The Just Played Verdict–Frankie & The Heartstrings ‘Hunger’

Shameless jangly indie is a good thing. A charismatic frontman with a distinctive yelp seals the deal. Now that we’ve escaped the new year’s hype wagon of gobshites with bad hair, it’s time for the pure pleasure of a debut album by one of last year’s most promising bunch of slow-burning, guitar-wielding upstarts. Imagine the Housemartins doing a cover album of Strokes singles and you’ll have some sense of what ‘Hunger’ sounds like.

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The whole record oozes that raw, manic indie sound which has been one of the main forces in popular music’s alleyways and backwaters, with a brief outpouring in the mid-Nineties, for over thirty years now. Yep, it’s more music about love chased, lost and briefly enjoyed, delivered by lads in skinny black trousers. Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict–Frankie & The Heartstrings ‘Hunger’”

New Music Monday – Tom Williams Interview

Regular readers will no doubt recall the numerous mentions of Tom Williams & The Boat on this blog. Recently, ‘Concentrate’ was a Song Of The Day, last August they were featured in the inaugural FUTUREMUSIC and as far back as the summer of 2008 I was wittering on about this fantastic new band I’d heard on 6 Music.

My, how they’ve grown! Today, Tom Williams & The Boat released their debut single proper, ‘Concentrate’, via iTunes and on hand-numbered limited edition 7” vinyl. It seemed only right that Just Played should mark the momentous occasion and, thankfully, Tom was happy to talk about the single release, the forthcoming album and the current musical climate. Click play on this video to have a listen to the single while you read the feature below, then you’ll find handy links to allow you to purchase this beautiful track at the end of the interview.

For those of us who bought the early EPs through your website it’s pretty exciting to see you having a national single release. How are you feeling about ‘Concentrate’ being unleashed on the public?

It’s really exciting! It’s the first step of a long journey to hopefully drag us into the national consciousness!

The re-recording has a more dense sound than the original on the ‘Doing My Best’ EP. Is this an indication of where your sound is headed?

I think it’s just recorded in a better studio with better producers etc. but, yeah, we are getting heavier. The new stuff we’re working on now is really leaning away from that ‘folk’ tag which has been irrelevant for a while now. We’re getting into gloomy Radiohead, Grinderman, Bad Seeds territory with the new stuff!

When can we expect a full album and will any more EP songs be featured in re-recorded forms?

The album will hopefully be out in the summer after another single or two…it all depends how it goes. We really want to give this a go, and make sure we do our best to make sure there’s an audience waiting for the record. The album serves as a ‘greatest hits’ so far of sorts. So, yeah, some re-records but also new stuff!

You’re pretty excited about releasing ‘Concentrate’ on 7” vinyl. Even though you’ve provided plenty of free downloads on your site over the last couple of years, is the physical product an important factor in making and releasing music for you?

Yes, very, and especially vinyl. For me it’s the most generous format, physically it feels great in your hands, it sounds better than CD (the sound file is double the size) and also the artwork is glorious in that size!

You’re in the final twelve of Q Magazine’s competition to win a slot at Glastonbury. Obviously, Just Played wants you to win. Is this just about the music out there or does Glastonbury have a special significance for you?

For us it’s the best festival in the world, but also, the kind of classic rock references that drive us also drive Glasto: Springsteen, Neil Young, all that stuff…we’ve got everything crossed for the summer!

What can Just Played readers expect from the Tom Williams & The Boat live experience?

It’s louder than you thought it would be! Someone said the other day that we were more ‘muscular’ than he expected, so there you go! More muscular! We’re six, with violins, saxes, pianos and harmonicas so it’s a big noise with lots of sweat!

How did the moniker of ‘The Boat’ come to be applied to the other five members of the band?

It came very early on, I just wanted an unusual name that’d prick the ears up, but also a collective noun and a vessel seemed like a good idea! (I still maintain, as I said in the summer of 2008, that this is a top band name.)

What music would you say influences the sound of Tom Williams & The Boat?

Loads of stuff: Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Pavement, Radiohead. Ah, it’s endless! I can’t think now you know but those are probably a top seven of sorts.

You were one of this blog’s new music tips last August – could you tip some current music for readers to investigate right now?

At the moment I’ve got the new Gil Scott-Heron on repeat, along with the Swanton Bombs album ‘Mumbo Jumbo and Murder’ and Cash’s ‘American Recordings VI’.

You’ve been quick to express your dismay at the intention of the BBC to close 6Music. This blog discovered you through your performance on Steve Lamacq’s show. How important is it as a station and do you have a rallying cry for those who haven’t yet expressed their concern at this news?

