I’m very often late to the party.
Last week, I began watching Downton Abbey, three years after everyone I know (it’s really rather good). The same thing is often true of my approach to music…
A few days ago, Radio 2 listeners voted Coldplay’s second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head as their favourite album of all time, closely followed in second and third positions by offerings from Keane and Duran Duran. More ‘conventional’ choices, such as Pink Floyd, Queen or The Beatles, make up later positions on the list. Inevitably, there has been much negative press about Coldplay’s position at the top of the Radio 2 list, with many listeners discussing the ‘blandness’ or ‘beige-ness’ of the album, and various critics trying to rationalise its position by thinking about it as Coldplay’s best album, rather than the best album ever.
However, to my mind, the list is radical in what it says about actual listening habits (where else would Coldplay, Keane and Dido all make a top 10 list?). It is not a list made up by critics, or music aficionados, but by a cross-section of listeners, and says a lot about the music that most people actually want to hear. It challenges the hegemony of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Queen, and whilst I certainly do not dispute their greatness, this challenge can only be a good thing. This is a list by the people for the people, an important social document in 21st century listening preferences.
It struck me whilst reading this news that although, like everyone, I knew the famous songs from Coldplay’s album, such as ‘In My Place’, ‘The Scientist’ and ‘Clocks’, I had never heard the album in its entirety (and I suspect I am not alone in this). I sat down and listened to the album from start to finish. Here are some brief thoughts…
The highest compliment I can pay the album is that it is solid. It is not a disparate collection of songs, but a unity which works as a whole, in the same way that a symphony or opera functions. Of course, there are standout tracks which explain the album’s massive success: ‘The Scientist’ is one – a rare moment of real emotion and daring songwriting which outshines some of the less distinct passages. I can’t see that A Rush of Blood to the Head would ever come close to topping my best album list, but I can see its pull: it has a sort of understated wisdom which seems enticingly British. It’s not an album which shouts out to be heard, but one which gently nudges the listener along.
A Rush Of Blood To The Head is not Coldplay’s best album. Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto are so much more imaginative and passionate in the risks they take. However, it does avoid the fabled ‘second album problem’ in presenting some fantastic tracks and an early snapshot of a band for whom the best was yet to come.
Toby Huelin discusses the newest addition to the boy band’s arsenal…
At this point in their career, One Direction are less of a band than a brand, a factory of consumer gratification of which the music is but one part. The way in which Harry, Louis, Zayn, Niall and Liam are totally idolised by such a significant portion of the (mostly) teenage, female population is surely a result of this brand manifestation: it is not merely that One Direction are on your radio, or your iPod, but that they are everywhere. They are not a purely sonic phenomenon, but a machine which intersects all aspects of daily life. For example, a friend tells the story of her younger cousin who, on hearing that Liam has a phobia of spoons, declaimed that they would cease using spoons as a mark of solidarity. Scary and impractical.
Whatever one may think of One Direction, it is clear that their unique brand of charm, charisma and, I would add, remarkably strong work ethic, has paid off. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, to be released later this month, they are the richest boy band in the country, with a combined wealth of £25 million. Not bad considering they only formed in 2010, as the result of not winning The X Factor. It’s a little simplistic to say they found a ‘gap in the market’ and shuffled into it (anyone remember One True Voice, 3LS, Rooster?), but it is certainly true that they followed JLS in creating a new, dynamic form of all-male pop group, and a radically changed conception of the genre of ‘boyband’.
To me, what defines One Direction’s success is the music. In the place of the piano, strings, soothing melodies and soaring modulations of say, Westlife, One Direction’s music sounds like five guys having a lot of fun: their songs are catchy, well-crafted and appropriate to their target audience, owing much more to 50s rock ‘n’ roll bands and to current trends in popular and dance music in their musical language than they do to ‘boybands’ per se.
For some, the One Direction store is a horrendous example of how popular music today is all about making money. However, the commercialisation of music is nothing new. Music has always been commoditised, and will always continue to be, with musicians thriving on the industry that surrounds them. It is not enough to write a catchy song and hope that it will land you fame and fortune. Instead, through hard work, keen business and a lot of luck, One Direction show the results that can be achieved.
I’m really bored of people hating One Direction. They have managed, like a collection of bands and artists before them, to turn abstract sound into money and lifestyle, something for which they can only be congratulated.
Now, time to unpack my life-size cardboard model of Harry Styles…
Published on Cherwell Online, 3rd April 2013
When I heard that My Chemical Romance had split up after 12 highly charged and highly successful years, I immediately re-found their album ‘The Black Parade’ on Spotify and had a listen. I was 14 the last time I heard most of its songs and thought their music would be an interesting topic for an article, but I’ve been struggling with the content for some time. I’m not sure if this is because I haven’t given the band much of a look in since before I sat my GCSEs, or because the notions of ‘emo’ culture consistently (yet controversially) associated with their music I find distant to my life, but something has made writing this article more difficult that usual.
Certainly, ‘The Black Parade’ was one of my most played albums for a year or so after its release. I think I loved the whole world that the album portrayed, the story it told, and the characters it evoked. Looking back, I imagine that the content of the album also shocked me, and contained a very different, and much bleaker narrative than the traditional Top 40 releases, with their arguably more superficial snapshots of love and loss.
However, listening back to the album now, I found to my surprise that I was a little underwhelmed. The sentiments felt saccharine, trite and overwrought, and tracks that I had listened to on repeat for days and been profoundly moved by (such as ‘Cancer’), suddenly felt too blatant and distasteful to my now older self.
For me, the album works best when the theatricality of its music matches up to the theatricality of the stage performance: when MCR’s musical language owes more to Queen and Bowie than Green Day or Iron Maiden. The greatest example of this is in ‘Welcome to The Black Parade’. The angelic, mesmerising piano opening demarcates this track from the guitar-driven music on either side, and the storytelling feels much more honest and evocative than some of the tracks, really using the music, through for example, the snare drum of the “marching band”, to enact a plot.
It is these moments of musical narrative which I now find most powerful, rather than the prevailing angst-ridden mood which I warmed to as a (decidedly non-angsty) teenager.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that tastes change – people change – and My Chemical Romance constantly changed and reinvented themselves. Perhaps, just perhaps, after 12 years of reinvention there was nowhere left to go.
Let me know your experiences with My Chemical Romance.
What were their best and worst moments?
Do you find that listening to a certain artist or album after a long period of absence makes you feel differently about the music?
Next week, I’m MD’ing How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying at the Jersey Arts Centre, the show with what must be the longest title in the musical theatre repertoire!
The cast are looking and sounding fantastic, and it’s a really great show with some cracking music (from the writer of Guys and Dolls) - book your tickets now!
Jersey Arts Centre, 3rd-13th April
April 11, 1916. Buenos Aires. Alberto Ginastera is born, and goes on to become one of the most important Latin American composers of his time.
Ginastera never reached the heights of fame of Villa-Lobos or Piazolla (one of his pupils), but his music is really wonderful – totally full of vitality and excitement, and deserves a wider hearing.
One of my favourite ‘showpieces’ on the piano is his Malambo, op. 7 (1940).
From the ambiguous opening, which evokes the tuning of a guitar, to the angry bitonality and vicious, repetitive dance rhythms which follow, the piece is super fun to play and thrilling to watch. The piece uses lots of short motifs which fall easily under the fingers, making it a little easier to learn or memorise than perhaps it sounds to listen to.
I love how percussive the player is allowed to be, and the ways in which the music subtly shifts and changes. I think the rhythmic drive of the piece and the Latin American influence, means that all audiences can be wowed by it, regardless of their level of musical training – unlike in many 20th century works, the dissonance is not off-putting. If anything, I think the piece works best for audiences who aren’t sitting and analysing it: it’s so visceral but perhaps doesn’t lend itself to rigorous academic study.
The malambo is a traditional Argentinian competitive male dance from the 1600s, including a lot of fast-paced footwork and foot crossing. I like to think that perhaps Ginastera tried to emulate this style in his piece, using fast finger work and lots of fortissimo passages and deep sonorities to characterise the dance, and the stereotypically ‘male’ character who would have originally performed it.
