Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: X

A week later than anticipated - sorry for the hiatus, folks...

X is for …

… X chromosome (Swiss Toni)

I sometimes reflect upon the fact that something is definitely missing from my record collection. I’ve got music in almost every conceivable genre: samba, indie, reggae, hip-hop, heavy metal, indie, lounge, rap, pop, punk, classical… Hell, I’ve even got an album of classic Wurlitzer tunes. There’s loads and loads of variety in there, but they’ve almost all got one thing in common – the Y chromosome.

I would say that at least 85% of my music library is predominantly the work of men.

Sure, there are some female artists represented in there, of course there are. Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Dusty Springfield, Aretha… but now I’m already starting to struggle to name the others off the top of my head and I’m going to have to check. Um. There’s some Portishead in there, Belly, The Breeders, Sleeper, one song by Hole, one song by Natalie Imbruglia. Er. Perhaps some Kylie. KT Tunstall. There’s probably some more, but not many more.

I don’t really know why this is. Is the music business sexist? Are men given more opportunities than women? Are there proportionally more records made by men than by women? Do records by men sell more than records by women? Or is it simply that I have prejudiced ears? Actually, I definitely have prejudiced ears (although I prefer to call them "discerning") but are they sexist?

Maybe everyone has bigoted ears. Perhaps women have a natural inclination to buy records by female artists.

Who knows?

Before you judge me too harshly; before you write me and my bigoted ears off as relics of a less enlightened time, I must ask you all to do one thing: have a look at your own collections and ask yourself if you too might be the owner of prejudiced ears.

… Xerox Teens (Skif)

The raison d’etre of this A-Z is to bring personal histories and interests into union. Share the wealth, and share a part of yourself. That’s why I enjoy being a part of it.

However as much as I like donning the ‘All Our Yesterdays’ flat-cap of rose-tinted nostalgia, I think generally that I prefer the possibilities of what I might hear tomorrow over the memories of what I heard last week. Running a fanzine puts me in a privileged position in this respect, and it’s always a real thrill to receive, usually unsolicited, another tune that can really flick the switch; bands that sound that little bit different; bands that sound genuinely exciting. Well, to me anyway. I have to acknowledge that what is genius to me is tuneless bilge to another. However, as we have seen from the entries thus far in our alphabetically sequential series, personal interaction is at the heart of what makes our various favoured musics special. It is a love thing, after all.

While this remains a trip down memory lane, as I can’t tell you about what I haven’t heard yet, I thought rather than wax nostalgic, I’d tell you about a band who’ve excited me recently, having appeared through my letter-box out of nowhere. It also gets me out of a lexically tight spot, so praise be to Xerox Teens for their timing.

First of all came a 7” (limited to 300 folks!!!) titled ‘Round’, and what a tune ‘Round’ turned out to be. A cyclical rumble wheels around the repeated Moogy pokes to the ribs and the intense theremin strokes. At the centre, is an MES-like rock ‘n’ drawl fighting to overcome the burst of hyenic, unhinged laughter. B-side ‘Man, It’s Hard To Beat A Woman’ is slightly more straightforward (only slightly, mind) surf-blues beefing ‘Monty-Python’ mother-in-law earache.

Another thing I’m in favour of is bands that don’t mind being a little prolific, as a Xerox Teens EP followed not long after and continued the fine work showed on the first release. The bad-ass bass and thug beats on ‘Darlin’ gather like hoolies outside a railway station while an excitable, attention deficient darts in zig-zags through their number, brass-synths and a steel band caught on the back of his shoe. ‘My Favourite Hat’ favours woody percussion and wriggles, tapping at its teeth with a spoon. ‘Sun Comes Up’ sounds like Devo’s ‘Whip It’ being melted over a spit, the soggy plastic then wound around broken talk radio. To finish was ‘Ba (Ba-Ba Ba)’ which captured the sound of colliery workers dolled up for a smooth Friday night at the lounge bar.

Tremendous, and just the ticket. As you’ll gather, I recommend them highly.

