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.

Advertisements

Autotune

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.

Moby – Destroyed

Moby is somehow able to churn out album after album without ever really dropping the quality. Since entering the world of music via Instinct Records in 1989, he never really seems to have stopped. After the surprise hit Go in 1992, his early 12″ singles were compiled together, often without his permission, onto four or five albums. His first proper release Everything is Wrong finally came out in 1995, followed by the metal-inspired Animal Rights (1996), the multi-million selling megahit Play (1999), 18 (2002), Hotel (2005), Last Night (2008), Wait for Me (2009), and most recently Destroyed (2011).

Generally consistently, excellent album has excellent album for nearly two decades now. Some are better than others, but a pattern soon emerges. For every track which is less strong, there is at least one which captures your heart with a new level of beauty. In the case of this album, when the fourth track The Low Hum turns up, I would defy anybody not to sing along to what is one of Moby‘s finest songs to date.

The first single from Destroyed was Be the One, a gentle vocoder-driven track, which in sound should be very familiar to anybody who likes Moby. Subsequent singles The Day, Lie Down in Darkness, The Right Thing, After and The Poison Tree were largely (with one exception) unremarkable minor hits, but in many cases had the fun novelty of having been chosen by votes from fans.

The exception is of course The Right Thing, which is another of the best songs he’s ever recorded. There are often moments with songs where you can feel something is different just from the first few notes of the introduction, and this is definitely one – the pad chords just seem to flow perfectly. Finally, Inyang Bassey‘s breathtaking vocal turns up, and it’s easy to wonder how you could ever doubt this album – certainly this one song is absolutely beautiful.

Other highlights include Victoria Lucas, named after the nom de plume used by Sylvia Plath. Definitely another of the stronger tracks, it’s a sweet instrumental full of chirping synth sounds and deep pads.

Destroyed does have its low points – in fact, by Moby‘s standards it is a little patchy actually. The first track The Broken Places might have been better saved for one of his more ambient projects. Rockets, recycled from a free newspaper CD several years ago, was perhaps not so exciting that it needed to be resurrected for this project. Stella Maris, coming as it does straight after The Right Thing is anticlimactic in the extreme, and even though it means “star of the sea” I can’t really help myself associating the title with potatoes and beer.

But on the whole, Destroyed is an above-average album, even if by his own standards that makes it less exciting than it might otherwise be. And since he’s churning out an album every year or two at the moment, he’ll be back with something else before we realise he’s gone.

You might as well go for one of the deluxe editions with extra tracks – there’s one on iTunes here and another on Amazon.com here.

 

Live – Best of the Festivals 2013

This month, with summer coming in the northern hemisphere, we take a look at the best of the summer festivals in 2013, with a focus on the sort of music that we like to listen to on this blog. Here are five choices, in chronological order:

Electric Daisy, Las Vegas, 21-23 June

If you can bear a week in the desert at 40°C and near enough 0% humidity, here are some of the artists performing this week in Las Vegas:

  • Booka Shade
  • Empire of the Sun
  • Eric Prydz
  • Fatboy Slim
  • Ferry Corsten
  • Jacques Lu Cont
  • La Roux
  • Sasha
  • Tiësto
  • Tiga

More here.

Latitude, Suffolk, 18-21 July

Highlights in Southwold this year include:

  • Calexico
  • Chvrches
  • Hot Chip
  • Junip
  • Kraftwerk
  • Beth Orton

More here.

Lovebox, London, 19-21 July

A bit of crossover with the one above, but you might be able to sneak into both and see:

  • AlunaGeorge
  • Andrew Weatherall
  • Frankie Knuckles
  • Goldfrapp
  • Hurts
  • Jon Hopkins

More here.

Rewind, Perth, 26-28 July and Henley, 16-18 August

The 80s festival, about thirty years late, includes the likes of:

  • ABC
  • The B-52s
  • Go West
  • Chesney Hawkes
  • Heaven 17
  • Nik Kershaw
  • Sonia

More info on the Scottish event here, and the London one here.

Berlin Festival, 6-7 September

At the brilliant former Tempelhof Airport:

  • Björk
  • Blur
  • Boys Noize
  • Delphic
  • DJ Shadow
  • Miss Kittin
  • Pet Shop Boys

Plus DJ sets from Justice and Röyksopp.

