the foot. If at that stage they had collaborated to invest in developing proper mechanisms to legally download music, they could have completely changed the shape of the years that followed. Illegal downloading could have been significantly reduced before it became mainstream. Physical formats might have stayed popular for a little longer. Record companies definitely wouldn’t have collapsed, and record shops may have even managed to find a second breath of life if they had been involved in the dissemination of music.

Instead, they chose to invest in copy protection, and it would be another three years before iTunes, one of the most popular of the legal download sites, would come along to start turning the tide.

Not only was developing copy protection a pretty stupid measure (surely any idiot could have predicted that the CD didn’t have much of a future once the transition to online music had begun), but it was also a counter-productive one. What the record companies came up with was a disc which could no longer be played properly on a large number of normal CD players, but also, significantly, could still easily be copied.

Early variations of solutions involved using a marker pen to draw around the edge of the CD to circumvent the protection, or you could just use an Apple Mac, as it seemed to make little difference to them. Or you could download special software to grab the signal. Or, if all else failed, you could just duplicate the audio signal.

Sony and BMG’s copy protection systems were such a disaster that they resulted in product recalls and lawsuits from 2005, and were finally ditched for good in 2007. Which is pretty much the definition of “too little, too late”. Most amusingly, the system actually violated copyright itself. It would be nice to think as a consumer that you’re being treated with a little respect by the vendor.

Obviously ultimately copy protection was never going to stop the most determined audio grabber, but in my experience, and I suspect that of many, it didn’t even provide a deterrent. It was just a nuisance, putting the latest album from Zero 7 or Moby into a normal CD player, only to see the message “Disc Error” (you could often get around this by making a CD-R copy of the album, which was ironic to say the least).

So what was the point? Well, the music industry of 2000 clearly thought that the CD was going to live on regardless of what happened in the world of downloading. They were seen as two different audiences. The reason for which is not obvious to me – did they really think that everyone would think “oh, hold on, this mp3 is lower fidelity than the CD release, so I’d better buy that too”?

Of course, fifteen years on, we’re able to see the whole picture with the benefit of hindsight, and we can see just how stupid the record companies were to ever invest in copy protection. It was with that total lack of foresight that the music industry committed suicide.

Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer

From very humble (some might even say cheesy) beginnings with 2001’s 604Ladytron have gone through a number of very clear phases. The typically difficult second album Light and Magic (2002) was pretty much perfect in every way, while the normally confident third release Witching Hour (2005) was generally hard work.

But since then, they have really gone from strength to strength. Velocifero (2008) was extremely strong, and their most recent album Gravity the Seducer (2011) stronger still. Let’s examine why…

The first track on Gravity the Seducer is called White Elephant, and is traditional Ladytron. Wonderful, brilliant, anthemic, traditional Ladytron. It’s not too dark and harsh; the synth sounds gently ripple; and the vocal rises steadily to build into a brilliant chorus. With the slightly mandolin-like sound in the introduction there’s an almost Mediterranean feel to what must be one of their finest opening tracks.

Second track Mirage is slightly less exciting, but still confidently carries you through the early stages of the album, leading into White Gold, and finally the lead single, the totally brilliant Ace of Hz.

The genesis of this album is curious, as 2011 began with a new compilation Best Of 00-10 with a couple of new tracks, one of which was Ace of Hz. Later the same year, it reappeared as part of their fifth album. Apart from having an excellent name, it’s also up there among the best songs of their career to date.

The only real weak patch on the album is the one which follows. Ritual is pretty good, but Moon Palace and Altitude Blues just seem a little flat, particularly the latter, which relative to some of the other tracks is pretty dull. Fortunately Ambulances comes, if you’ll pardon the pun, racing in to rescue the day.

When Ladytron get all the elements right, they’re totally mindblowingly brilliant, as is illustrated by this track. This time there’s a slightly military drum pattern to drive things forward from a largely choral introduction. Melting Ice, which follows, is also great, much more of their tradition of driving, repeated choruses with flailing drum patterns.

Transparent Days is a little less exciting as a fairly eventless instrumental, but the final pairing of 90 Degrees and Aces High brings things to a wonderfully strong close. The former is one of their softer series of tracks, punctuated with yet another excellent middle section. And the final track Aces High reprises Ace of Hz as a strong instrumental and ends the album on strong form.

Gravity the Seducer is, then, a worthwhile reminder of how good Ladytron can be. It may not feature anything with the innocence or power of the first couple of albums, but it’s delivered with all the confidence they should have had back in 2005.

You can find Gravity the Seducer with the rest of their back catalogue on iTunes and all the normal places.

Ivor Novello Awards 2013

I’m sorry for the slight delay here – I’ve been meaning to sum up the 2013 Ivor Novello Awards for a few weeks, but have been unavoidably tied up in the real world.

It’s not a widely known ceremony, despite having run for nearly sixty years (since 1955). Part of the reason for this is that the awards are for actual songwriting, rather than things like performing, or wearing dresses made out of meat, like the more commercial award ceremonies. Perhaps one day we should dedicate a post to the history of these awards, but that day is not yet upon us.

