June 2011

As you may have noticed from the increasing infrequency of my posts on here of late, music has become something of a lessened priority for me in recent months. What with writing for two websites, editing a student newspaper’s music section and trying to keep up my own personal stream of musical thoughts here, the process of listening to and thinking and writing about had  begun to feel like a (negatively-paid) job rather than a hobby and, as such, my interest waned.

That is, until a few days ago. After a single tweet by superlative movie blogger Charlie Lyne piqued my interest, and a little Google-digging later, turntable.fm quickly became my new favourite website, and the seeming solution to my musical malaise. As a quick explanation, Turntable is essentially a social networking DJ platform. Rooms are opened by users, and usually inform genre interests, in which up to five users act as DJs that play tracks, in turn, for the rest of the room. The whole room can then rate each track either “Awesome” (which gives the DJ points to be used in buying new avatars) or “Lame” (which can result in the track being skipped if a high enough proportion vote accordingly). Alongside all of this is a live chat box, allowing the room to discuss everything from the tracks being played to what’s being made for lunch. It’s a beautifully simple system and one that could breed the worst kind of trolling but at this early stage is still mercifully yet to manifest itself in that way (and would be relatively easy to deal with given the positioning of the room “owner” as moderator).

The reason this simplistic idea has become so enthralling to me lies in its extreme sociability. Last.fm or Pandora might offer you new music based on what you like, but Turntable’s inherent humanity means you’ll quickly be finding music you would never have heard, simply because you didn’t know you’d like it. In my first day I saw rooms dedicated to obscure electro, ’60s folk and Japanese hip-hop, run by people all over the world. I’ve already made friends, exchanged musical tips and sat for hours just listening to what people wanted to play to me. Despite the points system, there’s no feeling of competition, nor any animosity to those who play the wrong sort of song for the room, just a careful nudging into the right areas – it’s an inherently friendly community that’s being created, bred on talking in small groups, rather than to a huge, faceless crowd. This is simply the best experience of music online I’ve ever had and, through a combination of appealing to my own musical arrogance and the genuine interest in what others have to say and play, one that has me truly enjoy listening to music again.

So why the ‘Plea’ of the title? Two days ago, Turntable closed its imaginary doors to non-US users due to ‘licensing issues’. Music on the site is played through an online streaming service that has had almost every track I’ve searched for and, if it doesn’t you’re free to upload your own mp3s to play. As far as I’ve been led to believe, the licensing issue here is that Turntable purports to be a non-interactive radio service, which is clearly shaky ground – these might not be downloadable tracks, but the playing of them is an interactive activity. Now, while there are ways to get around the restrictions (*cough cough*) this massive hassle is more than likely to make the vast majority of potential non-US users either stop, or never start, using the service, and this immediately negates the whole fun of it. If Turntable is not internationally available, the whole process of “sharing” music with others becomes streamlined to a huge degree – since the block came into effect, most of the more interesting prospects that were open to me have disappeared, and the number of users online at any one time has plummeted. This is clearly counter-intuitive.

Now I’m not blaming the Turntable creators for this block – the incredibly quick influx of 140,000 users in a month will clearly have alerted some major musical players and the block more than likely stems from that. What my plea concerns is the website owners’ reaction to this problem. Their promise that they will work to get international access back ‘asap’ is reminiscent of a similar announcement from Pandora in 2007, which still cannot allow non-US access due to similar problems, and I’m afraid that the issue will be ignored because of the costs involved in fighting any legal attacks. While this is understandable, I’d love a fight to take place. Turntable’s future lies in an international, all-comers-accepted approach that could (and yes, this sounds OTT) revolutionise how many listen to music and, I imagine, reap exactly the kind of financial rewards needed to cover the costs of paying for such a licensing case.

Clearly I can’t know the full implications of such an approach, nor can I know just how the site’s owners truly feel about these restrictions, but from this humble user’s point of view, Turntable is currently only a fraction (1/192 to be possibly exact) of the site it could be, and that can only be a bad thing.

Steve Earle – Lungs (YSI)
Breakbot – Baby I’m Yours (Feat. Irfane) (YSI)
Tera Melos – Last Smile For Jaron (YSI)

All of these tracks were played to me on Turntable.

This post will offer you nothing new if you’ve already read the previous one. It’s something of an experiment, as the Hype Machine doesn’t appear to be recognising when I’ve posted Soundcloud tracks and, given that it’s my main source of traffic this seems like a bad thing, especially when I really want people to hear artists like James Mathé (on a side note, if you come here specifically because you want to, I love you). Below are all three tracks from his new EP, Memory Laps. Below those, in the last post, I extol the virtues of both EP and artist. To those who have already seen/heard this, I apologise for nothing. To those who will (hopefully) see/hear this because of Hype Machine, I am vindicated!

James Mathé – re:stacks

James Mathé – Turbine

James Mathé – What Do We Know Love?

After seeing him live and hearing various bits and pieces since then, I’ve been under the impression that James Mathé’s move away from his Barbarossa moniker was characterised by his rejection of guitars in favour of casiotone and drum machine beats. With reference to his new Memory Laps EP, I’ve been wrong all along, as these three new tracks see him embrace the ol’ six-string once more.

