Music is Mandatory Pt I

Music appreciation, like any anything artistic, be it film or literature, television, painting, photography, cooking, essentially all endeavours not based on maths, is subjective. Obviously. And however pointless giving a subjective opinion may ultimately be, I thought I would go into what I think constitutes music that could be considered mandatory, versus that which is either dull, disastrous, dreadful, or all three.

I don’t consider all opinions to be equal, that’s ridiculous. While one man’s Eminem may be another’s Vanilla Ice, some things are just so and cannot be argued. The enduring appeal of people and bands such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and even music I don’t particularly like, such as ABBA and Queen, is no fluke. These are often used as the yardsticks and touchstones for comparison, not simply because of their ubiquity, but because they have defined modern popular music, adding to it rather than simply existing within it.


One of the important things I look for in a song when I hear it for the first time is innovation and unexpected elements that make perfect sense in retrospect.

A record that illustrates this is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. Its predecessor, Summerteeth, was crammed to the edges with bells and whistles, walls of sound and a heavy handed production, which worked at the time and created a record nothing like any Wilco or Uncle Tupelo record before. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot however it is the space within the arrangements that give it its weight.

As Nigel Tuffnel said, if your amp is at 10 and your guitar is at 10, where can you go? Nowhere. Instead of going to 11 though, the record backs off and achieves songs that are much more affecting for their delicateness and intimacy. This isn’t a record to play loudly at a party, this is one to listen to through headphones, by yourself. For most of your 20s.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart sounds like a song with the skeleton missing. The drum fills and ambient backing remain, but there is no driving force holding the song together aside from the very simple acoustic guitar. It gently builds, then fades away, builds again, and once again fades away, never quite taking the opportunity to reach a crescendo in an obvious way. This song sets the tone for the whole record, creating moods and emotions without relying on the standard ornamentation the song structures would have had on one of their early records, or by a band without the considerable musicianship of Jay Bennett and Glenn Kotche.

The real key to the song working as it does however, is the mixing work of Jim O’Rourke. He never allows the song to settle into a groove, which it could have so easily, and become simply a folk song with strange noises behind it. He guides it to a far more satisfying place, where even as the first track, it covers the full range of emotions you wouldn’t see in a whole record by lesser artists. He allows the noise to be noise, the quiet to be really quiet, and the drums to drive not only the rhythm, but the melody of the song, with patterns echoing the piano and other instruments. The remainder of the record features many similar examples, with beauty and abrasion sitting side-by-side, but I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is essentially Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in seven minutes and a remarkable achievement.

While naming a favourite record of all time is a pointless exercise and impossible for anyone who enjoys a wide variety of music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is certainly one I consider seminal in my life. It has all the unexpected quirks and twists that have shaped the way I think about music.

Records I would consider as similar in spirit include:

Blur – Blur

Television – Marquee Moon

Neil Young – Americana

Lou Reed – Berlin

Gomez – Bring it On

Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic

Richard D James, also known as Aphex Twin, has the most amazing dexterity for turning the darkest, most disparate elements of beeps and clicks into songs of emotional resonance. For his latest release, Computer Controlled Acoustic, he dispatches with the electronic sounds and instead creates collages of pianos, guitars, strings and drums, each coming together in remarkable and unexpected ways.

While his previous record, Syro, was a classic set of Aphex Twin weirdness, Computer Controlled Acoustic manages to be both more accessible and more disconcerting. Intertwining lines of melody crash together, forming unexpectedly beautiful yet discordant songs that are satisfying and terrifying and immersive all at once.

The penultimate track, piano un10 it happened, is surprising for its conventionality, but offers a lull before the gentle storm of the closing track, hat5c 0001 rec-4, a disquietingly muted cacophony of bass and drums that builds to a hum, then cuts abruptly. Taken on their own, the tracks seem like song parts, unformed and left-over from a recording session. Over the course the EP’s 27 minutes however, they create a complete and complex listener experience, despite the short length.

While too brief to be considered a follow-up to the similar veined Drukqs, Computer Controlled Acoustic is yet more evidence of why Aphex Twin is considered the eminent pioneer of electronic music. Never concerned with trends or genres, his eclecticism shines through on this and every record he creates.

Recommendation: Mandatory.

Pond – Man It Feels Like Space Again

The most remarkable thing about Man It Feels Like Space Again is how songs with so much happening, can seem so bland and uninspiring. They hit the right buttons in terms of being a part of the genre, but at best end up sounding like the best parts of the Flaming Lips (Yoshimi), at their worst they sound like the Flaming Lips at their most plodding and tedious (everything but Yoshimi).

Billed as psychedelic-glam-space-rock, it never feels natural and comes across like an exercise in cramming as many shifts in each song as possible. Single songs move from dreamy and transporting, to garage rock stomping, and while this ambition is admirable, it never quite comes off. This makes the record a confusing mix, never really settling in a groove or a theme, seeming unfocused rather than satisfyingly eclectic. The disco-y, glam-y elements detract from the listening experience, sounding more like Scissor Sisters than T-Rex, turning the record into a wayward shambles.

