The first of three musical interludes….The Album Trilogy

Content in Context is on the road again, so over the next three weeks, instead of the usual stuff, please enjoy a series of musical interludes. And in keeping with that trio theme, the first addresses the the notion of “the album trilogy”.

Images sources from various public websites

I don’t mean triple albums (i.e., no bloated live collections, or multi-disc greatest hits…) but three individual studio albums, released sequentially, by a single artist or band. They weren’t necessarily conceived as a trilogy, but somehow they have come to form a self-contained, mini-canon. Either they reflect a key period in the artist’s career, and/or they represent a significant shift in style and content.

Few artists are capable of sustaining seismic shifts in their output. Sure, plenty of artists can turn out reasonable runs of “consist” albums (read: same again, or “why mess with a winning formula?), but few have created a truly unique and memorable sequence of three albums, that can also each individually hold their own in lists of all-time great records.

Even a band like the Beatles failed to create such a trilogy: yes, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road are both great albums, but however you cut it, the albums either side of those releases were either patchy (inside the double White Album lies an amazing single album…), compilations (Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine), or released out of sequence (Let It Be). And their contemporaries and friendly rivals, the Beach Boys, could not match the genius of Pet Sounds – neither Wild Honey nor Smiley Smile (as good as they may be in parts) managed to sustain that level of quality, especially in light of the subsequent reworked/reissued “lost” albums that lurked within their 1967-1968 recording sessions.

So, with no other criteria, here is a list of my favourite album trilogies (and like any other music list, the selections are highly subjective):

David Bowie: Low, “Heroes”, Lodger (The Berlin Trilogy) – A pivotal time in Bowie’s career, reflecting his European exile (following his US meltdown), helped by Brian Eno, and largely inspired by the city it references (where much of the material was produced). Plus, after his folk, glam and plastic soul periods, these albums include some of his most enduring songs. Aside from 1980’s Scary Monsters (something of a related coda to the Berlin albums), Bowie would never quite reach the same critical success until his final two albums, The Next Day and Black Star.

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light – also helped by Eno, these albums showed the band shift in style, sentiment and subject matter. The albums that followed featured a few great songs, but nothing of the sustained output of the trilogy.

Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde – Dylan goes electric, finds his groove, and writes some of his best material, before going “country”…. He could have had a further trilogy incorporating Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but the previous album, Planet Waves is a poor effort, and after Desire, Dylan found sanctimony, religion and reggae.

Wire: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154 – Rather like the punk era they emerged from, Wire’s first three albums are a 1,2,3 assault on your musical senses. Despite being closely identified with punk, taken together these albums totally outclassed most of their contemporaries.

Magazine: Real Life, Secondhand Daylight, The Correct Use of Soap – Like Wire, Magazine emerged from the ashes of punk, and like Wire, with their first three albums, they defined much of what has become to be known as post-punk (and also transcended most of their contemporaries). Plus, they came from Manchester.

Bjork: Debut, Post, Homogenic – Across her first three solo releases, Bjork established and defined a musical individuality that continues to this day: choosing to work with interesting combinations of producers and musicians, exploring different song-writing and composition styles, and developing a distinct narrative arc across each album.

Madonna: Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, Music – This sequence of albums probably represents Madonna’s critical peak (not necessarily the height of her commercial success). Certainly they present a more mature and sophisticated sound, and draw on Madonna’s knack for choosing songwriters and producers that are in tune with (and even define) the zeitgeist – a trait she shares with Bjork.

Dusty Springfield: Where Am I Going, Dusty … Definitely, Dusty in Memphis – I’m not sure if this classifies as a guilty pleasure, but this sequence of late ’60s releases saw Dusty Springfield transition from her previous albums of pop, standards and show-tunes to more focused, classic soul and r’n’b – but still including her choice of key ballads by Bacharach & David (a constant factor in her repertoire).

Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express, Man Machine, Computer World – The albums that defined electronica and modern dance music. Sure, Autobahn was a breakthrough album, but compared to that huge success, Radioactivity was something of a curious follow-up (although it seems to have gotten better with time). And afterwards, it largely seems that Kraftwerk have been content to keep re-cycling/re-working/re-visiting their earlier work.

Massive Attack: Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine – The “Sound of Bristol”, that helped trigger the genre known as trip-hop (now something of blighted category). OK, purists may argue that No Protection came between Protection and Mezzanine, but I see it as a remix album (albeit a very good one). Each album is also built around key female guest vocalists, that unlike many other “featuring” collaborations do not feel like gimmicks or marketing ploys.

Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, Pink Moon – By sad fate, this is the entire output of Nick Drake’s short recording career. Not much more I can say, other than he achieved far more with these three albums than most singer-songwriters have managed with much larger output. Less is definitely more.

Close calls: Other artists that nearly made the cult of the trilogy include: Elvis Costello, Flaming Lips, OMD, John Cale, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, New Order, Beck, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Echo & the Bunnymen…

Next week: The Soundtracks of My Life…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

I was browsing in one of the last remaining record stores in Melbourne’s CBD last week, flipping through the secondhand racks for independent vinyl releases of the 70s and 80s. (I was in search of some sounds of the Paisley Underground, if anyone is interested.) The shop owner, who also runs a record label, lamented that there are a whole bunch of out-of-print recordings of that era that he wants to license for reissue in physical format – but in many cases, the rights have since been acquired by major record companies that have no interest in re-releasing this material themselves. Yet, when approached for permission, oftentimes they ask for prohibitive licensing fees, making the venture uneconomic.

The sound of the Paisley Underground (on vinyl, of course) – Image sourced from Discogs.com

The irony is, most times the major labels have no idea what they have in their back catalogues, because the content they own has been scooped up through corporate mergers or is still managed via a series of archaic territorial licensing and distribution deals based on antiquated geo-blocking practices. Plus, understandably, they are usually more interested in flogging their latest product than curating their past.

There’s nothing wrong with content owners wanting to charge licensing fees, but surely they need to be commensurate with the likely rate of return for the licensee (we’re usually talking about a small circulation among enthusiasts, after all). Plus, the original production costs have either been written off, or amortized on the books – so, given there is little to no new cost to the content owner, ANY additional revenue stream would surely be welcome, however modest?

But what about streaming and downloads? Surely all this back catalogue content is available from your nearest digital music platform of choice? Well, actually no. In many cases, “out-of-print” also means “out-of-circulation”. And even if back content is available to stream or download, the aforementioned geo-blocking can mean that rights owners in certain markets may choose not to make the content available in specific countries. (I’ve even had the experience where content I have purchased and downloaded from iTunes Australia is no longer available – probably because the rights have subsequently been acquired by a local distributor who has elected to withdraw it from circulation.)

Of course, copyrights eventually expire or lapse, and unless renewed or otherwise maintained, usually fall into the public domain (but not for many years…..). Again, nothing wrong with affording copyright owners the commercial and financial benefits of their IP. But, should content owners be allowed to sit on their assets, and do nothing with their IP, despite the willingness of potential licensees to generate additional income for them?

In a previous blog, I ventured the idea of a “use it or lose it” concept. This would enable prospective licensees to re-issue content, in return for an appropriate royalty fee or share of revenues, where the copyright owners (and/or their labels, publishers and distributors) no longer make it available – either in certain markets and territories, or in specific formats. To mitigate potential copyright exploitation, copyright owners would be given the opportunity to explain why they have chosen to withhold or withdraw material that had previously been commercially available. There could also be an independent adjudicator to assess these explanations, and to help set an appropriate level of licensing fees and/or royalties.

Meanwhile, on-line sites like Discogs.com provide a welcome marketplace for out-of-print back catalogue!

Next week: Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators