Serial Box

Adnan_Syed_1998I don’t want to labour a point I already made on Twitter, but I started listening to Serial before you did (just deal with it). I heard the first episode when it was on This American Life, and it was not the first episode of that long-running show that had me gripped from beginning to end. I remember standing in the kitchen, in the middle of cooking, paused in mid-move so as not to make a sound, lest I drown out the distorted telephone voice.

My first exposure to podcasts was via The Word magazine, and I occasionally enjoyed listening to several middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about music obsessively. I am a middle-aged bloke myself, an accident of birth, so I was very much the target demographic. Never in a million years did I think that one day I would abandon live radio altogether in favour of a subscription list of (at last count) 45 podcasts.

mb9jGYeI listen to a lot of tech, and a lot of ‘true stories’ podcasts, but also things like Philosophy Bites, Life of the Law, 99% Invisible, and so on. I am still loyal to the Radio 4 podcasts I have always listened to, but they’re not longer at the top of my things to love.

Serial has generated a lot of column inches over the past couple of weeks as slow-moving old media finally caught up with it. It was even on Radio 4′s Media Show. Yes, I am sneering at them. Has Serial’s adoption by mainstream media spoiled the pleasure a little bit? I think it has. It’s a bit like when you love a band and expend a lot of time trying to tell people about them, only to have your dreams come true, and, oh, now everyone is talking about them and you don’t feel special any more. I know I’ll feel a wrench if I ever see a Larkin Poe feature in the Graun.

As someone with impaired hearing (I can’t hear the full frequency range), I struggle sometimes to hear what people are saying on Serial. The first podcasts I listened to were just people (blokes, usually) sitting around a microphone, but the more sophisticated podcasts are proper radio soundscapes with music, sound effects, and clever editing of contributors. I think they’re brilliant, but background music and layered voices can be hard. Some of the recordings are of sub-optimal quality. In the case of Serial you are of course dealing with 15-year-old courtroom testimony, police interview tapes, and all those phone calls with Adnan Syed. Some of it is hard to make out, but it is all compelling, and it underscores the sense that this podcast is a serious piece of investigative journalism, with an evidence base. Hunting around online, you can find scans and photos of documents, letters, maps, tables, and so on.

What makes Serial different from other examples of investigative journalism? After all, the idea of a journalist using some media platform to expose a miscarriage of justice is not new. But when TV or radio has done it in the past, they usually condense the years-long research and legwork into an easy-to-digest hour or 45 minutes for broadcast. But the thing with a podcast, and the thing I started to get as soon as I started listening to The Word, is that your audience can be so niche that there can be no such thing as too much information. It was listening to middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about The Beatles that gave me this insight. How much is too much to an obsessive? No such thing.

So Serial is investigative journalism and narrative for obsessives. Once the first episode has you hooked, you just want more and more, never ending. And while mainstream media has occasionally made noises about how disappointing and Lost-like it will be if there’s no real conclusion, I don’t think that really matters. The thing about serial narratives is that you have to find ways to keep it going.

In reality, you don’t have to dig very deep to find potential spoilers. As we keep being reminded, this is a real case with real people, and you don’t get 5 million downloads without somebody paying attention.

You’ll be wanting to know what I think (Chorus: Nobody cares what you think!)

From the very first episode, I knew that there had not been a convincing case made, that there was reasonable doubt. By the time you heard recordings of two of the jurors, you realised that, somehow or other, they’d been bamboozled and confused into convicting in a ridiculously short time. One of them said that she believed Jay because “he was going to jail anyway, so why would he lie?” When in fact the whole point was that Jay’s sweet deal meant he wasn’t going to jail. That, there, should be enough to invalidate the verdict: the jury were not in possession of all the facts. Not because they hadn’t been told, but maybe because they were a bit thick. Then there was the juror who judged Adnan guilty for not defending himself after being specifically instructed not to take that into account. As for all those who claim that you can’t help making such a judgement and putting this down to legal niceties, I disagree. If you think about it at all, if Adnan was innocent (which he has already said by entering a plea), it was up to the State to prove him guilty. So, no, you don’t judge somebody for not trying to ‘prove’ their innocence. The point is that there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence. That recording of that juror showed that for at least one of the jury – and probably more than one – there was no presumption of innocence. Again, I have to ask myself if they were a bit thick.

As we all know, the case always rested on shaky ground, viz:

  • Cell tower evidence, which doesn’t show what the police claimed that it showed in 1999.
  • Testimony from Jay, who was clearly coached to the eyeballs by the prosecution and police who did a deal with him to keep him out of jail.
  • A supposed time-line of the murder and a time of death that makes no sense.
  • A phone call supposedly from a payphone that clearly didn’t exist at a time when some witnesses claim that Hae was still alive.
  • Witnesses and evidence that was not followed up by either the police or the defence team.
  • An discredited (and irritating) defending lawyer whose style of questioning must have been so fucking hard to listen to for five weeks, was it not? Was it not? Was it not?

Mostly, however, I think the case rests on prejudice against Adnan because he was an American boy with a Pakistani background. A lot of the police narrative of the case rests on the (implied) idea that this was some kind of ‘honour’ killing, by a stereotypically angry Muslim. All of the stories about him being dragged out of dances, about the secrecy surrounding his relationship with Hae – all of that implies that this was somehow unusual. As his cousin has pointed out on her blog, this is actually just typical for just about any Asian-American teenager.

I’m not Asian, of course, but this also rang true to me. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a girl whose over-protective father would not let her go out with boys. I used to park and wait at the end of her road. She would leave home to ‘go round a (girl) friend’s house’, and jump in my car. We would go out, and I would drop her at the end of the road and watch her walk home. We did this for several months, before she finally plucked up the courage to tell her old man. Who used to let his yappy little dog loose whenever I came to the door after that.

So I’m fairly clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice, that there was tons of reasonable doubt. But I’m also more sold on podcasts than ever before. And the best app, for my (actual) money is Overcast.

All the Jacks. Jack. Jack. Jackety Jack Jack.

csuite-jacksI have almost literally run out of anything to watch on my NowTV box. I was filling in a survey the other day and one of the questions was about the amount of live television that you watch in a typical week. And I realised that the answer was almost none at all. Even stuff that is being broadcast now I tend to watch on catchup or otherwise time-shifted.

So we’re down to watching a soapy show called Betrayal from abc. That and new episodes (as they come along) of Modern Family, Futurama, The Blacklist, Elementary and Stalker. Even The Leftovers has finished now, as has the preposterous The Last Ship. Last night, I even watched an episode of The Flash. Everybody* in these shows is called Jack.

So, things are getting desperate. You know something’s bad if the lead character is called Jack and everybody keeps reminding you that his name is Jack, in case you forget, Jack. Because all the characters, Jack, are interchangeable, and it might have been better not to use such a common name, but no Jack, instead they pepper the script with the word Jack, as if that somehow builds character. Betrayal: all you hear is Jack-ack-ack. Stalker: Jack-ack-ack.

So I endured the painfully slow iPlayer software (what is that written in? Hypercard?) to watch Intruders, the already-a-flop BBC America thing starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. The lead character is called Jack. Mira Sorvino plays his wife, also Jack, and there’s some kid running around swearing and saying, “What comes around goes around.” She’s called Jack-ack-ack.

Hey TV writers, here’s a fucking plan. Why not avoid the name Jack for the rest of time? It has been done, my friends.

Intruders is rubbish, like most things the BBC produces. Someone should take the BBC out back and shoot it, seriously. If this is an example of their commissioning process, there is no hope.

Now, I don’t mind a bit of the old enigma code. I like a long-running mystery. I stuck with Twin Peaks through two seasons, even though the second wasn’t very good. And I went to see the film. I stuck with The Leftovers through all 10 episodes even though it was from the Lost people and even though it took till episode 9 till we got some of the back story filled in. The thing about Intruders, you don’t really get a handle on what’s really happening until episode 5, and that’s a little bit too late considering you lost half of your audience by the end of episode 2.

This is woo-woo sci-fi written by people who have never read and don’t understand science fiction. Characters you don’t care about, with some clichéd Jack back story, and nothing at stake but a bunch of horrible people who all deserve each other. And it’s photographed like everyone is dead already. Everyone looks like warmed over corpses and it’s monotone. Anyway, it’s about people who jump their souls into other peoples’ bodies or something. It’s all woo woo. Invasion of the Body Snatchers it is not.

Here’s another suggestion for TV writers. Ditch the high concept shows. Tell me a story.

 

*may be an example of hyperbole for purposes of humour.

