Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Quick and to the Pointless

In praise of short songs

I had my iPod on shuffle the other day and The Vines came on. Now, their middling grunge was nothing particularly special, but I always appreciated their album Highly Evolved because it was so succinct. After just five minutes of listening you were already onto the third track. And it’s not as if these tracks were slight either; take for example Autumn Shade which is a creeping epic that belies its two minutes and seventeen seconds. These songs do what they need to do and then duck out without wasting a breath.*

Of course, there was a time when songs habitually lasted less than three minutes. The Beatles’ early songs were short, sharp bursts of energy; and even when they started to broaden their palette, they still maintained their discipline (Eleanor Rigby and Norwegian Wood are both just over two minutes). It was only once the bad drugs and spiritualism kicked in that their songs started to sail past the four minute mark.

In today’s multi-channel, dual-screening world, brevity is more important than ever. As I’ve touched upon before, music is competing with so many other forms of entertainment. A song simply has to grab your attention within thirty seconds, or it hasn’t done its job. Like it or not, music is advertising.

Bands can afford to take shortcuts with their music too, as they’re performing to a sophisticated audience. There’s no need to repeat the chorus four times, once in a higher key – it’s its decent enough, we’ll remember it after the first listen.

So let’s celebrate the short song. Here’s a playlist of the ten shortest songs in my collection.** I’ve excluded skits (because they’re universally awful) and instrumentals (as much as I like interludes, they aren’t really that meaningful taken out of context), plus I’ve only allowed for one song per artist otherwise it would be full of Wire.

Enjoy – it’ll only take up six minutes of your life.

- Somik

 * The second half of the album does have a couple of overlong songs on it however. 

** It should start with The Beatles’ Her Majesty but it’s not on Spotify.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Should I be laughing?

I've had this stuck in my head all week. (As the title should tell you, it's probably Not Safe For Work.)

It made me think; musical comedy is a tricky area, as far as I can tell. I've always had an ear for it, which is not really something to boast about, but it kind of goes back as far as this:


Which probably dates me horribly. Then there's the whole Weird Al Yankovic thing, which kind of passed me by. But – and hey, this is a good reason to do this anyway – it's time to make Somik cringe by bringing up two songs – one that's not comedy, but is funny for the wrong reasons and the other that's supposed to be funny but, well, your mileage may vary.


Ultimately, this kind of music has a very short half-life for me – and, hopefully, for the world at large – but I find it interesting that there always has been and always will be this intersection between types of expression, because if you can sing it, it's probably going to be funnier than if you just made a stand-up routine out of it. 

That's a completely baseless, unfounded assumption, but in my experience – maybe not the most extensive, but fairly broad and very lateral – it tends to be the case. For a good example, there's Kinky Friedman.


I can't imagine this song as a stand-up routine, or comedy of any sort, really, without the music behind it. It just wouldn't work, somehow. Granted, it's thirty-nine year old comedy, but -

- Actually, it's worth noting that a lot of the time with Kinky Friedman I can't actually tell whether he's being funny or not. Take Ride 'Em Jewboy, for instance, which, as the ever-reliable Wikipedia will back me up on, is 'an extended tribute to the victims of the Holocaust'. It's also only – as far as I'm aware and up-to-date – the only country music song to address the issue. 

It's also on the same album as We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To You, Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed, and Ballad of Charles Whitman. (The second of these songs earned him the “Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year” award in 1973 from the National Organisation for Women. 

Then he went on to write a lot of detective fiction. (Nearly all of which, oddly, I read as a teenager.) 

Then he went on to run for election as the Governor of Texas. 

I'm skipping over large parts of his biography here, but the crux of this presentation is that he's a complicated individual, no matter how much he may appear not to be. 

We're getting a bit off-topic here, though. My point is that musical comedy acts tend to burn bright then burn out fairly quickly because they date fairly quickly. Ali G is – to me – more cringe-inducing than funny these days if I try to watch any of his stuff (although it could be argued that he was always pretty cringe-inducing, as a source of comedy). Garfunkel and Oates – kawaii! - have been going for a while now, and long may they continue to do so, but eventually – I would think – they have to suffer the same inevitable fate of comedy musicians everywhere and everywhen. 

If there's something to take away from this, I would say that – as someone who's seen a lot of these groups come and go (and Tribute aside, I rather wish Tenacious D had gone a little quicker – much like Goldie Lookin' Chain maybe should have stopped after Greatest Hits) – like creams designed for skin complaints, enjoy them while they're topical.

- James

Thursday, 7 February 2013

I can't see where you're coming from

Argh. I want to rebuff some of Somik's last points about Pulp (and, less so, Blur) and agree with his assessment of the Manics' last album, but first it's time to talk about ownership.

Getting angry or involved with Youtube comments is like shouting swearwords at the sun in the hope that night will come.

There is, however, this odd thing that I keep noticing, and that's the concept of pre-popularity ownership. Don't worry, it's been around forever, and it'll go on as long as someone discovers something before it gets popular, but I just find it (a) sad and (b) a little bit funny, somehow.