You might hate them, but I’d hope that you don’t.

… Xfm (Caskared)

I lived in London for a couple of years and finally I could tune into the legendary radio station that every indie kid across the land craved, Xfm. The first time I heard about Xfm I was living in the Midlands and they were about to close – a compilation tape to raise money for the station was released and it included ‘Xfm Is Ace’ by The Boo Radleys and The Tindersticks. Something went right, and Xfm was safe and has grown beyond expectations, but what is it?

Xfm is an independent alternative radio station that until last year broadcast only to London, but now outposts in Manchester and Scotland can be found, as well as through cable and online. Growing from a pirate station Q102 they turned into Xfm and became legal and full time in 1997. They supported the various alternative genres and were committed to providing a forum for unsigned acts; they were instrumental in the popularity of a huge number of bands getting decent airplay where the mainstream stations weren’t interested.

Xfm have been booming partly because what was the “alternative” world is pretty mainstream – the charts are riddled with the previously ghettoised guitar bands. Also Xfm nurtured a number of DJs such as Steve Lamacq, ex-Kenickie Lauren Laverne, and the now-poached-by-Virgin Christian O’Connell taking the breakfast show to a point of rivalling national stations (although I’m more a ‘Today’ girl for my breakfast listening). But the thing that makes me tune into Xfm online now I’m not in London is the way they give a home for some of the UK’s best comedians. It’s impossible not to mention that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant met Karl Pilkington at Xfm. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for a while hosted a tremendous show, as did Adam & Joe. I still listen to Jimmy Carr and Iain Morris being fantastic every Sunday.

The Xfm podcasts have been slow in coming but so far promise to become a stronghold of live sets and interviews if Goldfrapp’s is to be used as a bench mark. And the aforementioned Adam & Joe podcast contained a segment on the insane R Kelly DVD that has made me laugh so much I hurt. Xfm, a great place for R ‘n’ B baiting.

… ‘X Offender’ – Blondie (James)

Blondie were my first big musical love. Of course, Debbie Harry played a large part in that, especially once I hit those teenage years. But Blondie appeared in my life in 1979 when I was eight years old. Consequently, Debbie Harry has always been more like an aunt than a pin-up… albeit an inordinately sexy aunt. I was bought amidst a number of other 7”s, ‘Heart Of Glass’ with ‘Rifle Range’ on the B-side.

Within a year or so of picking up that single, I had bought (or acquired through a birthday and Christmas or two) all of the Blondie albums to date. Parallel Lines was obviously a big favourite, containing all the hugest singles of the time, but each of the LPs had their own charms. I liked Plastic Letters a lot, and Eat To The Beat got a lot of play. When Autoamerican was released, I quite like the disco elements. The only LP that remained under-played was their eponymous debut. Overall, it was too raw and lacked either the pop edge of the later LPs, or the energy of Plastic Letters. There were three songs on the LP that I did like, however. ‘In The Flesh’ was cool and sultry, but I was still pre-teen and having Debbie purr in my ears about such things was kind of lost on me. ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ was fun and bitchy, but it was in the midst of side two, which by and large I did not “get” at the time.

Track one side one, however, was a different matter. From the spoken word intro, that reminded me then, and still does, of the 60s girl groups that I caught from my mother’s old 7”s to Jimmy Destri’s insistent Farfisa organ. It remains a perfect pop song. I had NO idea what this song was about – only later did I find out that it was about a sex offender – but I would bounce around my bedroom to the rhythm changes and sing along loudly and pointlessly. This song alone kept the LP near the top of my record collection, as it was the perfect length to put on, play and then return the needle back to the beginning again before ‘Little Girl Lies’ began (a song I still regard weakly).

While I have learned to appreciate the album more, in truth I only really rate it for this song. It still captives me with the intro, the staccato guitar in the chorus, Clem Burke’s drumming (which I still rate very highly) and the classic late 50s style guitar solo. Blondie were always a pop band, and ‘X Offender’ remains amongst their greatest pop songs.

