Friday, 31 October 2014

The Mercury 2014

I don't know what compels me to keep writing about the Mercury Prize each year, as if it actually matters anymore than any other list of the best albums of the year, whether it NME's, Uncut's or Fearne Cotton's. I suppose it's a triumph of brand management that it seems like it's the prize that ought to matter to "serious music fans", 20-odd years on. It got it right in its first couple of years, with Screamadelica and Suede, such that it felt like something actually worth following, then actually got it right the next year too, in a way, by getting it so wrong in going for Elegant Slumming by M People rather than Parklife. Look, we're a bit rogue, we're not indie as such. Very clever.

This year, I've had more interest than most because I think it's been the best year for British music in a long time. I already got my humphing out of the way when the shortlist was announced as, in my slavish devotion to middle-aged Celtic white men, I am quite convinced that the best British albums of the year by a mile are American Interior by Gruff Rhys and The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society by James Yorkston (with an honourable mention for From Scotland With Love by King Creosote and Futurology by the Manics). None of them got a sniff and the only middle-aged representative was Damon Albarn's first solo album Everyday Robots. Now, if this had been the album for which Albarn finally won the Mercury, that would have been some travesty. It's a nice album, interesting to consider, a bit boring to actually listen to, about the 8th or 9th best album he's ever been involved with.

In the end, I think this may be one of the years where they got it just about right. My complaint with the shortlist was that it was a very urban, hip, Anglocentric thing with little regard for the outposts  (no wonder all the Scottish musicians want independence!)  but then, they've given the prize to a Scottish-Nigerian-Liberian hip-hop trio, so, you know, fair enough.

And it's really good. DEAD by Young Fathers. Really enjoyable and varied and compelling and it's a new sound and really does seem to fulfil the remit of exposing an obscure album which actually does have commercial potential to a wider audience. I've listened to it a couple of times and I'll listen to it plenty more. A tick for Mercury. I wouldn't have liked it if Albarn had won, nor the bookies' initial favourite, Everybody Down by Kate Tempest which is a story-based concept album by a poet-rapper which I don't think quite works as it only stands as an entity all the way through, none of the songs are great in their own right, and though the wordsmithery is neat, it's hardly a riot of the imagination and of beautiful and stylish wordplay, it's led by story, and ultimately it's just a bit like A Grand Don't Come for Free by The Streets, which means that it becomes annoying and unlistenable after about the 5th listen. I've been a bit negative, a major talent, but I just don't think it quite works as an album. More varied music, more proper songs, that's all that's needed.

And the other favourite was LP1 by FKA Twigs, which is really good and would probably have been a worthy winner. Will be interesting to see if she remains a hipster's favourite or actually gains commercial success. It's austere, slightly frightening R and B, the album holds the interest all the way through and has some standout songs.

OK, that's this year. Let's look at the Mercury in general. Does it get it right or wrong more often? Is there any point to it? What's wrong with it? People sometimes criticize it on genre, say there's never any metal, too much jazz which doesn't win, not enough commercially successful stuff. I don't really care about that - I expect the motivation is true and it genuinely does try to just select the best albums it hears. And as the chairman of the panel said, it's tricky with metal because if you don't love it, you kind of hate it and think it's completely fucking lame, that seems to be the unfortunate truth. There's not much of an in-between in a way that isn't true of other musical forms. For those superhip, oh-so-open-minded folk, hip-hop, indie, r'n'b and jazz we don't actually listen to are surprisingly comfortable bedfellows.

Yes, I think it suffers for being judged by music journalists only in that, having read music journalists obsessively for a couple of decades, they really are constantly trying to be cool, so the list and winner does really always try to be cool. I mean, honestly, let's talk about Gruff Rhys for a second. Two Gruff Rhys albums ever have been nominated and one of them is Neon Neon? Serifuckiously? Cos it's electro and ironic? One King Creosote album?  Diamond mine? Cos it's a bit electro? Total ballbags, obviously.

I look at the list of winners and, funnily enough, there's only one of all 23 of them that I unambiguously love, and that's the somewhat inconsequential Hour of the Bewilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy, which probably folk might in general might see as a judging mis-step, but just happens to be a glorious, beautiful, career-defining album.

There are indie-rock winners which I ought to love, but funnily enough I don't. I wonder if it's chicken or egg? Did I slightly look askance at them because they won the Mercury? I don't think so. Screadamelica, Suede, Different Class, Franz Ferdinand, Whatever People Say I Am, Seldom Seen Kid ... big indie albums, most of them influential, all pretty good, but not personal favourites. I wouldn't say any of them were bad choices though.

There's a real absence of "singer-songwriter" winners - lots of nominees but not winners. I suppose you've got BDB and then two wins for PJ Harvey - I'm surprised 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' won in 2001, it's got some great tunes but it's a little lopsided. 'Let England Shake' in 2011 is really great. Can't really argue with that.

Which takes me to the general lack of winners for the big players of British music, both commercially and artistically. The "breakout/crossover" album has hardly ever won, whether it's What's the Story, 21, Back to Black or something by Coldplay. And the real supergeniuses of British music have hardly ever won, whether it's Radiohead, Damon Albarn, Gruff Rhys. PJ Harvey is the only winner who belongs on that exalted company. I mean, Radiohead never having won is a little daft, isn't it, even if (like me) you're not in complete thrall to them.

So, let's go through it, right or wrong?

1992 - Screamedelica - Primal Scream - RIGHT - still seen as a classic, very influential, very crossover
1993 - Suede - Suede - RIGHT - a hugely influential indie album, which presaged the rock revival of the mid 90s.
1994 - Elegant Slumming - M People - WRONG - joking aside, no one thinks this is a classic album. I can see that they didn't want to get stuck in a guitarpop rut, but no, they got this well wrong
1995 - Dummy - Portishead - RIGHT - almost a definitive Mercury winner, so achingly cool. Can't really argue though.
1996 - Different Class - Pulp - Hmm, equivocally right - I suppose it defines the time, never a big Pulp fan myself, but fair enough.
1997 - Reprazent - Roni Size - WRONG - anyone still listening to this? A nonsense, of course
1998 - Bring it On - Gomez - WRONG - as above. Not a great year, to be fair. Just to be clear,  a RIGHT winner might, I think, either be an album which holds up to history, an album which defines the time, an album which is the start of a major career, something like that. Gomez went nowhere.
1999 - OK - Talvin Singh - WRONG - again, all due respect, but this went nowhere
2000 - Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy - another equivocal RIGHT. I love it, but i recognise that BDB hasn't gone from strength to strength since.Still, history unfairly overlooks this fine, fine work
2001 - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey - an equivocal WRONG, just because there are other albums I prefer on that year's list. Hardly a massive mis-step though.
2002 - A Little Deeper - Miss Dynamite - hmm RIONG - career has gone nowhere since, but it was thought a reasonable call at the time. This would have been a good year for Run Come Save Me by Roots Manuva to win.
2003 - Boy in Da Corner - Dizzee Rascal - RIGHT - a striking album, which kicked off a major career.
2004 - Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand - RIGHT - a very indie year, this one, but this was the favourite and probably a fair winner.
2005 - I am a Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons - WRONG - obviously, because it's not a British album. Nonsense.
2006 - Whatever People Say I am, that's What I'm Not - RIGHT - not a massive fan of this, but can't complain
2007 - Myths of the Near Future - Klaxons - WRONG - thought this band were a complete nonsense at the time, history has agreed. Terrible choice. Back to Black could have won.
2008 -  The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow - I'm going with WRONG - I like this album, but this is an odd choice which unfairly lifted just another album by a very good band. Why bother doing the this year and not other years?
2009 - Speech Therapy - Speech Debelle - WRONG - probably the most notoriously wrong choice.
2010 - xx - The xx - RIGHT - I've tried with this band but they're still like watching paint dry for me. Still, they really seem to define where cool UK music is at these days, for better or worse.
2011 - Let England Shake - PJ Harvey - RIGHT - it's a great album
2012 - An Awesome Wave - Alt-J - WROIT - can't stand this lot, can't stand this album, but I will say their second album has been successful, and, again, the kids seem to dig it.
2013 - Overgrown - James Blake - WRONG - they went tasteful again, and everyone shrugged. If an album's got a singer, and it's got beeps, those music journos they're all over it.
2014 - DEAD - Young Fathers - RIGHT - yes, seems fair enough.

