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Monday
Oct062008

Girls Aloud get me thinking

Just when you're getting over an incredibly funny quote from a rock star (see my earlier post on Noel Gallagher's Irishness), along comes another, from none other than Chris Martin:

"I love Girls Aloud. I'm obsessed with Girls Aloud. I've been trying to write them a song and I can't come up with anything good enough. They're amazing. It's the combination of extreme physical attraction and fantastic music. I think they might be the ultimate form of life."

Well I don't know what Chris Martin's missus has to say about that (if I said that I'd be in trouble with mine), and I'd stop short at calling them the ultimate form of life, but - shock! horror! - I think he actually might be onto something. The people who put that band together have been very, very, very clever: combining some of the best-looking provincial girls going with some of the best pop writers and producers around. Throw in some videos which just stop short of being soft porn and you've got a recipe for success. Actually now that I read over that, maybe that isn't that clever at all; it's bloody obvious. But it's very effective.

At this point I am sure you think I'm off my rocker regarding the pop/production bit (I'd say most red-blooded males agree with the first bit though). But let's look a little bit closer at the music. It's bloody good. Okay, so the lyrics are pretty trite ("I'm just a love machine, feeding my fantasy" anyone?) but the tunes are excellent, and the production is cutting edge. Take their track Biology, for example - it starts off as glam rock, goes a bit pop, then disco, then back to glam rock...you don't hear that kind of thing very often. It's not as good as Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, but it employs the same kind of genre-bending tactics, and it's really refreshing to hear that kind of music in the charts. It's pop, but not as we know it Jim.

The guy who writes most of their stuff is a chap called Brian Higgins, who runs a production house called Xenomania. It's not just me that admires his writing - the Guardian's Alexis Petridis has this to say about his work:

"Listening to [Girls Aloud's second studio album] What Will The Neighbours Say?, you constantly get the impression that Higgins and Xenomania are enraptured by the possibilities of pop music..."

I don't always agree with Mr Petridis, and I'm still peeved that he didn't review my last record, but I'm with him on this one - he's spot on. On the best Girls Aloud records, you hear Higgins not playing music, but playing with it. At this point in pop/rock history there are just so many things you can pick and choose from when you're making a record...but most big-selling 'credible' acts just don't. Take Chris Martin's band for example - you don't hear any genre-bending there at all really. Or The Editors. Or Oasis. Or Damien Rice. Or, sadly these days, Radiohead. It's the same old sound, tweaked a little bit for each record, but wheeled out pretty much without fail on every occasion. Higgins, on the other hand, makes the most of the vast sonic possibilities that we now have at our disposal. Albeit sometimes in a casual and trite way - but it's always fun, and at times brilliant.

So that's why I'm enjoying Girls Aloud records. They plunder from the past. They use the latest production toys. They switch styles on a whim. The only thing is, of course, that the girls themselves don't have much to do with it; you get the feeling that Higgins really could have got any girls with decent voices to do the singing. They do a competent job, but I know plenty of female singers who can perform just as well as them.

But when pop looks and sounds this good, it seems churlish to complain.

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Download Chris Singleton's album 'Twisted City' for free at www.singletonmusic.com/freealbum/

Sunday
Oct052008

Noel Gallagher is Irish!

I just had to laugh at this from Noel Gallagher in the Irish Times:

"I clearly remember my mam saying to me and my two brothers when we were growing up: 'You're only English because you were born here.' And with a mother from Mayo and a father from Co Meath, there's not a drop of English blood in me. I recently had a child with my Scottish girlfriend, and there's no English blood in him at all.

"I feel as Irish as the next person. The first music I was ever exposed to was the rebel songs the bands used to sing in the Irish club in Manchester. Do you know, I think that's where Oasis songs get their punch-the-air quality - from me being exposed to those rousing rebel songs. It was all rebel songs and that godawful Irish country and western music."

Now, not that I give a shit as I'm not into any form of nationalism, English, Irish, Welsh or otherwise...

...but Noel, you're famous (amongst other things) for playing a Union Jack guitar and inventing Britpop.

Good try though to get the Irish fans onside. I might go on about my Irish roots for the next record I put out...hang on though, I think I might actually be Irish?

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Saturday
Oct042008

The difficult second album

I always laughed at the hoary old phrase 'the difficult second album' which is routinely wheeled out by those reviewers who are reviewing well, a difficult second album. Now I'm not laughing. It's bloody difficult.

I'm currently working on said difficult second album. Well actually it's my fourth, but I'm rather particular about which of my albums I release.

Anyway, the point is, it's proving difficult to finish. Why? I've boiled it down to three issues.

The first is lack of time - living in London seems to do weird things to your diary and keep you away from the studio.