… X-Ray (Pete)

I'll keep it brief(ish) this time. Where is X-Ray? Xfm's music mag [have you and Caskared been conferring, Pete?], which disappeared almost as quickly as it turned up. For about 12 months, if not less, during 2003 and 2004 I finally had a music magazine that fulfilled every one of my wants. It was a nifty small ("handbag") size, its reviews were objective, the interviews didn't involve too much arse-kissing, the hype was kept to a minimum and for the most part it was an entertaining read. Something you could pick up and put down, and happily re-read on the bog (or some other location) a few months later if you so felt so inclined.

Naturally, like every other music magazine it had cover CDs, although the X-Ray CDs were a cut above the rest. Firstly, there was one with every issue, and secondly the compliers were more than happy to ignore obvious choices and instead go for relatively unknown signed and unsigned artists, thereby introducing me to Ambulance Ltd, Franz Ferdinand, Simple Kid and Razorlight among others, a while before they appeared on the radar of the rest of mainstream music press.

Then, all of a sudden, it was gone, leaving only highly vague promises of its return. Something that naturally hasn't occurred (or else I wouldn't be writing this). According to the Xfm website, "X-Ray is on holiday" and will return "as soon as possible". All I can say is that I wish that I too could go on a two year "holiday". Meanwhile, a massive void in the printed music press remains. And I'm still in a huff.

… extraordinary (drmigs)

OK, I'm stretching it again, but it's worth it. You see, by definition, the extraordinary is something that isn't abundant, so I'd argue that its rarity makes it something worth writing about.

In this current age, the superlative is king. Things that are good become the most amazing thing ever, and this is a shame as there's now less and less room in the lexicon to describe special qualities. “Extraordinary”, however, hasn't quite been bastardised yet, although some clarification is needed. Travis covering 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' wasn't extraordinary, it was just genre-bending. Dana International winning Eurovision wasn't extraordinary, it was just gender-bending. And The Crazy Frog wasn't extraordinary, it was just fucking annoying. This is what extraordinary is…

Extraordinary is the Olde Surber Station radio podcast. Now podcasts are a relatively new thing. Not cutting edge, but certainly a current medium. There are all sorts of contemporary rock, hip- hop, indie and house podcasts, but few (maybe only one) devoted to bluegrass, gospel and old-time music. What makes it more unlikely is that it is hosted by a pensioner from mountain country West Virginia.

Jack Lewis and his wife Carol live in the Olde Surber Station, a farmhouse in the Allegheny Mountains by an old railroad. They both play in a band called Oriskany Strings. He plays the washtub bass, and she sings. They're both passionate about old-time music, particularly music from the West Virginian Appalachians. So much so that Jack started broadcasting the Olde Surber Station radio show, which has now morphed into a podcast. It supports independent bluegrass, gospel and old-time music in an attempt to preserve “his” music for future generations.

For those of you who haven't dabbled with podcasting, they are often made by geeky enthusiasts (which is part of their charm). Someone loves something so much that they just want to tell the world about it. As a result podcasts are often littered with a detailed and in-depth analysis of their subject. And this is one of the prominent features of this podcast; how similar in structure it is to other podcasts. It's just another podcast, but an extraordinary podcast.

After listening to a few episodes I already feel educated. My only previous encounter with these genres was on the 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (incidentally it was whilst I was stuck with a persistent Ohwurm from this album, 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain', that I downloaded the podcast.) Now however, I've learned all sorts about the various regional instruments, and before you know it you'll be following his instructions to deconstruct the compositions by simultaneously tapping along to two (or more) instruments. Over and above all this education is the music itself. It's just nice, in a pipe and slippers kind of way. It's music with feeling, music with stories, and music that represents the people of the area. Isn't it nice to live in an age where new experiences are just a click away?

… Xylophone Man (Paul)

Sunday 4th July 2004 was the day when an institution ended: Frank Robinson passed away at the age of 73, taking with him fifteen years of musical history, and a sadly unrecorded back catalogue of tunes.