The state of music

It’s about this time of year that I teach a mini unit on the music industry to my students. It’s also about this time of year that I ruminate on the state of Country music, having just watched the CMA awards.

When I first started teaching this topic there were just four major record labels, and a diminishing number of music magazines. Now there are just three major labels and even fewer magazines. According to pundits, the market seems to be moving permanently away from music ownership towards music streaming services. To me it seems polarised between the hipster fetishisation of vinyl and the complete devaluation of music as streams of data.

I want my students to take away a couple of key messages from my mini unit. The first is that ‘the music industry’ is a lot more than the four three major labels. No matter what the mainstream media coverage is, there is music happening everywhere, from the pub down the road to the truly independent label and the market-it-yourself sites like Bandcamp, Noisetrade, and SoundCloud.

The second takeaway I want my students to have is that they should be concerned – really concerned – about music discovery. So I’m going to come across as all organic and steam-powered, but I don’t think we should be trusting algorithms. I also don’t believe that services like Beats, which isn’t yet available in the UK anyway, but which claim to have human curators, are going to be trustworthy. Here’s why.

In order to be a music recommendation angel, you have to be willing to bite the hand that feeds you. Beats is now owned by Apple, who are a music retailer. Music retailers don’t slag off their products, no matter how bad they are. Apple, through iTunes, has taken the place of both the local record store and the music press. It’s a shop window, but it also contains a review-and-rating component. Which you can’t trust. As a shop window, like all retailers, iTunes will accept co-marketing funds in return for the prominent placement of something that the industry wants to sell to the public. The U2 debacle of recent times exposed this, to widespread derision. Behind the scenes, you can bet the conglomerates are rubbing their scaly hands together at the prospect of offering ‘human-powered recommendations’ to punters.

The sad thing is, that what gets shoved under our noses in these circumstances are the cash cow artists, like U2, who hardly need the marketing push. In recent weeks, it was revealed that (prior to the release of the Taylor Swift record) only one album had achieved platinum sales status in 2014: the soundtrack to Frozen.

In one of my sessions, I like to point out some of the stark download sales statistics of this modern era. Such as: in 2011, 2.5 million music tracks sold just one copy.

I like to get my students to think about that one copy. When I publish my books on the Kindle store, I always like to download a copy myself. That’s what that one copy is.

In 2011, 13 albums sold more than 1 million copies. Here in 2014, we’re looking at two: Frozen, and now, 1989, the Taylor Swift album. Can you imagine the strategy meetings about the release of that album? Can you imagine the yacht downpayments that depend on Ms Swift? And although it wasn’t much of a ‘risk’ for her to abandon the figleaf of Country music and go 100% Pop, it was still a risky move that could have seen her fall between two turds. Then again, the one thing you can guarantee would have given the execs apoplexy would be Taylor Swift turning up with a fucking Country album, with banjos and fiddles and pedal steel guitar and everything.

And the kicker for the major labels is that Taylor Swift is on Big Machine, and while they get to distribute her record, she has more control over what happens to her music than minor artists do. Taylor Swift has the same kind of clout as Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Van Morrison, and, er, U2.

Last week she pulled her albums from Spotify, to which I gave a small cheer. Not because I think she needs any more money, but because I hate the idea of music streaming. I hate the idea that some computer algorithm somewhere is deciding what I discover. I hate the idea that my access to music is dictated by the availability of network coverage or wifi. And I especially hate the idea that my diet of music is restricted to the three major labels.

I have fears for my own ability to discover new music these days. I downloaded a dozen albums off the back of a single (online) Rolling Stone article this year. I don’t trust the never-moving iTunes shop window. And I can’t even turn to the annual CMA awards anymore, because the Country industry is still in the throes of its obsession with fucking trucks and beer. Looking at the line-up for next year’s Country2Country in London, I was once more underwhelmed. Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert: all more or less interchangeable, mostly offensive, wearing too many baseball caps and having too many neck tattoos. Lady Antebellum are included, but, bof to them. Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack interest me, but looking at their place in the line-up, they’ll come and go before most people have taken their seats.

In conclusion, state of the major labels: pretty much fucked. State of music discovery: worrying.

You know the music industry is fucked, because the best record of this year, by far, is Kin by Larkin Poe. In a sane universe, everyone would know about them, but hardly anybody does.

