Sunday, 22 March 2009

Super use of superlatives

With tomorrow's release of Pet Shop Boys' new album Yes and all the hoopla surrounding it (outstanding contribution Brit award, all those "return to form" articles), I got to thinking about the use of superlatives and what it actually means.

One of the ways we will always categorise things will be through ranking. This is biggest, smallest, longest, shortest, smelliest, rudest, etc. In music it's no different. From the genre specific - the bassiest, synthiest, poppiest, etc. - to the commercial - "best selling album of all time" - it seems that superlatives are one of the only very few ways we have to talk about music.

What does this have to do with the new Pet Shop Boys album? As acts get to be of a certain age, every album they release will always be compared with their previous tour de force. For Pet Shop Boys, that example of artistic excellence is - in most people's books - 1993's Very. So every subsequent release has been using this album as the 10 at the top of the yardstick.

Music tastes may change, artists may age and release operas, musicals, novels or books of poetry that affect their lives and outlook on that life, but as music is a recorded snap shot of time, it all comes down how well the next release matches up to the previous best. Thus the circumstances in 1992 and 1993 surrounding the release of Very are very different from those surrounding Yes.

Does this bear any credence on the music itself? Probably not. Very is stripped of the surrounding music scene of 1993 and made to live on its own in the canon of Pet Shop Boys material. The remixes for the album's songs bear testament to the musical movement of the time however.

Likewise, Yes, bears all the hallmarks of pop music in 2008, with production and co-writing credits for the Xenomania production team, who also worked on the Pet Shop Boys-penned Girls Aloud single "The Loving Kind". Will Yes, in years to come feature as a window out on to the pop landscape of 2008, or echo the economic decline we are all feeling, or will it be held up as 7 or 8 on the yard stick of Pet Shop Boys releases, where the Holy Grail of Very's 10 remained just out of reach?

My guessing in the latter.

For the record, having listened to Yes a few times, I'd give it at around 7.5. That's below Fundamental but above Release, and not even in worrying distance of Very's 10.
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Friday, 20 March 2009

New Duran album news

Cover of "Red Carpet Massacre"

In what was considered by many (including a former band member) to be a few too many shades of crazy, Duran Duran's last album was helmed by famed hip-hop producer Timbaland.

Duran are no strangers to the hip and the hop having covered "White Lines" and "911 is a Joke" on their 1995 covers album Thank You. Again, those who thought the pairing for Red Carpet Massacre was crazy also skip over the band's 95 foray into other people's tunes.

The band have announced - via their blog - that they've entered the studio for their 13th album with producer de jour Mark Ronson. Now this is such a better pairing than the hippy hoppy.

The band have already gelled nicely with Ronson, having reworked a number of their hits for a one off performance in Paris last summer for the Smirnoff series of events. They also contributed a reworking of "A View To a Kill" to the recent War Child album, Heroes.

I'm very interested to see what this pairing will produce. In fact, I haven't been this interested in a Duran project since Nile Rodgers took the reigns for Notorious.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2009


I've always loved music. It's what kept me going through my teenage years, and for a while there I was spending upwards of £100 a week in Berwick Street on the latest and greatest promos and CDs. Now my addiction has a new master and it's a lot cheaper than £100. I call him Spotify.

There have been LOADS of online music sites that have tried to sate a person's appetite for all things rhythmic, but most of the ones I've used have always had that little thing lacking. The other option has always been wholesale "piracy" which is always a double edged sword as it gets my goat that we have to pay over and over again for the same song (moving from vinyl to CD or buying a best of album).

Anyway, in the last few years I've been using Last.FM as my port of call for online music. Their player allows you to play tag radio. So if you want to listen to 80s music, you enter 80s as a tag, or ambient or synth pop. As long as there's enough material tagged accordingly you'll get a decent radio listen. If there's not, you can tag artists, songs and albums.

Spotify, however allows you to go one step further and listen to albums and singles by bands with seemingly no restrictions, apart from an audio ad every 20 minutes. The service is still in beta, so there's all sorts of things they could add, but what they have in place right now is amazing. The audio quality is pretty decent, the songs start right away and they have a playlist feature that allows you to collaborate with other Spotifiers to create "Now That's What I call a Playlist" (or similar).

Don't get me wrong, I still use Last.FM as it's been storing my music habits since 2003. Spotify even taps into that by allowing you to track or "scrobble" the tracks you listen to on Last.FM.

There's rumour an API will surface when the service is out of beta, and you can be rest assured that it'll explode just like Twitter did. My only concern is how the hell are they making money? I can't imagine one audio ad every 20 minutes is cutting it. They do have a paid service, but the only benefit seems to be cutting out the audio ad.

Since using Spotify, I've seriously begun questioning the need for a CD collection, something I never thought I'd contemplate. It's a decent piece of software that can make you do a complete 180 of your beliefs and perceptions. Good on ya Spotify!
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