Tag Archives: The Word magazine

The Hazards of Life

It seems to be a bit of a theme that recent posts start with an apology for absence, but at least this time there’s a decent excuse. After spending most of June on a fantastic holiday in Canada I managed to fall off a mountain bike on a particularly tricky and apparently notorious stretch of the Spray River Trail in Banff on the last day, breaking my left elbow and badly spraining my forearm and wrist.

Consequently blogging’s been on the back burner since arriving home, as one-handed typing doesn’t really lend itself to anything other than the absolutely necessary. Such as work!

The accident didn’t spoil an amazing holiday though, and the various great experiences and gorgeous scenery we enjoyed were enhanced by a varied and uniformly excellent soundtrack, thanks in part to the fact that Jo and Gary (sister and brother-in-law) our travelling companions have a very similar taste in music to mine.

There were many music-related highlights of the trip, particularly the day we drove along the Icefield Parkway from Jasper to Banff to an exclusively Canadian soundtrack, including Joni Mitchell, Great Lake Swimmers and Arcade Fire. However, one particular album emerged as a firm favourite from the holiday, and I was delighted that Gary in particular shared my enthusiasm for it.

Beware: Hazards ahead

Beware: Hazards ahead

‘The Hazards of Love’ by The Decemberists. And herein hangs many a tale.

Although I’d had a couple of sneak previews of it on Spotify, I’d been deliberately saving this new album for the holiday when I could give it the time, attention and repeated plays it undoubtedly deserved. Regular readers will know that it was thanks to reading rave reviews of this album and interviews with the band before its release that led me to research and discover the delights of their back catalogue, to the extent that they have now surpassed all other bands in my affections.

Acquiring this greatly acclaimed masterpiece, “The best record ever made” according to one of the writers for The Word magazine, was clearly a priority and I wasted no time when that very publication advertised a free copy of the CD in exchange for placing a subscription. I did so on my birthday in April, and eagerly awaited my copy of the May issue. Which arrived with no CD.

After ringing the magazine I discovered the CD would be sent separately within 28 days. Cue 28 days of very impatient huffing and puffing when it never materialised. What made it worse was that thanks to the generosity of friends and family for my birthday I’d purchased about 15 other albums with my many vouchers, none of which I wanted as much as this one. I could have bought it so many times over, but decided to wait for the free copy.

Except, my patience finally evaporated the day before we went on holiday and I downloaded the album from itunes instead. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I listened to it all the way through for the first time on the flight to Vancouver the next day. It was awesome, and I listened to it all again straight afterwards. It’s 17 tracks and well over an hour long. And well worth the wait.

You can read reviews here and here, and if you’re not familiar with The Decemberists it’s probably not the best place to start, but it is lyrically, musically and conceptually a stunning piece of work. It’s a post-modern concept album, telling the tale of a maiden ‘romanced’ by a shape-shifting beast in an enchanted forest and a rake, an ‘irascible blackguard’ who unburdens himself of parental responsibility by murdering his offspring.

Nice.

Oh, and there’s also a pretty scary sounding Queen in there somewhere, who holds the key to the mysterious provenance of the shape-shifting fawn/human.

Steps it ain’t.

On a first listen it might seem a bit much, and be rather overpowering, but repeated listens reveal more and more layers, you start to notice repeated musical themes and motifs and the story becomes clearer. Many of the songs are outstanding on their own, but when you hear them in order and in context they are somehow even more impressive. It’s a grower!

There’s something special about sharing your excitement about music you’ve discovered, and the first time we listened to this album in our fabulous suite at L’Hermitage hotel in Vancouver it was brilliant watching and hearing Gary’s reactions – his overwhelming positivity added even more to my enjoyment. We had a couple of repeat performances during the holiday, most notably on the last day after we’d got back from the hospital and I was struggling with the pain. Laughter is often the best medicine, but this time it was music.

And today, finally and almost miraculously, my free copy of ‘The Hazards of Love’ arrived in the post. It had taken another phone call, and the rectification of a shocking administrative error, but at last, the spoils.

And so ends a tale of acquisition almost as lengthy, rambling and unexpected as that depicted by the album itself.

