[It's end of the year time around the eP offices and, while we're gathering the summary of what moved us in 2003, here is the final round of news for the year. Click here if you'd like to pop down directly to The Best and The Rest.]
On the Corner of Second and Bowery, Joey Ramone Place
Over the weekend, the corner of Second Street and Bowery in New York City was rechristened Joey Ramone Place. The location is on the north end of the block which houses CBGB, the legendary club which gave the Ramones their start and, despite the "country bluegrass blues" meaning of the acronym, helped usher in the punk era.
CBGB owner Hilly Kristal had this to say about the band: "The Ramones meant a lot to this city and to music. They were the original punk rock band. Their longevity supercedes anybody who sold more records, and the consistency and meaning of their name is greater than anybody in the punk rock field." As for Joey Ramone Place, Kristal simply says, "It's about time."
Fans have been petitioning the city for the landmark since the singer's death from cancer in 2001. Dee Dee Ramone, original bass player for the band, passed away later that year and the remaining members of the band, guitarist Johnny Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone, were on hand when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Several days before the sign was to be unveiled it was announced that the city of New York had made a mistake with the signage, with the name mistakenly being changed from Joey Ramone Place to Joey Ramone Way. Then, as we went to press, those involved with the ceremony announced that the NYC Department of Transportation had hung the sign on the _wrong_ corner -- the corner of Bleeker and Bowery, instead of Second and Bowery. However, thanks to the help of a few friends and fans, the sign was removed and installed on the proper corner, and the ceremony honoring of Joey Ramone continued uninterrupted.
Another Month, Another Round of Ultimately Futile Lawsuits
The Recording Industry Association of America handed out another round of lawsuits this last month, pushing the grand total of people who have been sued by the organization to over 500. The RIAA is holding fast to their plan of suing the major uploaders who have participated in the sort of peer-to-peer file sharing copyright infringement which the RIAA continues to contend is destroying the recording industry. The RIAA still hasn't bothered to note the hypocrisy of the labels who, for the most part, are still paying the artist an infinitesimally small portion of every retail dollar spent on CDs.
Of course, we at eP don't condone copyright infringement and hope that everyone out there is doing their part to ensure that the artists themselves get paid for the fruits of their labors. Nor do we condone the practice of the industry in raping the artists. The vast conglomerates are going to fight tooth and claw every inch of the way to their final dissolution, crying out the entire time that they are fighting the good fight in the name of their artists. In the meantime, we hope you all continue the fight from the trenches by supporting your independent record store, buying direct from the artist when you can, and continuing to show your support for music which is crafted through the sweat and blood and effort of the individual musician.
Stuff the RIAA. Let's not waste any more of our lives talking about them.
Okay, maybe one more detail. During the time in which it has taken the RIAA machinery to ground out the lawsuits against the 500 users, over two million copies of Kazaa have been downloaded from Download.com every week since early May. Sure, the number has dipped from 2.5 million per week to just over 2.1 million a week, but we can't help but point out that the we're talking about a change of 400,000 downloads. Per week.
We can only hope the billable hours the lawyers are charging the RIAA to put together their lawsuits -- which have, by the way, netted $1,200 in blood money from a 12-year-old public housing resident and some surprise and outrage from an 85-year-old grandmother who was sued for using a PC-only based file-swapping application while she only owns a Macintosh -- will ultimately bankrupt this august and venerable organization.
Is Shorter Better?
Meanwhile, record executives are still scrambling for a way to recover from slumping album sales and have lit upon a new rationale: make records shorter. Citing audience complaints that albums are too long and are being padded with lower quality fill material, record executives are looking for ways to convince artists to put out records which have fewer than ten tracks. A common example being bandied about on the excesses being realized by the 80 minute CD is Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below which has nearly 40 tracks. This record is being compared to the brief and million selling eight track album Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen.