I think it’s absolutely fundamental to the survival of independent labels and artists but also it’s one of the only surviving stations that ALWAYS play you something you’ve never heard before…and that’s priceless.

What are you reading right now?

A poetry/photography mash up with lost Dylan poems from the mid sixties written for the photographs of Barry Feinstein

Any good?

Great!

If you had to summarise what it’s like starting out in the music industry in the 21st century in one sentence, what would you say?

Fun!

***

The nigh-on essential ‘Concentrate’ 7”, at a very reasonable £4 delivered, is available to order direct from Tom’s site by clicking here or you can purchase the single digitally via iTunes by clicking here. It’s a great track and I can’t even begin to express how excited I am about the prospect of the forthcoming album. I implore you to do your bit for splendid new indie by purchasing this mighty single and rewarding Tom’s endeavours to date.

2010 on the record

Futuremusic 2010: A Little Bit Of Soul

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Sixties girl group pop is rightly revered by many music fans. It’s overtly saccharine, almost disarmingly chirpy and always sounds loud, no matter what volume you have it on at and yet it just makes you feel good. Just like proper pop music should. A few years ago, it looked like we were on the cusp of a whole glut of acts adopting this sound and it was genuinely rather exciting. But things seemed to fizzle out a little and of the two most promising groups, The Pipettes fizzled out and had almost as many line-up changes as the Sugababes, while Lucky Soul didn’t quite capture the public’s hearts in the way I had rather hoped they would. ‘One Kiss Don’t Make A Summer’, from their debut, ‘The Great Unwanted’, was a compilation perennial for me for some twelve months after if first appeared and is as joyous a slice of pop as you’re likely to hear any time soon. Come the start of April and their second album, ‘A Coming Of Age’, will be released and it’s a likely contender for the end of year lists. As a result of its release date getting pushed back a bit, I’ve been listening to this record since November and I happy to report that it is somehow both immediate and a grower.

LuckySoul

That Sixties stomp is still there but the songs themselves are much stronger, resulting in a consistently delightful listen. Recent single ‘White Russian Doll’ a fair representation of the more upbeat numbers on ‘A Coming Of Age’, opener ‘Woah Billy!’ possibly just topping it for sheer exuberance. Singer Ali Howard has an absolutely adorable voice, knowing exactly when to go through the gears and when to rein herself in. It would be grossly unfair on those four blokes above with nice hair to say that it is Howard’s voice that makes this band truly exceptional – the music more than plays its part – but her pipes make her one of my very favourite contemporary singers and her performance on this record is, at times, breathtaking.

lucky soul great unwanted

The pop influence shares the billing with some luscious, 70s singer-songwritery sounds like ‘Warm Water’ and the euphoric swing of ‘Southern Melancholy’. Add in the full blown country work out of ‘Love³’ and the sway-a-long splendour of ‘Upon Hilly Fields’ and you have a complex collection of emphatically ‘up’ classic pop.

lucky soul white russianDon’t think it’s only the music that makes this one to soundtrack the not especially sun kissed summer days. There are some disarmingly honest lyrics across the twelve tracks on ‘A Coming Of Age’, along with evidence of a bitingly sharp sense of humour. If ‘some say I’m schizophrenic, but I walk in single file’ is bettered this year, I’ll be surprised. Straddling, as they do, the worlds of indie and vintage pop, it’s hard to imagine this album sitting comfortably on the supermarket shelves alongside the usual suspects but I can’t help thinking that if more people heard these wonderful songs, the success they deserve wouldn’t be all that far behind. As it is, I’ve no idea how the album will do, but I do know that I will cherish every last note on it and if it’s not in my Top 20 list at the end of the year, feel free to call me a slightly naughty name. I’ll deserve it.

lucky soul coming of age

 

 

2010 on the record

Futuremusic 2010: A Little More Lively

FM10F&THLONG

A new indie band is born every six seconds. The midwife squeezes them all into skinny jeans, combs their hair to make them look like right twats and teaches them how to look at a camera as if they’ve got lemon juice in their right eye. After a quick lesson in rudimentary instrument technique, they are provided with their required reading list and a small selection of ‘classic’ records and sent off to become interesting. And, the majority of these largely tedious arseholes get nowhere. Thank fuck for that, eh? Thankfully, it still seems like the good stuff can rise to the top, even if the people at the top have jizzed all their money away on promoting greatest hits albums by former reality TV show contestants who only had half a dozen hits in the first place and now can’t really afford to do much for new bands.

