Let’s start with five new and newer records.
The Dø – A Mouthful
Portishead – 3
Why? – Alopecia
Foals – Antidotes
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
The Dø are rocking my world in many unusual ways; I shan’t say too much about specifics because I’m covering them for DiS, but they’re a Franco-Finnish odd-pop duo, who are possibly the most eclectic and fun band I’ve come across in an age.
The Portishead I acquired yesterday, and have been really impressed with off a couple of listens. It’s really not what I expected; very groovy, droney, subdued, lacking the dramatics one might expect of the trio. It’s still very cinematic however, but in a different way – more Vangelis than Cotillard, if that makes sense? Backgrounded, sci-fi, not an actor but a composer. You can see the influence of Beth’s solo album. Bits of it sound like they’re about to break into Kyuss-esque guitar sludge; that they don’t is testament to the unerring control and taste of the record. It’s utterly insane to think that it’s been a decade since the last Portishead album; it’s been five since Beth’s solo album! How?
Why? is someone that a lot of friends of mine have liked for a while; I never really got into cLOUDDEAD despite buying their eponymous album some years ago. I never really got into Elephant Eyelash a couple of years ago either. So I am resolved to try harder with this. I think the voice is a bit of a barrier, especially given that the lyrics are meant to be integral; I’ve not been a lyrics man for a long, long time.
Foals are both annoying and intriguing. My initial reaction is that they’re Battles for preschool kids; I know a lot of people are really hating on them, though. The voice is difficult to get to grips with, but is less offensive than the fringe on the singer. Songs are more direct, more linear, less jazz than Battles. There’s some controversy over them remixing their album from the mixes that producer Dave Sitek did originally; not having heard the Sitek mixes, I can’t comment, but the sound is pretty good to me. (Not exceptional, but interesting.) Good use of horns. Franz Ferdinand have been mentioned, but I’m not really feeling that so much.
The Elbow album I already reviewed for DiS, and the full, hagiographic piece can be found in a link to the right. I’m not actually listening to it much at all now, having listened to it intently while writing about it, because I’m saving it. I want the CD. I want to go back to it and enjoy it in a few weeks time, and have it take me anew.
Now let’s try five older records that I’ve been playing.
e.s.t. – Tuesday Wonderland
Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends
Gravenhurst – The Western Lands
DFA – Compilation #1
Mouse On Mars – Autoditacker
I reviewed the e.s.t. for Stylus back in the day when it came out, and dug it out the other day for the first time in probably a year, only to be very pleasantly surprised at how tuneful and enjoyable it was. This shouldn’t have been a surprise at all – I gave it a glowing review when it came out. There’s a certain trepidation preventing me getting thoroughly into jazz, neatly encapsulated in the title of this ILM thread. The worry being that it means I’m old. But if it comes to a choice between the latest alumni of the Brit School and… Empirical, or e.s.t., or The Blessing… then I’m with the fogeys.
Both Les Savy Fav and Gravenhurst released records last year that I missed; Amazon has been pimping the Les Savy Fav one at me for an age, but it took seeing it for £6 in HMV to make me buy it. Initial contact was unspectacular, but, like all good records, there’s more and more to go back to each time you hear it anew. I almost feel like it’s a concept record, but I’m not sure it is. There’s a bit of Caribou, a bit of Fugazi, a bit of Dismemberment Plan, and a bit of something else I can’t quite place, in there. The more restrained stuff is winning me over; but all if seems more restrained the more I play it.
The Gravenhurst I was alerted to by a vague allusion in relation to the last Radiohead, which I’ve found myself enjoying thoroughly, much to my… shame? Folky shoegaze. On Warp! That particular label has come a long way since it’s reputation as a “weird techno only zone” in the early 90s. I’m glad of this – a listen to Rest Proof Clockwork yesterday revealed way more guitars than I ever remembered.
The DFA compilation I went back to last night to see if it still worked; it does. Likewise Mouse On Mars. That does too. Bob was a bit freaked out by me dancing to it.
Sunday morning. Off to Sainsburys now.
Part Two: Pointedly uncompressed records and records that use compression in an effective rather than destructive way, 2000 onwards
These aren’t necessarily records that I adore, although I do think most of them are fantastic. They are all, however, records that I can take great pleasure in listening to just on a sensationalist, physical level. Of course, nicely rendered engineering and mastering isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of good music; a fantastic arrangement and terrific song are still urgent and key.