Okay, I looked at Outkast's record in the store the other night and here's a few things wrong with this comparison. (1) The Outkast record is filled with interstitial bits -- tracks which provide linkage between the actual songs and which aren't more than a minute in length themselves. Call me crazy, but Bruce never struck me as being the type who was interested in doing little talkie bits between songs. (2) The Outkast record is a double CD. If the record company is selling it for less than $30, they've got nobody to blame but themselves for why they aren't making any money on it. Especially when you compare it to a single disc release like Springsteen's Born in the USA. Anyone ever notice that you can't get Pink Floyd's The Wall for less than $28. There's a reason for that. I wonder how much Springsteen's double-CD record, The River, retails for?
Of course, when you start making shorter records, you have to give some thought to the suggested retail price of the CD. During the 1980s, BMG's RCA Nashville division tried to shorten their releases to eight tracks without reducing the $15 price tag. Consumers noticed and flooded BMG home offices with angry letters and the length restriction was retired a few months later.
The Wrong Sort of Infamy
In news unrelated to Michael Jackson, Phil Spector has officially been charged with murder. Spector was arrested in early February of this year following the shooting death of Lana Clarkson who was found dead in the foyer of his Alhambra, CA, home. The 63-year-old record producer has been out on $1 million bail since February while police have conducted their investigation. Spector claimed in an interview done for Esquire magazine that Clarkson shot herself and, after six months of consideration of the evidence, police have concluded that Spector did indeed shoot the actress.
Spector is best known for his "wall of sound" style of production where multiple overdubs of instruments and voices created, well, a wall of sound which helped create such hits as "Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me" for The Crystals, "Walking in the Rain" for The Ronettes and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers.
Speaking of Michael Jackson...well, let's just say that it appears to be 1993 all over again for the struggling pop star. He is approaching his recent troubles in a very 2003 sort of way: by publishing a blog of events as they unfold.
RIP Bobby Hatfield
Bobby Hatfield, one-half of The Righteous Brothers, recently passed away in a Kalamazoo, Michigan, hotel. Hatfield was the tenor to Bill Medley's baritone and the duo have enjoyed a number of hits over their 42-year career including "Unchained Melody," "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (produced by Phil Spector) which has been co-opted for about a million films.
No cause of death has been specified as of yet. The duo were in Kalamazoo to play four dates in Michigan and Ohio. In addition to 12-week stints in Las Vegas, the duo have routinely toured for more than 70 shows during the course of a year. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
From the "Not Getting It" Department
Vivendi recently sold MP3.com to CNET Networks Inc. CNET has just found out they are buying the rights to the domain name only. The actual content, which is currently being hosted at MP3.com, will be irrevocably deleted on December 3rd, the date of transfer of ownership. CNET, understandably, is a little surprised that they aren't getting much more than a parking lot. The artists who have put a great deal of effort and energy in creating the music which has been hosted on the site and, let's face it, have done a great deal to revolutionize the concept of the direct interface between themselves and their audiences are getting fucked. If this is news to you, you're only about two weeks behind the artists.
As I write this, Texas-based Primetones is in negotiations to preserve the 1.2 million track archive. CNET has been planning on relaunching MP3.com next year as a informational tool about music and not necessarily as a source for downloadable content.
From the "Getting It" Department
Weed, a new Seattle-based company has a new take on the whole file-sharing phenomena. They're actively expecting you to utilize peer-to-peer sharing for music. In fact, you -- the user -- will get paid for doing so.
Jack Endino, a Seattle-based engineer who has been producing records for a long time and, among many other claims to fame, made a splash when he recorded a small record named Bleach by a then mostly unknown band named Nirvana, has been part of the process and his Jack's Weed Cafe is a top-level provider of Weed-based files. In a recent newsletter, he described how the process works and, since he is a man who knows, we'll get out of the way and let him tell you:
I've been working with a company here in Seattle who have solved the problem, and a brilliant solution it is, as it not only permits unlimited file sharing, it actually encourages it, and everyone gets paid...even the people sharing the files! They call 'em Weed Files. As in, "spreads like a..." A Weed file is a WMA (Windows Media 9) file that has been encoded with a proprietary Digital Rights Management scheme (we say the files are "weedified"). Before you ridicule this, let me tell you that as of Win Encoder v.8, WMA files sound way better than MP3s. I was a skeptic but my ears sold me.
