Now For The Good Bit

Sunday, March 02, 2008

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.


Sunday, March 02, 2008


Blogger Nathan - 1:22 pm

I've been put off getting that QOTSA record since their last one was rendered virtually unlistenable due to (what I think is) over-compression. Think I'll pick it up now, your recommendations are usually spot-on.

Blogger stephen - 4:14 pm

Great lists, Nick; I agree with most everything I've heard. A big addition to the '90s list: the Red House Painters catalog, particularly the first 4 albums that were released on 4AD in the mid '90s. All fantastic sounding, start to finish.


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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