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Frankie & The Heartstrings have not only risen out of the self-castrating trouser pool, but have recently put out a single of Rough Trade and seem to be drawing attention to themselves rather effectively. I recently posted the A side of that debut 7” as part of the Song Of The Day feature after reading a wonderful interview with them in the NME. I know I shouldn’t really recycle content, but I’d swiped it from that NME interview in the first place, so I don’t think I ever had the moral high ground. It was this comment, from drummer Dave Harper, which drew me in: “I could walk 50 yards from here and find 10 musicians who are a million times better than us, but fuck me they’re boring. There’ll be a band in Newcastle one of these days with so many fucking delay pedals you’ll have to stand in Hartlepool to hear them.” If there’s one thing Frankie & The Heartstrings are not, it’s boring.

From the ‘fuck it, let’s dance’ school of indie pop, they already some splendidly chaotic tunes to their name and I don’t doubt that they are capable of delivering a debut album to cherish. They’re not big but they are clever; Harper’s blog posts are capable of raising a smile from a manically depressed, long-term unemployed undertaker. Their own PopSexLtd imprint awards catalogue numbers to things with almost as much reckless abandon as Factory Records – the latest ‘release’ appears to be a drumstick. You can, however, download odds and sods, enter draws for gig tickets or plead for copies of incredibly rare mixtapes if you’re beady-eyed and a frequent enough visitor.

I would recommend grabbing yourself a copy of their self-released, six track live EP from the arse end of last year which comes in a tote bag with a fanzine, badges, a postcard and, an actual 10” piece of vinyl. It’s chaotic, it’s ramshackle and it’s the most fun I’ve had listening to an early recording of a promising new band since the Arctic Monkeys appeared. And I don’t think I liked them as much as this lot. There’s a bit of Roxy Music in the wavering vocal but also the astute, razor sharp pop sensibilities of Franz Ferdinand at times. Add in a bit of the early 90s navel-gazing, tinny indie ‘sound’ and you’ve really got something worth your attention. These delightfully generous chaps are actually happy giving away their music and if you go to their Myspace you’ll find an email address from which to request some music. It works! If you’re after either the live 10” or the debut single, I wouldn’t hang around: they’ll not be around for long. Unlike the band, I suspect.

2010 on the record

Futuremusic 2010: Ever onwards

FM10KD

Train journeys are tricky things to soundtrack. A lot of it hinges on the weather and the accompanying view. If, in addition to this, you’re bloody knackered then this also has a pretty crucial bearing on this. I tend to gravitate towards the more acoustic end of my collection when in these situations, despite the fact that quieter music doesn’t tend to fare all that well when put up against the many and varied noises emanating from most of the East Midlands Trains stock. Still, I endeavour to find that precise sound that will fit.

Kris

Kris Drever’s music deserves to soundtrack those deeply intimate, private moments when your eyes lock on to something arbitrary in the middle distance and your brain switches to somewhere between autopilot and shuffle, churning out random thoughts, one after another, spring cleaning through the humdrum detritus that builds up over the course of an average day. The musical accompaniment needs a voice which sounds suitably lived-in, a voice which is actually singing the words rather than raspy talking or laconic drawls and a voice which can transport you just as much as the train in which you sit. Drever is absolutely the man for the job.

I came to his first album entirely by chance. It was put out by Reveal Records, the label which grew out of the excellent, but now deceased, independent record shop of the same name in Derby. As I’ve mentioned previously, I would frequently pick up those early releases on the label simply on the basis that I knew Tom, shop and label boss, wasn’t likely to be trying to shift something that wasn’t up to scratch. The fact that the vinyl came with a free CD was the clincher and I soon found myself listening to ‘Black Water’ at fairly regular intervals. I recently deployed ‘Honk Toot’ as a Song Of The Day and it’s that track which really caught my attention and drew me into the record further. It is, as I said a week or so ago, 21st century music that happens to use traditional sounds rather than traditional music trying to sound contemporary. The recordings are completely uncluttered and sympathetic to the attentive ear.

Drever’s particular gift comes in term of the arrangement, not actually writing all that much of the material on either of his two albums. Whether reimagining old folk numbers of putting his stamp on the work of friends and label mates like Boo Hewerdine, Drever’s performances are imbued with a true spirit and passion, ensuring that once his music has clicked with you, it’s hard not to feel a little protective of this beautiful secret you have. His new album, ‘Mark The Hard Earth’ picks up where ‘Black Water’ left off, filling out the sound a little without overcomplicating matters and offering some more assured vocal performances after the tentative steps of that debut release.

On top of all of this, Drever is also a member of increasingly revered – and rightly so – folk group Lau, who only two days ago received the Best Group award for the third year running at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Their music, while different to these solo recordings, is a logical step for anyone sold on ‘Black Water’ or ‘Mark The Hard Earth’. I should also quickly mention the album he released along with Roddy Woomble from Idlewild and John McCusker, Drever’s producer. Going by the name of Drever, McCusker, Woomble (I know, inspired) they released ‘Before The Ruin’ back in September of 2008. It slipped by unnoticed but it’s yet another cracking record worthy of your attention.