So I think that's 8 right, 5 equivocally right and 9 wrong. It's an outrage! Sack the board! But yes, I think it's time a songwriter album won without beeps. Something simple and beautiful. I predict the winner in 2015 will be Laura Marling with a 5th album which finally brings all her qualities together for a masterpiece.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

What is that makes the all-star version of 'God Only Knows' quite so awful?

So that's the question and that's the tone for what I'm going to write. I'll try to keep anger and blame out of it, I'm not going to presume bad intentions or hurl too much abuse at the participants, though I expect that, this being a piece of polemic, there will unavoidably be a little.

It's a bad record. These things happen. I'm quite sure everyone involved was doing their best to make it good and I expect loads of people rather like it, but no, not I. Firstly, it's not the mass celebrity singalong per se I have a problem with. There's always been a bit of fun in them - (this is how it's done!), even when they've sounded a bit daft, and every now and then, they're actually rather joyful (not to mention the fact that most of them are for charity, which requires even the gravest cynic to dial it down just a little and cut some slack). I have a huge soft spot for this song's predecessor, from 17 years ago, 'Perfect Day'
So, what makes that, despite its flaws and absurdities, a heartwarming hit, while this current attempt to replicate the formula  is a dispiriting nul points?

The formula and style is similar, very similar, visually and musically - the short vocal phrases shared round, the unlikely juxtaposition of  different styles, the instrumental breaks. But while both have the avowed intention of saying "Here at the Beeb we really do cater for every taste in music", you truly believe it from 'Perfect Day' but 'God Only Knows' just leaves you feeling your musical future is a Radio 2-sponsored homogenised gloop.

Who's to blame? No one... well, maybe the person who chose the song ... it's the wrong song, dudes. There are loads and loads of other classic songs you could have worked with which have scope for a bit of messing. 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys is perfect. Acknowledged perfect, as a recorded moment by a close-knit but tortured collective from a strange moment in time almost 50 years. But break it apart, like has been done here, and it's not perfect anymore. Dare one say it, it becomes a little bland.

There are only two interesting, intriguing lines of lyric in the song - the first, "I may not always love you" which gets thrown away to the smugness of Pharrell Williams (a smugness which, don't get me wrong, works wonderfully well in the right context, but will Pharrell ever perform vocals on a great pop song which do not require him to be smug? No, of course not ...) and the last of the second verse - "so what good would living do me..." which could have given the song a little bit of edge halfway through, but Stevie Wonder does it, and this is not Stevie's finest 5 seconds. There are moments in his recording career of glorious poignancy,  but this is not one of them. A disappointment to hear one of the greatest vocalists of all time make a line hinting at potential suicide and the bottomless despair of heartbreak sound so unutterably glib and jolly. You remember that Stevie Wonder hasn't released a great record for almost 40 years, and you feel sad.

Apart from that, there's not much grit - in the song's words and in the melody lines pulled apart from their whole - for the vocalists to work with; it's all sing-song lovey-dovey stuff. Hard for anyone to make their mark on the song. What a contrast that is with 'Perfect Day', which has so many odd, notable lines, which the well-assigned vocalists really go to town on (I'll come to this in more depth later).

So, who's to blame? The producer, the beardy chap at the start of the video? I doubt it - Ethan Johns is a man who has produced some really fine, fine records, including several favourites of mine, and is known for his no-frills, clear, rootsy approach. I just think he had a thankless task. But, also, Ethan Johns is not a Beach Boys-type producer - he's much more a Dylan/Band/Johnny Cash-type producer, if you get what I mean. Perhaps they should have got someone like Dave Fridmann, who brought sweet, acid-fried Americana magic to the likes of Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and Tame Impala.