When you download a Weed music file, it will play three times on your PC, and then you will get a message saying, gee, you seem to like it, well how about buying it? Then the file is "locked" on that computer, and won't play until you buy it, at a list price that is set by the artist.
When you buy it, 50 percent of the money goes to the artist; 15 percent goes to Weed. The other 35 percent is the kicker... it's called a "distributor incentive." Here's why: 20 percent goes to the person you got the file from... 10 percent goes to the person that person got it from... and 5 percent goes to the person that person got it from. Think about that for a minute.
Now you "own" the file... you can play it as much as you want, burn an audio CD, whatever. Why wouldn't you just make MP3s of it and give it away? Here's why: now that you bought the file, if you decide to share it... You become the 20 percent recipient if anyone buys the file after getting it from you. And the guy you bought it from will still get 10 percent... with the artist still getting 50 percent every time, forever! And if one of your buyers starts selling the file on his site, he gets 20 percent of each sale, but you still get 10 percent. And so on!
In this way, people are motivated to share the files as widely as possible... and it is all 100 percent legal. Weed takes the position that no file sharing method will ever be any more secure than "traditional" media (i.e. CDs). Once it's going on a wire out to your speakers, it's hijackable. Weed relies on the profit incentive to keep people in the game, and to encourage respect for artist rights.
News Flash: Music Calms the Restless Turkey
I'm not sure anyone will be really surprised by this one, but the National Farmer's Union in the United Kingdom recently sent out 114 copies of CDs to the turkey farmers in the region. What was on the CDs? Music to calm your turkeys. The CD contained a variety of environmental sounds including the sound of birds twittering, wind chimes, whale sounds and the gobble-gobble of happy turkeys.
I'm not entirely sure who determined that the "happy turkeys" were indeed making happy sounds and not sending out coded messages of, "Run, you bastards! It's almost the holidays! You're going to be stuffed and fried to crisp in the oven!" Trial and error, I suppose, since the gobble-gobble noises on the CD (in addition to the other sounds) are intended to de-stress the birds. Stress leads to disease and, well, nobody likes a diseased turkey.
Throwing Your Voice Becomes So Last Year
A new technology called Vocaloid, financed by Yamaha and developed at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, is able to produce -- on demand -- any text you wish. Not so big a deal, but the trick here is that Vocaloid is able to sing the text in a manner that is apparently of exceptionally high caliber. Sure, computer-driven speech has become a solid mainstay on the corporate hold queues everywhere, but actually synthesizing the human voice so that it sings has been something beyond modern technology. Until now.
Using a database created from phonemes -- the basic sounds which form the foundation of any language -- London-based Zero-G Limited, a company which has already licensed Vocaloid from Yamaha, is planning on creating two "fonts:" Leon, a "Virtual Soul Vocalist," and Lola, his female equivalent. The duo are expected to make their debut early in the new year at the International Music Products Association conference to be held in Anaheim, California.
The process involves utilizing a real singer to perform upwards of 60 pages of basic sounds -- the letters and various intonations of them -- as well as different pitches and techniques like glissandos and legatos. The combinations take upwards of 35 singing hours to complete before Vocaloid can produce a audio font which is reminiscent of the original voice. The arduous data requirements will probably prevent illicit copies of well-known voices behind distributed across the Internet anytime soon, but expect to see Virtual Vocalists providing backup in next year's pop hits and we can be sure the Japanese will fabricate a completely virtual pop star -- all the way down to her voice -- before 2005. Ah, the joys of technology.
Why We Like the Sounds We Do
In an article published in the August 6th issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, David Schwartz, Catherine Howe, and Dale Purves of Duke University argue that music and language are more inter-connected than previously thought. Utilizing a database of over 10,000 snippets of human speech, they noted the frequency of certain frequencies. The result chart had a close correspondence to the chromatic scale.
While they aren't about to say that they've stumbled upon a process by which they can figure out which sounds the human prefers, they have been able to demonstrate a link between speech and music -- a link which argues that our speech patterns mimic the musical notes which we most prefer. And, by extension, the sort of music which we like mirrors the speech patterns that we find most soothing.
