Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cass McCombs - Wit's End (album review)

   I used to love Cass McCombs. That love lasted the duration of exactly one album, the still astounding PREfection. On it, McCombs seemed to be making an attempt to shrug off every singer-songwriter cliché imaginable and instead inject the form with inscrutable lyrical absurdity, atmospheric production and a spectral organ underpinning some hypnotic mid-80s gothic-guitar jangle. Fittingly enough it came out on 4AD in the UK and seemed to fit in with that label’s off-kilter aesthetic. Since then his career has been one of retreat and a gradual sinking into the very clichés that PREfection sought to avoid, a retreat which continues on his latest release Wit’s End. This album serves as a rather desperate attempt by McCombs to join the serious singer-songwriters club, and it does so by shamelessly echoing acts like The Band, Leonard Cohen, and Elliott Smith.

The album begins with ‘County Line’ and immediately I think of The Band. McCombs even indulges in some Richard Manuel-esque vocalising at points and I get the sinking feeling that the artist I once loved is gone forever. Next up is ‘The Lonely Doll’ and I immediately think of Dylan or, more specifically, his Blonde On Blonde cut ’4th Time Around’. It drags on repetitively and is in desperate need of a middle-eight to break up the monotony. If you think demanding a middle-eight is too classicist I recommend that you don’t listen to this album at all. It reeks of playing by rules, of adhering to classic-rock standards, while all the time falling short of its target. The album is devoid of risk, with each song faithfully echoing classic song arrangements from the late 60s or early 70s in a somewhat cloying and unsatisfactory manner. ‘Saturday Song’ feels like a weak echo of The Band’s ‘Whispering Pines’, and album closer ‘A Knock Upon The Door’ struggles to hold the listener’s attention for its nine-plus minutes of Cohen-esque ponderousness.

The main problem is the album’s lack of originality. In terms of tasteful production and arrangement, each song succeeds on its own limited terms but, at heart, it is a well-dressed corpse. If one were looking to explore the golden age of jazz one would not be advised to listen to Wynton Marsalis but the original artists who made, then broke, the rules. Listening to a technically perfect recreation negates the spirit and the point of the original music. Though still showing signs of lyrical eccentricity, he does not embody the music with anything resembling an overarching artistic vision in the way that Elliott Smith was able to (whose perfecting of the form and subsequent violent death rendered the already tired singer-songwriter persona obsolete). A person looking to enjoy this type of music should be going to ‘Whispering Pines’, ‘So Long, Marianne’ (Leonard Cohen), ‘Young And Innocent Days’ (The Kinks) or even ‘Waltz #1′ (Elliott Smith). There you will find a pulsating spirit of exploration and originality.

When an artist changes there are often complaints from fans about this change of direction. Sometimes these complaints amount to grumbling about not being able to ‘get into’ the artist’s new sound. The old fans cannot grow with the artist who must then hope for newer fans to compensate for this loss. In this instance the opposite is true. I loved Cass McCombs, but I cannot shrink to fit his new sound. I too have loved the music of Dylan, The Band, Cohen and Smith, and probably always will, but I am not looking for the artists I cherish to recreate that music. I want them to have their own distinctive artistic voice, and I want them to take chances. What’s even more depressing about this new artistic turn is that it will not give McCombs the bigger audience he is so obviously craving. He is destined to remain on the sidelines but, rather than using that obscurity to be willfully experimental or at least gleefully eccentric, McCombs is instead making a failed bid to be taken seriously by playing to classic-rock rules, in much the same way that Beck did with Sea Change except with Beck it paid off (more’s the pity).