Exhibit (A) would be Short Change Hero by The Heavy. On its own it has many merits, not least because it sounds like – to me – the perfect song for a modern spaghetti western, should such a thing be possible. Stripped of that, it's a strange mix of soul, indie-guitar and a killer chorus, just like I used to like, and whatnot.

I'd never have discovered it, except for Batman.

Let's back that up.

The first time I heard the song was in the trailer for Arkham City, and it does, really, fit therein:


I liked it enough to remember it, which, in the modern era of music, is a hell of a compliment.

After that, I didn't hear it again until I started playing Borderlands 2:


Where, again, it's used really nicely, playing even more into the Western imagery, and, as an added plus, there's a midget in a hockey mask.

But after this I started reading Youtube comments out of a bizarre sense of interest, only to discover the pre/Borderlands 2 post/Borderlands 2 fan split was both really polarized and really funny.

(As an aside, there's something interesting to be said about Rexon's cover of the song where the lead singer is cosplaying as a character from Borderlands 2 (well, from Borderlands in their Borderlands 2 form. I think. It gets confusing:


But even in those comments, people are arguing about Borderlands, not the song.)

(Also, as an aside, the song turns up as the theme to Strike Back 
and, also, in the film Faster:


 So here's the question; are put here and come here the same thing, where put here is knowing of a song before it gets featured in another piece of work and come here means drawn by the song's presence in another form of media? Just exactly why does it make you a bigger fan to be into something before everyone else? Why do you have to defend yourself on a worldwide internet forum against people you're never going to meet?

Is this just basic musical territoriality?

This is arguably even more interesting when the usage of the song changes the context of the lyrics. Look at Richard Thompson's Dad's Gonna Kill Me for instance:


As the put here argumentative viewers will state it, and as is the case, the song's about the occupation of Baghdad and just how shitty that is if you're a soldier.

It's arguably completely different in the case of Sons of Anarchy, where the song is used for the end of – if memory serves – the first episode of the third series, to underscore a really tense part (and aren't you glad I learnt how not to do spoilers?) of the end of the show. Bear in mind, however, that Sons of Anarchy is Hamlet crossed with Hunter S. Thompson's Hells Angels, so the song works in the context of the show but not with the original lyrical intent (unless, as you might argue, it signals the final and terminal shift of the show's protagonists from a wavering footing to a full on war footing).

I'm sure there are a multitude of other examples of this that will occur to me immediately after publishing this, but it fascinates me as a Basic Hipster Reflex in action to be into something before it was cool. It's the same reaction, albeit dialled down massively, that I used to have to hearing music I used listen to as a teenager on, say, Radio 2. (Fortunately, it's been four years since I've listened to Radio 2, but the scars still remain.)

Nobody owns a song. But it's interesting that they think they do.

- James

P.s. I did think about actually posting examples of Youtube comments and commentators, but that way, sadly, lies madness. Although, as one of them did put it, songs these days are too genetic

Monday, 4 February 2013

Stay Together

(A little about fan loyalty in music, a lot about Suede)

In recent years, the thing in music that has got me most excited is bands of my youth returning. These fall into two categories – previously successful bands looking for one last (pay-)day in the sun (Pulp, Blur); and bands trying to make a better fist of it second time round (Ultrasound, Marion). Whilst these comebacks gave me the chance to hear songs (such as this and this) live that I never thought would, they also raise the question of loyalty. How loyal should you, as a fan, stay to a band once their time is up?

I find it hard to give up on bands that are well past their sell-by date (hell, I even bought the Manics’ last album because I felt sorry for it when I saw it in the sales, even though I’d already heard it and knew it was terrible). It’s not as if I even believe that these bands have it in them to make one last great album. In fact I sympathise with their plight; once you’ve written 50+ songs, what else is there to write about?

There’s one particular back-from-the-dead band that I’m having issues with at the moment – Suede. I love Suede. Or should I say, I loved Suede. I didn’t miss them for a second when they split up, and I fulfilled my role as ‘a loyal fan’ by buying all of their re-released deluxe albums a couple of years ago. And whilst I’ll duly oblige and get their new album too, I refuse to get excited about it.

My main problem is I don’t know why they’ve made a new album. They'd already gone some way to restoring their legacy by reuniting for a series of triumphant gigs and festival appearances. And if it was about exorcising the demon that was the woeful ‘A New Morning’, well The Tears’ fine album had already done that for me. It clearly hadn’t done so for Brett though.

When they reunited for those live performances, Brett said they would only record another album if it was good. And yet there was already a grim inevitability that they would deem their latest efforts to be ‘good’ enough, before they’d even stepped into a studio.

I’m worried that they decided to lead with ‘Barriers’. It mimicks U2’s stadium-pandering ‘big song’ template (not least the chiming guitars and group backing vocals), which doesn’t bode well. I’m not even going to comment on the lyrics. I guess the only interesting thing to say about it is that it’s not a retreading of ‘Dog Man Star’s’ billowing grandiosity or ‘Coming Up’s disposable pop. Perhaps they are fulfilling some long-held artistic ambition with their new album, but it’s just as likely that they’ll fall apart again afterwards.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll still buy the album. But maybe I’m starting to break free of the shackles of fan loyalty; for there are not one but two deluxe box set versions available, and I won’t be getting either of them. Screw you Suede; I win.

- Somik