Thursday, June 16, 2011

July 2011

The Nevstar is back again after extended absence due to prolonged case of writers block. Have new found appreciation for those that write professionally for a living as think we tend to underestimate the time and commitment required to continually deliver new material. But with renewed vigour and a self-imposed deadline, the Nevstar will attempt to deliver up a monthly epistle on music and music related matters.

Given the period that has elapsed since the last effort, I thought it might be productive to highlight a number of recently released albums rather than just one. One of the goals of the Nevstar Music Guide is to help filter out the listenable from the unlistenable. With dominant distribution channels of music disappearing, there is an increasingly vast and ecclectic range of music all eagerly vying for our limited attention. The next great fortune in music will be made by applying a brilliant filter enabling music lovers to easily, quickly and cheaply access the best new music that they will love. The Nevstar Music Guide is unlikely to be that forthcoming advance (it will surely be algorithmic based) but it can hopefully assist in helping you discover some new music you might not otherwise have chanced across. Indeed, one of the undoubted pleasures of writing the Nevstar Music Guide is people telling me they absolutely loved an album they found through reading these random collection of thoughts.

So without further ado; here is a quick summary of some of the best new music that has been released in the last few months.

Fleet Foxes : Helplessness Blues

The second album from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes following their eponymous debut which was an indie favourite in 2008. The follow-up album, Helplessness Blues follows a similar trajectory being grounded in a melodic baroque folk sound but extending and updating it for the new millennium. The album is less immediately accessible than the debut which was chock full of pop folk masterpieces. However it benefits from repeated listens with the exotic instrumentation cleverly complementing the catchy pop hooks which are embedded in often complex musical arrangements. Lyrically the album is a bit darker as well containing less well-worn homilies from a bygone era and more shrewd observations of the modern world. Folk is often mistaken for wistful Amish-like nostalgia for simpler times, whereas it should really operate as a time capsule of the issues of the current age. Recommended.

Listen or purchase here.

The Antlers : Burst Apart

Another album which I purchased on the strength of their preceding work. The Antlers released an album called Hospice in 2009 which was a concept album. However it wasn’t a pleasant concept as it documents an emotionally abusive relationship between a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient. Not generally music to brighten the mood at a party. But it was a sublime album which I played an awful lot. Burst Apart is not as emotionally powerful or harrowing but its still an exquisite listen. As with Fleet Foxes, it must be listened to multiple times to truly appreciate its subtle charms. The music is moody bordering on morose; quiet yet shouting out for your attention. Nowhere is it mandated that great art must be cheerful. Art is more often about longing and heartache than delight and charm. The Antlers are thus starting to build quite an impressive collection of art. Recommended but perhaps try before you buy.

Listen to or purchase here.

Wild Beasts : Smother

The Nevstar came across this album from my own personal music filter in the form of the invaluable website Metacritic which aggregates online reviews from numerous publications. The highest rated album for 2011 at one point was from a band that I had never heard of. Not anymore. Wild Beasts follow an unworn pathway writing about sexually taboo subjects but cloaking such potentially offensive material in a wrapper of delicate, brooding, musical poems which are unfailing catchy yet strangely hypnotic. The ghostly vocals from Hayden Thorpe are Kate Bush like (if that makes sense) lassoing the listener and submitting them to their not always pleasant observations of life, love and unhappiness. Smother may be an acquired taste, but if you acquire it, you are unlikely to dispose of it anytime soon.

Listen to and purchase here.

Death Cab For Cutie : Codes and Keys

Next come two albums from two of my favourite bands. Firstly the always excellent Death Cab For Cutie have released their latest, Codes and Keys. I've written about DCFC in this column before when I profiled their previous release entitled Narrow Stairs (see here). Codes and Keys is, if anything, a touch disappointing relative to their previous work. It is similar in scope and feel to both Narrow Stairs and Plans. However, it is somewhat brighter in tone perhaps due to frontman Ben Gibbard's recent marriage to the always lovely Zooey Deschanel. It is of course the problem with setting such a high standard for yourself; it does make it hard to live up to the benchmark you yourself have set. The album, by any other band, would probably be hailed as an excellent debut. It is chock full of songs to slowly fall in love with and improves on repeated listens as all good albums do. I enjoyed it but am not raving about it. If you are yet to discover the charms of DCFC, start your collection with Transatlanticism or Narrow Stairs. You can always come back to Codes and Keys later.

Recommended but for fans only. Listen or purchase here.

