Chart for stowaways – 25 January 2014

Well, we’re still trying frantically to catch up to the present day, but we’ve not looked at the singles from January yet, so here’s the delayed chart from the last week in January:

  1. Röyksopp feat. Susanne Sundfør – Running the the Sea
  2. Napoleon – You Could ❤ This
  3. Saint Etienne – When I Was Seventeen
  4. Way Out West – Survival
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Winner
  6. Paul Hartnoll – The Sea Devils
  7. Regal Worm – Lord of the Perfect V
  8. Client – Zerox Machine
  9. Kosheen – Harder They Fall
  10. Starwalker – Bad Weather

Meanwhile Napoleon‘s Magpies still… um… rule the roost on the album chart.


Beginner’s guide to Depeche Mode

Who would have thought that the quartet of odd boys from Basildon who appeared with the slightly cheesy pop of Photographic in 1981 would evolve into one of the world’s best known and best loved stadium rock acts? Their UK following seems to always be a decade or so behind, but across Europe and the Americas in particular, they have an enormous cult-like following, ready to wave their hands in the air as soon as they’re instructed.

Key moments

You might know them as a plinky-plonky pop band from the 1980s, or some kind of Goth electro-rock outfit from the 1990s. Or something entirely different. Forever reinventing themselves, their key moments include Just Can’t Get Enough (1981), Personal Jesus (1989), and Enjoy the Silence (1990).

Where to start

Kick off with the compilation of their finest years with The Singles 86-98 (1998) to get an understanding of why everyone likes them so much. Alternatively, The Best of – Volume 1 (2005) is a pretty competent dip into their career, despite the gaps.

What to buy

Move onto Violator (1990) next, and then discover the best moment of their early careers with Construction Time Again (1983). Their later albums will require a little patience, so maybe go for Music for the Masses (1987) next, and keep going from there.

Don’t bother with

Songs of Faith and Devotion Live (1993) is a bit of a waste of time. Early albums Speak and Spell (1981) and A Broken Frame (1982) are far from bad, but you should probably work your way back to them. Similarly recent output Sounds of the Universe (2009) and Delta Machine (2013) would be bad places to start.

Hidden treasure

Only When I Lose Myself (1998) and its b-side Surrender are every bit as good as anything on their albums, and isan‘s remix of Goodnight Lovers (2002) is a forgotten gem. If you haven’t heard Martin L. Gore‘s first solo EP Counterfeit (1989) then it’s essential listening, and why not try Dave Gahan‘s second solo album Hourglass (2005) while you’re at it? Finally, any of the other live albums or DVDs are a treat – 101 (1989) is the best of the bunch.

For stowaways

The loudness wars

Even if you stopped buying CDs over a decade ago, you can’t have failed to notice the coming of the loudness wars. Better writers than me have analysed what exactly this means for your listening experience, so I’ll leave the commentary to them. For me it just serves as another example of the lack of respect that the music industry has had for its public in recent years.

For the uninitiated, the term “loudness wars,” refers, basically, to noisy mastering. Compression is used to make the track more uniformly loud, often with the effect of reducing the dynamic range. Sound On Sound Magazine explores the matter comprehensively here.

Of course, compression is a necessary part of the mastering process, but if a track is too heavily compressed you’ll be able to hear it without necessarily understanding what you’re hearing. There are plenty of examples, including many of Depeche Mode‘s albums starting with the otherwise lovely Playing the Angel (see analysis here). Even their most recent album Delta Machine still suffers from it, which is rather sad, as it does tend to ruin things.

Where people tend to get really upset is with reissued albums. The remastering process can bring out sounds and details beautifully, and can really add to old releases when done well. Sometimes, it isn’t done well. There’s a revealing commentary about the Joy Division and New Order reissues here, although it’s easy to read that piece and come away thinking the author is equating “compressed” with “poor quality”, which would of course be wrong.

But I can’t help but see something of an irony here. The music industry thinks we’re all criminals who want to download everything illegally. But if the only reason to buy music is to avoid doing something a bit criminal, it’s never going to come back. Only when we kill off silly music industry practices like the loudness wars will people go back to giving their money directly to record companies.

Which brings us to what the organisers of Dynamic Range Day are working to achieve. Last year’s was on 22nd March, and this year’s is coming very soon, and the aim is to try to raise awareness of the loudness wars, and ultimately to try and kill them off. Who knows how successful they will be.