Having said all of that, this piece is about Kris Drever’s solo work and, with ‘Mark The Hard Earth’ out next month, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you end reading rather more about him in the coming weeks. Pick up the debut for a very reasonable price direct from the source and get your iPod kitted out ready for your next experience traversing the country by rail. I should point out, his music works with other forms of transport too. And at home, obviously.

Spotify – ‘Black Water’

Advance copies of ‘Mark The Hard Earth’ available here while stocks last.

2010 on the record

Futuremusic 2010 – Day Two

FM10UAS

Five songs, that’s all I’m basing this on. And one of them is forty seconds long. So, we’ll say four, really. But what magic is contained within those four songs. Under Alien Skies are two lads, David and Danny from Prestatyn in Wales. That’s about all I know at this stage and their minimal web presence isn’t much help when trying to find out a bit more about them. Which just leaves the music on the ‘Powder’ EP for me to talk about.

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Fans of the spaced-out, dubby wall of sound style backdrops so beloved of everyone from Animal Collective to Grizzly Bear of late, will likely take to this instantly. Opening track ‘Fyodor’ almost oozes through the speakers, so ‘big’ is its sound. Judicious application of echo makes it feel like you’re lost somewhere deep in the middle of the song itself and yet the vocal, a precisely enunciated croon, is crisp as you like atop this aural tapestry. This really wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Veckatimest’, and not only that, it would have been one of the finer moments on the record. Insane hyperbole though this may seem, it really is that good.

Bloodsport’ sounds, at least in part, like Animal Collective after they’ve been introduced to the idea of verses in songs. Ludicrous degrees of repetition are avoided and, instead, the track goes through several phases, gradually slowing to cascading harmonies over a stuttering beat and little bleepy computer noises. It’s a luscious end to the song and it’s made to seem all the more dreamy and delicate by the whirling, careering, largely instrumental closing track, ‘Amine’, the danciest (yeah, I know, but a better word currently escapes me) thing on the EP.

Thoroughly nice bloke and underrated radio broadcaster of great quality, Adam Walton was the one to tip me off about this lot and he wrote an impassioned and possibly even more excited piece about this EP on his BBC Wales music blog in early January. His particular favourite track is ‘Cracks’, by far the most schizophrenic song of theirs I’ve heard. It starts off sounding like two different songs playing at once before gradually coalescing into a curiously mournful sound. Imagine the Beach Boys having to record their vocals just after watching their cat get knocked over by a passing driver and you’ll be somewhere close. Add in a twirling Spanish guitar sound and you don’t know whether to smile or cry. As the music gradually retreats, you’re left with the sounds of nature and a high-pitched loop slowly ascending to a better place. I think ‘Fyodor’ just about edges it for me, but I hear why Adam was so immediately head over heels with it. Even the forty second piece, ‘Caller ID’ is a strangely swelling piano interlude, maintaining the atmosphere and further diversifying the sound of this almost impossible to categorise EP.

I await even greater things from this lot. They’re not, as far as I’m aware, even signed up yet and their aforementioned scant internet presence makes it tricky to get a handle on exactly what we can expect from them and when. You can download the EP for free by clicking through from the picture above, where it’s available for free from Bandcamp, even in lossless if you like it that way. I cannot emphasise how enough how much I urge you to do that. It’ll be some of the most intriguing, engaging and frankly different music you’ve heard in some time.

2010 on the record

Futuremusic 2010 – More New Music

FM101NP

I’m already slightly giddy about the amount of wonderful new music arriving in 2010 and we’ve only just finished the first month. As a result, here’s 2010’s first burst of Futuremusic, which long-time readers will remember was a series of features on exciting new stuff that ran in August of last year. Five more tremendous purveyors of musical goodness who haven’t quite snuck above the radar coming up, some of which I would imagine you’ll be familiar with, others less so. So, without further ado…

northernportrait

Gene spent much of their career trying to shrug of the tag of ‘Smiths copyists’, a label which I never quite understood. Certainly, there were occasional musical echoes and Martin Rossiter did manipulate and molest his vocal chords into certain Moz-like directions from time to time, but I always felt there was a not inconsiderable bit of The Jam in there as well and I couldn’t really grasp why it was The Smiths that the press was always so keen to bang on about. Not that it should really have been a hindrance. The Smiths were fucking marvellous and the enduring appeal of those albums is proof enough that their influence on music lovers the world over is considerable. What exactly would be so bad about sounding like The Smiths anyway?

