Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: U

U is for…

… unintelligibility (Ben)

Researching my piece on The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band's 'The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes' for last week’s installment of the A-Z, I needed some guidance in deciphering the song’s lyrics, and so naturally I turned to the internet. But is it “a pathetic rain” or “a chemical rain”? In the end, I went with the consensus: “a pathetic rain”.

The web is littered with sites which appear to promise accurately transcribed lyrics, but which also carry a icon that you can click if you spot a mistake that needs correcting. They’re not infallible – far from it.

Why are such sites necessary? Well, they wouldn’t be if all albums came with the lyrics printed in the inlay booklet or on the record sleeve (something else to recommend packaging - though of course things need to move with the times, so surely it won’t be long before bands are issuing downloadable lyric sheets alongside their downloadable albums, if they aren’t already). Countless are the times I’ve been thankful on that score, perhaps most notably with The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. Regardless of James Dean Bradfield’s more recent sins, a quick glance at the lyrics to the likes of ‘Of Walking Abortion’, ‘Faster’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Archives Of Pain’ is more than enough to make you feel sorry for him. Having to get your mouth around Richey James’s essays would be a stern test of anyone’s verbal and vocal dexterity.

And thus we get to the crux of the matter: lyrics are very often unintelligible. No matter how many times you play and replay a song, certain lines simply refuse to compute. With The Holy Bible, the problem is the sheer rate at which Bradfield is obliged to spit out the words to keep pace with the music. With the likes of Arab Strap and Arctic Monkeys, it’s that regional accents can prove impenetrable to ears unaccustomed to them. With Mogwai, it’s that – on the rare occasions there are vocals at all – they’re either so heavily treated as to be unrecognisable as such (Barry Burns) or so hushed as to be almost inaudible (Stuart Braithwaite). With the heavier side of metal, it’s that even the most articulate lyrics are emitted as a low throaty rumble, growl or grunt from the mouth of a man (and yes, it’s invariably a man) who looks like he’s in the throes of childbirth.

And then there are some bands and lyricists who just like being enigmatic. Pretentious, you might think, but there’s no denying that often lyrics don’t sound nearly as good once you’ve seen them written them down. In the right hands and set to music which provides a sympathetic context for them, even the simplest and most mundane or clichéd of lines can possess a beauty and emotional weight of which they are shorn when set down nakedly on paper. Unintelligibility preserves that air of mystery and magic.

But enough of that. What I really want to talk about (and what, I suspect, you really want me to talk about) is those instances when lyrics are misheard to comical effect…

It’s no surprise to learn that apparently the #1 misheard lyric is that line from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ - “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”.

But what about my mate Marc, who for years thought that that the chorus to Bananarama’s classic single ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ was “Robert De Niro’s waiting / Talking to Tanya”, not “Robert De Niro’s waiting / Talking Italian”?

Or my girlfriend J’s friend, who thought Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh was singing “Everyone needs a buzzard for a pillow”? (Not very comfortable, I’d wager.)

Or J herself, who was under the impression that the chorus to the single that made Radiohead’s name was “I’m a creep / I’m a window”? She’d just thought it was Thom Yorke being “arty and pretentious”.

No wonder, then, that she’s a big fan of Maximo Park’s Paul Smith "because he enunciates really well and you can hear what he's singing"…

(There are loads more here. Add your own in the comments box.)

… university (Swiss Toni)

One of the most crucial moments in your university career happens just a few moments after your parents have bid you a tearful farewell. You are alone in your room in your hall of residence and you are in limbo: your old life is just setting off on the long journey down the motorway to the family home, but your new life has yet to properly begin. All around you people are sat in rooms just like yours, excited, but perhaps looking a little bit wistfully at their unopened suitcases and wondering what is supposed to happen next. Some will be wondering if they should make a cup of tea; others will be thinking that they should perhaps wander down the hall to introduce themselves to their new neighbours.

You know exactly what to do. You leave your suitcase where it is and go directly to your stereo. The first thing that needs to be sorted is the silence. The future can wait until you’ve got some music on.

But what do you play? You know that what you choose now will probably define your life. It may be the most important decision that you will ever make. It will certainly be the first thing that your neighbours know about you, and it will shape their perception of you for the rest of the year at least, and possibly for the rest of your life.

