Category: Music

What ever happened to Fleming and John?

Fleming and John made two of my favorite CDs the excellent Delusions of Grandeur and the even-better The Way We Are.  In the words of one reviewer:

Vocalist Fleming McWilliams’s voice soars from a waifish whisper to a Joplin-esque
wail to operatic diva, often in the same song. Multi-instrumentalist
John Painter assembles a dizzying palette of sounds, from buzzy,
riff-heavy guitars to horns, accordion, Middle Eastern percussion, and
theremin, which yields a general sense of weirdness–all set in a
perfectly pop context–while the Love Sponge String Quartet add sonic
depth and a Van Dyke Parks quality to several arrangements.

The lyrics are also great.  When these albums appeared in the mid 1990s I thought these guys were going to be superstars and yet I’m about the only person I know who knows about them.  Although they can be labeled pop/rock almost none of their songs follows a pop/rock formula and that may have reduced airplay.  Their official website hasn’t been updated in years.  If you run out and buy their albums or blog about them perhaps we can create enough economies of scale to induce a new album.

Markets in everything — musical equity

A London-based pop singer is raising funds to kick-start his career by selling shares in himself on internet auction site eBay. In just three days, Shayan has raised £9,000 from buyers in London, New York and Toronto.

Shayan – who doesn’t trade under his surname, Italia – insists the scheme is a way of avoiding the traditional route of sending demos to major labels. "The most difficult thing is to get people’s attention," he says.

Speculative buyers are offered the chance to invest £3,000 in return for a 0.25% equity share in anything the 27-year-old singer-songwriter earns over his entire career. The shares remain valid for 70 years after the artist’s death, and can be transferred to the buyer’s children.

Read more here.

Birdsong and human song

Here is a site on bird song, and yes I am recommending the actual music clips.  The slowed down versions sound like Miles Davis.  The accompanying book is excellent, and not only because you can read it in an hour.

If you want music by humans, try Lee Perry’s new four-CD collection I Am the Upsetter; it is the best Perry anthology (better than Arkology or Open the Gate, although buy all three) and therefore one of the best CDs sets, ever.


Two of the four — the bald ones — looked like villains from a Bruce Willis movie.  The other two looked like late-career managers after seven years of Arbeitslosigkeit, laid off by Lufthansa due to insufficient downward real wage flexibility.

They didn’t play instruments, nor did they sing.  Well, one of them would, every few  minutes or so, bark something into a kind of mike.  He ejaculated phrases like "Carbohydrat" [sic] and "Tour de France" [at least his country supported the EU Constitution].

All four stood at laptop computers, with, well, "that look."  You know, the look you have when you just blogged something that you took just a little too seriously.  Hey, maybe they were blogging.  [What did you expect Tyler, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf? a ten-minute accordion solo?]

Nor am I the one to call them stiff.  I arrived at the 9:30 club – one of DC’s coolest venues — at 7:30, armed with my copy of Oscar Edward Anderson’s 1953 Refrigeration in America: A History of a Technology and its Impact, just in case the proceedings at hand should prove too slow for my tastes.

But I was not to read the book.  As a matter of pure accident, I ran into Henry Farrell, of CrookedTimber fame.  Here is his excellent recent post on Turkey and the EU.

The bottom line: The music was great, and the show started exactly on time.

Music I love in genres I hate

Heavy metal – Ugh, right?  Well, the good stuff, such as Led Zeppelin, gets defined as classic rock instead of metal.  I dislike "metal-as-we-know-it," but nonetheless I am struck by Mastodon’s Leviathan.  Metal’s dirty little secret is just how much it can resemble free jazz.  Add to the mix a retelling of America’s greatest novel (Moby Dick), a feel for the apocalyptic, a tasteful switch to the acoustic, and you have an album to come back to.  Even the eggheads at The New York Times pushed this one.

Post-1965 Country music – You can argue about that date, but New Jersey boys aren’t going to like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain.  Shelby Lynne, on the other hand, is the best of Loretta Lynn and Dusty Springfield rolled into one, only circa 2005.  I am Shelby Lynne is the breakthrough album and probably her best work.  Identity Crisis is a worthy follow-up, and the excellent Suit Yourself just came out this week.

