Thursday, 26 February 2009

Another brick from the wall

A few months ago I was able to take a first hand look at an Amazon Kindle. Amazon is best known as a books (and now all things) retailer, but the Kindle is (I think) their first attempt to produce a consumer electronics product of their own. It's a personal reader, a portable device which can store hundreds of books or thousands of newspaper articles so that you can access them to read at any time, on the move. Also it has Wi-Fi capability so you can also access blogs from it, or RSS feeds, and you can even download books to it from the Amazon Kindle store - which is adding downloadable books to its catalogue all the time, the ultimate aim being the idea that you can think of any book, anywhere, and begin reading it within seconds through your Kindle. And if the thought of yet more time spent in front of a brightly lit screen is off-putting, the Kindle screen is a strange kind of unlit greyscale, which doesn't seem like it would be tiresome to eyes at all. It's not actually available in the UK yet, only the US (where they've actually just launched a second version), but there are several other kinds of these portable electronic readers available in the UK, all starting at just over £200.

So there's the rub for now: it's a technology with obvious advantages but for now it's far too expensive to take off. But that will all change in the next couple of years I'm sure. I remembered today that I was an early adopter to MP3 players. I think I got my first one around 2000 or 2001, because I'd joined a gym and Napster at about the same time, and because I obviously had more pocket money than I knew what to do with. I bought one of these bad boys, a Rio 600:

I paid £140 for that, which included 64MB of memory. £140! Its USP at the time was that it played WMA files, which it boasted were twice as good as MP3. At the time, 128kbp MP3 files were the norm, described as capable of near-CD quality audio, and files which were easily calculable to about a megabyte-per-minute. So my Rio could store about an hour of music at 128, just one album. But because WMA was twice as good as MP3, its 64kbp files apparently sounded just as good. But you'd better believe I wasn't satisfied with that incredible two album storage capacity!

So I bought a 64MB expansion pack. It was £140 too. Now I could carry FOUR albums in my pocket, on an unskippable hard disk, at the supposedly near-CD audio fidelity of 64kbp WMA. For only £280!


And of course, 64kbp WMAs were unlistenable.

So while only a few early adopters with more money than since are currently indulging the Kindles, I think it's only a matter of time (a few years perhaps) before these things fall in price and become massively popular. The old-school holdouts who talk about "the feel of the page" will hang out with the music fans who talk about "the feel of the vinyl" while everyone else - the 95% casual mainstream - will embrace the chance to access reading material of all types from 'the cloud'. Another huge wall between print media and online publishing will be knocked down, and book and magazine publishers and retailers will begin to feel a similar pinch to what the record industry is feeling today (because Kindle-catalogued books will become just the latest kind of copyrighted content to be shared illegally online).

Which is good for the environment, and the consumer, and further democratization of the written word is good for the amateur blogger; but it's all, again, really bad for the professional creator. I'm a consumer and amateur blogger, so it's fine for me. But the best art, painted, written or sung, is not produced by people with full-time jobs. I hope that a few years from now we're not looking back at the idea of creative endeavours being worthy of full-time money with as much sneering hindsight as we can now look at the Rio 600.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

N.A.S.A. - The Spirit of Apollo

N.A.S.A. - The Spirit Of Apollo (**)
album review for the skinny

Picture the scene: two well-connected but unsung DJs meet at a Hollywood Hills party and find they share an ideological vision of, like, peace and love for all mankind, and no hatred between like, races and countries, y'know? So they search through their bulging contacts list for guest collaborators - David Byrne, Chuck D, Kanye, Tom Waits, M.I.A., George Clinton, half the Wu-Tang Clan, and more, who can't say no to such rock-solid ideals - and boom: The Spirit Of Apollo is born, like a celeb-stuffed Up With People album produced by Diplo's weird stalker friend. It's a classic case of trying too hard: so many cameos are great for publicity, but ticking off their appearances and wondering about their thematic deviations make them more a distraction than anything else; and that theme, loosely held but heartfelt, is just too trite if your perception goes no further than "money is the root of all evil".

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight (***) (Domino)
extended ramble based on this review for the skinny which is much more concise and probably a better use of your time

There was a debate on the Stylus forum recently about who might be 'the Artist of the Decade' - with most of the discussion revolving around Kanye West and Eminem, Radiohead and the White Stripes. I suggested that a candidate for a UK-specific Artist of the Decade would be Girls Aloud - they've had INCREDIBLE chart success (20 successive Top 10 hits (though check this out), only five of which weren't Top 5), they're also the go-to pop act for male critics to reference as proof of their non-rockism, and as proof of their critical bravery (only by choosing a group of really sexy girls can they prove they're not in fact swayed by sex appeal in any way more than is appropriate for a popist). They also represent the takeover of pop by TV talent shows, the takeover of the TV schedules by reality shows, and the takeover of newspapers by WAG obsession. I'm not saying they're the BEST of the decade, but they score well in a combination of other factors that lean towards significance.