In the long run, for me, the loudness wars are another example of the “music industry” exhibiting little or no respect for the record buying public. I wouldn’t argue that only acousticians should be allowed to master music – in fact it’s difficult to know if that would actually achieve anything – but if record companies want to stop illegal downloading, one of the strongest weapons in their arsenal is the fact that they hold the original masters for everything. They can sell us the best possible quality recordings. So why not treat consumers with a little respect? Having spent our hard earned money on these releases, why shouldn’t we be rewarded with full fidelity sound?

Incidentally, Wikipedia has an interesting, if typically overcomplicated, discussion on the loudness wars here, with a rogue’s gallery of particularly bad examples.

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Much as you might like your favourite bands to last forever, there’s something very respectable about them deciding to call it a day. It’s two decades to the week now since Pink Floyd‘s last album The Division Bell, and frustrating though I can see that might be for the fans, I can’t help but think it’s admirable that they haven’t done anything new since.

Following seven years after A Momentary Lapse of Reason, it was famously named by Douglas Adams, apparently in exchange for a significant contribution to his favourite charity. And, perhaps most importantly, it was originally released twenty years ago this week.

But I’m no expert on Pink Floyd, so I’ll have to leave it to the real fans to comment on what this album means. All I can do is listen to The Division Bell, and write down my thoughts as it goes along.

The album opens with the ethereal sound of Cluster One. It’s reminiscent of some of their work from the 1970s, with all the slippery guitar work and atmospheric backing, and there’s a bit of gentle piano, as a few drums build towards the end. It’s all very pleasant, although there perhaps isn’t a huge amount in the way of energy.

The same cannot be said of What Do You Want from Me, which despite lacking the question mark that it deserves, is an extremely good song, although there’s something slightly difficult to place about it. To an expert’s ear it probably doesn’t sound as though it belongs with Pink Floyd‘s earlier material, but to me it certainly doesn’t sound as though it was released in 1994. I suspect there’s something in it that belongs to the 1970s, but that’s OK.

Poles Apart doesn’t really offer much for me, although the lengthy prog rock sections are entertaining as always. And for many acts, Marooned might have seemed a bit pointless, but on here it fits perfectly. I get the feeling that a lot of this album is about the mood, as much as the tracks themselves.

I’m not entirely sure about the piano-driven A Great Day for Freedom or Wearing the Inside Out, the latter sounding only a little better than some kind of eighties mood music piece at times, but Take it Back is quite brilliant. For perhaps the first time on this album, it almost sounds contemporary for the mid-1990s, sounding at times not entirely unlike U2 (obviously I realise the influence is probably the other way round, but you take my point).

There’s something very pleasant about Coming Back to Life, although I’m not sure I completely understand it. The “lost in time” lyric seems completely appropriate, as it is somewhat true for the entire album – for the most part it really doesn’t sound like something from the 1990s.

Keep Talking is another of my favourites – the message is particularly strong, and there’s something about the vocal style that works especially well – plus the gospel backing vocals and the guest appearance from Stephen Hawkings from off of Science.

After that there are just two tracks before the end – Lost for Words and High Hopes, neither of which grab me particularly on their own, although the latter is a good closing track. But ultimately, both fit together to form important parts of an extremely strong album. It may not have received great reviews on release, or – for all I know – be particularly well regarded by the fans, but it’s still very enjoyable.

For about three decades, Pink Floyd were at the top of their game, and while most of us may only know them for Another Brick in the Wall, there’s plenty of good work to be found in their back catalogue. So the fans will no doubt disapprove of much of what I’ve written above, but I’m glad I took the time to listen to this album.

You can find the new remaster of The Division Bell at all major retailers, such as here.

Retro chart for stowaways – 2 April 2005

Nine years ago! Here were the top ten singles:

  1. New Order – Krafty
  2. Erasure – Don’t Say You Love Me
  3. Basement Jaxx – Oh My Gosh
  4. Moby – Lift Me Up
  5. Moby – Mulholland
  6. Girls Aloud – Wake Me Up
  7. Client – Pornography
  8. Erasure – Breathe
  9. Vic Twenty – I Sold Your Heart on eBay
  10. LCD Soundsystem – Daft Punk is Playing at My House

Meanwhile Mylo and Télépopmusik were riding high on the album charts.