So think Northern Portrait. The band name could be a wry wink in that direction, as many of their, frankly wonderful, songs display a sizeable love of all things Morrissey and Marr, but for the fact that they claimed in an interview last summer to have only recently heard of The Smiths. I bow down before Gideon Coe for this one. One evening in the summer of 2008, I was listening to his peerless 6music late show when he played a track from the band’s ‘Fallen Aristocracy’ EP. I remember thinking, ‘sounds a bit Smithsy, I’d like to hear that again’. Within fifteen minutes, I’d sent a pifflingly small amount of money via Paypal to US-based Matinee Recordings. Soon after, the CD arrived, delivering on that early promise with four wonderful indie-pop tunes contained within artwork which even had that mid-Eighties indie release feel to it. I was in for the long haul and kept an eye on the Matinee site, waiting for another EP. ‘Napoleon Sweetheart’ followed and a similar approach was adopted – dated sleeve and jangly indie of the highest order.

This Danish band have a finely honed sound and, as is so often the case with debut albums, they’ve whittled down their early songs to the very best they have to offer and have just released them for the world to pass judgement. Or just have a little listen. You really should. Second track, ‘When Goodness Falls’ highlights the Moz influence with the gloriously embittered lyric, “I’m so glad to disappoint you”, bouncing along with shimmering guitar lines which leave you pondering just how charming the man singing really is. Do you see what I did there? Do you? Ok, I’ll stop now.

The album in question will be available in the UK from March, but you can already order it direct from Matinee Recordings at a very reasonable price and I can’t think of any reason not to. Its title, ‘Criminal Art Lovers’, could be taken as a further acknowledgement of the heavy debt their music owes to various musical forefathers and the title track has a hint of Just Played faves, Trashcan Sinatras about it, while ‘Life Returns To Normal’ brings to mind a slightly subdued Housemartins. You must be sold by now, surely?

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Crazy’ was on that first EP I ordered after Gideon’s airplay and it sounds glorious, sandwiched within all of this new material. Indeed, along with a couple of other tracks on ‘Criminal Art Lovers’, it also brings to mind the aforementioned Mr Rossiter. Oh, the irony, a Smithsy band who actually sound really rather like Gene. ‘The Operation Worked But The Patient Died’ is another title that Steven Patrick Morrissey would be ever so charmed by, but the musical affectations on this one definitely evoke Gene from their epic, ‘Drawn To The Deep End’ phase. No bad thing again.

Album closer, ‘New Favourite Moment’, is a wonderfully catchy way to wrap things up and if you don’t find yourself singing along with it soon after its first play then you have clearly lost the ability to enjoy yourself. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you can’t find something to like in this song then I’m not sure we can ever truly be friends. In truth, the entire album is littered with hooks and I’m struggling to think of a duff song to mention in the well-it’s-not-perfect-bit-before-I-wrap-things-up-on-a-positive-note section. The album’s mastered quite loud. That’s about the only thing I can think of to moan about right now.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed explaining why I love this band. I’ve recently written a brief review of the record for publication in March in which I overplayed the comparisons with The Smiths in order to hammer home the point, but there’s plenty more going on in these songs and if even one person clicks through from this site to order the album after reading these words, I’ll be chuffed. Literate, emotive indie is often hard to find and when another band pop up delivering captivating songs to such a high standard it’s cause for celebration.

The good folk at Matinee Records are happy for me to share a couple of songs from the record with you, so treat yourself by right clicking and saving from these two links.

Northern Portrait – New Favourite Moment

Northern Portrait – Criminal Art Lovers

And now, thoroughly convinced as I’m sure you are, click here to purchase the album, and the early EPs if you’re so inclined, direct from Matinee.

2010 on the record

Futuremusic – How We Listen – Part 2

FM NSNM

A recent trip to York enabled me to visit a charming little record shop called Rebound. Thirty  thoroughly splendid minutes were spent flicking through racks and racks of CDs before progressing into the vinyl enclave at the back of the shop. As I made my purchasreboundes I gleaned that business was reasonably decent, particularly in light of the one remaining high-street music chain, HMV, looking to shunt as CDs as into as small a space as possible these days. The shop itself is fairly new and opened up just as all of the other independent stores in the city folded. Where it differs from the dog with a gramophone (soon to be updated to show the dog pissing on the gramophone whilst watching a portable DVD player) is that all of the stock is second hand. Now, this is hardly a revolutionary new concept, but it’s a market that has grown rapidly in light of eBay and Amazon Marketplace. While you may not often get a chance to buy much second hand music on the high street, there are numerous online options.