My Morning Jacket : Circuital

One of the most inventive and consistent bands of the last few years, My Morning Jacket return with Circuital their sixth album. After starting out as an Americana folk band in their early albums, MMJ have consistently and boldly sought out new pastures to let loose their fervent imagination and impressive musicianship. Circuital continues that experimentation process. Expansive in scope and ambition, it starts with the lengthy omnibus Victory Dance followed closely by the border-line epic grandeur of the title track. As with most of the titles covered in the Nevstar Music Guide this month, there are few straight ahead rockers on Circuital. On the contrary, Circuital consists mainly of layered arrangements and falsetto vocals accompanied where necessary by strings, horns and choirs. In shape and form, its closer to classical music than pop music with songs that tend to mirror novels. There are characters, plots twists, themes and climaxes amongst the varied fare on offer and barely a single nod to the traditional "verse-chorus-verse, repeat" pop song structure. I wouldn't quite rate it up there with their best effort (the sublime It Still Moves), but it's awfully close. It just lacks that one signature tune which sticks in your memory and which prevents it from being called a great album. That aside, its still a very, very good album and certainly worthy of your attention particularly if you treasure bands that demand you engage your brain before listening to their output.


Listen to or purchase here.

The Adults : The Adults

Lastly we have a brand new release from a newly formed New Zealand super group! The Adults grew out of Shihad frontman Jon Toogood's solo recording sessions. He began jamming with a few other NZ artists and eventually they decided to record some of the output. This eponymous debut album is the end result of these labours. He is joined on all tracks by Julia Deans from Fur Patrol and the elder statesman of NZ rock in Shayne Carter. Its a beguiling trio and the track listing is an eclectic mix of rock and pop with dashes of soul and funk. They are joined at different times by a veritable who's who of NZ rock heavyweights including Anika Moa, Tiki Taane and Ladi 6. All in all it's a little patchy at times which is probably to be expected, but the high moments make the whole thing worthwhile. I found the Julia Deans tracks were probably the highlight, particularly the gorgeous melancholy of Anniversary Day. Despite their quite different backgrounds, the chemistry between the three is clearly evident and it's a great addition to the ever more interesting NZ music scene.

Find out more and listen to some tracks here.

Top Ten List

In New Zealand, Sky TV has just launched MTV Classic which returns MTV to its roots of (gasp) a music television channel. As most of you know, the original MTV morphed into a ridiculous reality tv channel although the executives were never brave enough to re-brand it RTV. So its a nice back to the future moment to re-embrace the art of music videos in all their glory and gaiety.

MTV Classic started its broadcast with the classic groundbreaking video of "Money for Nothing" from Dire Straits. It's hard to remember now but there was a time, pre Toy Story certainly, where these computer generated graphics represented the cutting edge of digital television. It was an incredibly innovative video which certainly assisted in the distribution and marketing of the song. All the best videos achieve this garnering more airplay and exposure for the song and band. While watching the video, I started thinking, what actually were the BEST music videos of all time?

Immediately, one must define "Best". Is it most original, most entertaining, the best marketing for the song or simply the most appropriate visual accompaniment to a short pop song? In my view, its probably a combination of all four. A great music video must be hugely memorable, artistic in its own right, a suitable companion to the song (one should recall the other and vice versa). But the very greatest will also maximise the impact of the complementary visually based media format.

So, here is, in the Nevstar's ever so humble opinion;

The Top Ten Music Videos Of All Time
(with video evidence of course!)

10. Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Dani California

I'm not sure about whether it's the "best" video, but Dani California is certainly one of the most entertaining. I first saw this video while running on a treadmill at the gym and almost fell off from laughing so hard. It is beyond brilliant. Here the Chilli's don a succession of musical alter egos from a number of musical genres; from Elvis through to Nirvana with numerous stops on the way. It must have been an absolute blast to make and the Chillis certainly look to be enjoying themselves. The person in charge of wardrobe also deserves an Oscar for their outstanding efforts!

Watch it here and see how many of the bands you can name.

Dani California barely nosed out another brilliant RHCP video, that of Californication which is shot in the style of a first person computer game and pays homage to some classic console games. Watch Californication here.

9. Duran Duran - Hungry Like The Wolf

Really, how could any such list NOT have at least one entry from Duran Duran? The hard task is picking just one. Duran Duran embraced the new reality of the music video business realising that a professionally produced mini-movie was the perfect marketing for their catchy pop songs. Their best is - and I admit it's hugely arguably - the video accompanying Hungry Like The Wolf. It is improbably set in Sri Lanka and seems like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness! It's a joy to watch for its sheer brazenness but also so as to witness a video the likes of which will never be shot again. With the revenue challenges facing the music industry today, no industry executive will ever again sign off on a budget for such extravagance. In some respects, it reminds me of the great film Lawrence of Arabia; the likes of both will never be made ever again.

Watch it here.

Quite happy to have this choice argued. Other Duran Duran candidates include A View To A Kill, Wild Boys, Rio and the seriously saucy Girls on Film.

8. Radiohead - Just
When I was a kid, I used to religiously watch Ready to Roll at 6pm on Saturday nights. I remember quite clearly always hoping that at least one of the videos that night would tell a story as such. 95% of videos were simply the band playing their song but it was great when the video itself had its own story line. Radiohead clearly had the same thoughts as evidenced by this fantastic video telling a simple story but with an absolutely great ending. If you've never seen it, please take the time. Compelling. Just what did he say?