So… Doctor Who, then

Jenna-Louise-Coleman-1781837It’s been about a year since I last blogged about Doctor Who, but I’ve been watching. I’ve also been reading the Graun recaps, and even, as part of my expanded podcast listening habit, following the Incomparable TeeVee podcast.

If nothing else, a regular perusal of the Graun comments should serve to remind us that for every “worst. episode. ever.” there is a “that was awesome” and a “meh”. In other words, opinions are like somethingorother that everybody has and they start to smell after three days.

As an antidote to the poison of the comment threads, the American perspective of the TeeVee podcast is refreshing. American nerd fans of the Doctor own him in much the same way that Americans owned the Beatles (and, later, Python) far more than the cynical and fickle British ever did.

I was intrigued by something about this season of Doctor Who. As I said this time last year, I was genuinely looking forward to Peter Capaldi in the role, not because I was a big fan of The Thick of It, but because I’ve been yearning for an older Doctor since the first episode of David Dimwit’s tennantcy. Fnar. In my mind, the character should always be much older than his companions, if only to remind us of his supposed advanced age. I also like Jenna Coleman a lot. She’s the best Sarah Jane since Sarah Jane. She’s 24 years younger than me, you know (whereas Elisabeth Sladen was 16 years older). Apart from all that, I was intrigued by the slight turn to the dark side that the series has taken in 2014. Maybe they knew they were going to lose their younger fans when Smith left. Maybe they bowed to the inevitable Saturday night scheduling conflicts and just opted for after Strictly rather than before, giving them freedom to ply a darker trade.

On the other hand, most of the stories, narrative devices and plot premises have been as dreadful this year as they are in any other. It’s a fantasy show that doesn’t try to pretend it’s science fiction, but that doesn’t stop the feeling that it could be better. While American television keeps coming up with decent enough science fiction and fantasy, the BBC seems to fall back on plots that seem to come from a committee of bureaucrats who for some reason have been forbidden to read or watch any genre fiction throughout their lives.

So, Doctor Who is mostly rubbish when it comes to plots and storylines, and the only thing that works about the show is the emotional interplay between the lead character and his sidekick. And as awful as most of the episodes have been this year, the relationship between The Doctor and Clara has been very well handled. The more she lied, the more she became like him, until, in the end, she is the one who wields the screwdriver and sacrifices her own humanity and happiness in order that he can keep his. The Doctor, like a military commander, has to have someone do his dirty work, and the question the show asked this year was, does that let him off the hook? And of course, the answer is that it doesn’t. Far be it from me to link the theme of this season to the 100th anniversary of the 1st World War. Far be it from me to point out that this finale was broadcast the night before Remembrance Sunday.

Being a show that is unafraid to question the morality of its titular character is what makes Doctor Who worth watching. Many of the best shows do this: NYPD Blue did it with Sipowicz; House did it; The Blacklist is doing it with Reddington; Game of Thrones is doing it with almost all of its main characters.

This season, then, “Listen” was quite good, as was “Flatline”. Still, more misses than hits, but I kept watching. The show needs more women writers (as in, more than 0), and it needs to come up with ideas and solutions that don’t seem like they came from Blue Peter competition winners.

Pain Killer – Little Big Town (review)

Girl Crush

I’ve been living with Little Big Town’s Pain Killer for a couple of weeks now, and I still can’t make up my mind about it. Some critics have written about this as a ‘breakthrough’ for the country vocal harmonists, but, for me, that breakthrough was some time ago. I particularly liked 2012′s Tornado, and I’d even go back to 2010 and The Reason Why for a record that establishes them as a top drawer act. Nobody who has seen them live could put them anywhere else. Vocal harmonies like theirs, performed live, with none of the limitations of recording technologies, are incredible. Songs like “Shut Up Train” from The Reason Why, and “Sober” or “Leaving’ in Your Eyes” from Tornado stick with you in a big way.

The group has always shown strong influence from 70s Fleetwood Mac, regularly covering Rumours-era songs in their live set. They’ve also released a live set with Lindsay Buckingham. All of which is a reminder that they have a 70s rock vibe, which means it should be no surprise that there is a lot of rocking out on Pain Killer.