I Monster – Swarf

Not too long ago, I Monster released Rare and Remixed, companion compilations to their second album Neveroddoreven (2003), containing lots of excellent surprises and hidden treasures. Last year they followed these up with Swarf, a collection of extra tracks and out-takes from the A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars era (2009).

First up is a beautiful pastoral track called Hey You Beautiful Land, full of birdsong and gentle chanted vocals. It doesn’t go anywhere in particular, but then neither should it – this isn’t the sort of song that’s intended to hit the number one spot. It leads gently into Colourspill, which is the first of a couple of truly amazing tracks. It takes a little time to get going, but when it does it’s definitely up there with I Monster‘s finest.

Checkout Luv was previously released, in slightly different form, on the Dear John EP, and yet again on this release it’s very special indeed. Not many acts record songs about alien checkout girls, and even fewer make them this wonderful.

Many of the tracks here don’t quite reach those dizzy heights – Early Morning Robert, Food for the Sea, and Magic Man are all good, but clearly wouldn’t have quite been good enough to pass muster on A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars.

She Sucks is the second of the particularly excellent hidden gems, and easily deserved to be on the full album. It plods on somewhat, with a dark and slightly grimy energy, but as with all of I Monster‘s best moments, the eccentric production is only a part of the package – there’s a great song in there too.

The final trio – The Holy Man, The Priest’s Tale and A New All Powerful Brain – hide relatively few surprises. As before, all three are good songs, but they weren’t destined to set the world alight. So Swarf is entirely the right place to collect them together – the less special tracks sit alongside a couple of real gems. And every so often, even a song such as The Holy Man packs a bit of a punch, such as in the middle section, where you might well find yourself uncontrollably nodding along in time.

I Monster are clearly one of our national treasures, and with only three full-length albums under their belt in a little over fifteen years any extra material should be regarded as very welcome indeed. And while Swarf may lack the pile of hidden specialities that Rare had kept to itself, it’s still a pretty strong collection, and it’s definitely worth owning.

You can find Swarf on Bandcamp here.

Preview – Client

Client are back! The new album Authority is due out in Germany this week via Out of Line. After the mediocrity of some of their recent output, the first single You Can Dance was a very nice – if rather eighties themed – surprise. Here it is:

Chart for stowaways – 18 January 2014

As we stealthily skip a couple of weeks to try and catch up, here are the albums:

  1. Napoleon – Magpies
  2. Kevin Pearce – Matthew Hopkins and the Wormhole
  3. Way Out West – We Love Machine
  4. I Monster – I Monster Presents People Soup
  5. Deep Dish – Junk Science
  6. Télépopmusik – Angel Milk
  7. Client – Command
  8. William Orbit – Pieces in a Modern Style
  9. I Monster – Swarf
  10. Skywatchers – Poyekhali!

Beginner’s guide to Chicane

Posh Buckinghamshire’s solo musician Nick Bracegirdle, better known as Chicane (or occaisonally either some or all of Disco Citizens) has been releasing chillout, dance, and later electronic hits for two decades now, although you might not have noticed. His first two albums are unmissable; the third one never got released due to some kind of download-related hissy fit; and the latter years yield some great surprises.

Key moments

Primarily Offshore (1997) and Saltwater (2000), as well as a blistering 2009 comeback in which he rehashed Sigur Rós‘s Hoppiholla as Poppiholla. Also his attempts to aid the careers of Bryan AdamsPeter Cunnah from D:ReamEspiritu, and Jewel were valiant in the extreme.

Where to start

His Best Of 1996-2009 is very comprehensive, but make sure you get the version with the brilliant Poppiholla on it, rather than the 2008 version which gets another album track in its place.

What to buy

Debut Far from the Maddening Crowds (1997) and follow-up Behind the Sun (2000) are chillout classics. His later albums are less consistent, but Thousand Mile Stare (2012) is probably the best of the bunch.

Don’t bother with

The 2003 illegal-download-only album Easy to Assemble is largely forgettable, so definitely isn’t worth the considerable effort that’s required to track it down.

Hidden treasure

Giants (2010) includes an excellent track called So Far Out to Sea, and the 1999 mini-album Chilled is worth a listen.

For stowaways