This week was the first of 2015 which a tidal wave of new music washed over me in a big surge. With SXSW out of the way, many artists began to set out their stall for the coming year who hadn’t already.
SXSW was buzzing for Shamir who dropped his fun track ‘Call it Off’ and Tei Shi capitalised on her appearances there with ‘Go Slow’.
There’s also brand new Hudson Mohawke, Teleman and Florence + The Machine. It was at times, an overwhelming music week. Here’s my way of digesting the best of it – a playlist. That’s not all of it nor does it include albums.
The Sufjan Stevens that affected me the most was the one that revelled in the quiet, who kept things simple. Illinoise and The Age Of Adz are great records, sonically rich and ambitious. His stature grew, literally onstage with wings on a recent tour, where layers of sound were built up in impressive displays of song arrangements.
For his seventh album Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has put the wings back in the cupboard and returned to his folk roots. He’s also traded in the conceptual grandiosity for the devastatingly personal.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Sufjan and this album is that it is concerned with his absent mother Carrie (and by extension, his stepfather Lowell), who left his family in Michigan when he was a one year old and moved to Oregon. Carrie died in 2012 of stomach cancer and this visceral album is Sufjan addressing the monumental loss of his mother’s life and of her in his life.
Stevens spent a few summers with his mother as a child, who was troubled by depression and schizophrenia. Much of the album is drawn with that little amount of time he spent with Carrie. Interestingly, Lowell, his stepfather, stayed in touch after he divorced Carrie and went on to release music on Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty and is a director of the company. Losing a mother is unbearable but a mother estranged from her son has a profound effect.
The music is sparse, evocative, stripped-bare. Stevens’ doesn’t embellish much musically but he doesn’t compound the hurt and pain in his words with more aural clues. It’s actually a beautiful-sounding album on the surface. Seven Swans, his 2004 acoustic album inspired by Bible songs is the closest comparison. It is an album of grief (On that subject do read Niall Crumlish’s far superior review of this album for State.)
There are questions that go unanswered – “what could I have said to raise you from the dead?”. In both the album’s opening track ‘Death With Dignity’ and ‘Eugene’ Stevens longs to be near his mother. He sings of “this empty feeling” on ‘Should Have Known Better’ and asks “I wonder did you love me at all?” on ‘The Only Thing’. There is searing hurt. “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow,” he sings on the same track.
His mother, “Erebus on my back” gives an imagined reply on ‘Fourth Of July’ – “did you get enough love, my little dove?” There is much rumination of Stevens himself as a person in the reflection of Carrie through his relationships on ‘John My Beloved’ and ‘Drawn To The Blood’. “What’s left is only bittersweet / for the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me,” he sings on ‘Eugene’.
There is no answer to grief or estrangement. There can be acceptance, reconciliation, mourning and forgiveness. “I forgive you mother I can hear you,” Stevens sings but there’s much pain to get through. Carrie & Lowell offers catharsis for Stevens and consolation for others in his difficult exploration.
Just as exciting as the prospect of new music from the xx is a solo album from their producer Jamie xx who has revealed two pieces of music from exactly that.
In Colour, the album is out on May 29th on Young Turks. ‘Loud Places’ features Romy Madley-Croft and has bright piano summery chords with trademark Jamie percussion and Romy vocal delivery that recalls The Avalanches in its sampled chorus from Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ (thanks Stevie G for the tip). The video just dropped:
‘Gosh’ meanwhile is a much harder cut, that recalls old-school jungle and drum and bass, like a Jamie version of Four Tet’s ‘Parallel Jalebi’ but it transforms into something akin to Orbital.
In Colour features previous singles ‘Girl’ and ‘Sleep Sound’ as well as guests the xx’s Oliver Sim, Young Thug and Popcaan and Four Tet.
1. Gosh 2. Sleep Sound 3. SeeSaw (featuring Romy with Four Tet production) 4. Obvs 5. Just Saying 6. Stranger In A Room (featuring Oliver Sim) 7. Hold Tight 8. Loud Places (featuring Romy) 9. I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Young Thug & Popcaan) 10. The Rest Is Noise 11. Girl
Director A.G. Rojas has delivered a video that features a raw struggle between a cop and a black kid and in doing so brings physical humanity to makes it a powerful video. The cop is played by Shea Whigham who you might recognise as Eli from Boardwalk Empire and the kid by Keith Stanfield who will play Snoop Dogg in the upcoming Straight Outta Compton film.
Said the director:
“When Run The Jewels sent me this track, I knew we had the opportunity to create a film that means something. I felt a sense of responsibility to do just that. We had to exploit the lyrics and aggression and emotion of the track, and translate that into a film that would ignite a valuable and productive conversation about racially motivated violence in this country. It’s provocative, and we all knew this, so we were tasked with making something that expressed the intensity of senseless violence without eclipsing our humanity. For me, it was important to write a story that didn’t paint a simplistic portrait of the characters of the Cop and Kid. They’re not stereotypes. They’re people – complex, real people and, as such, the power had to shift between them at certain points throughout the story. The film begins and it feels like they have been fighting for days, they’re exhausted, not a single punch is thrown, their violence is communicated through clumsy, raw emotion. They’ve already fought their way past their judgments and learned hatred toward one another. Our goal was to highlight the futility of the violence, not celebrate it.”