Watch it here.

Perhaps no other band since Duran Duran has really taken the time to make succint and compelling visual art for each song as Radiohead have done (with possible exception of Tool). Also check out some of their other efforts: Street Spirit, Fake Plastic Trees and Karma Police.

7. Tool - Sober

While not a huge fan of their music catalog, it would be churlish to keep Tool off this list. Their videos are all stunning works of animatic art never featuring the band itself but instead telling their own story through humanoid characters, sometimes relating to the song, other times not. They are cinematographically brilliant employing daubs of shadow and light depending on the moment. It's arguable which one of their videos is the 'best' but in viewing all of them in preparation for this blog, I felt that Sober was the cleverest and is compelling viewing in its own right.

Watch it here.

Other ones to check out are Prison Sex and Stinkfist.

6. Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer

This is simply a work of absolute genius. Peter Gabriel had a few terrific videos but none better than this continuous combination of his animated face and various claymation and digital enhancements. It almost needs to be watched in slow motion to ensure that you see everything that the director included. Reportedly, Gabriel had to lie on the floor for four days with a glass pane just above his face in order to get all the shots. His facial movements are a delight and brilliant accompany the animation going on around him. The song remains average and forgettable, but the video will be watched for as long as we have music TV.

Watch it here

5. Ok Go - Here It Goes

The undoubted democracy of the web allows those with original ideas to garner a much wider audience than would traditionally be possible. However, if you are without an existing brand, then you somehow need to be so original that the video reaches a magical tipping point and goes 'viral'. A perfect example of this is the song Here It Goes from the previously unknown OK Go. A band without the pedigree of the rest of those in the Top Ten, Ok Go make it on sheer originality. One of the most watched videos on YouTube of all time sees this previously unknown band complete a complicated dance sequence on eight treadmills in one take. Beyond brilliant.

Watch it here.

4. Michael Jackson - Thriller

It may not be the BEST video of all time - well according to me anyway - but Thriller was certainly the most ambitious. US$800,000 worth of ambition! Directed by John Landis of Blues Brothers/Animal House fame, it's undeniably a treat to watch, even given the passage of time since its release. A movie inside of a movie, its compelling viewing from start to finish. One of the highlights for me on rewatching was to recall what an absolutely fantastic dancer Michael Jackson was. He absolutely and completely outdances a entire troupe of professional dancers. It's not the best video in my opinion mainly because I think the video does a dis-service to the song; the video version of the song is cut quite differently from the original to its detriment. In my view, Thriller is one of his most under-rated songs and never garnered the adulation it deserved because of all the attention lavished on the video. But it's still great that we live in a world where it exists. Go on, treat yourself to another viewing of it in its entirety. What were you really going to do with the next 13 minutes of your life!

Watch it here.

3. Chemical Brothers - Star Guitar

Possibly one of the most innovative and cleverest music videos of all time is this effort from the Chemical Brothers. If you havent ever seen it before, watch it now before reading further. Watch it here.

On watching it for the first time, how long before you determined that the images were keeping time with the song? I'ts a brilliant concept but even more impressive is the editing to achieve the vision. I cannot even begin to contemplate how long this must take to not only get all the footage, but put it all together and then ensure that each beat is perfectly matched with a telegraph pole going by! The looping is seamless which seems beyond the art of what's possible. Anytime you have a video which you seek out to watch for its own sake, its probably justifies its position in this list. Good song too!

2. A-ha - Take On Me

In the course of researching this section, I asked numerous people for their top videos of all time. Almost unanimously, A-Ha's Take on Me was mentioned. Putting aside your feelings for the song itself, the video was an early high point for what this new medium could achieve. And it's a height that wasn't often topped thereafter. Once again, we have the video depicting a story operating in a netherworld of fantasy brilliant forged through the use of etched drawings. It's a dream-like fantasy sequence which is quite astonishing in some respects. The shots where the protagonist moves from drawing to real-life are visually stunning. A-Ha's Take on Me was often imitated, but never beaten.

Watch it here.

And the number one video of all time is......

1. Human League - Don't You Want Me

You may not be familiar with this video (I'm sure you all know the song), but I strongly urge you to check it out. It operates on about four different levels somehow incorporating a film noirish detective story, a nod to the destructive tendencies of voyeurist obsessions, a loosely based re-telling of how the band was formed with it all wrapped up in a "Making Of" type production with the crew appearing in numerous numerous shots as they shoot and edit this masterpiece. It's as bewildering as it is beautiful and rewards multiple viewings with each successive exposure revealing more depth and mystery. An absolute treasure which is even more impressive given that all of the above was accomplished within the tight 210 second duration mandated by the song length. A worthy, worthy candidate for the best music video of all time.

Check it out now!

So thats my thinking on the best videos of all time. Have obviously left out, ignored or decided against a huge number of other worthy candidates. Send me your favourites and will construct a list next month of other videos that people love if, for no other reason, to give us all a chance to watch them all again!

Until next month (promise!).