More here.

Depeche Mode – 101

Today is a very important day in the history of electronic music. On 18th June 1988, exactly 25 years ago today, Depeche Mode played the 101st and last date of their Music for the Masses tour at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

I was lucky enough to be able to watch a college football game at the venue not too long ago (the Bruins beat the Utes in the end), but I could only imagine what it might be like to see a band of DM’s stature there. Over 60,000 people squeezed into the stadium to see what must have been an astonishing event.

You get some feel for it if you watch the movie, also entitled 101, but you also have to put up with some a lot of footage of very annoying fans, so it’s the album I’ll concentrate on here. Besides, never having been a huge fan of the visual medium for music, the double CD live recording is, in my opinion, the best way to enjoy the event. Also, I don’t have the DVD to hand anyway…

The band come on stage to the album closer Pimpf before launching in earnest with Behind the Wheel, which of course to my surprise I now realise would have been pretty contemporary at the time, only having been released six months earlier!

Behind the Wheel also represents for me the period in which Depeche Mode, previously very European, truly embraced the USA, backed as it is with their brilliant cover of Route 66. It is completely right that 101 should have been filmed, performed, and recorded at the end of that road in California. The crowd screams, and singer Dave Gahan shouts, not for the last time, “Good evening Pasadena!”

The current hits continue – Strangelove is followed by brilliantly atmospheric album track Sacred. Oldie Something to Do follows, then the massive Blasphemous Rumours, both overwhelmed and engulfed by explosive enthusiasm from the crowd.

This was the peak of Depeche Mode‘s stadium rock era, and so it is entirely fitting that their early plinky plonk era is almost entirely forgotten – of the twenty tracks they played, seven are from Music for the Masses, four from Black Celebration, five from Some Great Reward, and the rest are oddities and b-sides. A Broken Frame is wiped entirely from history.

The extended ending of Blasphemous Rumours gives us a taste for what’s coming later, as they add a few repetitions of the chorus with different backing vocals, before we kick off into a very long version of Stripped. The first half ends in style with the deeply atmospheric album track The Things You Said.

They return after the interval (in which you switch CD) with a typically charged rendition of Black Celebration. The initial vocal sounds of Shake the Disease get the kind of response that a boy band might expect, and the song powers through with Gahan’s periodic shouts of “yeah!”

“Are you having a good time?” Gahan asks, as they launch into b-side Pleasure, Little Treasure. Well yes, actually, I am. What 101 generally lacks in terms of completely reinvented alternative versions, it more than makes up for with raw live energy, and the choice of tracks is very strong – there certainly aren’t any obvious omissions.

People are People kicks off with a steady build but is otherwise one of the less exciting tracks on the album (although the crowd seems to like it). Proceedings start heading towards a definite climax after this though with the throbbing rhythms of A Question of Time leading into Never Let Me Down Again. As Ali G would say at the MTV Europe Awards many years later, we certainly should not forget how depressing the eighties were, but Never Let Me Down Again is also a quite brilliant live anthem.

Finally, as encores, we get a taster for what Depeche Mode used to sound like way back six or seven years ago on their first couple of albums. Just Can’t Get Enough gets a rapturous response even though I suspect most of the audience don’t know what song it is until the chords kick in a few bars in.

But it’s Everything Counts, rightly released as a live single, which defines the album. The five minute version takes parts from the longer (In Larger Amounts) remix and whips the crowd into such a frenzy that they sing along for a full couple of minutes after the song has actually finished. It really must have felt as though the night was going to go on forever.

I think it’s fair to say that live albums are variable to say the least, but 101 is a masterclass in how to get them right. The set is amazing, the sound quality exceptional, and the performance unparalleled. Total genius.

101 is available in a number of different forms, but allow me to point you at the iTunes download and the double DVD as starting points.

Preview – Boards of Canada

Boards of Canada are always very laid back indeed. They’re also an act that, to my shame, I don’t particularly know, which is why I’ve not written about them before. Time to change that – they have a new album out, Tomorrow’s Harvest, and here’s a characteristically chilly track called Reach for the Dead: