100 for 2000 – #70. Paul Simon – Surprise

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #10. Paul Simon – Surprise
(Warner Brothers)

Funny how one can fall in love with an artist. Surprise came at the perfect time. I had been working my way through Paul Simon‘s entire life. And by the time I caught up, there was an excellent new chapter.

Of course, everyone knows Simon And Garfunkel. But it was in 2004 that I picked up the Complete Studio Recordings, all of Paul Simon‘s excellent solo albums on WB. Not that I knew how excellent they all were just yet. So I started at the beginning – 1972’s self titled debut – and worked my way up, falling in love with all his songs on the way. For my money, the four albums he made before Graceland are the best work he’s ever done.

I learnt the songs on guitar. I bought a badly written biography. I read anything I could on the internet and I downloaded live shows and bought live albums. This may have been the last time I really fell for one of those artists whose career spans decades. So it was with some excitement when he announced a new album.

So, I know how this shit works. For forgotten legends. No one cares for the new album. Publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard (with their misjudged sense of hero worship) would rave, but most of the world are not going to buy the newest Paul Simon album, because they hadn’t bought one in 20 years. It wasn’t even something I could share with anyone. I’m honestly struggling to think if I’ve ever had a conversation about this album with another living soul.

The album, Surprise, is brilliant. It’s his best since Hearts And Bones (ie. better than Graceland). There are some very simple reasons for this. One is Brian Eno, who produced the record but brought so much to the sound that he gets the occasional co-write. The other is the lack of love songs, which made his last album so bland. In an interview, Simon said something like no one wants to hear a man my age sing about sex. So he found something new.

Musically this record is Paul Simon in the 00s. There’s some buzzy guitar and studio effects (but in that organic Eno kind of way). The world music sounds are gone (although some of the rhythms remain), and it is far from just a man and his guitar. In fact, I think there may be more electric guitar on this album than any solo or S&G record he’s ever been on.

Amazingly, Simon sounds like he’s having fun and not taking himself too seriously. It’s best shown on Outrageous, the song that did the round of talk shows when this album came out. A great rhythm, a great song, and a silly lyric about not wanting to turn into a grumpy old man yet he has to dye his hair.

With the self-imposed no love songs rule, Simon returns to some of his other strengths. The story of the young bride who runs away on Another Galaxy is one of Simon‘s best. Father & Daughter is so sweet it became a minor hit in several countries. Then there’s How Can You Live In the Northwest, Simon‘s best political song, where he questions the questions, and if they are the right ones. There’s plenty more.

So yes, when this album I dived right in. And I loved every note. This is not a Sydney album, a Europe album or a London album. This is a Paul Simon album, and Paul and I stretch back 20 years. He’s an old friend who, no matter how much time is passed, we pick straight up from where we last left off.

100 for 2000 – #69. The Killers – Sam’s Town

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #9. The Killer’s – Sam’s Town

Hype bands. What do you do with them? The Killers got so huge so quickly, and on face value, sounding like 50 other bands. All those big early songs had been beaten through my brain at various clubs and bars. I avoided this band like the plague. Look, before this album, I thought this band was British, if I cared at all. Then came Sam’s Town who turned it all around (if only for a bit).

There’s a one word reason for this – Springsteen. The hype around this record was that it’s their Springsteen record (something Arcade Fire were also touting). So, I figured this will be good for a laugh. But that first single. When You Were Young, was all manner of awesome. That 80s keyboard was gone. Some really tough guitar. And then there’s that awesome, uplifting, almost gospel release that Springsteen mines so well. I loved the anthemic but absolutely nonsense lyrics. And the film clip – the sweaty, Peckinpah-esque film clip – all pointed to a different band from the NME hyped days.

I got my hands on a copy of the album. Amber and Pete really liked it, and it was yet another radio staple here in the UK. Bones, with it’s Tim Burton film clip, followed. In fact, that era of the Killers had quite an influence on Lazy Susan, especially in a dress sense. I was liking Brandon Flowers more in interviews, and a Live At Abbey Road session where they covered Dire Strait‘s Romeo And Juliet was fantastic. I was starting to like this band quite a bit.

Then came Read My Mind. This song just blew me out of the water. It had that Springsteen thing – the uplifting, escapism thing. But they return to more familiar musical ground – it’s a slow buzzing rock song with a bit more of a dance-y 80s beat. And it’s buried under such great imagery – main streets, two star towns, etc. And that Eno keyboard drone! So great.

Not to read too much into it, but gee I loved this song. It is the 4th most played song on my iPod. And yeah, having gotten out of Sydney, I could connect with this song. The open road of infinite possibilities. And the hook – Flowers asks, seductively, if you can read his mind. It’s about making a connection. Finding someone who gets you in this sea of madness.

Oh, and the film clip is very cool.

There are other highlights on this album – Sam’s Town, Reasons Unknown, The River Is Wild. But the last few years have not been kind. The pompousness of the sound has dated. But the handful of well written songs live. Sadly, the Killers moved back to the dance-y electronica (which they actually do well). Their last record had some great songs but more duds. I loved the ambition of this album, and I wish they said more. I was wanting the new anthemic band for a generation (and luckily I only had to wait one more year to discover them).

Read My Mind and those other songs I loved still get to me. My little flirtation with the Killers is probably over, and this record is generally regarded as their worse. Oh well. Maybe someone else in the sea of madness agrees with me and I will find them one day.

Bands: There's an app for that

The Grateful Dead App

As innovative as the iPhone is/was, it’s the world of Apps that really make it special. It’s taken computing power back to being practical, and for the first time in a long time, not about the internet. As people launch more and more apps, it’s no surprise to find many bands launching their own iPhone apps.

So why are so many of them so shit?

Trawling around, we’re finding dozens of them. But the great thing about the App world is functionality, and many of these band’s apps are glorified webpages.

Calendars, News, About pages…what’s the point. When you have the internet on your phone? The worse are band apps that have Galleries. Galleries! This isn’t a mid 90s CD-Rom. Did you forget the screensaver?

Which is actually the point of this article. Too many of these apps feel like mid 90s CD-Rom programs. A bit of music, maybe a game, some photos, the lyrics… which may well be fine. But this is an app, something you keep on your phone. Not a CD-Rom that is there when you feel like listening to that record.

And why do we need band applications at all? Want to listen to music? There are lots of ways of doing that on the phone. Spotify‘s subscription will cost you less than buying all those band apps. And then there’s growth. We love a lot of music. But are we going to have to get every one of those band’s apps on our phones? If they start offering exclusives of some sort, we might have to. Or more likely, we’ll give up being a super fan because it’s too hard. We will be excluded.

So, we’re yet to be convinced by any band’s app. We’re struggling to see the point. And unless someone has a great idea, we will see it die alongside the mid 90s CD-Rom.

For the record – the band apps I’m looking at for this article are Wilco, REM, Belle And Sebastian, Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead, Pink, 311, Alice In Chains, Death Cab For Cutie, and more. If there is a good one we may have missed.

100 for 2000 – #68. The Fratellis – Costello Music

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #8. The Fratellis – Costello Music

This was another album all over the radio that first winter. You’d see billboards for Costello Music. They’d be on TV performing their songs. And yeah, there were a lot of bands around as well, but I thought the Fratellis was better than all of them.

The thing about this album is it’s fast. Like really fast. It reminds me of the first Supergrass album, where the tempos barely let up. Lyrically, there was something cool going on as well. It’s a very Scottish thing – pretty images, quiet girls, hints of danger. And there was like, 6 singles from this album.

This is another type of record that I need every so often. The ridiculously energetic, fun album. It’s also so British and so exciting. Walking around Soho with these songs on the iPod, I couldn’t help but be excited about being in Britain.

And the songs. Really big hooks. Baby Fratelli and Chelsea Daggerwere about as anthemic as you can get, but still filled with weird details for those who cared to look. Then there’s Whistle For the Choir, a gorgeous, quieter moment. But it’s about the rockers. FlatheadFor the GirlHenrietta… most bands would kill for just one of these choruses.

It’s a pretty easy album to like, if you like this sort of thing. I’m not going to do a big sell here. It’s like that other Scottish “fr” band, Franz Ferdinand. I like what these guys do. From their guitars, to their artwork, to the silly rock showboating thing of having all their surnames being ‘Fratelli’, and heck, even the singer’s Marc Bolan hairdo.

The follow up wasn’t as good, but I’m eagerly awaiting what comes next.

100 for 2000 – #67. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #7. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

I was working at EMI Australia when this album came out, and they were already set to be the biggest band in the world. My natural instinct led me away from Arctic Monkeys. All the most horrible people I knew loved them. Fuckhead scenesters. So, when Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not came out, I got my promo copy, barely gave it a listen, and moved on.