Second hand music options have been further extended by the increasing space being given over to old vinyl and CDs by most of this fair nation’s charity shops. While these supplies remain largely Val Doonican and knackered old classical compilations, the number of people opting to ditch their record collections in favour of the beloved mp3 player ensures that there’s a pretty decent turnover of stock. Everyone’s favourite young northerners with odd hair, Arctic Monkeys, rammed home this point by putting the 7″ of their new single, ‘Crying Lightning’, into all of the UK’s Oxfam shops this week, while imploring fans to drop off some unwanted old records when popping in to purchase a copy. In theory, this should mean some decent stuff in your local Oxfam in the next couple of weeks, but we shall see.

As CD prices continue to drop and people continue to lose interest in the old fashioned concept of paying for music, prices paid for second hand CDs have fallen through the floor and, as you might thus deduct, the prices for the customer have dropped also. A quick perusal of Amazon Marketplace will allow you to pick up most back catalogue material for a few quid delivered, in not entirely unsatisfactory condition, and most recently released stuff without much trouble too. As someone clever, but not clever enough for me to remember their name, once said, people are keeping their new music costs low by buying albums they want in supermarkets, ripping them to mp3 and then selling the CDs on the internet, which, once costs are recouped, means the mp3s cost a couple of quid. This means, of course, that plenty of remarkably new titles are turning up second hand pretty sharpish.

While this may not become a long term way of listening in the future, for the short term it’s a quick, cheap and easy way to pick up cheap music. Whether you only use Amazon Marketplace or merrily bid on 1p CDs on eBay, it’s never been easier to pick up second hand music and, while important cultural commentators would have you believe that physical formats are buggered and barely able to limp along for another year or two, for those of us who still like the idea of a record collection – and there are far more than the media would have you believe – it’s a great time to get as much as possible for as little as it’s ever cost.

That said, and in order to bring things to a close, I should warn you about some of the phenomenally cheeky attempts from some companies to cash in on those struggling as a result of the recession and looking for some quick income. MusicMagpie.co.uk is a new site offering to buy your used CDs, DVDs and games. Quick, it might be, but fair, I’m not so sure. Although run of the mill stuff will get you £1.20 here of £2.60 there, all CD boxsets appear to be valued at £3. Included below is screengrab showing what happened when I inputted a few barcodes from what was around me. Pay particular attention to the price they’d give me for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 11a – £45 new, bloody rare and not an awful lot less second hand. Unbelievable!

music magpie cons

Futuremusic – How We Listen – Part 1

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I’ve just spent 79p buying the iTunes-only, bonus track for Malcolm Middleton‘s recent album, ‘Waxing Gibbous’. I’ve now retagged it and incorporated it with the rest of the album in my library. I have no problem paying 79p here or there to pick up bonus material by my favourite acts, I might even go so far as to say it’s a bargain. The recent Magnolia Electric Co album, ‘Josephine‘, had four iTunes-only bonus tracks but there I was, happily offering up my £3.16 for extra music and I didn’t mind. It’s a brilliant record, by the way, and you can read a remarkably eloquent review of it here. My attitude towards downloads has slowly shifted over the years and I’m now happy to accept them as part of the commercial climate of purchasing music. I still prefer a piece of vinyl or even a well-produced CD, but I’m now quite happy to shell out for download-only releases whereas this would previously leave a sour taste. Why couldn’t this be released on a proper format? Why is it only available from one source? But, with an increasing number of download-only releases attempting to combat the colossal drop in singles sales, I’ve become almost grateful that this material is actually being released at all.

grizzly

Having said all of the above, you won’t catch me loitering on iTunes on a Sunday morning, looking for the new release albums so that I can spend £8 for some digital files. And, when I think about it, I can’t understand why anyone else would be either. If iTunes offered a button whereby you could click and pay £1 more to receive a fully packaged, shop copy of the album along with your download, I’m sure most people would go for it. And yet that offer is already available and being increasingly ignored. Pretty much all new release albums can be found for £9 or less without much hunting around. Rip yourself a set of mp3s for portable use and pop the CD on the shelf. If new albums were £4 to download, effectively less than 50% of the price for a ‘proper’ product, you might have my attention, but when it costs almost the same amount for the digital files and the CD, I can’t fathom why the download is a deal I should be interested in. I realise, of course, that I am increasingly in the minority with this point of view and download sales continue to grow at a fair old rate. While the longevity of the CD, both as a format and in terms of the playback quality of the discs themselves, is always up for debate, aren’t the download generation only one computer crash away from wiping out their entire music collection?