Maybe you hesitate as the enormity of the situation hits you. It’s a big decision and you wouldn’t want to rush it. What should you choose? Should you go for something popular? Perhaps something from the charts? Out of the question – you don’t own any. A timeless classic? Hmmm. Perhaps. The Beatles? Too obvious. Some cheese? Something ironic? Too risky. You don’t’ want to be remembered as the guy who liked Erasure would you? Not on your first day, anyway…

Nah. Bollocks to that.

You can’t pick music based upon what other people might think of it. Not now. This is your big chance to make a bold statement of individuality; to stand out from the crowd and to assert your identity. You have to go for something that speaks to you; an album that is close to your heart and will give you the courage to face this brave new world you find yourself in…

You reach for the CD, pop it in and crank up the volume… Now you can relax and your new life can really begin.

The first CD I listened to on my first day at university in 1992? The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion by the Black Crowes. When I listen to it now I can almost see the nervous and slightly gauche kid that I used to be, nervously sitting in his room waiting for that first knock. My discovery of “the band that changed everything” lay just in front of me, but the fact that I reached for that album and not something else is an indelible reminder of who I was on that first day.

What was the first thing you played?

… university radio (Paul)

With a nod to my fellow student DJ Del, U could only ever stand for university radio.

During the time in which I was involved, the University of Nottingham student radio station broadcast from a tired ageing studio in a World War II Nissen hut. The two studios, and in particular their mixing desks, were held together by a mixture of electric tape and solder affixed with great competence by a collection of unnervingly geeky students who looked like they shunned daylight in favour of nights lying on their backs soldering iron in hand, but who would cut loose magnificently given the opportunity to get within a sniff of alcohol.

The DJs themselves varied greatly, from those who worked hard on their shows, writing jokes and scripts to keep the listeners entertained, and honing their skills in the hope of one day landing a real radio job (a significant portion of which went on to do just that) to those in it purely for their love of music; they didn't care how ramshackle the show might sound, it was all about playing record after glorious record. Unsurprisingly, John Peel was their idol.

Like any student medium, the station inevitably attracted its share of CV points-scorers, and those simply on the scrounge for free stuff - but they tended to drift by the wayside, as the prospect of honing a demo tape or making the trip up the hill wore them down.

However, for those who kept going the student radio ride was a great one.

From a personal perspective I really enjoyed the opportunity to work on the sports show, phoning in live match reports from the press box at one of Nottingham's many sporting venues. Equally, witnessing a man in an orange boiler suit compete with and eventually trounce one time student DJ Simon Mayo in his quest to enter the Guinness Book Of Records for the longest radio show is a major highlight. Student radio awards evenings came and went, with Radio 1 DJs looking like startled rabbits as a myriad of drunken students talked at them about something (in my case it was Kevin Greening before I went off to "acquire" a large banner).

Student radio may at times be shambolic and badly prepared, but at its heart live a bunch of people willingly sacrificing their degrees to keep things going. That many of them go on to work in the broadcasting industry is testament to the skills they acquired as students.

… unsigned and signed (Jez)

The cream always rises to the top, or so they say. There are supposed to be 56,000 aspirant pop acts in the UK at any one time. Being signed to a major record company is surely the holy grail for the vast majority of them. However, for many the start of the journey is also the end.

There can be little difference between being signed or not. A&R departments tend to sign in bulk, using the theory that if they sign everything they won’t miss something. Therefore, it’s not unusual for a band to be signed and never actually release anything as often signings are made to stop the competition finding “the next big thing”. This search is often a paradox as A&R folks follow trends rather than setting them. How many more Jamie Cullums can there be until that particular well runs dry?

A slight change in the cultural wind can make a style of act redundant, resulting in swathes of “droppings”. Business strategy can also change a life. In the Island / Polygram merger, the sort of thing that has become commonplace in the industry, reshuffling saw Island dropping 181 acts overnight. They just ceased to be pop acts. Even just the change of one office’s personnel can seal a band’s fate. A sacking or move to another record company means the act will not be supported by the next incumbent.

