Saturday, December 15, 2012

Free Stuff: XLR8R and Radikal Guru

XLR8R magazine’s web equivalent has long been a great source for some of the best “dance” and electronic music downloads out there. In fact, the site offers so much more than that, but in terms of putting new stuff online and available for free downloading, XLR8R in my opinion remains the most reliable option when it comes to consistency and quality. Plus it’s easy to use.

It isn’t for everyone, XLR8R tends to veer on the side of bass music and more experimental genres within the wider dance music sphere, but that’s what gives it a significant point of difference. And it also means exposure is given to artists you wouldn’t normally hear on the radio or on some of the more mainstream dance music compilations.  

As is customary at this time of year, ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists for the calendar year are being compiled everywhere and naturally XLR8R has compiled its own list of the site’s top 100 downloads for 2012. And of course, it’s free, in the form of a zip file found at the foot of this link.

Radikal Guru is a remarkable artist. I was blown away by last year’s The Rootstepa album and rated it as my number one (or most listened to) album of 2011. This year he’s been less prolific with recorded output, but has remained active as an increasingly relevant live/touring performer.
Over at Soundcloud, here’s a couple of brand skanking new free downloads from the man himself … just in:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: Wall of Voodoo

Emerging from the LA punk scene in the late Seventies, Wall of Voodoo hit a career peak in 1983 with the spaghetti-western inspired track ‘Mexican Radio’, which broke through to the US Billboard Top 100. The album it was lifted from, Call of The West, broke into the US Top 50, but none of the other five studio albums released by the band managed to attain such lofty commercial heights. ‘Mexican Radio’ briefly went “global”, charting higher in places like New Zealand and Canada than it did in the band’s home country, and it remains easily the most recognisable track of the band’s decade long career.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: Last Night A DJ Saved My Life … by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton (1999/2006)

Over the past few years I’ve been slowly working my way through several of the key texts that document the rich tapestry of (relatively) recent popular music history. There’s been Jon Savage’s seminal history of punk, ‘England’s Dreaming’, Simon Reynolds’ post-punk tome ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, and most recently, ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, the history of the disc jockey, courtesy of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. As we head into 2013, the spine of a crisp brand new copy of Lloyd Bradley’s ‘Bass Culture’, a journey into Jamaican dub and the world of soundsystems, stares back at me – unread – from the bookshelf at the foot of the bed.

But it’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ that concerns me here. I’ll get around to reviewing the others eventually. First published in 1999, I picked up the updated 2006 edition of ‘Last Night’ a year or so ago, so that is the version under review here. And while that might not seem overly significant at first glance, the additional seven years of coverage is useful in terms of adding more perspective to the state of the DJ art as it exists today, in 2012, with the current “DJ-as-performer” scenario now firmly ensconced within mainstream culture – a very recent development, one that seemed highly improbable when the book was first conceived.
2 editions of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
Brewster and Broughton kick things off by taking us way back, a full century, to the start of radio, drawing together the loose strands of the wider history of sound; the evolution of the gramophone, a quick foray into the earliest recordings, the first DJ broadcasts, and a look at where things were at on an international scale etc. Working my way through the early chapters I soon become aware that this is not only the history of the DJ, it’s the history of dance music, and more than that, it’s the story of a cultural phenomenon … the power music has to draw people together. To gather people from all backgrounds and creeds to one place, a mass gathering of like-minds, to celebrate a love of music, of dance, and of (gag reflex alert) other human beings. I’m sure there’s a thesis waiting to be written there: Nightclubs are the new churches, discuss.