Bet you wish I’d broken my right elbow too!

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Spotify update

It's fabulous. And free!

It's fabulous. And free!

In the past week several people have informed me that they have downloaded and are using Spotify as a result of reading this blog, which is really pleasing. At least one brave soul had also been listening to some of my recent recommendations – thanks Jim! As a result, I thought it was about time to write another article updating you with the latest developments surrounding the Swedish streaming sensation.

At the end of April there was an interesting interview on the Guardian’s Digital Content Blog with Paul Brown, Spotify’s new UK managing director. Worth a read, but some of the main points he touched on were:

  • There are now more than a million registered users in the UK
  • A “decent proportion” are paying for the service (either £0.99 per day or £9.99 per month)
  • They have launched a partnership with 7 Digital to sell downloads which is likely to expand
  • They are looking to extend the range of quality content available, including things like Peel sessions that were locked up by radio contracts
  • They are looking seriously at portability and specifically, paid services available on the iphone.

Spotify and I

From a personal viewpoint, using Spotify for the past two months has transformed my relationship with music, in terms of how I listen and what I listen to.

For a start, it’s proving to be a solid gold ‘try before you buy’ tool and more effective than any other I have used. For the record I have actually bought more albums than usual during that period (although that’s partly due to birthday vouchers etc) so listening to streamed music for free has not stopped me buying music, it has just helped me make even better choices.

I roadtested and later purchased the following excellent albums:

  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
  • The Decemberists – The Crane Wife, Picaresque
  • Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara, Lost Channels
  • Vetiver – Tight Knit
  • Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Being There
  • Staff Benda Bilili – Tres Tres Fort
  • Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

On the other hand, I chose not to buy a few others after giving them a Spotify spin (U2 and Doves take the walk of shame – although I did download “Kingdom of Rust”).

It is also a fantastic way to discover bands you’ve not heard before. Before Spotify I was not really aware of The Decemberists, Great Lake Swimmers, My Morning Jacket or Wilco and had never even heard of Cara Dillon or Staff Benda Bilili. The first couple have fast become two of my very favourite bands and I’m gradually working my way through their impressive back catalogues.

Spotify is also a fast and efficient record identifier. Last week Nic mentioned a couple of times that she’d heard a song on the radio she really liked and wanted to download it from itunes. Only problem was she had no idea of the artist, only a rough idea of the title. Thankfully that was enough, and within about 20 seconds I’d discovered the song in question. In the days before Spotify it would have taken a great deal longer to track it down and may have been quite a frustrating process.

If you’re a new user you might be too spoilt for choice to decide what to listen to, faced with such a huge array of great music. If that’s the case, help is at hand. There are a number of web sites where people are sharing the playlists they have compiled, and two of the best are Spotify Playlists and ShareMyPlaylists. Once you’ve got the hang of it of course, you can join in the fun by sharing your own selections.

I haven’t got that far yet, as I’m still wading my way through all the albums I have identified from reviews in Q and The Word magazines.

What price freedom?

I’m beginning to wonder what we ever did without Spotify to be honest, and I can’t believe that (at least for now) it’s still free. The adverts have become slightly more irritating but an occasional 15 seconds of Iggy Pop shouting on behalf of an insurance company is a small price to pay for so much great music.

However, as the company explores more revenue streams and looks to develop its business model they will undoubtedly try to tempt more of us to pay for the privilege. Back in March if you’d asked me if I’d pay £9.99 per month for the premium service I would have resolutely said “Never!”. But if that price were to cover an ad-free service and unlimited downloads as is the current rumour, I’d have to give the proposition some serious thought.

And so would Apple!

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Spoilt for choice?

1000s of albums, one pair of ears!

1000s of albums, but only one pair of ears!

So, I discovered Spotify … then what happened?

I stopped blogging, for a start. You may have noticed. Or not. I also pretty much stopped listening to music for two days.