We all come to music as consumers. Because music has a powerful emotional effect it is difficult not to think we are emotional with it. But this is an illusion. It is a manufactured product with the traces of production rubbed out.

Do we really choose what we actually hear? In some ways yes, but in others, no. At least we can choose what we buy. Can’t we? If the word “marketing” was actually spelt "varketing" I’d have ruminated on the subject next week.

… untitled (Pete)

I have a confession to make. Last week I bought the new Snow Patrol album. In my defence, this was mainly because I loved their first two albums and thought number three wasn't too bad. Whoops, I'm straying already. Track twelve on their latest release is called '–', which, as the title suggests, doesn’t offer much in the way of music, instead featuring 3m 55s of kids laughing in the background. Luckily, I bought it off a leading Jersey-based online retailer and so paid less than I would have elsewhere for someone accidentally leaving the Record button on. Rant over. But it still leaves me pondering why so many bands insist on using untitled tracks, hidden or not?

Chaps, if it ain't good enough to make it on the album proper, then don't stick it on after the last tracks and another five minutes of silence. Put it on a B-side or release it as free download. Apart from the majority of these songs being a load of guff, it always seems to me that I'll stick an album last thing at night, only to be shocked out of my slumber by the screaming intro of a hidden track. I Am Kloot's 'Because' is a perfect example of the latter, with Minuteman, Placebo, The Verve, Starsailor, The Magic Numbers, Travis, Turin Brakes (on two albums) as well as countless others equally as guilty of the former.

For those bands who feel they absolutely have to use a hidden track, try and be inventive like Super Furry Animals. For those of you who own the CD version of Guerrilla, make sure you're at the beginning of track one, hold down rewind and you'll see what I mean.

In my eyes, the preferable alternative is to call the song 'Untitled', but deem it good enough to include it on the tracklist. While you could feel disappointed at the lack of inspiration, more often than not, this approach results in a good tune such as Interpol's opener to Turn On The Bright Lights. In fact, I'm thinking that a compilation of songs of this ilk might be a good idea. So far I've come up with DJ Shadow, the aforementioned Interpol, Six. By Seven, Stellastarr* and I Am Kloot. Any other suggestions?

… ‘Up A Lazy River’ – Leon Redbone (Skif)

Have you ever had one of those early morning conversations with someone when they’re half asleep, where your cheery salutations mingle with whatever dream they are having? Well, recall the cadence of their drowsy responses and you’ll be closer to having an understanding of Leon Redbone’s vocal style, particularly on his wonderful version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Lazy River’, and it is this on which my entry is centred. So, I guess I’m cheating a bit bu placing it at U;, however the album it is from, and the main lyrical motif of the piece, extends out to ‘Up A Lazy River’. Ideal.

My first proper appreciation of Leon Redbone was when he appeared as one of the musical guests on Jack Dee’s original Channel 4 “nightclub” series, a format the deadpan comedian has never bettered I might add. The two songs Redbone played, at the end of each half of the programme, showcased both ends of his jazz stylings. There was his version of ‘Champagne Charlie’ where he honked like a curmugeonly goose, but I was far more taken with ‘Lazy River’, the sleepy front-porch delivery suggesting his pristine white tailored suit should take guard against the immediate threat of oncoming dribble.

On the LP version, Dr. John plays equally narcoleptic piano, while Bobby Gordon sweeps us downstream on his mellifluous clarinet, and it all sounds just perfect. It is this wearied sound that saw Redbone make his probably most famous contribution to British popular culture, with his 1986 ‘Relax’ advert for BR’s Intercity Rail. He also composed Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ jingle.

Despite these commercial interests, Redbone is nonetheless an enigmatic character, with precious little set in stone regarding his background. Mainly thanks to similar top-lip furniture, rumours did the rounds for years that Redbone was merely Frank Zappa in disguise, although the latter’s death put paid to those. Well, most of them, anyway. Leon Redbone is accepted by most not to be his real name, particularly as the surname is a breed of dog apparently used for hunting racoons. Some say that despite early career ties to Toronto, he may well be of Cypriot or Armenian heritage, with some claiming his real name to be Dickran Gobalian.