From the opening track, “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” the sound is hard, aggressive rock, more Rolling Stones than Fleetwood Mac. It’s not horrible, but it does sound as if LBT have swallowed the Loudness Wars Kool-Aid. Next up, the summer single “Day Drinking” has hard-struck mandolin on it (think Steve Earle rather than Earl Scruggs), and sets aside subtle harmonising for a crowd-pleasing shout-along. My daughter loved this particular track, but I saw it as an example of pandering to the current country scene’s worst instincts. (Which, in case you haven’t been paying attention consist of girls in tight blue jeans/shorts, beer, and trucks.)

So after two loud, harsh numbers, “Tumble and Fall” is a relief: the first male lead on the album, and melody is backThis is the Little Big Town sound. A certain mellowness, and male and female voices working beautifully together.

In the important 4th position, the title track, and we’re back in Rolling Stones territory, only this time it’s one of their cod-reggae numbers. Think “Send it to Me” on Emotional Rescue.

So. Nothing horrible so far, but just one track that I would file under the Little Big Town sound, award five stars, and keep on my permanent cycling playlist. So far, I’d barely rate this album as average.

And then comes “Girl Crush”. You can see a live version of it at the top of this post. I’ll wait.

Now, this Karen Fairchild lead vocal to me is a match for “Shut Up Train”. It’s simple, but packs a powerful punch. There’s nothing original here in terms of musical arrangement or melody, but the combination of arpeggio guitar, hammond organ and the fabulous vocals make this an instant take-your-breath-away classic.

“Faster Gun” gun takes us back to a harder sound, and “Good People”, sung by Kimberly Schlapman is another crowd singalong, with some nice lap steel guitar. Could be Ronnie Wood playing it. “Stay All Night” is another bluesy drinking song (Jimi Westbrook? I’m not very good at guessing the lead vocals). The performance here wins me over, I think. lbt-event

“Save Your Sin” opens like a number from the third side of Exile on Main Street, with a loud guitar riff, but then breaks down to a Schlapman lead vocal, which is a bit too shouty.

“Live Forever” is another mellow LBT-style song, with nice harmonies and acoustic guitars. “Things You Don’t Think About” is Karen Fairchild vocal that starts against a stark kick-snare backdrop. I don’t think this one develops enough, and keeps returning to this opening sound. “Turn the Lights On” has an introduction that is pure Fleetwood Mac (think the first half of “The Chain”), so much so that you don’t hear a vocal until over 90 seconds into the track. It then finishes with an electric guitar solo and ensemble singing that recalls, um, the second half of “The Chain”.

The album finishes on a Little Big Town note with the sweet harmonies against acoustic guitar of “Silver and Gold”. It’s a good finish.

Where does that leave us? “Girl Crush” is an essential download, and I suspect much of the rest of the album, including the hard rock numbers, will grow on me. At the moment, though, I’m wedded to the more mellow-sounding tracks, and I think, overall, that it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. I’ve read that for this record they did a lot of separate songwriting sessions, and I think it really shows. Very few people are going to listen in sequence, of course, and maybe that will be its saving grace. When I listen to it as an album, there’s too much relief when you get a break from the harsher sounds.

Me and the Stones

Mick_Taylor_1972

… - a non-fan recommends

I’ve had a fraught relationship with the Rolling Stones. I’ve never forgiven them for the dismal experience of seeing them play live at Wembley, back in ’82. There were other factors at play that day, but I’ve never rated them as a live act, especially in the Ronnie Wood era. Shambolic, making a virtue of their sloppiness, painting the music not so much with broad brush strokes as kind of introducing it to a still-closed tin of paint, shelved, in a DIY shop in receivership in another city.

My best friend at school had a few 60s Stones records. Loaned them to me, but they didn’t take. I didn’t even like the headliners, the big singles, all that much. The Brian Jones Stones were too bluesy for me, too Alexis Korner, too intent on following the Beatles’ lead.

On the other hand, I’ve always loved Mick Taylor’s Rolling Stones. I’ve owned various Taylor-era records over the years. All that currently remains in the house is a copy of Exile on Main St on CD, which somehow never had the magic, for me, that it did on the vinyl copy I had so many years ago. There’s something about that four-sides/four-genres structure that only works on vinyl.