Understanding the social impact of venues like the Wigan Casino in northern England, for example. Digesting the monumental influence clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft had on New York nightlife in the late Seventies and early Eighties – an influence that remains omnipresent today. And I personally had completely overlooked just how important the roles of the gay and (for want of a better word) “outsider” communities were in laying the foundations for the phenomenon we now know as clubbing.
Larry Levan of Paradise
Garage fame
And so we move from Northern Soul to Reggae, through to Disco and its offshoots like Hi Energy and House, from Soul to Hip Hop and its roots, then into more specific strands of contemporary dance music – Garage (both US and UK), Techno, Balearic, Acid House, and beyond. Right on up to the present day where discussion focuses on that most peculiar thing: the Superstar DJ, the guy who becomes the music he plays, the one who is now just like any other “artist” or band, a solo performer who creates something fresh from segments of someone else’s original piece of art. The age of the DJ-as-composer/producer. Recent examples would be the high profile likes of Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, Skrillex, and David Guetta (spit). Just compare and contrast the pop charts of 1987 with those of 2012 for the removal of any doubt about where the DJ now sits in terms of mainstream/public consciousness.
We get overviews on the key places people gathered, the cities that hosted them, so many of the more high profile clubs and venues being much shorter lived affairs than I’d previously imagined. And loose profiles of the messiahs who held court at those venues – the leading DJ’s themselves – often prove hugely revealing in their depth and relative intimacy. That might then be expanded to a whole scene, or linked to a specific genre. The birth and subsequent expansion of the Ibiza scene, for example, is an especially compelling section.

Of some wider social interest in one of the later chapters, there’s a look at the drug culture that surrounds popular music in general, but clubbing specifically. After talking us through that whole crazy Rave/random party scene in the UK, circa ’88-’93, there’s a discussion about the drugs that fuelled it – particularly the use of euphoric chems like ecstacy. We learn of the legislation that effectively pushed people back indoors, away from outdoor raves and festivals, back into licensed premises, and how that effectively reinvented – and reinvigorated – clubbing at a time when it was all but dying on its feet (no pun).

The cynical angle of course, is that the breweries and those with a vested interest in keeping alcohol at the forefront of the party scene evidently had a major say on legislation that banned public gatherings and killed the chem-orientated outdoor Rave scene. Whatever the case, it did result in the revival of “the nightclub” as primary place of worship, and from a law enforcement perspective, an element of control had returned. Or so you would think. The point is … the book doesn’t shy away from important social issues that otherwise might be regarded as peripheral to the dance music scene. It seeks to explain and add variations of colour in its search for context.

Tiesto asks what time it is ..

At the end of the near 600-page tome we get some charts – the ‘Wigan Casino 50’, ‘Loft 100’, ‘Warehouse 50’, ‘Hacienda 50’ etc – designed to present in quick reference form a list of the key tracks as they related to each major club or the scene it spawned. This is a fascinating section for anoraks like myself, and it seems like a perfect way to document the music – the key ingredient in all of this, remember – that propelled the DJ to such great heights in the first place. And don’t we all love a good list?

So it’s a great book – thoroughly researched, packed full of detail, unrelenting in its coverage and reach. Every bit the definitive history of the DJ (and dance music) it purports to be. Recommended.

Speaking of lists, here’s a not-so-totally-random everythingsgonegreen DJ Hall of Fame* (your author recognises a large element of bias and accepts the high likelihood of the list being instantly dismissed if your own favourite has missed the cut!):

Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Ashley Beedle, Jellybean Benitez, Matt Black, Prince Buster, Michael Capello, Dick Clark, Norman Cook, Carl Cox, Steve D’Acquisito, Coxsone Dodd, Double Dee & Steinski, Terry Farley, Alfredo Fiorito, Froggy, Grandmixer DST, Grandmaster Flash, Walter Gibbons, Francis Grasso, Bobby Guttadaro, Kool Herc, Tony Humphries, Steve Silk Hurley, Jam Master Jay, Norman Jay, Marshall Jefferson, Francois Kevorkian, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ian Levine, David Mancuso, Derrick May, David Morales, Tom Moulton, Paul Oakenfold, John Peel, Gilles Peterson, Danny Rampling, Sasha, Kevin Saunderson, Nicky Siano, Tiesto, Pete Tong, King Tubby, Junior Vasquez, Armin van Buuren, Andy Weatherall.