Another source of mystery is his age, in that since his first appearances in the 1970s he has consistently looked middle-aged. The myths flying around the internet, and his performance schtick of claiming to have written the almost turn-of-the-century vaudeville, medicine show and minstrel tunes he performs in his act haven’t helped pinpoint his date of birth. The Internet Movie Database once had him down as born in 1921, but around 1950 appears more believable.

Redbone is a private individual, and certainly a little eccentric, who believes that personal details have nothing to do with his performing, and thus neither confirms or denies any of the rumours that circulate about him. Even his manager claims not to know his exact address. In another quirk, after being involved in a small plane crash in the 1980s, he now reportedly travels to all shows by road transport. Although how he made it to play a show on the Isle of Wight a few years back (which I only found out about afterwards, despite living in Portsmouth at the time, grrrr), I have no idea.

In the last 30 years, he has released eleven studio LPs, the most recent being 2001’s Any Time, and four live records. I’d recommend ‘Up A Lazy River’ to start, just for the title track, which really is like dozing on a raft whilst chewing straw. Many have recorded this song, including Louis Armstrong, but if any one of them has captured the mood as perfectly as this, I’ll eat Leon Redbone’s panama hat. And his sunglasses. And his moustache.

… ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’ – The Boo Radleys (Caskared)

… or an excuse to talk about The Boo Radleys. ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’ is the second song on the 1993 album Giant Steps. The Boos, from the Wirral, were a baggy band with Spiritualized-influenced white noise filling their early albums Ichabod And I and Everything’s Alright Forever. Giant Steps was a departure point, the album is experimental, idiosyncratic and was unafraid to be grandiose albeit keeping within the indipop umbrella. The NME voted the album the second best of 1993 (at the top spot was Bjork’s Debut) and they topped lists for Select and Melody Maker. The album received critical acclaim, but sadly only few actually bought it. It was only with the unashamedly pop Wake Up! that The Boo Radley’s actually gained any kind of popularity… or income.

Giant Steps begins with backward voices calling “Boo be with you” leading into the jangly ‘I Hang Suspended’. A cracking melody and layered sound, it ends with a looped low tremelo leading into the feedback blaring of Martin Carr’s guitar. The baseline and drums kick in and keep ploughing throughout ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’. Sice’s vocals are as distorted as the guitar, which picks up a ska sensibility (which creeps back in songs such as ‘Lazarus’). The song, which is nearly five minutes long, seamlessly changes gear several times ending with quietly chugging cellos before the happy hand-clapping trumpeting pop of the next song, ‘Wish I Was Skinny’.

Giant Steps constantly switches mode and alternates quiet contemplative moments with loud confident riffs as in the elephantine ‘I’ve Lost The Reason’ or keyboard glitches with the cowbell mode in ‘Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce)’. The album could have been more conventional were it not for the constant search for new solutions to noise-making with an electronic hip hop influence which is clearly manifest by the time they released C’mon Kids. And they were not afraid to include straight forward sing-along four-chord pop songs such as ‘Barney (…And Me)’.

It is an album that the Boos made at a make-or-break point in their career and everything is in there – emotion, experimentation, and ultimately a hopeful energy that pushes it to the top of my indie list.

* * * * *

Thanks to Swiss Toni, Paul, Jez, Pete, Skif and Caskared for their contributions this week.


Blogger Ben said...

ST: Dinosaur Jr's Where You Been. As far as I'm concerned, it fulfilled the criteria on all counts. I do recall, though, that about a week into the term someone in my block knocked on my door to complain about the fact that I was playing Sgt Peppers very loudly at midnight. I had a pint of wine in my hand at the time.

Paul: Ah, happy days. Wish I'd got more involved. Helping out Olav (that'd be the Peel acolyte, then) was a lot of fun, as was 'Slag Or Shag' the couple of times I did it. I also recall you having to make a dire end-of-season 0-0 draw between the Toon and Derby sound interesting in a phoned-in report from Pride Park...

Pete: No more suggestions off the top of my head, I'm afraid, but I'm with you about Interpol's 'Untitled' - a brilliant opening to the album (and it used to be a brilliant opening to their live set too). As regards the secret track before the first song on Guerrilla, you know there are a couple there on Ash's 1977?