My favourite track is Sitting Up On Our Crane, a synth driven, slow-tempo, dreamlike trip, and possibly the only track that truly holds together for its entirety.

Recommendation: Disappointing, but sure to find a fanbase.

Further listening for the genre:

Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space

Lo Fidelity Allstars – How to Operate with a Blown Mind

The best albums I heard for the first time this week

Aside from the records that I reviewed this week, I also listened to some of older records for the first time. The two I liked the most were:

Diiv – Oshin. Released in 2012, Oshin is a strangely moving journey through dream pop soundscapes with enchanting guitar melodies. While mostly instrumental, the vocals that do occur are reminiscent of Sigur Ros or The Stone Roses, shimmery and incomprehensible, becoming simply another instrument rather than the main feature. While not earth shattering, Oshin is an accomplished collection of compelling compositions that make me hopeful for Diiv’s next record.

Peggy Seeger – Everything Changes. From early in 2014, Everything Changes is a charming collection of throwback folksongs and a quirky mix of modernity and tradition. Even if it wasn’t as good as it is, it would be an achievement in staying relevant without compromising style for the sake of moving with the times.

Viet Cong – Viet Cong

A clatter of shadows and drones, twisting against the scattered vocals and ambient sounds.

I had to listen to this record twice before it started to make sense and I could explore it. But once inside, I keep discovering new nooks and crannies, unexpected doors, walls and windows with each listen. Vast rooms of delightfully challenging sonic pleasures, exactly the type of listening experience I look forward to when I try a new record.

In my recent hankering for a new Graham Coxon album, I found this to be something equally as jagged and visceral as A+E, with added spark from the Joy Division-esque vocal lines, the John Cale drones, and some surprisingly poppy melodies beneath it all.

It opens with the rumbling apocalypse of Newspaper Spoons, complete with accompanying drill-in-your-ears guitars, fading into an ethereal sequencer loop. It’s a striking way to start the record and it only gets better.

The finest track on Viet Cong , March of Progress, begins noisily then breaks into an insistent, driving rhythm with a Beatles reminiscent vocal melody over the top. It then evolves again into fast paced pop weirdness. It’s a long journey over a breathlessly short running time for a song so ambitious, which makes it an exhilarating experience.

While at face value it sounds harsh and inaccessible, beneath the surface it exhibits an eclecticism that makes it more rewarding with every listen.

Recommendation: Mandatory

Dan Mangan – Club Meds

Dan Mangan is a Canadian singer-songwriter, primarily known for earthy, honest songs and gritty vocals. His latest release, Club Meds, is a departure, featuring a heavier band backing with more dense sonic landscapes.

I really wanted to like this album, and I do, in parts. At its best, it is a record that transports the listener, while at its most mediocre it sounds like Peter Gabriel.

Simple songs over complex backing arrangements isn’t a new concept, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, all created music in this way, but with less studio capabilities and subsequently less polishing. This is where I think the record doesn’t quite come together, rather than sounding brave or unique, it is disjointed and the studio gloss makes the record sound somewhat muddy.

Taken separately, the instrumentation is dense and claustrophobic, intricate and accomplished, while Dan Mangan’s voice is heartfelt and earnest. However, the two infrequently complement each other or feel like they are working for the good of the song. Rather, Mangan’s voice gets caught between the foreground and the background, without commanding either, which is hard to understand given its resonant qualities displayed on his previous records.

The two parts rarely come together to make a unified sound and at its best, in the closing track New Skies, the vocals fall away to allow the music to take centre stage, and vice versa, creating a quiet loud dynamic that works coherently to great effect. The other standout track is the second single Mouthpiece, which again allows more space for his vocals to breathe, while in others like Offred, the vocal track sounds lost.

The songs battle to strike the correct balance, and at times within individual tracks it all comes together, but it lacks consistency as a whole to be truly essential listening.

Recommendation: Worthwhile but patchy

Uptown Special – Mark Ronson

Uptown Special is Mark Ronson’s new record. Famous for his work with Amy Winehouse, Adele and Rufus Wainwright, as well as being the step-son of the guitarist from Foreigner (the Mick Jones who wasn’t in The Clash).
Uptown Special is detestable from the very first note. In its entire, interminable running length of just under 40 minutes, it never succeeds in rising above being a ridiculous pastiche of appropriated styles. Like listening to a kid in a guitar shop run through their favourite guitar riffs until you want to punch his face in.
Each song hits its intended stylistic mark (the Stevie Wonder song sounds like a Stevie Wonder song etc…), without ever feeling alive or relatable. The glare off the studio sheen with which it is thickly lacquered, gives the illusion of depth while simply masking the fact it is just a puddle of piss. A shallow one. One that has soaked into the carpet.
It will undoubtedly be a huge hit and is perfect as a gift for anyone who doesn’t like music.
Recommendation: Avoid.
Suggested listening for this genre (or some albums that were ripped off):
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book and Innervisions
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Freaky Styley
Sly and the Family Stone – Fresh
The Meters – The Meters