I think I got a bit overwhelmed by having such an incredible amount of exciting music at my fingertips, and the knowledge that I could seek out an infinity of new bands without it costing me a penny. It’s the audio equivalent of ‘Blockbuster Blindness’, that unfortunate condition that afflicts me every time I walk into a video store in search of cinematic entertainment. Left to my own devices I could probably think of five or six movies at any one time that I’d like to see, but stick me amidst all those stacks of DVDs and blu rays and I instantly cease to function.

Choice is a wonderful thing for sure, but it can also be quite tiring.

I guess we all approach the challenge of choice in different ways.

The other day a friend told me she’d taken the plunge and activated itunes genius, and she was getting frustrated with it. When I showed her how to use it to create playlists from her current library she was confused and not the least bit impressed. “But I’ve already got that music, why should I be interested in that? I want it to tell me what else I should listen to, based on what I like.” she countered. A fair point, but that was far from my motivation for using genius, as I’ve already explained in a previous post. I always saw the genius sidebar as a necessary evil, an irritating by-product you could thankfully hide in a corner. For that reason I’d never actually seen it until she showed me.

This got me to thinking about the different methods we employ to discover and purchase new music.

For me, I think it’s all about the three Rs.

  • Reviews
  • Recommendations
  • Roadtests (from now on, thanks to Spotify)

Reviews

I find reviews can be useful, especially after years of reading between the lines and applying my own sense and judgement to cut through the hyperbole to ensure I don’t get hoodwinked into buying a duffer. Working in a marketing and PR environment I am naturally wary of taking things at face value or getting caught up in the hype. I mainly read reviews in Q magazine and The Word magazine – after a while you get used to which reviewers you trust; who seem to like the same type of music or appreciate the same musical values. Reviewing is quite a skill: if you don’t believe me, give it a try. Take an album you really like and try and evaluate it in an entertaining way in 300-500 words and not cringe when you read it.

Really well written reviews are often the catalyst for me to find out more and listen to bands I might not have heard of yet.

Recommendations

Word of mouth is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways of advertising, but it is completely dependent on trust. We’re a fickle bunch, us 21st century consumers, and if we suffer one bad experience as a result of a personal endorsement that’s probably the last time we’ll take notice of that particular source. We all have one or two (possibly many if you’re very lucky) friends or acquaintances whose musical taste we have complete confidence in and are prepared to follow, however left field their suggestions may first appear.

My top spotter is my little brother. Years ago, as sibling tradition dictates, we each ploughed our separate furrows and drew up the barricades: these are my bands, those are yours – none shall pass. However, we’re too old for that now, and not quite so competitive anymore, so it’s OK to swap recommendations.

Thanks to Jon I’ve discovered some great music including Grandaddy, Joanna Newsom and one of my favourites, Iron & Wine. The key to his recommendations was to actually play me the music, and I think that’s always far more successful than the ‘you should check out so-and-so’ comment in passing. This method also resulted in me discovering one of my favourite albums of all time, ‘Closing Time’ by Tom Waits, thanks to my friends Jen and Stacy Zosky on a long drive from Toronto to Quebec. The same trip garnered ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ by Cat Stevens and the self-titled album by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.

Which leads me neatly to:

Roadtests

‘Try before you buy’ has got to be the best method. I was very excited when we first got a Borders store in Oxford, because of their unique CD listening stations through which you could sample a few tracks of virtually any CD in store by scanning its barcode. Sadly it didn’t last, the novelty wore off and the headphones (and most of the CDs) have disappeared completely now.

I guess the itunes store was the nearest equivalent I encountered next, with its 25 second previews, but these have always seemed rather hit and miss to me – I’m sure we all know songs with a really duff 25 seconds segment that are otherwise brilliant and vice versa.

Which brings me back to Spotify, which so far seems to be a faultless roadtesting platform. Although there will always be a slight delay between an album’s release and its availability on the library, they do seem to be fairly up to date – I had a quick listen to a few tracks from the new u2 album the other evening to see if it lived up to the hype of the Q review (it didn’t).

I’ve managed to find recent albums by My Morning Jacket and Los Campesinos! that I was interested in buying, and have been merrily listening to them for the past couple of days. So far, so good.

The only dilemma this final step in the process presents me with is should I bother getting the download, or just learn to be content with listening to these new discoveries for free on my laptop…..

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