Then they toured, and someone gave me a ticket to the show. I’m 100% sure I was going with a friend. Who that friend was I don’t remember – pipe up if it was you (I’m sorry I forget things). Anyway, I knew very few of the songs, but never, ever has the Enmore Theatre sounded better. In my mind, I heard the Buzzcocks, I heard the Replacements, I heard Black Flag, I heard Elvis Costello, I heard Billy Bragg. Whether these extremely young lads from Sheffield had heard of any of these artists was unknown to me.

So before I left Australia, I ripped the album onto the iPod, and got on a plane. That winter, end of ’06 leading into ’07, was owned by the Arctic Monkeys. It was like what I heard about the days of Oasis. It seemed like they had 6 songs on high rotation at the same time. All those brilliant singles, throw in Mardy Bum and the non album single Leave Before the Lights Come On.

So it seems silly I didn’t fall for these guys earlier. And it’s because I underestimated Alex Turner. I couldn’t imagine what a 20 year old could possibly tell me. As it turns out, quite a lot. Especially in London that first year, going out a lot, meeting a whole new level of bullshit scenesters, Turner and the Monkeys were the all important anchor to reality. Their working class, no bullshit attitude was a much needed elixir.

I keep coming back to bands like this. Is it my working class background? Or my desire to live a quiet, proud life. The thing Tony Soprano talks about all the time, the dignified male silence. But I’m always drawn to bands that shut up, roll their sleeves up and just do the work. It’s the DIY ethic – I’m sure I was one of thousands of people who looked at Uncle Tupelo and thought, that could be me.  The same kids looked at the ugly, scruffy, uncool guys in Arctic Monkeys and thought the same.

The musicianship is red hot. The riffs, the stop/starts, the speed… I’d like to see any other band that has appeared on the cover of the NME in this decade pull off one of these songs. And the arrangements are always fascinating – the guitar interplay that levels Television at their best. The sound is thick, it’s choking, and it’s intense.

But it comes down the the songs. Lyrics that everyone quotes – from aging rockers to young politicians. And having met quite a few could-be-big bands, to see a band so actively wanting to insult their audience was captivating. It’s like climbing a mountain, then spitting.

Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But… is a point perfect attack on those scenesters that leech off them now but will forget them tomorrow. But better still is Fake Tales Of San Francisco – a healthy fuck you to bands who care more about their name producers, their US tour dates, their image and drugs than songs. Ending with the anthemic, heroic rally cry of:

Get off the bandwagon!
Put down the handbook!

The live music scene is a heady scene, full of bullshit. Turner captures the darkness, and the magic. Fights with bouncers, girls who never talk to you, the darkened corners of the dancefloors. How did 20 year olds pull this off so magnificently.

Apart from those big singles, there are two songs that people talk about, list in magazines and get a great reaction live. For me, they are the two real masterpieces on this record, and this decade in music.

Mardy Bum – the lightest thing on here, and one of the very few songs in the career to flirt with real affection. But it’s the detail that paints these people as real. They miss buses, they laugh and joke around. And the line everyone talks about – remember cuddles in the kitchen – that is placed in the perfect part of the song. Every radio station in the UK playlisted this song anyway, even though it was never a single. You watch, as the years go by, this will be to Turner like ‘Yesterday‘ is to McCartney.

And finally, damningly – A Certain Romance. Musically, it’s extraordinary. From the opening teeth gnashing guitar thrashing, it slides into a sweet groove until it hits it’s reggae lite beat, and then goes for several more ups and downs before it ends. It’s the 00s Good Vibrations. And it’s Turner’s best lyric too. A damning dissection of small minded thuggery, of idiots, of people who like songs just so their’s new ringtones. As good a bullshit detection alarm as anything Dylan did in the 60s. And just when you think this us vs them anthem could go nowhere more, then comes that mindblowing last verse. Our narrator looks over at his friends, who do all the same things, and he regrets that he can’t seem to hate them in the same way. What a way to end a song, and an album.

Turner takes all his own accusations apart, and calls himself the hypocrite. It’s a contradiction in my life too. I general leave whenever people play the ‘remember when’ game, but I put up with it with my friends. I can’t get mad at them. They argue about stupid things, they should know better than to like basshunter, or support Howard… and you just can’t get angry in the same way.

This album made plenty of best of the decade lists, and I completely agree. A major work. I’ve evoked the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Dylan in this review. And for the 00s, they were the solution for all three of those artists. And most importantly, they were popular. They got to people who normally don’t have their lives changed by music. I’m there with them, hype be damned. And thank god, they actually got even cooler as the years went on.