Who's to blame? The song's creator? Ha, hardly. There he is, blessing the enterprise, Brian Wilson. Aah, that's nice. But why does that make me feel so sad? Because Brian Wilson, despite the way the music press would have it, was not The Beach Boys. And Brian Wilson, though the song's composer and arranger, is not 'God Only Knows'. It's a Carl Wilson lead vocal, one of the most perfect lead vocals ever from the very best singer in the Beach Boys. I've heard Brian do 'God Only Knows' in his amazing 'Pet Sounds' concerts of a few years ago - no one would say he could, now, then or 50 years ago, do 'God Only Knows' as well as his brother (he knew it himself, that's why he gave the song to Carl to sing). Arguably, Brian Wilson was the 3rd or 4th best Beach Boy as lead vocalist (this isn't a terrible list to be 3rd or 4th in). But there's no Carl and Dennis on this record, they're long gone and that's super sad, there's no Mike Love either (well, he's not even on the record actually!) or Bruce Johnston. So be it, it can't be helped, but it's just a bee in my bonnet I have about the industry of Brian Wilson's deification above all the other Beach Boys, which this only serves.

Anyway, the point is, there are people called great singers/vocalists like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Mick Jagger, who even their most ardent fans would admit are hardly Caruso, man. Which means that they're coverable. Not necessarily for the better, but there's endless scope in their work for reinterpretation. A soul, jazz, country, pop singer, hell, even a rapper, can hear a Bob Dylan song and think "I can do something with that". But you don't improve on the Beach Boys. How many famous covers of Beach Boys songs are there? Up to now, precisely none, because the Beach Boys, on all their greatest songs, nailed it, nailed it beyond improvement, that's the point*. That's what makes them great.
* OK, I know this isn't true of Smiley Smile/Smile, but no one has ever looked to "re-interpret" it, Brian Wilson himself has merely aimed, throughout his life, to find it, to pin it down, to do justice to it..

This record, then, was on a hiding to nothing. It could only ever be, in every second, every note, every frame, worse than the original. But here's the thing. It desecrates it, it spoils it. It makes you think less of the original, it takes its less interesting aspects apart and makes you think "hmm, maybe 'God Only Knows' isn't one of the greatest moments in the history of mankind after all, maybe it's just a rather bland collection of platitudes" and that's the bit that's quite hard to keep an even temper about.

So, who's to blame? The casting director, maybe? Who are this lot? Oh, I expect you recognise them, most of them... but what have they got to do with The Beach Boys? Like the producer, Ethan Johns, none of them are from that lineage. There are so many bands  and acts who could be said to be, in some way, influenced by the Beach Boys, so how come none of them are on this record? There's a total disconnect. The only vague connections are Stevie Wonder, who, in some ways, was Brian Wilson's successor in creating impossibly beautiful, kaleidoscopic music in a music studio, and, bizarrely, One Direction, who are, at the very least, a five-piece male vocal harmony group. Except, Jesus .... they're not quite the Beach Boys are they? I never thought I'd feel nostalgic for Boyzone but their bit on the '98 'Perfect Day' looks like Crosby, Stills and Nash by comparison. 1D are completely exposed, not daring to do anything interesting with their line because they can't. There have been loads of girl and boy bands which have at least created nice/interesting sounds with their different voices, but you could replace One Direction with five different identikit vocalists, give them a couple of hours rehearsal and no one would notice the difference.

Who else, then? Who are this lot? Well, they really seem to have followed the Bono credo of "Biggest is best" (perhaps the only relief of the record is that Bono isn't on it, though to be fair, he does one of his least annoying vocals of all time on 'Perfect Day'.) They've really brought the big guns out, the most obvious, best selling, archetypal, dull picks they could have gone for. Who "represents" indie? Oh, Jake Bugg, good god, little boy lost, not even trusted with a full line. Wow, I'm really, as a fan of indie rock'n'roll, in safe hands with the BBC if they're foisting Jake Bugg on me ... Everyone is exactly who you think it's going to be, so all the way through, you're thinking "there's going to be a Jamie Cullum, I know there is ..." and just when you think you might get away without a Jamie Cullum, there he is, bafflingly omnipresent as ever, despite the fact that no one you've ever met has ever bought any of his music and quite possibly, none of it actually exists and he's just an elaborate wheeze by Dom Joly.