Mathé opens with a reworking of Bon Iver’s plaintive album closer ‘re:stacks’ that moves it away cabin-bound strumming and closer to shimmering bedroom pop, with gentle, floating synths backing up sometimes spindly, sometimes rich and reverb-laden guitar work. It’s a pleasant start but, to Mathé’s credit (or Justin Vernon’s denigration, I’m not sure), it’s a solid beginning to the EP, rather than the early show-stealer. ‘Turbine’ is easily the most surprising track here, and probably my favourite because of that. Setting itself up as a White Stripes stomper, Mathé’s leisurely vocals somehow warp this tried-and-tested garage format into something more funky and consistently engaging, with loud-quiet progressions the name of the game. Closing proceedings with ‘What Do We Know Love?’, Mathé returns to a more recognisably, but still distinct, set of musical conditions. A simple vocals ‘n’ guitar affair is aided immensely by some gentle background distortion and a wonderful sharpness to the guitar production that turns what could have seemed a perfectly good, if unremarkable track into something far more intimate and beautiful.

If I’m honest, I would have liked a little more than the three tracks I’ve been given here but that’s only because my interest has been well and truly piqued. After comparison to the last EP, my expectations of what James Mathé can offer in a full length has been completely rewritten with Memory Laps. From keyboard to fretboard, he seems to offer a Mathé-shaped interpretation to every genre he touches (see: ‘Pallyacho’ for minimal electro, ‘The Load’ for soul, and the afore-mentioned ‘Turbine’ and ‘What Do We Know Love’ for garage rock and folk-pop respectively) so God knows what he’ll do with eleven or twelve tracks worth of material. I can’t wait to find out.

That’s the entirety of the EP up there but, frankly, it’s currently £4 at Rough Trade, so why not just buy it? There’s only 200, so you’ll be in a little club. With me.

The Antlers’ Hospice was, like, totally awesome. It seems both useless and passé to go over just how wonderful the “concept” of the album was, not only because people have put it better than I could hope to elsewhere, as well as the fact that I refer to it more than once in the review of their new album, Burst Apart, that you’re (I say presumputuously) about to read. But, basically what you need to remember is that The Antlers had a lot of now-emotionally devastated fans’ expectations to live up to with their newest offerings (Spoiler: It’s well good, and I get a bit excited about that fact).

The Antlers’ last release, 2009’s Hospice, was many things – a story of love and loss, a tragedy, an allegory, a (say it softly) concept album – and could be described in many ways – emotional, heartwrenching, shattering, beautiful. To put it simply, Hospice was incredible, a masterpiece of sensitive, intuitive songcraft that very few have managed to emulate in the years preceding or following it. With that in mind then, it is very hard to listen to Burst Apart, The Antlers’ fourth album, without comparing it to its predecessor – we all want to know if the new album will be as good as the last – but to do so is to do it a disservice. This might still be The Antlers, but don’t go searching for the same meanings or hallmarks, because they’re not what you should be looking for now.

Opener  ‘I Don’t Want Love’ makes this clear from the outset; gone are the breathtaking highs and lows, the experiments in expressive electronic noise, and in come simple guitar strums, measured drumbeats and a more stable set of vocals than we may have come to expect from bandleader Peter Silberman’s keening falsetto. This appears to be nothing more than gentle (albeit expertly crafted) indie rock. And, whilst the tone fluctuates throughout, the message is clear from the very beginning: don’t expect more than what we want to give to you. With Burst Apart, the all-encompassing despair has lifted, and along with it the level of sonic experimentation has dropped, allowing a more melodic, straightforward band to emerge.

‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’s rollicking chorus is The Antlers at their most coherent, with a standard quiet-loud verse-chorus interplay leading to an even louder outro – a rock standard. In ‘Rolled Together’, the band tackles a more ambient approach, with a steady twinkle of synth carrying slumberous guitar and chanting background vocals building to an almost soundtrack-esque quality. ‘Parentheses’, with its jittering mix of clattering beats, siren-like guitars and Silberman’s indistinct wails channels Radiohead circa 2000-2001, with all the paranoia and power that invokes. Yet, despite these seeming travels into other, alien soundscapes, the band always pull it back to a familiar place, a core of definitively ‘Antlers-like’ sounds, usually rooted in Silberman’s unmistakeable tones. This is Burst Apart’s greatest trick – whilst never indulging in the successes of the past, the listener is never disappointed at the change.

Final track, ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ seems the ultimate outcome of this attempt at dualistic songwriting. The track adopts the comforting, repetitive structure of soul music, but augments it with distorted stabs of guitar, as Silberman intones, ‘Prove to me, that I’m not gonna die alone’. This alone could quite easily be an outtake from Hospice, and yet as the song progresses, this becomes less and less the case. As the gentle swell of organ-warble synth increases, Silberman replies to his own question: ‘You said “I can’t prove to you, you’re not gonna die alone, but trust me to take you home”’. This is as good an example of a musical progression as you’re ever likely to see, an acknowledgment of what came before and a realisation of what comes next. Burst Apart should not be compared to Hospice in as much as it is a product of it; a wilful attempt (and success) at diversifying without losing track. This album can be described in many of the same ways as Hospice – this is emotional music, this is heartwrenching music, this is beautiful music – but it adds new terms that could never have been employed before – uplifting or multi-talented for example – and in adding these new terms you just start to forget the comparison with Hospice. Burst Apart is an incredible album for many reasons, and only one of those is that it makes you forget just how brilliant the last album was. Paradoxically enough, that should be enough reason for every one of you to listen to it immediately.

The Antlers – Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out (YSI)

This was originally written for For Folk’s Sake, my favourite website with a quilt as its background.