This year, the ceremony took place at Grosvenor House in London way back on May 16th, and the nominees and winners were as follows:

Best Song Musically and Lyrically

The nominees:

  • Bat for Lashes – Laura (Natasha Khan / Justin Parker)
  • Emeli Sandé – Next to Me (Hugo Chegwin / Harry Craze / Emeli Sandé)
  • Jake Bugg – Two Fingers (Iain Archer / Jake Bugg)

Winner: Emeli Sandé

Best Contemporary Song

The nominees:

  • Alt-J – Fitzpleasure (Thomas Green / Joe Newman / Gwilym Sainsbury / Augustus Unger-Hamilton)
  • Plan B – Ill Manors (Pierre Baigorry / David Conen / Benjamin Drew / Vincent Graf-Schlippenbach / Al Shux)
  • The Maccabees – Pelican (Sam Doyle / Rupert Jarvis / Orlando Weeks / Felix White / Hugo White)

Winner: The Maccabees

PRS for Music Most Performed Work

The nominees:

  • Olly Murs – Dance with Me Tonight (Claude Kelly / Oliver Murs / Steve Robson)
  • Emeli Sandé – Next to Me
  • Coldplay – Paradise (Guy Berryman / Jonny Buckland / Will Champion / Chris Martin / Brian Eno)

Winner: Emeli Sandé

Album Award

The nominees:

  • Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Thomas Green / Joe Newman / Gwilym Sainsbury / Augustus Unger-Hamilton)
  • Ben Howard – Every Kingdom (Ben Howard)
  • Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough? (Lianne Barnes / Matthew Hales)

Winner: Alt-J

Best Original Film Score

The nominees:

  • Dario Marianelli – Anna Karenina
  • John Powell – Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
  • Plan B – Ill Manors (Benjamin Drew / Al Shux)

Winner: Anna Karenina

Best Television Soundtrack

The nominees:

  • John Harle – Lucian Freud: Painted Life
  • John Lunn – The Mystery of Edwin Drood
  • Carl Davis – Upstairs Downstairs Series 2

Winner: Lucian Freud: Painted Life

Inspiration Award

Winner: Marc Almond

Outstanding Contribution

Presented by Ray Davies. Winner: Noel Gallagher

The Ivors Classical Music Award

Winner: Errolyn Wallen MBE

PRS for Music Award for Outstanding Achievement

Winner: Justin Hayward

International Achievement

Winner: Gavin Rossdale out of little-known Bush

Songwriter of the Year

Presented by Pete Tong. We continue. Winner: Calvin Harris

PRS for Music Special International Award

Winner: Randy Newman


And that’s it for 2013. Somewhere in among the numerous almost-identically-named awards are some quite interesting winners. No “outstanding” anything for Liam Gallagher, for example.

More coverage at DigitalSpy, The Guardian, and The Independent.

Dreadzone – 360°

Time to review a twenty year old piece of laid back electro-dub. Will it be in any way contemporary or enjoyable? No idea. But twenty years ago this week saw the release of 360° (that’s 360 Degrees if the symbol doesn’t translate properly) by Dreadzone.

Dreadzone would, of course, a couple of years later take the charts by storm with an excellent track from their second proper album entitled Little Britain, and then disappeared into the underworld, never to be heard of by the masses again. But even that’s not on this album.

From very gentle murmurings, the first track House of Dread builds and builds, until the vocalist starts scatting. Of course, it’s 1993, so GameBoy-style computer noises are very fashionable, and using the same sounds as Doop by Doop is entirely acceptable, as it wouldn’t hit the charts for another couple of years. Yes, it’s extremely dated, but it’s an acceptable opener nonetheless.

Which generally sets the mood of the album. L.O.V.E. is pleasant, chilled out, repetitive, and also a little dated sounding when the FM synthesised piano, pads and sound effects turn up. To describe it as cinematic would no doubt be music to the ears of the artists, as film references are dotted throughout this album.

Chinese Ghost Story turns up, less obviously dub-influenced and a bit less badly dated as well, and is followed by the wonderfully named The Good, The Bad and The Dread. With a curiously catchy drum and bass rhythm and some very odd sample choices, it mixes the music of Ennio Morricone with 90s electro and dub elements to make something quite brilliant. It’s got horses in it and everything.

After the dull The Warning things quickly return to form with Dream On, another great chilled out track about the drugs. By this point in the album, the cheese has subsided somewhat, and it’s entirely possible to enjoy the laid back dub without being glad it’s no longer 1993. If I can give you one useful tip though, it would be not to look too hard at the artwork – that’s probably the most dated thing about the whole package.

Later tracks Far EncounterSkeleton at the Feast and Rastafarout continue the general trend, with the odd dodgy sample here and there, just to remind you that this album is a slight anachronism in the 21st century. In general, 360° is a decent album, but you could do worse than confine your knowledge of Dreadzone to the brilliant Little Britain, as most people have.