But if we narrowed it down to one more border, to Scotland, the answer would undoubtedly be Franz Ferdinand, and not just because with 5.9m sales of their debut album they've sold more than any other Scots band this decade. They also, to me, embody the big critical argument of the decade: that between popists and rockists. That debut album split so many people, and it seemed to me to split people exactly down those lines - if you enjoy pop music as much as rock music, without irony or talk of enjoying "guilty pleasures", then you like Franz Ferdinand. If you think the stated aim of "making music for girls to dance to" is not an appropriate motivation for a songwriter, you don't like Franz Ferdinand.

So when it came out that this third Franz album was being made in collaboration with Girls Aloud's Xenomania team, it seemed to me like the perfect combo. But things didn't work out apparently, with The Guardian quoting Franz as saying, with shoulders shrugging, "We're not really a pop band". No really, you are! It would miss the point somewhat to subject Franz Ferdinand to the same demands of rock bands - to 'progress' or 'emotionalize' - when really what they need to do is keep pumping out their own style of indie dancefloor singles until we all get bored, and that's the natural lifespan of a pop group. What they're great at isn't going to grow old along with their fans. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is more like their second album than their first because it has three great songs and the rest is essentially filler: what was praised on You Could Have It So Much Better as "new direction" - Eleanor Put Your Boots On - is retained here with "Katherine Kiss Me", but the combined effect just suggests that a future acoustic ballad route wouldn't play to their strengths. Their strengths, instead, are the hedonistic shuffles and winking dance-offs. "Twilight Omens" suave futurism borrows from Roxy Music's art-pop knack, and the Moroder-referencing "Live Alone" is another highlight. I think "Lucid Dreams", not first single "Ulysses", will be the biggest single from Tonight, thanks to the grand chorus hook and the closing trance-out (which another record I've been listening to recently, Solange's Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams, does too - third last track "Cosmic Journey" melts into exactly the same kind of extended throbbing close-out).

Tonight is one of those very competent albums that will meet no lovers or haters (apart from this astonishingly sandy vagina). It neither boosts Franz's reputation, or harms it, but it probably assures them a fourth album and another stab at matching that debut. But it'll never happen. Their fourth, like their third, will be blithely assigned as "their best since their debut" by critics who forgot how much fun the prior one was to actually listen to; they will remember only how long it was since they listened to it.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Sparrow & The Workshop: They've Got It All

feature for the skinny

Sparrow & The Workshop only formed a year ago, have never released a record, and their achievements so far have been modest, but you need to know about them. If only they'd ever toured, I'd have the T-shirt and a month off work to follow them. But that's for the future, because I'm in real danger of becoming a super-fan, and you are too.

If it's tempting to demarcate singer and songwriter Jill O'Sullivan as the 'Sparrow', and the rhythm section as 'The Workshop', that's not far from the truth, though they're very much a team. Jill used to perform solo as Dead Sparrow, but she benefits hugely from the creative input provided by drummer, Gregor, who also sings, and of bassist Nick. They found each other through Gumtree after Chicagoan Jill and Welshman Nick moved to Glasgow from London: serendipity saw them move into Gregor's girlfriend's flat, and the rest is history. But it's not, yet, they haven't actually achieved anything. This is it: they've had sessions with Vic Galloway and Edinburgh blogger Song By Toad, they've supported British Sea Power, and they've had discussions with "one or two" labels. Few others have cottoned on - now is a good time.

Your first stop to Sparrow super-fandom is the track which best shows off all their talents: The Devil Song. Beginning with an ominous duet, warning of doom like a ghost story told by a desert campfire, Gregor's galloping rhythm gives the song a cinematic transition, away from the story-tellers and into the story, harmonised over Nick's spaghetti western bassline. "I have to talk to frustrated people at my work, and some of them can be really mean and bitter," says Jill, "so I wanted to know how to be like that, how to get rid of your conscience and your heart so you can just be cruel without feeling bad about it." So that's what she means when the music grinds to a halt and the spotlight lands on her breath-stopping wail: "Take away my heart so I can be free!" It's a stunning climax, especially live where Gregor's drums sound more like a runaway train than a dashing horse.

But Sparrow & The Workshop's talents don't end there. The Last Chance is another tale with Southern Gothic themes, in which Jill's bittersweet twang flies dramatically over Gregor's rollicking, flaring rhythms. Try The Gun too, which wears a lulling acoustic melody like a mask, hiding a bleak tale of domestic abuse; and then there's Swam Like Sharks' impassioned folk lament, or You Got It All's soulful defiance.

"We’re working on an EP right now," offers Jill. "We’ve recorded about ten songs and we're still choosing," and it's apparently slated for "a spring release". But don't wait that long – go watch them live first. See the ones standing at the front, mindlessly clapping out of time, with glazed-over eyes and fixed dumb grins? That'll be us, the super-fans. Join the club.

So what're you waiting for?

First stop, their MySpace

also, their Song, By Toad session here (videos, 10 minutes)

and their fabulous Vic Galloway radio session here (audio, 20 minutes)