100 for 2000 – #66. Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #6. Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope

Emily was quite surprised with me, as we stood in line, outside that synagogue in Marble Arch. How can I not have heard Regina Spektor? It was a good question. Somehow she just missed me by. I think I got her mixed up with Ronnie Spector. So here we were then, lining up to see her. I had not heard a note of her music. I was still so new to London, and she was doing a short showcase at a beautiful synagogue. It was the launch of her album Begin To Hope.

She only did 8 or 9 songs that night, but I was blown away. I was actually in love by the first song – Summer In the City. A lonely, sexy ballad about missing a faraway lover, it wrapped up my time so far in London. Missing friends, wishing it was summer, drinking too much.

The rest of that gig was filled mainly with material from Begin To Hope, and each was better than the next. For the next year or so, this album became a big part of my life. It seemed the deeper I dug, the more rewards I found.

I have a soft spot for girl-y singer songwriter stuff. I always have, and it’s somewhere between a crush and being in love. Or maybe it’s more like a soap opera. And I’m not in love with Regina Spektor, the person (or Angie Hart, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Beth Orton etc) – I’m in love with the mysterious girl who exists for about 45 minutes on their records.

But to really get the most out of Regina Spektor, you have to meet her halfway. Her strange erratic melodies, and her imagery – cereal boxes, dolphins, wonder bread, November Rain. But between the clever stuff, there is real heart. The climax of On the Radio sums it up. After questioning funny things about life and love, she backtracks and spells it out

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood

It’s probably one of the most beautiful expressions of love and life I’ve ever heard.

I still carry this album with me. For albums about love, girls and matters of the heart, it’s the most important album for me in the late 20s. Every minor and major encounter with love has been reflected on this album. The intimacy of drool on another’s pillow (Samson), a night in with a little bag of cocaine (Hotel Song), trying to kiss anywhere except the mouth (That Time)…and so much more.

A few years after that synagogue show, Regina came up in conversation. I brought up that show, that awesome first show. Well, turns out Mike somehow had a recording of the show. Which I now have as well. It’s pretty cool to have a recording of a show that changed your life.

Wednesday Web: Mosspuppet.com

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – as the old saying goes. And if there is any doubt that computers are the new rock ‘n’ roll, we are now in a world where tech journalists are being parodied. And brilliantly so.

If you don’t know Walt Mossberg, the human version, he is the long time tech journalist for the Wall Street Journal. He is a big supporter of Apple products, and often gets products before release to review – making him hot commodity in the tech world. He’s grumpy demeanor and his video blogs on the All Things Digital site are well known to Mac fans, and technology fans in general.

So along comes Walt Mosspuppet. From the brilliant Rant Puppets studio, Mosspuppet was one of many parody puppets on the site. But Mosspuppet has struck a chord. In recent weeks, he has launched a twitter account, a podcast and a cool new blog.

Everyone wants information these days. Leaks, spoilers, exclusives – all hot words in this day and age. The real Mossberg has them, and Mosspuppet sends up that culture better than anyone. In his regular videos, Mosspuppet goes on about his NDAs, how he’s had the Apple Tablet for months but can’t talk about it. He’s also disturbingly in love with Steve Jobs. His enemies are any of Apple’s competitors. In short, he is the cartoon of every Mac worshipper out there.

Here’s one of my favourites, that pretty much sums up his credo

But as with every lie, there’s some truth. The blog is fantastic, bursting the bubble on net rumours, bad journalism, insane fandom and there is just some pretty decent swearing as well.

So go check out the videos first, and then follow the man (puppet) on his blog – http://mosspuppet.com/

(And hey, here’s another classic. This is back when he was still called Walt Mossberg)

100 for 2000 – #65. Darren Hanlon – Fingertips and Mountaintops

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #5. Darren Hanlon – Fingertips and Mountaintops

I left Australia, with one bag, one iPod, and started again, in many ways. When I got to London, this great city of music, a whole new batch of records entered my life. Those records make up the rest of the 2006 list. But there is one album in the middle, one that I listened to when I was wondering around Europe, with no one I knew knowing where I was. It was one of the very last albums I bought in Australia – Darren Hanlon‘s Fingertips And Mountaintops.

I had heard some of these songs live, but I barely had time with the album. On planes, trains, buses and just walking, I listened to this album. Wandering around Madrid, or Vienna, or Copenhagen, listening to Darren Hanlon. It became my little bible.

The jokey-est song is Couch Surfing – an acoustic surf rock song about ‘dossing’ (a word I only learnt when I got to London). It’s clever and witty, but the lines about the weightlessness the philosopher’s teach – just a back pack and the open road – captured the romance.