You won’t find this album on iTunes, but their much better 1995 album Second Light is. If you still want to give this album a go, head over to Amazon and order an olde-fashioned “physical copy“, or maybe try their Best Of instead.

Preview – Bent

Bent seem to have pretty much given up with new music for the time being, morphing instead into Napoleon and whatever else they’re up to these days. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy their groundbreaking, beautiful, laid back pop. This week sees the release of their rarities album From the Vaults 1998-2006, and it’s typically brilliant. Here’s a taster:

Chart for stowaways – 8 June 2013

The singles this week:

  1. Depeche Mode – Soothe My Soul
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Axis
  3. Marsheaux – So Far
  4. I Monster – Colourspill
  5. Kevin Pearce – Last Blow Out
  6. Röyksopp – Running to the Sea
  7. Saint Etienne – Burnt Out Car
  8. The Postal Service – Such Great Heights
  9. Lindum & Lindum – Waiting for the Night
  10. Tomorrow’s World – You Taste Sweeter

Marsheaux have also hopped up to the top spot on the album chart, holding I Monster and Kevin Pearce down to the rest of the top threee. Depeche Mode catapult back into the top five, and there’s a bit of an Air explosion going on further down outside the top ten.


Autotune – more popularly known as “the Cher effect” – is perhaps one of the most controversial effects ever to be used in music. Practically every music fan will have an opinion on it, even if they haven’t entirely managed to put it into words.

What it does is difficult to explain, and so I’ll leave that to the experts. There’s a more detailed article about the specific plug-in and how it came about here. It’s very clever stuff, but essentially it corrects tuning on singers’ voices to put them closer to where the correct note should be.

I’ll also admit at this point that we’re probably talking about a whole group of similar plug-ins rather than one specific one. But anyway, if used sparingly, it’s remarkably effective. If used too much, it sounds awful. Which is actually true for most effects in the world of music.

But where does that line actually lie? In recent years I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “It’s fine when it’s used as an effect, but I don’t like it being used to make bad singers into good ones.” This is, of course, nonsense, but figuring out why isn’t too easy.

As the article linked above explains, it wasn’t long after Cher had done it that the likes of Daft Punk and Black Eyed Peas were throwing it all over their records; T-Pain was making it his trademark; and even non-electronic acts such as Maroon 5 and Avril Lavigne were making use of it. It’s pretty much everywhere now – try listening to the UK top 40 countdown some time if you don’t believe me.

For me, it is perhaps most familiar from Pet Shop Boys‘ 2002 album Release, and honestly it’s the thing that really ruins the album. There are some pretty good songs on there, and some lovely acoustic guitars, but even on some of the best tracks (London is a great example), Neil Tennant‘s vocals are backed up with a hideous electronic howling sound from the effect.

At the time, Pet Shop Boys were extremely excited by it, talking at length about how it turned the voice into another musical instrument which could become an organic part of the song. Which I can see as an argument, and I think partly my dislike of the effect on Release is actually tempered by the fact that it didn’t take long for absolutely everybody, good or bad, to use it with the same aim in mind. Daft Punk used it pretty well, but that was in conjunction with other effects. And did Andy Bell really need autotune on Tomorrow’s World? Well, we’ve discussed that previously.

In a way, part of the problem is actually the dehumanising effect that it has on the vocal performance. Particularly a decade or so ago, when artists were constantly telling us that we shouldn’t download mp3s because they were lower quality, they were quite happy to reduce the fidelity of their own vocal performances to practically nothing by running them through autotune. Surely that doesn’t make sense, does it?

But if using autotune as an intentional effect is an annoying trend, is it wrong to correct vocalists’ performances by using it gently? Well, actually, no. Not in my opinion.

I suppose the first argument is that a good singer doesn’t need autotune. Yes, except I’m not sure there are any singers who are that good. Everyone sings the odd duff note from time to time, and some more than others.

Well that’s fine, so why not just accept that this is true, and leave the duff notes in? It works for The Human League, and actually for whole swathes of rock music. Yes, great, except a lot of gentler songs in particular will sound a lot better if the singer is actually in tune. Accept that your vocalist won’t always be pitch perfect, but that the song requires something more than they can give, and there’s really only one conclusion that you can reach.

So why all the hostility to autotune? Well, apart from the fact that everyone is using it for artistic reasons – still, over a decade after Cher popularised it – there are whole swathes of artists who are relying on it, particularly in the manufactured pop market.

But I don’t think the problem lies with autotune – it lies with the artists. It’s still not turning people into good singers, even when it’s only used to put them in tune. If we stop buying the sort of nonsense that Simon Cowell tells us to, then we will be a whole lot less worried about autotune. Get rid of him, not than the vocal effects.

So where does this leave us? Well, I’d argue that autotune has its place. For the average singer who has something to say but can’t quite do it justice, it’s fine. For the avant-garde Daft Punk wannabe, it also serves a purpose. But it’s with the everyday X-Factor reject, and everyone else who makes up the Top 40 right now, that the problem lies, not with the effect that they’ve come to rely on.

And so on balance I’m going to say this now, and it will probably come back to haunt me: long live autotune.