So I was watching an episode of the short-lived TV series Happy Town. There are many things you could say about this series. Had a great cast. Wanted to be Twin Peaks. Music choices were ace. But just didn’t work. In this particular episode, they played a Stones song I didn’t recognise. It sounded good. Songs often do, on soundtracks, but then are disappointing when you hear them in a different context. I wondered if it was some rare gem from the last 25 years or so, but when I looked it up, turned out it came from Black and Blue, their first post-Taylor album, one which features a sprinkle of Ronnie Wood, but not all the way through. I remember hearing snatches of that album, back in the 70s, and being disappointed. I did  like Some Girls, the 1978 follow-up, which was Wood’s first full album, but after that things became patchy again, and then I saw them live.

Anyway discovering this track via Happy Town prompted a long-overdue downloading jag of all the individual Stones tracks I actually really like. Some of them pre-date Taylor, some of them post-date him. My download list doesn’t include Exile on Main Street, which as you know I already have. There are probably no surprises here. But if you want a 70s Stones primer, here it goes:

60s (Love) Hangovers

  • Under My Thumb – nasty song, with a nasty sentiment, from as early as 1966, but it’s the 60s Stones track that is most like their nasty selves in the early 70s. The Stones’ whole schtick is to be nasty, so.
  • Sympathy for the Devil – I use this song so often in my teaching that I couldn’t not include it. Check out the Rock and Roll Circus version above, with Mick Jagger’s provocative fake Devil tattoos.
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash – A staple of documentaries about How The Sixties Went Wrong, this is more Stones nastiness with a memorable video with more face painting fakery.
  • Honky Tonk Women – the biggest disappointment about the album Let it Bleed is that the version of this song on it is the country version, and not the blues. The single version is best.
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want – shambolic and half-baked as it is, this is still good. Something about their sound wasn’t as perfect as the Beatles, was it. They didn’t ever have the production values.
  • Let it Bleed – the title track to their best 60s album, and the beginning of their hot streak. This album is to Mick Taylor what Black and Blue is to Ronnie Wood. As the Beatles split up, the Stones found a new style and actually made sense.
  • Gimme Shelter – yes, the #1 choice of film soundtrack compilers everywhere, a track that depends for at least half its effect on the co-lead vocal of Merry Clayton.
  • Midnight Rambler (Live) – one of the few Stones songs you could say is often better as an extended live version. Part of their late 60s dabbling with the occult and evildoing, this one references the Boston Strangler and more than hints at serial killing. The first half of this is typical Stones live fair: the tempo is too high, it chugs along like a Quo boogie, but then it breaks down to the extended improvisation and it gets (much) better.

70s Heyday

  • Dead Flowers – My favourite from Sticky Fingers, my band used to perform this live as an encore to our set. Used to go down quite well, too. One of the better Stones country songs.
  • Bitch – a tremendous groove from the same album, this is a step away from straight riffing. And love is a bitch.
  • Wild Horses – two great country songs on one album cannot be wrong. Try to forget all the terrible cover versions of this number.
  • Brown Sugar – proper riffing, but, like “Sweet Home Alabama”, this one’s lyrics do not stand up to scrutiny.
  • Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)so funky, a sequel to “Bitch”. Considered “Angie” from the same album (Goats Head Soup) but I don’t think it has aged well.
  • If You Really Want to Be My Friend – I’m a sucker for a guitar played through a Leslie.
  • It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It) – I’ll never forget that bubble tent video
  • Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – one of their better soul songs (“Beast of Burden” being the best)
  • Crazy Mama – decent enough groove from Black and Blue
  • Fool to Cry – Billy Preston, Jagger’s falsetto. Nuff said.
  • Memory Motel – shambolic, but has some heart
  • Hand of Fate – this is the soundtrack fodder from Happy Town that got us onto this jag. A throwback to late 60s/early 70s nastiness and you can’t believe Mick Taylor isn’t playing on it.
  • Hot Stuff – Yes, this too could be from the Taylor era, from the funkier end of things.
  • Beast of Burden – these years later, their standout track on the quite-good Some Girls and one of their best numbers of the whole decade. For once, the shambolic interplay between Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards actually works (don’t listen too closely though). Held together by Bill and Charlie, of course. I love the bit that goes, “There’s one thing baby I don’t understand / You keep on telling me I ain’t your kind of man” and then Mick slips into his falsetto for the next bit: “Ain’t I rough enough? / Ain’t I tough enough?”. A stroke of genius.
  • Some Girls – again, don’t listen too closely to the questionable (sexist? racist?) lyrics. Just let it wash over you.
  • Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) – my second-favourite track on Some Girls. I think there’s a genius in the repetitions in the fade: “runaway runaway runaway runaway runaway runaway run run run run run…”
  • She’s So Cold – I’m counting 1980 as the last year of the 70s (deal with it), so these numbers from Emotional Rescue, the disappointing follow-up to the creative renaissance of Some Girls are the last of their 70s heyday. “She’s So Cold” gets by on the energy Jagger puts into it.
  • Emotional Rescue – falls to pieces towards the end, but this title track has Jagger’s falsetto on it. So.
  • Send it to Me – occasionally they tried to do some reggae or calypso or whatever it was meant to be. I still enjoy this.