11:53 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

PS Paul: I commiserated by text with Mr Orange Boiler Suit over the Smoggies' UEFA Cup defeat tonight, and he texted back to say that he interviewed Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips the other day, who told him he was "interesting"...

11:55 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

university radio eh? that brings back memories. I was a regular at W963, the not-very-popular radio station at the University of Warwick. It started with me accidentally being added to the sports team early in my first term, and ended up with me playing Slayer's "Dead Skin Mask" and dedicating it to "...all you lovers out there" at some point after my Final exams.

In between times I played a whole lot of Johnny Cash, Scott Walker and Morrissey to the uncaring masses, stole a fantastic poster of the "No Regrets" era Walker Brothers from the radio station's pristine copy of the LP, and talked a whole lot of bollocks.

Usually we had an audience of about 2 (not that it mattered). But for 4 glorious weeks a year we got an FM licence and were able to broadcast across Coventry and Leamington.

Happy days. I even enjoyed that netball game I covered once.

I was also a DJ on University Radio York when I was doing my masters. It was fun, but just not the same.

ST (several of that original sports team have ended up working on the BBC or for ITV. The bastards)

7:29 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

....and if Adam Mountford ever has time between covering England cricket tours for radio 4, I would just like to take this opportunity to say:

"G&G.... much more than just a bus company"


7:33 am  
Blogger Pete said...

Caskared: The Boos...what a band.

Ben: yes, the famous Sick Party...I did think of mentioning it. Is there another one though?

9:46 am  
Blogger Ben said...

ST: 'Dead Skin Mask' - good work!

Pete: 'Sick Party' is at the end - it's got first single 'Jack Names The Planets' and its B-side if you rewind from the beginning of track one.

10:32 am  
Blogger Del said...

Another stellar collection. Apologies again for my lack of contribution, work is very very busy at the moment (14 hour days. Yum.) Thanks for the namecheck Paul! University Radio gave me a career (with 14 hour days!)

ST: I'm not sure what my first Uni CD was, but I know it was almost certainly one of Air - 'Moon Safari', Blur - 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' or Spiritualized - 'Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating in Space'. Probably the latter.

Pete: French chum of Daft Punk, DJ Falcon did a house track called 'Untitled' (alongside another called 'Unplugged' which is actually much better!). And there was a track called 'Untitled' on the Smashing Pumpkins Best Of 'Rotten Apples' which is actually really rather good.

If I could make a late post script entry, it would relate nicely to Paul's...

The Undertones - 'Teenage Kicks'

Teenage dreams, so hard to beat.


1:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re - Untilted. Tracks 13-35 on John Frusciante's Niandra Lades and usually just a T-shirt are all untitled. Why? No idea.

11:04 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Pete: A thought - none of the songs on Sigur Ros's ( ) have titles on the album's sleevenotes, although the band did give them titles so they could distinguish between them when performing live...

2:16 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

On "Climate of the Hunter", Scott Walker has track names as diverse as

"Track 3"
"Track 5"
"Track 6"
and "Track 7"

That's practically untitled, isn't it?

And yes, they are in that order... except on the remastered version of the CD, when they are (a little confusingly) out of sync.



3:08 pm  
Blogger bytheseashore said...

Uni songs: Husker Du's 'Zen Arcade' in a clumsy attempt to establish my hardcore Indie Kid credentials; not the perfect mood music for that first cup of tea with the bloke next door. Despite that we shared various houses until we graduated and I ended up learning to appreciate his Pet Shop Boys and, yes, Erasure collection.

I still listen to them now, occasionally. Never quite got him into Bob Mould's back catalogue though.

As for university radio, the less said about my celebrity interviews with Kingmaker and Eat the better. Bands only tended to visit Lancaster for a piss at Forton Services on the way to Manchester.

8:10 pm  
Blogger LB said...

at the risk of dragging this debate into the dinner-party Richard Curtis mainstream, track 11 on Keane's "Hopes and Fears" is called "Untitled 1" and one of the b-sides of "Bedshaped" is "Untitled 2".

i'll get my coat.

9:53 am  
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