Joanna Newsom

Mix Tape #23 (Modern Troubadours)

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Creatively, my thoughts have been heavily focussed on song in the last couple of months, so i’ve made that the focus of the new 5:4 Mix Tape. Songs as we think of them today more or less conform to a generic, prefabricated mould that’s often at odds with their lyric content. Not all artists are prepared to compromise so readily, though, and the sixteen songs on this Mix Tape represent a rather more rare breed of song. i think of these artists as modern troubadours, for whom the the content of their song is such that it demands a break from convention, and the opportunity for a more experimental type of expression.

These songs, which range in duration between 7 and 17 minutes, encompass a wide variety of approaches to the art of song. Some, such as those by Deerhoof and maudlin of the Well, take experimental and progressive rock as their starting point, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Transvision Vamp opt for episodic epics, betraying the legacy of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Janelle Monáe‘s approach is to create what amounts to a 9-minute musical, while Kevin Barnes’ of Montreal beg, borrow and steal from a plethora of pop, dance and rock idioms to convey his typically bizarre narrative. By contrast, Dead Can Dance tell their tale via a hypnotic, circling music that pushes the words firmly into the foreground; despite the complexity of their electronic backdrop, Ulver achieve the same result by speaking their lyrics. Julia Holter makes her words count, summarising them in the first three minutes and allowing them to radiate for another ten; Fovea Hex do something similar in their rethinking of folk music. Others have more to say and take longer to do it; Jenny Hval puts herself on a kind of musical knife-edge, fragile before a pale, sparse backdrop, while David Sylvian surrounds himself with a network of improvised lines and motes that would be impenetrable if they weren’t so scattered. Tori Amos turns to her trusty Bösendorfer in what is still her longest song to date, whereas Joanna Newsom (in her longest song) has her complex harp epicentre heavily enriched by lush orchestrations provided by Van Dyke Parks. Beginning and ending the mix are songs by perhaps the great troubadour of our age, Scott Walker, a pair of songs from his last two albums that explore a depth of lyrical expression that’s pretty much unique in the history of song. Read more

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Mix Tape #13 : Vox Femina

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Today finds me feeling not at all well, so i’ve kept myself occupied making a new mix tape, with a theme i’ve wanted to explore for a while: female vocalists. At a guess, i’d say i listen to more female singers than male, and the content of this mix reflects a combination of artists with whom i’ve become familiar only recently, and others i’ve loved for many years.

The wonderfully-named Scout Niblett (who sounds as though she ought to stand four feet tall) takes a refreshingly sparse approach to her brand of rock; she also plays both drums and guitar, and her songs have a basic, elemental quality to them; that’s certainly the case in “Hot to Death”, a song that moves abruptly from soft fragility to raging fury. Peaches needs no introduction; her hypersexual songs vary wildly in their ratio of credibility to crassness, but 2003’s Fatherfucker is, i think, her best achievement, with the claustrophobic (and, for once, sex-absent) “Operate” its standout track. Better known under her initials AGF, Antye Greie-Fuchs brings a demonstrably poetic sensibility to her electronic experiments; her most recent release, Dance Floor Drachen, available free (link below), contains some of her most rhythmically engaging work to date; “TURN IMPOTENT” is enhanced further with stomach-wobbling bass pulses. “Hyperballad” remains one of Björk’s best songs, as well as one of her most remixed; this version is courageously simple, eschewing almost any kind of rhythmic movement, allowing the powerful words to attain a hypnotic vividness. No less hypnotic is Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, which must rank as one of the most imaginative song-sequences ever made. “We Sleep You Bloom” palpably betrays the handiwork of Hafler Trio’s Andrew M. McKenzie underscoring Clodagh Simonds vocals; it’s simply exquisite at every moment. Occupying slightly darker but equally dreamy territory is Julee Cruise, the singer particularly beloved of David Lynch; her distinctive voice (with barely a trace of vibrato) is as integral to Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga as Badalamenti’s dark string writing. Her first album, Floating into the Night, dates from the same time as Twin Peaks, and could well be thought of as an offshoot from the series; “The Swan” is the album’s most poignant moment, the melancholic harmonies left without resolution. Deeper melancholy still from Daisy Chapman, whose new album, The Green-Eyed, is launched at the end of this week (more about this soon). “Words in Dirt” is one of her most subtly layered songs, the simple piano writing enveloped in floating additional voices, with Daisy’s own powerful vocals at the core. Read more