C'est la Vie
Since we're reaching the end of the year, I'm going to sign off on 2003 by segueing into our yearly wrap of the Best and the Rest. Happy Holidays to everyone, and may you not be trapped in a car during holiday traffic with a radio that only gets those stations who have switched their programming to 24/7 Christmas music.
I know. It sounds like Hell. I'll be dodging 106.9 FM myself. If you need to know which station has succumbed to the latest low point in holiday commercialization, the list can be found here.
The Best and The Rest
Eric J. Iannelli
2003 has been a long, tumultuous year, most of which was taken up with the process of de- and re-settlement. Even now, before it's properly ended, my retrospective view of it is as fragmentary as looking into a shattered mirror. So when fishing around in these impressions and memories of the past 12 months to extract a handful of musical highlights, I do so knowing full well that some are going to be forgotten or ignored, obscured by the whirlwind of other events. Or, to put this long winded apologia another way, no offense is meant to the albums or artists I've hailed in these or other virtual pages and then omitted from what follows.
To make things easy, I'll begin with the one sitting in next to me on my bookshelf, The Wrens' The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher). It's the first time I desperately wanted to relate to an album and found that I couldn't. I'm not where these guys are right now, though I have been there more times than I care to count. In any case, it's a brilliant album of spinning tires and wasting ambitions in the Garden State, something I needed about six years ago for reasons of commiseration. Like its distant predecessor, Secaucus, this is intelligent, universally appealing indie rock from a band that understands hard knocks and knows how to transform them into meaningful music.
Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie (Barsuk) is another great indie album of 2003, but on the opposite end of the scale. More heartbreak and hopelessness, yes, but it's heartbreak and hopelessness of a different sort, from the other U.S. coast more than 3,000 miles away from the Jersey Shore. The songs here are highly polished, poetic, intricate. I've shuffled it in and out of my CD player for the past few months because it's the type of album that asks for the listener to keep returning. In that sense, it's like coming home after a stint abroad. You can enjoy the familiar while marvelling at how much has changed. [Click here for the eP review.]
Transatlanticism has recently been issued on Super Audio CD, as have Frederic Chopin's Polonaises performed by Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon). Sony co-developed the SACD with Philips after their copyright on the compact disc ran out (the Japanese entertainment giant was quietly getting a cut of every CD sold until then); so no matter what they might claim about a commitment to innovation, this new audio format was born out of pure greed. But that's how capitalism works, and I suppose as an audiophile I should be grateful. With the right equipment, the SACD does make a monumental difference in sound quality. With, I repeat, the right equipment. The rest of us who can't afford the few available SACD models and the 5.1 channel speaker system will have to be content with the hybrid format, which is compatible with all disc players. Even on Edison's wax cylinder, however, Pollini's Chopin would still be remarkable. These renditions highlight this pianist's talent for interpretation without obscuring the sheer romantic genius of the composer. When I refer to this release as essential, I don't use the word lightly.
Another classical CD that needs to make its way to non-specialist collections is Christophe Rousset leading Les Talens Lyriques in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Six Concerts en Sextuor (Decca). Rameau has long since faded from fashion, not to mention most high-profile operatic and classical repertoires, causing many of us to overlook his influence on countless classical composers. This passionate, careful recording of the Baroque composer's chamber music, preserved and edited by the lawyer Jacques Joseph Marie Decroix, illustrates why his music shouldn't be neglected any longer.
Skipping finally to jazz, three albums of the past year impressed me considerably: Dave Brubeck's Park Avenue South (Telarc), coupled no doubt with my fine memories of his live performance at The Anvil in Basingstoke; the Clark Terry & Max Roach collaboration Friendship (Eighty Eight's); and Summer Times by Franck Amsallem (Sunnyside). The appeal of the two albums by Brubeck and Terry/Roach should be self-evident. All three performers are in their eighth decade but their love of the music and virtuoso talent hasn't diminished one whit. Just listen to Brubeck's stride and flair on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" or Terry's misty-eyed recollection of halcyon days on "I Remember Clifford." Amsallem is not as well known as these others, but he ought to be. The French pianist has recorded Summer Times as a way of proving himself on more accessible standards such as Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" and Albert Hague's "Young and Foolish." It would be a shame if more people didn't take advantage of the opportunity to hear him giving these familiar tunes such unique treatment.