It helps that this record is so soothing. Hold On, this non-descript expression of support, guided me through many strange streets. The low level bitterness of the mindless People Who Wave At Trains was amplified at every platform I travelled on. My encounter with Mischa Barton in a Spanish bar was captured quite well by the song Elbows.

There was one other song recorded in these sessions that never made the record (it came out on a Candle compilation) – My Life A Blur. For me, it lives well with this album, and it’s all about travel. The carriages that rocked me into slumber. Of all of Hanlon’s songs that I love, it’s this one that hits home for me the most.

I clung onto the lyrical advice on this record for dear life. I drank up it’s stories. There is something quite zen about this record. The title track is named after a brilliant image;

If you put one finger in front of your face
And close one eye
You can block out a mountain

It doesn’t mean anything, and yet everything.

Hanlon has come such a long way from that guy I saw at the Lansdowne Hotel, playing two songs between a mate’s set. He’s been with me this entire decade. It’s now been four years since his last proper album. When that next album comes out, I’m sure it will help me deal with what life brings me.

100 for 2000 – #64. Youth Group – Casino Twilight Dogs

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #4. Youth Group – Casino Twilight Dogs
(Ivy League)

Yup. Why, it’s another Youth Group album. Casino Twilight Dogs was probably their big chance at mainstream success, having had their cover of Alphaville‘s Forever Young featured on the OC. It was a number one single, and the guys even toured with Coldplay.

A few words about Forever Young. Now, I had no idea how hated this band were until Forever Young hit the airwaves. The amount of jealousy and anger people had at this band because of their success was shocking to me. That they were the best band in Australia at the time didn’t seem to matter. Because they were on a cool label they got all the chances.

(I would think they were the lowest selling artists on Ivy League who made more than one record, but why let facts get in the way)

So, yes, it’s a cover. But that is the schtick for the OC. Having worked on a couple of those soundtracks, they are full of cover versions. Also, Forever Young is a great song. It’s a weird doomed prom night teen suicide song – and the Youth Group version, which slowed it down and added sweetness and menace, was an interesting take.

All the fuckers who hated them knew far too much about the OC. The tall poppy syndrome was in full force. And finally, the fact this song got to number one shows how much Australia is a little America. I mean, I could not hate the OC any more than I do, and it just wrapped up a generation. We are sheep.

In the end, Forever Young is the last track on this record, and I think of it as a separate thing. The delights of this album come from all the other songs, some of Toby Martin‘s finest.

The biggest problem with Casino Twilight Dogs is that it sounds like a compilation. It jumps around a bit, from the opening Catching And Killing, a strange, jagged song that’s almost like the Fall. Then there’s Start Today Tomorrow, one of Martin‘s most beautiful songs, backed by a string quartet. And there’s everything in between.

Martin lost none of his ability to express big emotions. Let It Go (which oddly was left off the international version) nods to Dylan, but is about sweet release. Similarly, Daisychains is a gorgeous apology to an abandoned lover. I would be on the balcony at work, listening to these two songs as I had my regular cigarette, wondering if I could actually pack it all in.

Th album trails off at the end. There are a few too many mid tempo pop rockers. And there are great songs, but it’s probably their weakest album overall. It was still easily one of the ten best of 2006.

Success did not come knocking after all. Youth Group bunkered down and continued on.

100 for 2000 – #63. Belle And Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #3. Belle And Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
(Rough Trade)

It’s funny to think that for a band that I love so much, their last album was the first one I bought on release. But I guess Belle And Sebastian have slowed down. Ever since the band regrouped after the departure of Isobel Campbell and Stuart David, learnt to play live, do interviews and enjoyed being in a band. The Life Pursuit is even more slick, more fun and more exciting.

The band really shines on this record. As the story goes, the band started rehearsing and writing without Stuart Murdoch, and he finally came in and finished off the song ideas. And so, never has this band sounded less like Murdoch‘s backing band. Blues Are Still Blue, Price Of A Cup Of Tea and the amazing 70s funk of Song For Sunshine.

And as great it is that the band is on fire and the music sounds great – it is still Murdoch’s show. He brings in some of his best songs. Funny Little Frog, the first single, a twisted song of devotion. White Collar Boy is a bizarre cartoon of the simple boy led astray by a beautiful woman, set in a prison. Weird, but fun.

I know people who hate this record (most significantly, people who put out their previous albums). And yes, it’s almost like the second album of a new band.

I obviously love the new band though. And with this record, I finally felt like I was in the club.

One more thing. I always thought Mornington Crescent was in Scotland, but as it turns out it is of course in London. I think of their song every time I pass it. As we head into the London years, I thought I should point that out.