Kate Bush – Aerial
Late 2005 this came out, didn’t it? That is, just before I started looking into the whole compression thing. Next to other stuff I was digging back then (Bloc Party, Shortwave Set, Vitalic, even Acoustic Ladyland) this was insanely quiet, like something from a bygone era. Except that it was also incredibly modern and futuristic and alien and weird sounding; a far more radical record in terms of the context of what it was surrounded by than, say, Bloc Party was. “Norturn” and the title track, combining for a nearly fifteen-minute climax; absolutely wondrous. Endless detail to discover, relish, and luxuriate in every time you go back to it.
Elbow – Leaders Of the Free World
Likewise this was a 2005 release that made me think; why did it sound so much richer than Out Of Nothing? The more forthright tracks still rocked, and rocked hard, but the delicate moments, which are both plentiful and beautiful, are truly delicate, truly intimate. But really the swinger, I think, was the between-song chatter and ambience, which sucked you into the studio with the band. Remarkable.
65daysofstatic – The Destruction Of Small Ideas
Whereas this, two years younger than the Elbow record, is kind of the end of the process rather than the beginning. Or, at least, a sign that this was a process after all, because it meant people were listening. Instantly and infinitely better than previous records by 65daysofstatic, both compositionally and sonically; the sonics suck you into the compositions better, make you more aware of the contours and craft. And, you know, it’s postrock; it’s all about the dynamics, surely?
LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver
I have no idea if James Murphy read Imperfect Sound Forever - I know Jonathan Galkin was a Stylus reader so it’s possible - but he certainly stepped back from the slightly thicker sound of the eponymous LCD debut. Which is why this works so well and won over so much acclaim, I feel; by reinjecting physical dynamics, space and detail it makes the compositional dynamics, and therefore the emotional and physical impact, stand out so much more. “All My Friends” starts as nothing and grows to everything; “New York I Love You” is genuinely personal and genuinely climaxes. And stuff like the title track is just incredibly sensually pleasant - redolent of when I first got into ‘techno’ or ‘dance music’ or ‘electronica’, when it was (almost) all about the sheer psychedelic joy of the details, the sounds, the space.
Scott Walker – The Drift
This is, clearly, the daddy; it wouldn’t be half as scary, weird, and avant-garde if it sounded like Keane. Actually it probably would but still.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Just play “Pot Kettle Black” after “Misunderstood” from Being There. “Misunderstood” is a fucking great song, but, even though it’s from 1997, it’s brash, loud and in your face. Wilco’s following two records have both been beautiful sonically too, but I think this one just pips; the radio noise is the winner, perhaps. And, of course, it’s all down to JIM O’ROURKE; I could pepper this list with records he’s produced or mixed, be they by Sonic Youth or Joanna Newsome or Loose Fur or O’Rourke on his own. He’s a sonic genius.
Electrelane – Axes
As is Steve Albini; this is frighteningly glorious sonically. All of Electrelane’s records are good for that, but this is arguably the best. As with several others, I’ve written plenty about Electrelane already (or feel like I have) so shan’t say much more here.
Lambchop – Nixon
This is just splendid and open and beautiful and rich; every detail, from huge-scale orchestras to handclaps, is rendered perfectly. Wonderful. (I’ve lent my copy out, and must get it back!)
Patrick Wolf – Wind In The Wires
Oh Patrick. He had The Magic Position mastered three times, you know, just to get it right. It is a little bit overblown, to accentuate its POPness, but it’s OK with that; the richness of the string tones on “Overture”, the way the brass comes in on “Get Lost”, the coda of “Bluebells”. But where The Magic Position is good, Wind In The Wires is outstanding; stark, open, personal. Get the percussion in “The Libertine”, the energy in “Tristan”, the sheer sense of musicality through the mid-section of the album. Beautiful.
Caribou – Andorra
Dan Snaith’s always been good on the textural front, but this is his best, I feel; the dynamic shifts in “Desiree” and the subtlety in the arrangements to “Eli” and “Sandy” suggest that he was pushing to make this even more intricate and beautiful than usual, as if he was making a statement. The drum tones are amazing; the layering more so. It’s like Andorra has sonic mezzanines that intersect and allow differing views across the whole song. It’s absolutely breathtaking on headphones.
Six.By Seven – If Symptoms Persist Kill Yr Dr
Another record I suspect is a direct result of ISF; pump “Liberation” on headphones and get absolutely consumed. They’ve not sounded this good since “Get A Real Tattoo”.
Guillemots – Through The Windowpane
I interviewed Fyfe at about the same time ISF was first published, and we inadvertently got into a discussion about how mastering can ruin your record. It can. From the moment I first heard the debut EP in mid-2005 I knew there was something ‘right’ about how this band sounded, and it was born out on the album; just get the fucking mentalist dynamics of “Sao Paulo” - there is no way on earth that this song would sustain interest for 12 minutes if it was squashed, if the solo piano bits didn’t lull you in so the mad orchestral samba explosions could blow you away. High hopes for the new record.