Doubtless those who knew him personally called him Frank (or something similar, Francis, perhaps) but to the vast majority of people he was Xylophone Man, the most popular (and probably least talented) busker in Nottingham.

Xylophone Man used to sit perched on a little stool, dressed in beige coat and dark hat, and sporting a beard that made it appear like Captain Birdseye had fallen on hard times, and he would busk.

Unlike many buskers, many of whom consider themselves to be talented beyond their actual abilities and who tackle musical works too complex for their limited abilities, Xylophone Man knew his limits.

His limits may have been bashing a few notes out on a child's xylophone, but he did it with charm and grace, and it worked.

He may not have earnt enough money to retire to a large mansion in the Peak District, but it obviously paid well enough to keep him in xylophones and he was always well turned out.

Sadly he passed away, leaving a gap into which nobody else could ever step and many happy memories for the people who visited Nottingham. His last interview can be found here, and he is now fondly remembered with an engraved paving slab in his favourite busking place.

… Xzibit (and mainstream hip-hop in general) (Ben)

Right, just stop me if, at any point in the middle of this, I start to sound like a grumbling Daily Mail reader haunted by visions of imminent social apocalypse. Or like David Cameron.

Stephin Merritt, the man better known as The Magnetic Fields, recently found himself accused of racism by the American critics Jessica Hopper and Sasha Frere-Jones. His crime? Confessing his dislike of hip-hop.

As a gay man, Merritt’s dislike probably stems partly from the openly homophobic attitudes of many of hip-hop’s biggest names, but more significant is his contention that hip-hop is itself inherently racist in that it sells a caricaturised version of black life to white middle-class consumers eager to hear the sounds of the street – in other words, it’s a form of self-debasing prostitution.

This, it’s worth pointing out, is a much more sophisticated argument than Cameron’s trotting-out of that well-used and ridiculously crude “rap lyrics are violent and influence those who listen to them to commit acts of violence” line. It’s also something I find it hard to disagree with.

The obsession with “authenticity” – with the “thug’s life”, with the street – not only results in an ironically distorted picture of black America, it also bores me senseless. The beats may be inventive and forward-thinking, but the lyrics rarely are. Sorry 50 Cent, I don’t care how many caps have been popped in your ass or how many hos you’ve banged. Equally tedious are the majority of hip-hop videos – get yourself some fat gold-toothed playaz, a load of bootylicious ladeez and a few pimped rides and you’re sorted.

Rap originated as a means of marking social superiority, of putting others down while simultaneously raising oneself up, so the braggadocio is at least understandable and “authentic” in itself, though personally I generally find it yawnsome, if not repellent – materialistic, self-important crowing about having the biggest cock. (That said, a clever and witty diss can be a delight, which is why Eminem often raises a smile with me – but of course he’s white…).

If it’s just as bigoted for my record collection to consist predominantly of white artists as it is for it to consist predominantly of men (as Swiss Toni suggests above), then I guess that like Stephin Merritt I’m bigoted, whether consciously or unconsciously. But should something that is above all a matter of aesthetic taste be denounced in quite such strong terms? I doubt it. After all, would it be racist just to proclaim a dislike of the sort of stuff I listen to, the skinny white boy indie?

In that world, “authenticity” is an almost equally serious obsession. To rockists, even slightly uncomfortable ones like myself, it matters that The White Stripes are from Detroit and not a pair of chancers from North London playing music they weren’t practically born into. To Coldplay fans, it matters that Chris Martin means and feels what he sings, that he isn’t just posturing but really is writing from the heart. And the insipid woe-is-me Sixth Form poetry of Starsailor and Keane is, to these ears, just as offensive and tedious as Xzibit telling me “My gun never been shy / That's how gangsters get by / It's either ride or die...”.