*49 listed, there was going to be a nice round 50 but on account of recent revelations and consequent disgrace, one Jimmy Savile (arguably the UK’s first superstar DJ) has been omitted. As has current “star” David Guetta. Guetta’s omission is basically because he’s shit.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Album Review: The xx – Coexist (2012)

Following on from a more than useful debut album a few years back, the new full length release from The xx was eagerly anticipated in my house earlier this year. When it arrived – as Coexist – I have to say my initial feelings about it were less than complimentary, and in many ways it felt lightweight and throwaway in context to its benchmarking predecessor. I sat with it, gave it time, let it breathe, and digested it some more.

Yes, first impressions were that Coexist was a little too minimalist and bland for its own good, but it’s the sort of album that we’ll perhaps look back on in 18 months time and celebrate it for the vast number of remixes it spawned. If ever an album felt ripe for the addition of a little gloss it’s this one. Perhaps. I guess that will all depend on the quality of those remixes.
A compact 37-minute 11-song crawl, the album is so “samesy” at first, some tracks feel almost indistinguishable from others. It also feels just a little underdone, not much more than an exceptional demo, and a harsh critique of it would suggest it has the words “unfulfilled potential” written all over it. Coexist feels like it forms the core of a really solid release, but it lacks the requisite bite or substance to lift it beyond the ranks of the ordinary. Perhaps that’s where those remixers and producers will come in. Harsh? … again, perhaps.

If that is indeed harsh, then it is a harshness that comes from a sense of expectation. Maybe even over expectation. And if that expectation was based solely on what we got on the debut, then it was rather ill-conceived all along … on the basis that the first release was also a very stripped back, oftentimes sullen affair, why would the follow-up be any different? … if it’s party rock n roll yer after, then The xx is not the band for you.
What Coexist most certainly is though, is a Break-Up album. Possibly even The Break-Up Album of the year … if that sort of thing is your bag. Coexist is a bit like a wake. A brutal autopsy on a failed relationship. A death-by-one-thousand cuts, heartfelt, grievous journey into a world of heartache and despair. A one-way, one dimensional journey at that …  so don’t go looking for any last minute reconciliation, or anything remotely resembling a happy ending.

C'mon give us a smile ..
The boy/girl vocal thing is pivotal to everything of course, set as it is against a backdrop of vast open space, minimalistic chord structure, and the occasional tickle of a solitary keyboard. But this one is all about the songwriting, those inescapably bleak lyrics, drenched in self reprisal, with only the occasional flicker of denial, hope, or promise being allowed to peek through the multiple layers of inward pointing gloom.

I suppose it has actually grown on me (insert your own wart joke here) the more I’ve listened. It’s just so damned hard to take in one sitting, that’s all. Individually, buried within playlists, alongside more uplifting material, these songs tend to shine. Collectively though, across as long a half hour as you’re ever likely to wish for, these songs blend into one. A whole that is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
So it’s a Break-Up album, no more, no less. I’m sure it’ll all feel so much better in the morning. Always does, apparently.

Er, the “highlights”: ‘Angels’, ‘Chained’, ‘Fiction’, ‘Sunset’, and ‘Swept Away’ …

Here’s a remix of ‘Chained’ … albeit one that is rather at odds with the ethos of the original version (upping the bpm factor tends to do that), but it is also a version that adds so much more texture and colour to the version found on the album, and it best exemplifies my earlier point about the potential of many tracks off Coexist to be extracted and refitted:

Lost Alternative 80s: Chaz Jankel

Chaz Jankel was probably best known as the keyboard player with Ian Dury’s Blockheads, but he did go on to enjoy some solo success and was a great talent in his own right. Not only is he credited with co-writing some of the best of the Blockheads’ output, he also became well established as a composer of film scores.

‘Questionnaire’ was a dancefloor-geared brass-tastic hit single from 1981 and arguably the highlight of his brief encounter with solo “fame”. This video was considered quite futuristic for its time and it received a lot of airplay during the early days of MTV.