PJ Harvey – White Chalk
Uh Huh Her was a step back into rawness after the slick urban rock of Stories..., and then this was… a time machine to a cobwebbed, bare floor-boarded house, frayed lace and desiccated satin. It’s cold, intimate, foreboding, and utterly unlike anything else she’s ever done.
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Joe from 65daysofstatic asked if I’d heard this; I said I’d not bothered as I’d not liked the debut. He said he thought they’d laid off the compression and that it sounded great; you know what? They have and it does. I’m still not the biggest fan of mr Butler’s histrionics, but this is at least pleasurable on a sensual level, even if I’m not emotionally or aesthetically that into it.
Boredoms – Sea Drum / House Of Sun
This simply wouldn’t be exciting if it was squashed up.
House Of Blondes – House Of Blondes
Another direct result of ISF; interestingly this is mastered by the same people who did Vampire Weekend’s debut album, and there’s a similarity to the sound a little, in that both privilege space and accuracy. This is probably lovelier, though, although less fun. They know the worth of a good Fred Perry, too.
Anthony & The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
A certain keyboardist once said to me, quite rightly, “imagine how amazing [a rather mashed ballad by his band] would have sounded if we’d done it like Anthony & The Johnsons”. He’s right. Said ballad is a big slap in the face, inflated beyond need. If it had sounded like this - sparse, intimate, elegiac, otherworldly - it would have been an entirely different and more wonderful experience.
Augie March – Moo You Bloody Choir
I think, in their native Australia, that they received an award for the mastering on this; so they should because its remarkable; at times they sound like a dirty, boozey bar band and at times they sound like the most sophisticated, musical, graceful guys in the world. Scale and texture, brilliantly combined. You could say the same for Strange Bird too, and the debut.
Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds
Owen’s just a saint, really. This is pretty breathtaking in terms of space and timbre.
Primal Scream – XTRMNTR
Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin
Battles – Mirrored
I’ll deal with this little trio all at once; compared to 65daysofstatic or Guillemots, these are loud as fuck. But that’s kind of OK, because they’re all also totally radical, totally awesome, and totally brilliant. XTRMNTR, for instance, uses digital limiting and compression as an artistic statement - just listen to “Accelerator” and “MBV Arkestra”. Skinny Grin takes jazz and pushes it into the realm of experimentalism and genrelessness by making it sound like not-jazz. Mirrored maintains the integrity of all its component parts and the weirdness of the aesthetic landscape it inhabits, but makes it more impactful by heightening everything.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
They’re still polished over with a definite commercial sheen (which, no doubt, the serious fanboys would deny vehemently) but this is way better than the other post Kid A stuff; Amnesia in particular is unpleasant at points. But I’ve said all this before; let’s just say that, as enormous, modern rock records go, In Rainbows does it a damn site better than X & Y. I don’t, for the record, like how OK Computer sounds particularly; not qualitatively so much as aesthetically. It’s cold, impersonal, mechanical. I know this is deliberate; I just don’t like it on a physical level. The final third in particular I find dull and hard to remember.
Ray Lamontagne – Till The Sun Turns Black
Not to everyone’s taste - Em hates him and doesn’t get at all why I like him - but I think everyone would have to recognise that Ethan Johns’ production is beautiful. Just get how funky “Three More Days” is. Hoary old retro it may be, but it’s done with serious love.
Lift To Experience – The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads
For the absolutely mental guitar textures, and the scope. It’s as big as a desert.
The Clientele – The Violet Hour
Hazy genius, really. None of their records sound even remotely bad, but this is just so beautiful and sepia.
!!! – Myth Takes
Such a fantastically fat, groovy, odd sound to this record; totally unrealistic and synthetic, but totally, utterly layered and psychedelic and terrific too.
Roots Manuva – Awfully Deep
I dug this out again the other week after neglecting it for probably a year or more; in 2005 I voted it as my album of the year at Stylus. You know what? It’s still great, and a big part of its greatness is the sound, the depth of the bass, the accuracy of the electronics. Awesome record, and that’s before you get into his words and the emotions conveyed. Just get the precision in the electronic wibbles in “Toothbrush”. Terrific.
Ash – Twilight Of The Innocents
There’s so much integrity to this compared to the slick, obese, LA rock sound of Meltdown; it’s still punchy enough to rock, but it’s done better, done sympathetically, done well. The closing track simply wouldn’t work if it was bloated; get those enormous drum hits towards the end. And, most importantly, it allows the melodies chance to shine once you get to know them better.
Grizzly Bear – Yellow House
This is compressed, in terms of the instruments, in order to give it that cold, crispy sound that it has; but it’s also incredibly rich and detailed (how many times have I used the phrase “rich and detailed” in the last two years?!) and inviting. Inviting in the sense that it asks you to really inhabit it, to imagine yourself in the titular abode in the middle of nowhere, windows battened down and curtains drawn against the elements.
Louis Sclavis – L’Imparfait des Langues
Pretty much any jazz on the ECM label; just get the drum tones on “Dialogue With A Dream”; they’re fantastic, so perfect and realistic as to become psychedelic. Acoustic Ladyland and the second Polar Bear album sound massive and POP by comparison.
Bark Psychosis - ///Codename:Dustsucker
Graham’s just a champ. A million edits; totally unnatural sound, but totally glorious. See also: “North Hanging Rock” by British Sea Power, which Graham produced.
Queens Of The Stone Age – Era Vulgaris
This is an odd one; it’s squashed and flat and coarse but it’s done in such a phenomenally powerful, mechanistic way that it works; the deadened thump of the kick drum, the infinite fuzz und drang of the guitars. Things don’t have to be delicate to be detailed and exciting.
Califone – Roomsound
I’ve mentioned this loads so don’t need to write much this time around; it sounds amazing.
Now for another list, but with no explanations, because I can’t be arsed...
Part Three: Some (generally) early-to-mid-90s records that sound amazing if you turn them up today.
PJ Harvey – Dry
The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps
Orbital – (Brown)
Massive Attack – Blue Lines
Long Fin Killie – Houdini
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock
Morphine – Cure For Pain
Bark Psychosis – Hex
Mouse On Mars – Autoditacker
Dodgy – Homegrown
Blur – Parklife
Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Spiritualized Electric Mainline – Pure Phase
Disco Inferno – Technicolour
Sabres Of Paradise – Haunted Dancehall
The Beta Band – The Three EPs
Verve – A Storm In Heaven
MAKE-UP – In Mass Mind
This list really could go on forever, so I’ll stop now. Except to mention this:
And One That Doesn’t
Neutral Milk Hotel – In An Airplane Over The Sea
This horrific record can fuck off.
Firstly, our septuagenarian neighbour is a music teacher, as well as a bad influence, who coerces us into drinking far too much champagne on Sunday afternoons. She’s a violinist by trade, but also plays piano. She still regularly performs concerts, and teaches freelance at the local school, which is very posh, and also private lessons to the kinds of young children whose parents pay for young children to have music lessons. She’s a New Zealander who’s lived here for over 50 years. She’s said some disparaging things about what Peter Jackson’s done re; tourism in NZ over recent years. She smokes, drinks, and swears, and is pretty awesome.
This Sunday just gone I was explaining the compression article to her over a bottle or two. As you might expect of a music teacher of a certain age, she’s into classical. She has little truck with jazz and less with pop. And you know what? She didn’t understand the compression thing. Not because she couldn’t technically grasp the concept; far from it. Her reaction was something along the lines of this (not verbatim; a little too much was consumed that afternoon):
“No fortissimo? No pianissimo? Why?! Why the bloody hell would you flatten music? It’s all about the fortissimo! That’s why recorded music is never as good as seeing something in a concert hall; it’s never as exciting!”
I was, needless to say, absolutely fucking delighted with this reaction. She thinks I’m a crusader now. Which I kind of am.
Secondly, someone on ILM asked if I’d ever made a list of great sounding records. I pointed them towards the two top tens I did for Stylus on the subject, which are OK, but not quite what was asked for.
Closer are the two lists I put together on Amazon. Bu they’re still not exactly what I was asked for. Neither is this, but it’s closer, and, well, I’ve not quite written enough about this yet.
Maybe a third thing before I get to the actual list…
Thirdly, briefly, putting the stereo in a bigger room has made some things a damn site more sonically palatable than they were before. Presumably something about “standing waves”, whatever they are. Still not ideal, but there you go.
Anyway, some records. Two lots; the first lot, records a bit damaged by being, in my opinion, over-compressed one way or another. The second lot are records that I think aren’t over-compressed, or, at the least, that I think use compression effectively rather than destructively.
As ever; I’m NOT a sound engineer, just a fussy cockfarmer with lots of headphones. I’m not talking about data compression, and I’m not talking about compression on individual instruments; just dynamic range compression, the stuff that makes records consistent in volume and can often blur the sharpness of instruments
Part One: Records damaged by inappropriate or unnecessary use of compression, 2000 onwards
These are not necessarily records that I dislike; in fact in many cases I very much do like them, maybe even love them. They’re just records that I can’t bring myself to listen to very often because they give me a headache if I pay attention.