And I go no further. No, not even “Start Me Up,” just because it’s obviously a cleaned-up outtake from Some Girls and amounts to self-parody.

Dancing round the kitchen to Taylor Swift

1989A while ago, Jason Kottke wrote a brief blog post in which he argued that, whereas Facebook is like your hometown, Twitter is like moving to New York:

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one’s own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with.

I immediately thought of this post when I heard the opening track of Taylor Swift’s new record*, 1989, which sees her leave the yoke of Country radio behind and come out – hard – as a pop artist. It won’t have escaped your attention that 1989 was the year Ms Swift was born, and the message is clear: this is a rebirth. She’s confident enough to leave all vestiges of her previous life behind. The ALL CAPS digital booklet is a way of shouting this loud from the rooftops.

WELCOME TO nEW YoRK / IT’S BEEN WAITING FOR You / WELCOME TO NEW YOrK / WELCOME TO NEW YORK / WELCOME TO NEW YORK

I thought about other artists I admire who moved to New York as a kind of artistic statement. Chely Wright, who came out in 2010, and released a fairly non-Country album, Lifted off the Ground. Tift Merritt, whose career was hamstrung by being labelled as a Country artist in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Rosanne Cash, who perhaps needed to escape Nashville and being mentioned in the same breath… for her own reasons. Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, I’m sure there are more.

In the ‘foreword’, Taylor Swift writes,

I WROTE ABOUT MOVING TO THE LOUDEST AND BRIGHTEST CITY IN THE WORLD, THE CITY I HAD ALWAYS BEEN OVERWHELMED BY…UNTIL NOW. I THINK YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU WANT IN ORDER TO TAKE ON NEW YORK AND ALL ITS BLARING TRUTH.

I’d previously resigned myself to not buying 1989. I thought her last album, Red, was very good, but having read that she was going 100% pop, I figured I’d be so far beyond the target market that there would be nothing on it for me to like. Then I heard the single “Shake It Off”, laughed aloud at her antics in the accompanying video, and immediately pre-ordered 1989. Not the Deluxe edition, I’m not that far gone.

While Red had its share of drum loops and pop songs, it was interspersed with more singer-songwriterly fare, songs that seemed written in a traditional guitar-and-pen (or piano-and-pen) way. 1989 seems to be more completely constructed around loops. I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention. The record label seem to be turning it into a major statement, but that’s probably because they’re a lot less comfortable with this move than Ms Swift’s fans will be. Red didn’t survive two years on my iPod/iPhone playlist, and I don’t expect this will, either. Which is not to say that 1989 isn’t superb in its own way. “Welcome to New York,” “Out of the Woods”, “Shake It Off,” “I Wish You Would”, “How You Get the Girl” – all dangerously earwormy.

Here’s what I like about this version of Taylor Swift. However much of it is marketing, the message she’s sending to her young (and old) fans is that you can be happy without being welded to a man. You can say fuck you to the horribly sexist world of Country radio in the way Miranda Lambert did (by swearing all over the record you know they wouldn’t play anyway), or like this: by just not giving them anything that sounds remotely like Country or singer-songwriter. I’d like to think there’s an army of Taylor Swifts out there, ready to throw off those possessive boyfriend arms around their shoulders and move to New York and have some fun.

She finishes the album on a telling note:

RAIN CAME POuRInG dOWN WheN I WAS DrOWNING

THAT’s WHeN I COUlD fINALLY BREATHE BY MORNING
GONE WaS ANY TRACE OF YOU
I THINK I AM FINALLY CLEAn

*iTunes calls it a Playlist. The words “album”, “LP”, “record” etc. seem to be leaving the vocabulary.