I don’t think that this piece is especially well known – everyone I have spoken to about it always refers me to the final dance of Ginastera’s ballet, Estancia, op. 8, written only one year after the piano piece Malambo. Although a totally different piece, it is interesting to note how all the same elements transfer to an orchestral sound world.
It really is a fantastic piece, and I would urge pianists to take up the challenge of escaping the Germanic Romantic repertoire for a few moments, and indulging in some Latin American fury.
Normally the inspiration (for lack of a better term…) for my songs either comes from the text, if it has been written by someone else, or from a melody, chord progression or musical idea that sticks in my mind.
However, in this case, I set myself the assignment to write for a specific person: my friend and tutorial partner Abi.
I decided early on that I wanted a musical quotation, hence the opening. The lyrics and melody kind of stemmed from there – I wanted this song to be concerned with the voice as an object, both musically and lyrically, and I also wanted to push the vocal limits much further (and higher!) than I would do were I writing for myself to sing.
I’m really pleased that Abi liked this song and agreed to sing it, and I hope you will like it too!
Quia respexit I sang proudly and clear to my teacher, she was unimpressed
Quia respexit she sang right back at me, she wasn’t happy, she thought I had regressed
Every week it was just the same song we would always go to and fro
Every day I was moving along and not knowing where to go
Every week we would troll the same tune, I needed something new
So I found that something to carry me through
Build a window to your soul
Take a deeper look inside
You never know the thoughts that linger
That we all just try to hide
And if searching does you wrong
Dig down deeper, you will see
That somewhere there within your heart
There is a place for you and me
Just look inside
Quia respexit now was fancy and fresh, it had meaning, a whole new face
Quia respexit I sang into the night, I could see it, this special place
Every week it was different and new, and now I could go on
Every day I looked time to that time when everything was wrong
Every week I just wanted to sing on and on, aahhhh
Now I had something to carry me through
Build a window to your soul…
This is your heart
Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
Pumps through your veins
Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
I’m only slightly ashamed to say that I first heard of Bastille when their track ‘Laura Palmer’ was played on a season finale of Made In Chelsea. I liked this song so much that I did a cover of it, in fact:
Since this point I’ve followed their career with great interest, listening to everything of theirs I could find, and extolling their virtues to anyone who would listen. I was luckily enough to catch a gig of theirs in Oxford, and their brilliance was cemented in my mind, with their wonderfully dark cover of City High’s ‘What Would You Do’ a particular thrill. As more tracks were released, and their presence became more and more frequent on Radio 1, I became ever more excited that my band, Bastille, would soon get the recognition they merit and the audience they deserve.
However: I then listened to their first album, ‘Bad Blood’.
For such fantastic musicians and such exhilarating performers, the album is dull.
It sounds as if all the life of their acoustic sessions of tracks such as ‘Icarus’ and ‘Overjoyed’ has been sucked out; as if a group of dementors have worked their magic on Bastille and left us to listen to the result. It’s painful and sad, and left me thoroughly disappointed. It has none of the imagination of their cover EP, ‘Other People’s Heartaches’, with its genius mashups and eclectic sound world, nor, to my mind, the pointed singability and catchy melodies of ‘Laura Palmer’ or early acoustic versions of ‘Flaws’ and ‘Icarus’. Instead, the vitality is drained and the melodies drowned in a more mainstream sound world which muffles on one level, the fantastic foregrounding of the bass in their life performances, and, on the other hand, the level of creativity and intelligence which the band obviously have in droves, and which this album does nothing to promote.
I wonder also whether this is a problem of saturation: whether the features that made Bastille’s music stand out, such as the dialectic between their prevalent use of electronic sounds (i.e. synths) on the one hand, and their use of tribal rhythms and choral vocals on the other, in a album of thirteen tracks just makes everything sound the same. The sense of ‘other’ is normalised in the work, and this is extremely problematic for a listener.
I will continue to listen to ‘Laura Palmer’, which really is an excellent song, and I will try to revisit this album, in the hope that somehow I will ‘get it’ in future.
I really want to like Bastille, but this album makes that a very hard task.