The second is lack of energy: I'm cagey about my age, as once you pass the grand old age of 10 the music industry doesn't seem to want to know about you...but lets just say that when you pass the fucking awful age of 30 (damn!) you lose a bit of your mojo. It's like a musical biological clock starts ticking or something - you want to make records more, but you seem less able to do so. I stress that this isn't equivalent to losing talent - at least I hope not - but it's hard to go at making records hammer and tongs the way I used to when I was a pain-in-the-ass 21 year old (reminds me of Pink Floyd: "and then one day you find...ten years have got behind you". Yuck.).

The third is fussiness: because I mainly produce my own stuff, I am all too aware of my deficiencies behind the desk. Bizarrely I can make everybody else who comes into my studio sound great in 5 minutes, but it takes me bloody ages to feel satisfied with my own music.

But I'm finally getting to that stage where I feel the pieces are falling into place. There are two songs in particular that are turning out very well - 'Lose it' and 'Lou Reed'. The latter was a throwaway song, but it's now actually one of my favourites. But a load of my record still sounds crap. I'm going to be working on this difficult album for quite a while I reckon.

In other news I am currently watching the "top 50 most embarrassing pop moments ever" on BBC 3. Not sure it's the best use of license fee-payers' money, but it's pretty entertaining.

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Monday
Sep292008

Oh and by the way, which one's pink?

Just finished watching a BBC documentary about Pink Floyd. Saw it a couple of years ago, and presuming they're showing it again because of the sad death of Rick Wright.

At their peak (apologies to Barrett fans, but that's 1973 for me), they really were an amazing group. Watching the documentary, it brought back memories of the first time I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon, in 1996. Seems like an age ago now.

Like a lot of albums, I got it from my Uncle Cormac, who had clearly played it to death before lending it to me. It was very scratchy, but the crackles and pops didn't detract from the magic of the music - or discovering it.

It quickly became my favourite album, and remains so. It has it all: brilliant melodies, incredible playing, (controlled) experimentation, big themes, pointed lyrics and a lush Abbey Road production, on my favourite recording medium, tape.

It does that thing to me which much-loved music tends to: it transports me to another time. When I hear it I'm at the end of a student party in Rathmines, a bit worse for wear, drifting off to sleep, knowing I've got a lecture on Greek tragedies in the morning.

The band might have had other ideas of what this record would evoke, but there you go.

Saturday
Sep272008

Obama v McCain: who won the first debate?

Well I didn't stay up till the wee hours to watch the debate, I caught up with it on CNN this morning. I had a boiled egg to go with it, and a nice cup of tea.

My gut feeling on presidential debates is that they tend to be about the 'presidential' and not about the 'debate'. There seems to be an almost platonic ideal of what a president should look like (or come across as) and the televised debates between candidates give the US public a chance to see how the candidates conform to that ideal.

This is not a good thing: it places personality over policies. When personality politics takes over, affable guys or gals with very bad ideas can end up in power. When you think about the 2004 US election, even with all his visible faults, and having conducted a disastrous war, George Bush looked and came across more like a 'typical' president than John Kerry (the fact that he actually was the president probably helped). Did that sway the election? Well, I think it certainly improved Bush's chances of winning.

This kind of silliness is not restricted to the US: it's fairly obvious that the Tories' good performance in the polls is due in no small part to the fact that David Cameron looks more like a PM, and is a better communicator, than Gordon Brown (although, policy-wise, Gordon hasn't made it easy for himself).

Anyway, back to the US presidential debate itself. Who won? Well, most right-wingers, I expect, will have agreed with what McCain had to say, and most left-liberals will have sympathised with Obama.

As with most elections, it all comes down to the floating voters - and here's where the "presidential ideal" comes in. If 'independent' or 'indecisive' voters cannot differentiate between the policies and content of the candidates (despite there being clear differences in the approaches of McCain and Obama), it probably means that they are going to look for the candidate who appears most presidential. Who was that?

Well, intriguingly, neither of the candidates looked hugely like a conventional president: we saw an old white guy and a young(ish) black guy slugging it out. This is possibly what makes this race so interesting: the parties have plumped for candidates who do not look like, and certainly don't talk like, the presidents of recent times. McCain comes across as a sort of friendly grand-dad, who will sit the voter on his knee and give him a boiled sweet, and Obama sounds like a toned-down version of Martin Luther King.

If neither of them looked quite like a president, the question becomes one of whom came closest. And, on balance, my answer is Obama. He looked slightly more presidential, slightly more authoritative than McCain. It's easier - in my mind at least - to imagine him giving a presidential address to the nation, or greeting foreign dignitaries in the Rose Garden.

Will this be enough, though, to win him the election? Let's see: there are still dirty tricks (Democrats are already going to court to try to stop Republicans from denying the vote to certain social groups) and possibly racism (are Americans prepared to elect a black man yet?) to overcome.

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