It would seem not, as it happens. Sites like 7Digital and Play.com have always allowed you to log in to your download account and retrieve any purchased files you may have since found yourself without, but the one temple of doom has always been iTunes. While you could always find your purchase history in with your account details, once you’d downloaded a track there didn’t seem to be an option to ever do so again. In recent times, they’ve even charged ludicrous amounts to allow you to upgrade their poxy old 128kbps files to the 256kbps ‘plus’ format. On your side, they seemed not. However, it would seem that all is not as terrible as it seems. Firstly, iTunes does regularly remind you to backup all of your purchased music, even if most of us choose to ignore that advice. Secondly, and perhaps crucially, a bit of a pootle around the interweb reveals that in pretty much all cases where somebody has lost their music library due to their computer throwing a wobbler, a polite email to iTunes Customer Service has resulted in all of the purchased tracks being returned to said customer’s download queue at no extra cost. It is, perhaps, not so surprising that Apple don’t feel the need to make a big song and dance about this, but it would seem that the big, faceless music giant is perfectly happy to ensure that downloads are not as ephemeral as they seem. All rather reassuring really.

Technicalities, format concerns and cost aside, the download remains a remarkable tool in the advance of modern music. In last week’s Futuremusic features, a couple of acts were perfectly happy for the articles to be accompanied by an mp3 download, enabling you to sample their music for free. Air, desperately trying to remind the public that they still exist, offered a free download (via the iTunes store) of their new single to anyone on their mailing list. Anyone purchasing the new Arctic Monkeys single, ‘Crying Lightning’, in Oxfam this week can then go online and use the enclosed card to get digital files of the songs from the vinyl, thus broadening the potential audience for this particular release. And, while for many it has truly fucked up the experience of listening to albums in full, it does allow you to simply pick up the odd decent track by an artist you wouldn’t otherwise touch for fear of being lumbered with an album full of ponderous ear abuse. A recent example from my perspective was the Freemasons single with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. I’m not sure I could last for more than a few songs of a Freemasons album and the former Miss theaudience (with groovy lower case letters and all-one-word chic) is hardly known for her consistent, hard-hitting contributions to the world of long-players, but that one little track appeals to the same part of my musical world that thoroughly enjoys Girls Aloud and has been known to tap its metaphorical foot to the odd tune by The Saturdays. Plus, the way she says ‘darn-cer’ is quite amusing. 79p? Ta very much but £2.99 for the CD single for even £8.99 for the album? Piss right off. This is a new development in my consumption of music. While I still spend the vast majority of my musical budget on physical formats, I’m now quite happy to purchase the odd individual track that actually is available in the last seven (approximately) record shops open in Britain that I wouldn’t otherwise have touched. That surely has to be healthy for the music industry and I do get the impression from general conversation that that is how a lot of people use iTunes. The odd song here and there catches their attention, so they nip on iTunes and spend a couple of quid picking up those tracks. I haven’t yet experienced many people who actually buy their albums via iTunes, but those people clearly exist also. Mind you, you do get a digital booklet with a lot of releases, you lucky, lucky people.

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The seedy side of downloading remains the most popular, however. The exciting and enigmatically titled UK Music organisation last week announced the results of a survey which reveal that 61% of young people questioned still prefer to download music illegally. Weirdly, 78% also expressed little interest in a premium, paid-for streaming service such as Spotify, with 89% stating that ownership of mp3s, or similar files, is important to them. 85% expressed interest in an unlimited download service, but that is probably still some way off. What is perhaps the most curious finding out of all of this is that while almost two-thirds of the over 1800 14 to 24 year olds interviewed still happily download illegally, almost 90% of the interviewees value the possession of those files. It seems that Spotify is actually more popular with next age bracket up, largely for dipping into things before buying or simply reliving past joys for a brief period of time without having to spend any money. The kids do not think it’s alright. I suspect most music loving internet-goers have, at one time or another, downloaded a file or two in a less than legal fashion but it holds little pleasure for me. Whole message boards are dedicated to people banging on about how many gigabytes of music they have on their external hard drive, what their ratio is on file-sharing sites and starting threads like ‘What’s the most exciting band you discovered this week?’ working from the assumption that you will have downloaded such a brain-shreddingly gargantuan amount of folder filler in seven days that your musical perspective may well have shifted entirely. I’m not quite sure when these people actually have time to enjoy the music that they’re almost incessantly acquiring and I wonder if that is part of the allure of illegal file sharing. The acquisition. The ability to say, “I’ve got all of this. Look at me.” For some people now, they don’t define themselves by what music they listen to so much as what music they’ve heard. Which, let’s be clear about this, is a very different thing. Playing an album once or even twice before consigning it to the vast swamp of the iTunes library isn’t really listening. It beggars belief when a hugely anticipated album leaks and there are people posting reviews of it within an hour. Sometimes even sooner. I suspect that the increasing power of legal download sites and the improving formats offered may go some way to rendering illegal downloading a little bit grubby and uneventful, but it still seems that access to phenomenal amounts of music doesn’t always mean that people take the time to invest (emotionally, rather than financially) in it.