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Mix Tape #11 : Joy

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A very belated Happy Easter to you all! Following a hectic Easter weekend, and a few days spent in Cambridge, here’s a new mix tape for Eastertide, the theme being joy.

To start, a wonderful jazz-folk fusion number from Yellowjackets; Greenhouse is an album i’ve loved for years, and “Freda” is one of its most exciting tracks. It’s followed by the last movement from one of Michael Tippett‘s earliest mature compositions; strident and full of momentum, it briefly allows a moment or two of wistful reflection before culminating in an elated dance. Freezepop‘s latest album remains their one consistent release, and “Ninja of Love” is one of its most infectious songs. Continuing the pace like a runaway train is the opening track from Squarepusher‘s brilliant 2006 album Hello Everything, “Hello Meow”, filled with retro synths and riffs. Each album by Deerhoof has its share of instrumentals, and “Rainbow Silhouette Of The Milky Rain” bludgeons its experimental way along in rip-roaring fashion. The mix now enters a gentler mode, beginning with Imogen Heap‘s ravishing track “Just For Now”, all glorious (if realistic) optimism. And then Björk, who has surely composed some of the most unreservedly happy songs ever; “All Is Full Of Love” is here given extra treatment in the form of beats and strings, becoming if anything, more ecstatic than the original version. The “Communion” from Tournemire‘s Easter music shows him at his mystical best, placing the plainsong themes into complex, shimmering chords that hover and float in rapture. Julee Cruise, bless her, only knows extremes: her music is either abjectly mournful (“The Dying Swan”) or caught up in ecstasy, as she is here, in one of her most well-known songs. Read more

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Mix Tape #4 : Miniatures

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This new Mix Tape began life as one of my playlists on iTunes, which simply specified that it should only include tracks under two minutes in duration. Surprisingly, 815 tracks from my music library fulfil this criteria, amounting to over 15 hours of music. Not surprisingly, this playlist makes for an eclectic and surreal listen, while at the same time providing a kind of ‘distillation’ of the music that i love. Here then, is a selection from that playlist, with a slight emphasis on music i’ve listened to more recently; almost 70 minutes of music stitched together with the aid of a variety of delightful advertisement spots by the wonderful and very innovative Raymond Scott. What this lot tells you about my music collection is anyone’s guess…

Here’s the complete tracklisting: Read more

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2007: memories and echoes; 2008: first sounds

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There were many, many musical highlights in 2007, but a lot of disappointments too, which i guess is unavoidable, considering the amount of music i listen to throughout the year. Probably the worst of the lowlights of the year was Avril Lavigne‘s The Best Damn Thing, an unfortunate title considering it was one of the most appalling things i’ve heard in a long time; it seems she’s not averse actually to steal musical ideas from other people these days (Peaches in particular). As for the highlights, the brightest and best were:

Andrew LilesVortex Vault series and New York Doll
irr. app. (ext.): Ozeanische Gefühle, Perekluchenie and Cosmic Superimposition
Joanna Newsom‘s Ys
Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy
The Hafler Trio‘s Hljóðmynd, How To Slice A Loaf Of Bread, The Explanation, The Discussion, An Answer and Whistling About Chickens
Belle and Sebastian‘s The Life Pursuit
Björk‘s Volta
Nine Inch NailsYear Zero
Orphan Fairytale‘s Whose Words Are My Words (with Mudboy) and Speaking Spooky
CocoRosie‘s Noah’s Ark and La maison de mon rêve
IAMX‘s The Alternative, and finally
Pan Sonic‘s Katodivaihe Read more

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