Look again at who's on 'Perfect Day'. It really wasn't the biggest stars in music, it was a ragtag assortment of whoever might be on a slightly unusual episode of Jools Holland. And, to kick it off, not just Lou but the song's original producer, Bowie, singing his lines absolutely beautifully, and then all these other oddball folk who clearly love the song and have thought about how to do it justice - shit, there's Shane McGowan, Dr John, Emmylou Harris, proper individual voices from the leftfield. And it's a song with a darkness and with different segments and textures. Even the notorious belting of Heather Small "you're going to REAP just WHA-AAT ya sow-yeah" kind of works. The song allows that. 'God Only Knows' doesn't.

It's a bad, bad record, this, a spoiling of the unspoilable, a poor ad for a great broadcaster, and in as much as it's entirely intended to celebrate the manifold joys of music, it could not fail more dismally.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Screen Stars

I'd like to keep this blog going regularly with a little less structure, but I've found down the years that I need a structure and a unifying idea to get my shit together and write. So I've been pretty silent for a couple of months, and I can't see a big surge of activity in the near future unless I pull an idea out of the bag.

Still, I've been enjoying music plenty. It's been a fabulous musical year as far as I'm concerned, on every level, and I've had a lot of real-life musical projects to concern me, whether it's this blog, creating music questions for work or slaving for months over wedding playlists.

Of course, at the start of the year, I did my list of the 1001 Greatest Songs of All Time, and I recently got round to putting all of those songs on one playlist, which I've been listening to a lot. Of course, if I did that list again, it would be a bit different, but I still don't think I'm missing all that much or that there's all that many (ok, maybe a few) which are wildly out of place.

Still, of course, Pop Music bursts beyond its pantheon all the time.  I've read some really interesting things about songs as social history recently, including a book by Stuart Maconie on 50 Songs which tell the story of Britain, and then an interview by Greil Marcus publicising his own book, The History of Rock'n'Roll in 10 Songs. I'll get round to reading the actual book soon, I hope, but he has interesting things to say in the interview. Sure, my  idea of a "1001 Songs" is reductive, hall-of-famy silliness, but still, I like to test myself and it's a great list, so I'm cool with it.

Anyway, here's another great thing about 2014 in music, notwithstanding the large number of really very enjoyable albums I've listened to. The people I like are crossing media and with great success. Whether it's King Creosote's soundtrack to the social documentary 'From Scotland with Love', James Yorkston writing an acclaimed touring diary, Stuart Murdoch directing his own reasonably well-liked (haven't seen it yet) musical movie 'God Help the Girl', Joanna Newsom narrating and appearing in the next Paul Thomas Anderson film, Gruff Rhys' extravaganza of all things 'American Interior' or Nick Cave helping conceive and starring in his own quasi-documentary '20000 Days on Earth', these are people with shelf life and it's gratifying.

We went to see Gruff Rhys a couple of weeks ago - the banter and the American Interior slideshow, over two hours of complete entertainment.... well, you know what I think about the chasm between the level of fame and acclaim he deserves and what he has. All you really need to know is that the songs sound great, the voice sounds great, and Ashford rose to him!

Saw the Cave film on Saturday - very funny, very clever,  great anecdotes about Nina Simone, interesting stuff about his writing process and particularly about the transformative nature of performance, I'd really like to see it again actually.

I love pop music so much, I love it more and more the older I get, I know more and more I'm not going to "mature" to classical musical, it's the other way round, pop music has truly "matured" to cultural equivalence, indeed supremacy, you can't beat it so you'd better to join it. The more successful collaborations there are, the more great books/TV shows/films there are by and about pop musicians, the happier I'll be.