It's inevitable that I've left something out, but these are the albums that spring most readily to mind, and therefore, I guess, the ones that most deserve to make a list like this. If I have one wish for the New Year, it's to see rap, techno and cookie-cutter pop die quick simultaneous deaths, and for the supplicant prodigal sons and daughters to return to forms of music with a bit more substance. Am I cynical to think it won't happen?
Favorite Moment of 2002 revisited in 2003: Peter Gabriel's Growing Up Tour. Released on DVD late this year, the video was an approximation of Gabriel's live tour which I saw in December of 2002. Watching it at home isn't the same (not nearly) as seeing him live, but I'm still glad to have it because it brings back so much of the show and how much I was completely transfixed during the entire evening. Gabriel, with this tour and with Up, reminded me of how much I love music.
Favorite Bit of Technology: Legitimate online music retailers blossomed this year and I tried my hand at eMusic, iTunes, and Rhapsody. I still prefer eMusic's catalog and no fuss policy about MP3s (you download them, you own them), but I do like iTunes as an MP3 cataloger and player. Mainly because the interface is exactly the same on the Macintosh and the PC. Us dual-platform kids like this sort of cross-platform matching. It makes our lives easier.
Favorite Resurgence of the Art of the Video: Palm Pictures has started a sub-division called The Directors Label. Their purpose is to put out the collected video works of the vanguard video directors. Their initial releases are the works of Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze. Give me sets of Floria Sigismondi's and Mark Romanek's work and I never be inclined to turn MTV on again.
Favorite Label: While the output of Ant-Zen, Hands, and Hymen continue with a high level of consistency and newcomers M-tronic and Parametric follow closely behind, it has been Nicolas Chevreux's Ad Noiseam label which has consistently surprised and delighted me with all of its releases in 2003. From broken drum 'n' bass to 8-bit disco noise to cinematic break beat to isolationist ambient to groovy click 'n' cut, Ad Noiseam holds only to the ideal of putting out music which leaves its stamp on the listener. Coupled with the Tarmvred and Iszoloscope Do America Tour which brought noise to our living rooms, Ad Noiseam was the my label of choice in 2003.
Favorite Song I Can't Wait to Play for My Son: Coin Gutter's "Lullaby" from All Your Dreams Are Meaningless (Diffusion i Média). A musique concrete song, "Lullaby" mixes the soothing sounds which moms and pops like to let their wee children listen to with bursts of noise and digital fuckery. A song for the 21st century child. Well, a song for my 21st century child. This song will ensure that no matter what sort of music my soon-to-arrive son ultimately finds to annoy Dad with, I'll have scrambled his noodle first.
Favorite Records During 2003:
- Star of Ash, Iter.Viator (The End Records). This is orchestral noir; Iter.Viator mixes classical underpinnings with modern beat structures and dissonant cacophony while allowing for avant-garde flourishes and dark ambient passages. [Click here for the eP review.]
- Ulf Söderberg, Vindarnas Hus (Slow Moon). Passion-style dark ambient ritual music. Vindarnas Hus is the music you hear in the wilderness during the secret rituals of the full moon. [Click here for the eP review.]
- Laibach, WAT (Mute). Military techno stomp shot through with revolutionary rhetoric and the melody of Armageddon. [Click here for the eP review.]
- Peter Gabriel, Up (Geffen). I could never bring myself to write a review of this record. It seemed like doing so would kill the magic. Instead, I just quietly made a space for it in my heart.
- Goldfrapp, Black Cherry (Mute). Alison Goldfrapp's second record is a sleek and sensual bit of Euro-pop that looks good, tastes sweet, and lingers a long time in your head. [Click here for the eP review.]li>
- Covenant, Northern Light (Metropolis). "A single spark of passion can change a man forever / A moment in a lifetime is all it takes to break him / A fraction of a heartbeat made us what we are." Machine Music Romanticism. [Click here for the eP review.]