Why satellite radio doesn’t make me happier

I love satellite radio.  I listen every day and did not flinch when they raised the price.  Still I cannot help but feel (boo-hoo) it was not designed with me in mind.  I am not completely happy with 70 commercial-free, DJ-driven music stations with no playlists. 

The culprit lies in how the channels are defined.  They have a station for "50s music," or "bluegrass," or "reggae."  They need clear and compelling channel titles to attract subscribers.  And with so many channels at hand, many listeners wish to know what is where when. 

But I don’t care so much about genre or time period per se.  Let’s face it, most music from the 1960s is unlistenable.  I love the best of Jamaican music, but most reggae stinks.  A station that has to cover a genre or time period gives you, in lieu of a least common denominator problem, too many denominators at once.

I would rather have 70 channels with the liberty of experimenting across all possible dimensions.  Even better, how about defining channels by IQ scores?  Number of CDs in your collection?  Personal mood that day?  Best yet, a station: "For people who are convinced that James Brown, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Lee Perry, and Pierre Boulez are seminal musical figures of our time."

That is why I am not happier with satellite radio.  I hope soon to relate my experiences with Internet radio and podcasting.

Which cultures do we tend to undervalue?

Large and insular ones.  The Cape Verde islands produce music which is immediately accessible, whether or not you are a local or an insider.  The music could not have flourished as it has without external support; the same is true for Jamaican reggae.

On the other hand, you might find that Chinese music sounds like screeching cats being murdered.  But in reality, you probably should accept the old saw that 1.3 billion (or however many) people can’t be wrong.  Get used to the idea that musical timbre can be as important as traditional harmony, or that shrill voices, loud gongs, and droning background instruments can make for fun.

If you are looking for some Chinese music that won’t offend your Western ears, try the pipa (think elaborate Chinese lute) player Min Xiao-Fen.  Here is her home page and some press quotes.  Here is a disc to buy.  But don’t expect all Chinese music to be so easy.

What about sea cucumber?  The Chinese love the culinary texture of smoothness, even if you don’t.  Jellyfish is yummy and crunchy, and don’t forget chicken kidney boiled with fishhead.  (For real Chinese food in Northern Virginia, try China Star of Fairfax, or Saigon Palace, at Seven Corners, Falls Church, they have the kidney dish, and yes I know Saigon is in Vietnam but a Hong Kong entrepreneur just bought out the old place). 

Are you curious and looking for new cultural adventures?  Or just seeking a new and difficult way to signal your sophistication?  You probably alrerady grasp island cultures relatively well.  Spend your marginal time and energy on learning the creations of large and remote foreign territories.

China fact of the day

"There are maybe 9, 10 million young pianists in China now," says international piano phenom Lang Lang. There, young classical artists like himself are treated like rock stars.
    "It is different from the U.S.," he explains. "Everyone goes to [classical] concerts and CD signings. They have to have police to hold back the crowds, and to have this life is the dream of many young Chinese people."

Here is the story.  From those in the know, I have heard horror stories of badly tuned and badly maintained pianos rotting in humid climates.  Still, I cannot help but feel that the future of contemporary classical music composition lies in Asia.  Where else are so many young people passionate about the genre?

How do we know if the music industry is doing well?

To re-iterate my extremist line against even [Mark] Cuban, however, aggregate sales aren’t really all that relevant. If the music is getting made, and the music is getting listened to, well then, that’s a healthy IP environment. The creation and consumption of new works is the end, sales are merely a means to that end.

Matt Yglesias continues:

I don’t believe I’ve even heard anybody try to argue that fewer new songs are being written or recorded or that people are listening to less music than they used to. It’s the availability of new music for consumption that we’re supposed to be protecting here. P2P, through both authorized and unauthorized uses, obviously leads to an uptick in the number of people who listen to any given song. You would need a pretty huge decrease in the quantity of new music being recorded (and, as I say, no sign there is such a decrease at all) in order to make the case that the progress of musical arts was being seriously impeded here. P2P probably is a problem for the major record companies, both because infringement will reduce their sales potential, and also because it will make it easier for public domain and independent works to be distributed and publicized. This, however, simply isn’t something IP law is supposed to prevent. The health of music-production as an endeavor is not at all the same thing as the financial status of the RIAA’s membership. As I say, if there’s evidence that thanks to copyright infringement kids aren’t forming bands anymore, artists are quitting the business in droves to go to law school, or clubs are finding that nobody wants to go on tour anymore then that would be interesting and relevant, but I’m not familiar with any such evidence.

He truly ought to be an economist, albeit with more Milton Friedman driven into his blood (although here is his George Stigler impersonation). 

I’ll add two points of my own.  First, file-sharing is in the long run a greater danger for capital-intensive movies; I worry less about music.  Second, most new CD releases fail to either earn money or attract real attention, with or without file-sharing.  Furthermore most consumers listen to only a subset of what they buy.  A first best probably involves lower music sales, not higher sales.  Let’s say you sample a CD on iTunes (or illegally for that matter), don’t like it, and then don’t buy it.  The music company stops funding that kind of music.  Why is that market failure?  Admittedly we may be cutting into a cross-subsidy of some winners; the fools and their mistaken purchases help cover the fixed costs of the music company.  Still it is probably better to move closer to a better informed optimum, which again means less music not more.

Addendum: In addition to the excellent Mark Cuban link at the very top, Matt offers more data.

Pierre Boulez turns 80

Today is his eightieth birthday, here are some appreciations and critiques.  I side with George Benjamin:

…a rigorous compositional skill is coupled to an imagination of extraordinary aural refinement. Pli Selon Pli, Eclat/Multiples, the spectacularly inventive orchestral Notations, Explosante-Fixe – these are among the most beautiful works of our time. Boulez’s music has a very distinctive flavour – a love of rare timbres and spicy harmonies, a supreme formal elegance and a passion for virtuosity and vehement energy. The polemics that periodically surround him obscure the intensely poetic source of his musical vision.

Guero and Crunchy Frog lists Beck’s new album —Guero — as coming out next week, but today I found copies in my local Starbucks, bless their hearts.  The sound is muddier and murkier than usual, with plenty of rhythm changes and scratching. On first listening it is at least as good as Odelay (and similar in style), but not quite up to my favorite, Mutations.  But then again, I’ve underrated every other Beck album on first listening, so why should this one be any different?

While we are off the topic of economics, Entertainment Weekly lists the 20 Best Monty Python sketches.  Most of the picks are on target but "Miss Anne Elk" and "Summarize Proust" are conspicuous for their absence.  And "The Argument Clinic" (the original inspiration for "Markets in Everything," I might add) deserves to be way higher than #20.

Musical protectionism

The French police are arresting symphony orchestra musicians from Eastern Europe.  Why?

The reason for importing musicians
from the east to play in countries like France is simple: money. "The
tour would’ve been too expensive with French musicians, so there
wouldn’t have been a tour at all," Mr. Miller argues. While a company
like the one conducted by Mr. Miller might charge about €15,000
($20,055) for a show, a French orchestra would probably cost three
times that amount, Mr. Miller reckons–pricing them out of the 300- to
800-seat venues they were playing, typically in towns of less than
100,000 people. "I don’t feel at all that I’m taking work away from a
French musician," Mr. Miller told me. Musicians like the Bulgarians he
was conducting, meanwhile, "need the work, they don’t hold out for very
high fees and they play well." "Artistically," he added, "the tour was
a great success."

Not all the musicians have their papers:

A German conductor, Volker
Hartung, whose Cologne New Philharmonic was also employing some East
European musicians, was arrested as he came out for an encore following
a performance of Ravel’s "Bolero" and Bizet’s "Carmen." After also
being held for two days, Mr. Hartung was released with a warning but,
according to the Guardian newspaper, has been banned from performing in
France "until further notice." This was, according to Gerald Mertens,
director of Deutsche Orchestervereinigung, or the German orchestra
union, the second time Mr. Hartung was arrested in France for
underpaying his musicians and not obtaining proper authorization for
them to perform in France.

After deep reflection and debate, the French musicians’ unions have decided to side with the French police, and not with the Muse.  In fact, some of the arrested musicians blame the unions themselves for the crackdown.