For El-P of Run the Jewels “this is a vision of a seemingly never-ending struggle whose participants are pitted against each other by forces originating outside of themselves.”
Adds partner Killer Mike “this video represents the futile and exhausting existence of a purgatory-like law enforcement system. There is no neat solution at the end because there is no neat solution in the real world. However, there is an opportunity to dialogue and change the way communities are policed in this country. Salutes to AG Rojas for his unique take on the subject matter and to Shea and Keith for giving us their all and bringing it to life.”
Fight Like Apes have just returned from SXSW in Texas, and they’re ready for more action, as it appears their long-awaited third album, which will be self-titled, is coming out on Alcopop! Records on May 15th.
‘Pretty Keen On Centerfolds’ got its first play on radio yesterday. The song first appeared as a demo a couple of years back. True to the band’s effervescent synth punk-pop style, the song is a bright three minutes with May Kay sounding at her best singing of Tubular Bells and Centrefolds but “no-one’s gonna love me for that”.
1. I Am Not A Merryman 2. Crouching Bees 3. Pop Itch 4. The Schillaci Sequence 5. Didya 6. Numbnuts 7. Pretty Keen On Centrefolds 8. The Hunk and the Funpalace 9. I Don’t Want To Have To Mate With You 10. Baywatch Nights 11. Maevis Beacon Annihilation 12. Carousel
This is a post written by Wayne Fahy of Sleep Thieves about the band’s largely positive experiences as an independent band with their music on Spotify. As it happens, they are playing RHA tonight..
Over the last few months, the issue of fair royalties for bands and how streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer et al help or hinder music’s new supply chain has intensified. At the top of the mountain, the battle rages as Taylor Swift and Spotify’s own CEO Daniel Ek attempt to convince the industry they are both crusading to stabilise and save it.
Much further downslope, on the low foothills where most bands operate, this battle above registers as little more than a low din, or does it? Taylor Swift is the only artist to sell over a million copies of an album in 2014, so the figures her label are fighting about are obviously colossal. f you’ll join me in casting your eyes downward from the heavens, here we are, Sleep Thieves, a prototype of the new normal – the Spotify millionaires.
A joyful slog
Our millions are sadly, not in dollar form (not even remotely close) but instead are made up of Spotify plays. We passed that milestone about a year ago, and sit at around 2.6 million plays in total today. As the main track to drive this, ‘Spirit Animal’ galloped towards 1 million plays in late 2014, we cheered for it with daily Spotify checks like a small time gambler might, cheering home the nag he has a fiver on – aware its not going to change our lives overnight, but still damn gratifying. It has been quite a unique experience though, we are equal parts flattered, invigorated, more confident, but also still living the joyful slog as Vinnie Dermody of The Jimmy Cake so aptly put it.
We have used this streaming success to reinvest (partially) in new equipment as we self-recorded the album and are staunchly DIY that way. It also helped us towards our trip to the US last year to play Culture Collide in LA and San Francisco, but like many acts like us (releasing through an indie label – Minty Fresh Records) taking a trip like this, did involve maxed out credit cards too. This Spotify success has certainly not made for a self-sufficient, career musician’s life.
“These are early days for the new online music model, it wobbles along on training wheels and for now, we wobble along with it.”
I know many reading this will look at 2.5 million plays, and the stark reality that monetarily, this (mostly) helps us tick along as a band but nothing more and think the gap (or chasm you might say) between plays and earnings here seems huge. Maybe it is. Alas though, a play is not a download, the investment (emotional, or financial) not quite the same as a purchase. Add to this the fact that over half of Spotify’s users are free users and the incremental royalty for one of their plays is much smaller than a subscriber – it’s a monetising minefield with two trenches dug at each side between acts/labels and the streaming companies. These are early days for the new online music model, it wobbles along on training wheels and for now, we wobble along with it.
On the flip side of course, we do step back and say to ourselves “Two and a half million plays??” That’s a lot of people we have reached, and this huge exposure to worldwide listeners and new fans has created great moments for us.
Less swag, more swagger
On our travels, another band with international appeal remarked to us that a most gratifying thing about growing outside of their own market is the connection that they get to make with fans all around the world. This is definitely one huge positive of our listenership online – we get Facebook messages, tweets, emails every week explaining how they found our music, how it has affected them, finding out more about us. Radio stations in Chile, Portland, Japan, fans from Colorado, California, Hungary, Thailand, Australia, we have heard from people of all ages and races and it is really inspiring to us. When we played in Los Angeles last October for example, local fans came just to see us and insisted we pose for photos, one couple had their vinyl tucked underarm for us to sign. They went so far as to bring a silver marker with them (as the cover is black), thinking ahead of course, then telling us to keep said marker as “you guys will be signing a lot more”. Their vision of us, our stature, coloured by the huge numbers they see attached to us online. Perception creating reality at work here I guess? Great moments though, ones we want to repeat again and again in future.
At this point, our ambition and aim is to grow outside of Ireland – to perform more, to be written about more, played on radio more. Our Spotify milestones are a great barometer of the presence of a greater fanbase than our home market could provide so these plays have become a selling point, a badge of honour of sorts too. So we carry on, we play shows, we record, we release. Spotify won’t pay for us to put our feet up but it has made our life as a band a damn sight more colourful. Yes, it’s not perfect, but we’ll take it.