Some conclusions, then. Merritt isn’t a racist for expressing a dislike of hip-hop – indeed, he makes some very valid points. However, his attitude is questionable in its sheer dismissiveness. He, like me, is only really exposed to mainstream hip-hop, the most visible artists, and therefore neither of us should be so quick to tar all hip-hop with the same brush – that IS bigoted. How would he feel if a hip-hop fan dismissed The Magnetic Fields out-of-hand together with all other white guitar bands just on the strength of disliking U2 and Coldplay? He and I are just as guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

So, while Merritt’s criticisms ring true of mainstream hip-hop, the lesson to be learnt is that we should both investigate the genre more widely rather than simply writing it off. After all, what happens at the margins and in the footnotes is almost always more interesting.

(Thanks to Jon, Ian and Del, with whom I debated the issue on Silent Words Speak Loudest, for helping me to think it all through.)

* * * * *

So then drmigs - you thought you wouldn't be alone in cheating...

Thanks to Swiss Toni, Skif, Caskared, James, Pete, drmigs and Paul for their contributions this week. 24 down, two to go...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Swiss Toni: I am holding in on a feminist rant about how society is skip to the end yes the music business is sexist. From my experience there were just as many girls with bands in parents' garages as boys and I'm sure my experience isn't too out of the ordinary. Who are the producers and executives? Predominantly male. Some areas of music are plain mysogenist - a la hip-hop, but the generations coming up are more savvy plus there are more ways of breaking through (MySpace etc) so it's all changing...

An inane point about prejudiced ears: something I particularly adore about music by women is the fact I can sing along easily! I just can't reach Stuart Staples' range!

8:07 am  
Blogger skif said...

I must admit I find a lot of hip-hop intensely frustrating. Really inventive, fascinating beats, rhythms and arrangements, but more often than not a world view that I just cannot support. That comes across not just in lyrics but in identikit videos.

Some extremely well-written stuff this week, and I don't include my bit in that. Seems to me the more awkward letters bring out some really interesting stuff.

Caskared: I find the Neil Hannon/Scott Walker range suits me best when singing along, although when unaccompanied I sound nothing like. I tend to get a bit Jimmy Somerville with the higher-pitched ladies, which is unpleasant for all concerned.

You're right though, Staples is a freak.

8:50 am  
Blogger Ben said...

ST: A footnote to my earlier comment. Thus far this year I seem to have bought a lot of albums by female artists / female-fronted bands: Cat Power, Howling Bells, The Duke Spirit, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Giant Drag, The Concretes. But then the fact that that's worthy of mention just goes to show the general maleness of my collection.

12:11 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I actually don't think my collection is quite so one-sided as it used to be -- not many women in heavy metal. Over the years I've discovered the joys of people like Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone, Dusty and the like, as well as getting interested in various female fronted bands like Belly, Throwing Muses, The Breeders and so on. Even in this A-Z list I've been talking about Carla Bruni.

There's still a definite male slant, but I do have more important criteria for buying records.

Hell, I even thought that the girls were the rightful winners of "popstars: the rivals".

Or is that because I hate boybands? Ah, but that's another story.


9:27 pm  
Blogger Del said...

ST: The women in the music industry is an argument well worth addressing. When I flicked through my record collection, it's amazing how many strong female voices are so strongly associated with male producers and songwriters (Madonna with Jellybean, William Orbit, Stuart Price, Kylie with Stock Aitken Waterman and the Manics, Aaliyah and Missy Elliot with Timbaland, Kelis with the Neptunes, Courtney Love with Kurt and Billy Corgan, and so on) as if they can only be defined by the men they work with.

I think it also depends on the type of music you like. Soul and Rnb are far more accepting and attractive to women than the boys clubs of rock n roll and hip hop. And Kurt said that 'all rock n roll is homosexual', so i guess that might have something to do with it...

Incidentally, my nomination for this letter, if I hadn't been so bloody busy, would've been X Ray Spex - 'Oi Bondage Up Yours', fronted by the quite wonderful Poly Styrene. A female rock goddess if ever there was one.

11:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Del: I thought about writing about Poly Styrene to love that moniker.

Nice slightly out of date article here tragically still relevent.

5:17 pm  

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