Ultimately, the download is the format upon which the music industry appears to have settled. The new consumers of music all seem keen on this approach and so it’s now time for the record labels to fully embrace it and go to town on making sure that it’s an engaging and satisfying experience for the consumer. Even so, with so many digital files out there for the taking, who curates all of this stuff? Where will we now get our recommendations from? Where will we hear new songs in the first place? All that, and more, will be under consideration in the next instalment of the Futuremusic series tomorrow.

Futuremusic – Day Three

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Do you long for a time when Ben Folds wasn’t shit? Do you find yourself wondering why nobody writes proper songs anymore? Were you pissed off when the last Duke Special album sounded like it was made entirely of sugar, dipped in more sugar and then encased in that sugary stuff they put around sugared almonds? Fear not, help is at hand.

Today’s Futuremusic focus is the really rather lovely music of Charles Ramsey. For a start he has a good singer-songwriter name; it trips off the tongue like Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Teddy Thompson. Luckily, he also delivers when it comes to the music. I’ve always been a sucker for what I would call ‘beautiful’ songs. My brain gets diverted, my thought processes unravel and I zone out of all conversation whenever a ‘beautiful’ songs loom into earshot. Recently, I found myself dashing to iTunes as a result of Peter Gabriel‘s stunning cover of The Magnetic Fields‘The Book Of Love’ being used over the final scenes of the eighth season of Scrubs. Not someone whose musical antics I would normally hoover up, but there I was, desperate to get hold of this track which, as it happened, isn’t available via download stores and thus Amazon gained £3 in order for me to relieve them of a copy of the otherwise shite soundtrack to ‘Shall We Dance’. But it’s happened many times before and I truly hope it will happen many times again the future. The latest ‘beautiful’ song moment came courtesy of Charles Ramsey. ‘She Changes You’, from his current album, ‘Good Morning and Good Night’, is a perfect pop song. A gentle drum beat and a stirring string refrain lure you in before Ramsey’s distinctive but utterly soothing vocals take over. It’s not great surprise to see that he counts The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and The Divine Comedy amongst his influences. The presence of both a harpsichord and an English Horn on this track ensure that it is sonically beguiling. And, yes, you’re reading the words of a fan of The Divine Comedy here, but I defy you to listen to that song and not think, “Mmmmm, I’d like to here more of his stuff.” So, why don’t you give yourself a four minute break from whatever your doing and do just that. Clicky for said song.

See? The music of Charles Ramsey is so clearly borne of a great musical heritage, absorbed over years of intensive listening to some of the true greats, and yet it avoids being simply derivative and inessential. His debut album, ‘Something New’, was the sound of an artist finding his feet and didn’t quite scale the heights of ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ but nevertheless demonstrated a skill for what you might term ‘classic songwriting’. ‘So Much Better Off’, the debut’s highlight, can be heard on Ramsey’s Myspace player and it’s a nifty little piano-pop beast that, were it released by a faddish troupe of pop tarts such as The Hoosiers, could be a huge hit. It bounces along, piano thudding along in a fashion that Foldy Benjamin would be thrilled with, horns gradually building to a glorious flourish and all of it sounding like a record made by someone who loves a bit of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. It’s great.

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Recent recordings build on Ramsey’s pop nous and thus ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ is an album that deserves an audience. As any good scientist will tell you, it’s been clinically proven that if you end up whistling a song involuntarily, it must be pretty decent and so I have found myself offering my own, fairly out of tune, renderings of three of four songs from this album in recent days. As with the two acts already featured this week, Charles Ramsey has seized the initiative and put his music out there for you to go and get and both albums are available from iTunes (and other download stores) should you wish to get an immediate fix.

iTunes link for ‘Good Morning & Good Night’

iTunes link for ‘Something New’

But, for those of who’d rather have the physical product (and which right-minded individual wouldn’t) you can avoid cutting Apple in on the deal and give your money direct to the man himself via Paypal options on his website. Clicky.

Whether it’s ‘So Much Better Off’ or ‘She Changes You’, just wait till the next time you find yourself absent mindedly whistling to yourself and take a moment to check which song it was. Charles Ramsey is never going to be trumpeted by the NME as the new sound of anything because, frankly, he’s not but I’d say a bit of space can be made in the hearts of anyone who likes smart pop music, be it Ben Folds, Teenage Fanclub or the aforementioned Paul Simon. No agenda. No fad. Plenty of decent tunes.