- This Morn' Omina, 7 Years of Famine (Ant-Zen). If gothic dance clubs are the modern temples of the Eleusinian Mysteries, then This Morn' Omina is the High Priest and 7 Years of Famine is the holy ritual. [Click here for the eP review.]
- Tarmvred, 6581 (Ad Noiseam). Distorted 8-bit disco. Four tracks. All you need to shake the robot.
- Larvae, Monster Music EP and Fashion Victim (Ad Noiseam). While the Monster Music EP set Godzilla and Mothra theme music to 21st century break beats, Fashion Victim presented a widescreen cinematic approach to drum 'n' bass that brought ambient, illbient and orchestral overtures to the land of beats. The other half of the cinematic break beat coin is Detritus' Endogenous, also out on Ad Noiseam.
Killing Joke, Killing Joke (Zuma Recordings). Listening to this album reminds me how self-indulgent, trite and purely adolescent 99-percent of the music currently out on the market is. The broken hearts of the mopey indie rockers, the flash dance moves of whatever teen idol is being pimped, the glamorization of thug life, the dulling of our minds, hearts and spirits by a business culture more interested in maximizing profits over artistic value, all gets summarily dismissed by one listen to a band who have that rare ability to teach, make us think, and keep us entertained. Their return was a long time coming, and the result was well worth the wait. In a postmodern world that revels in war as entertainment, fiction as fact, and media manipulation as the ultimate art form, we can thank Killing Joke for being the court jesters of our collective conscience.
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American Recordings) / Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, Streetcore (Epitaph). Even though The Man Comes Around was released in late November of 2002, it spent most of this year in the public eye thanks to the video for "Hurt" -- an incredibly beautiful, sad, intimate cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that Cash took and forever made his own. In listening to the album's songs you could sense the end was near, and after June Carter Cash passed away mid-year all knew Johnny wouldn't keep his beloved waiting for long. The album's ender, "We'll Meet Again," is a fitting closer, and The Man Comes Around is a rich and powerful testament to the power of an icon who, even in his dying days, could leave an indelible mark with his music. Streetcore is a posthumous release and, too, is a fitting reminder of the legacy and influence of a musical giant who is sorely missed. Mostly complete at the time of Strummer's death, the surviving members of the Mescaleros (along with Strummer's family) did an amazing job of polishing the album for release and keeping the spirit of Strummer's music alive without turning it into a sobbing requiem.
Johnny Cash (with Joe Strummer), "Redemption Song" (American Recordings/Lost Highway). Recorded during The Man Comes Around sessions when Strummer paid a visit to the studio Cash was tracking songs in (a visit that would turn into days), and now included as part of a new Johnny Cash boxset titled Unearthed. With sparse acoustic accompaniment, the gravel-worn voices of both Cash and Strummer compliment each other wonderfully. This version of Bob Marley's classic will be the Christmas song for the family, friends and fans who are still mourning the passing of these two legends.
David J., Estranged (Heydey). The former Bauhaus/Love and Rockets member auctioned off all his memorabilia from those two bands on eBay in order to finance the recording and release of Estranged, a musically lush but emotionally naked album detailing J's strained relationship with his missus. You following me here? The man, who co-founded two of the most influential bands of the '80s (and '90s, in Love and Rockets case), sold off all his musical items related to those heady days to pay for an autobiographical album about infidelity. And he said he had no regrets about it. That takes stones, friends. Big stones. And the album's a great listen, to boot.
Joseph Arthur, Redemption's Son (Universal). Another that was released State-side in November 2002, and one that shouldn't technically be on this list, but Redemption's Son has been played on my stereo, in my car, and on my headphones while traveling near and far more than any other album of mine in 2K3, and so deserves some worthy notice. Arthur is an all-time fave, and there's a soft mushy part of my blackened, shriveled raisin of a heart where his music rules exclusively. Achingly beautiful.