Embrace – Out Of Nothing
A really good example of the potentially negative affects of dynamic range compression (let’s call it DRC from now on) is what’s happened to the title track here. On an early, unmastered version of this song that I heard as an MP3, the levels were left more natural; as a result, when the huge, searing feedback climax kicked-in it was a damn site more shocking and exhilarating than it is on the version you can buy on CD. It’s still a phenomenal song, but it could be better.
Radiohead – Kid A
I had a bit of a Radiohead phase over the last few weeks, mainly because I’ve actually really enjoyed In Rainbows, and so I stuck all their albums on my work computer and made a best-of playlist. I stuck the Amnesiac version of “Morning Bell” on there, cos I remembered the opening vocal melody being lovely. It is. But it’s mastered horribly; really loud and imprecise. The prior album is much the same; I’ve said before that my problem with Kid A is that it’s an electronic / avant-garde record mastered like a mainstream rock record, and I stand by that; there’s none of the detail and precision and real accuracy that you get in the things they’re aping.
PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Play this after Rid Of Me or Dry. Sure, you have to turn those up, but they FUCKING ROCK when you do. This, on the other hand, turns very quickly to engine noise. And that’s not nice to listen to, no matter how great the songs.
Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
I gave this a kicking at Stylus; almost completely unlistenable. And the songs don’t justify trying, either.
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
This choice might shock some of you, because I fucking love this record; but it’s squashed. It works, pretty much, and I still listen to it a lot, but I can’t help think that Howie Weinberg (who mastered the PJ Harvey album mentioned above, too) just squeezed a little too much clarity and distinction out of the bass guitar and kick drum as he pushed for that extra -1dB. Gimme Fiction suffers from this too, and wasn’t Weinberg job, so I can only assume it was the band’s decision. Play Kill The Moonlight and realise this could be done better. Then play A Series Of Sneaks and realise that Kill The Moonlight could be done better too.
Bob the kitten has been sitting on a beanbag by the speaker. iTunes is playing on random as I type. The realistic, uncompressed sound of Patrick Wolf’s violin on “Eulogy” has just freaked him the fuck out, and he’s beaten a course to the windowsill.
Back to business.
The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
This one you should know about. I can’t even remember how any of the songs go, is how flat and corrupted it is.
Snow Patrol – Final Straw
It was the opening track of this MBV-for-accountants album that was one of the things that shocked me when I played it straight after something older, possibly even something by them (first album engineered by Jamie Watson, and sounds great for it). No wonder they went massive; they ditched the idiosyncratic song titles and pumped-up the levels.
Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass
Just that little bit too much, you know? Still pretty terrific, but a little fuzzy around the edges, and for such a long album it makes it very hard to get through all at once.
The Shortwave Set – The Debt Collection
A little idiosyncratic indie record with an emphasis on odd sonics and thrift-shop instrumentation, and they pump it as loud as possible. Criminal.
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Can’t remember a note, even though I vaguely remember quite enjoying it the first time.
Matthew Dear – Asa Breed
Like Kid A this is just a little too upfront, a little too brash, and not quite involving enough.
Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (2004 Remaster)
This, however, is headache-inducingly shrill and loud. And I love this album. Thank heaven I kept the original.
Phoenix – It’s Never Been Like That
Their aesthetic kind of needs to be clean and polished, but this was meant to be a step away from that. It didn’t work; the first track was so horribly in-your-face that I never went back.
Keane – Under The Iron Sea
Muse – Black Holes & Revelations
These two you just expect to be disgusting; surprise surprise, they don’t disappoint. Get the snare sound on the Muse album. Get the track that’s meant to be really minimal and acoustic and a bit barbershop, but that’s exactly the same volume as the mentalist rockers. It’s stupid. And the Keane album is just fucking disgusting.
TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
See: Yo La Tengo. The debut EP is terrifically done. This is just a bit crunchy and lacking in space.
Working For A Nuclear Free City – Businessmen & Ghosts
The debut proper was really quiet, which meant when you turned it really loud it was properly engulfing and psychedelic. They’ve not destroyed the integrity of instruments and other ingredients on this double-CD compilation, but they have made it more boring, which is a shame.
Ulrich Schnauss – A Strangely Isolated Place
This is meant to be shoegazing. The bass clips. Unforgivable.
65daysofstatic – One Time For All Time
One of the ones that set me off; I could tell it was ‘good’ compositionally, but it didn’t move, it didn’t achieve the intensity I was after.
The nicer bit will follow in a while; maybe hours, maybe days.