If you like museum pieces, by all means pick this album up. For those who seek signs of life from the artists they admire, I advise looking elsewhere.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Intellectual Property in the Digital Age (Or Why Downloading Means You Don't Own a Thing)

In 2009, as reported in the New York Times  and a thousand angry blogs, Amazon went into customers' Kindle’s and deleted copies of 1984. It turns out the edition of 1984 sold to the Kindle owners had copyright issues and should never have been on sale to begin with. Obvious points were raised like would a bookstore be able to break into your home to retrieve a book from your shelf? No, but if you had purchased ‘stolen’ goods you would legally have to return them. True, but only after the actual owner had gone through the correct legal channels. In this instance the offending work was removed without permission, and an explanation arrived only after the fact. “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased” said Charles Slater, one of the customers whose copy of 1984 had disappeared. After the storm in a teacup passed, Amazon promised never to do it again, but this did not change the fact that they could if they so desired. What are the ramifications for our future when such actions are legal?

The first question to ask here is: why was it legal? Clearly the idea of ownership has been subverted as has the idea of privacy. The exchange of money for goods is the backbone of capitalism but when you do not own a physical copy of a particular item you do not, in fact, own anything. You are in possession of pure intellectual property (IP for short) and that IP does not belong to you. It belongs to the license holder and they can legally take it back whenever they wish. Electronic devices such as Kindle, Nook or iPhone are all subject to invasions like the one described above, although I use the word ‘invasions’ in a moral, not a legal sense as Amazon did nothing illegal. If you have a magazine subscription on your Kindle and you cancel that subscription, you lose all those back issues you paid for. So what did you pay for? You paid for what amounts to a finite loan agreement that allows you to access IP on your device as long as the owner continues to agree to the loan. Are there any benefits? Well, libraries updating to digital won’t ever have to worry about dog-eared books again. Unless of course corporations were to design digital technology that automatically deleted itself.

The bad news is the above scenario has already happened. Publishing companies are making libraries re-purchase books for no good reason other than the fact that they can make them do it. Seeing as the libraries don’t technically own the books, the process is completely legal. In order to protect their IP, corporations are going to great lengths to restrict the flow of goods. Reselling your video game or software looks set to become a thing of the past because, no prizes for guessing, you don’t actually own either the software or the video game. You are merely a licensee. Corporations have attempted to keep control of digital media by using digital rights management (or DRM, a catchall term for the technology used to limit what the consumer can do with digital data) with the result being countless PR disasters like the one involving 1984. Even Bill Gates admitted that DRM has “huge problems” and “causes too much pain for legitimate buyers”. Digital technology is so ridiculously user-friendly that it requires a minimum amount of knowledge to copy and distribute it on the internet. For this reason DRM intentionally made it harder but, in doing so, it caused headaches for all consumers. CDs stopped using DRM in 2007, and in 2009 iTunes did the same with regards to music (videos continued using DRM). Easing up on DRM usage, however, has not changed anything in terms of music ownership. When it comes to digital downloads the consumer does not own a thing, and as a result they have limited rights in regards to what can be done with those downloads.

The ‘problem’ with digital files is that they are able to be copied very easily and with no loss of sound quality. This left the music industry with one option which was to criminalise millions of people. Multi-billionaire Lucian Grainge, head of Universal and arguably the most powerful man in the music industry right now, has said that illegal downloading is one of the things that keeps him awake at night. "The fact of the matter is it is illegal. Piracy is illegal” says Grainge, who convinced the UK’s biggest internet service providers to send out warning letters to users who were engaged in illegal file sharing. Even if the industry is moving away from DRM, it is still intent on instilling fear into the illegal downloader. Being a business, however, means that corporations have to worry about bad PR and, every time they prosecute a file sharer, they look like Goliath crushing an ant for a few extra dollars. DRM gets bad press, prosecuting customers gets bad press, but the fact that corporations retain ownership of digital downloads is relatively uninteresting because it doesn’t actually cause problems for consumers on a day-to-day basis. Until a company like Amazon flexes its muscles and removes a file from a Kindle, the consumer remains blissfully unaware of how little control they have of media that was thought to be their own.

Has there been any kind of fight back from the customer? The main area of resistance has been over devices that play digital media rather than the media itself. For instance, iPhone users won a legal victory when a US court ruled that it was within the law for them to ‘jailbreak’, a term which means hacking into the iPhone and downloading applications not authorized by Apple. Apple’s response was to implement a new application that allows them to monitor iPhone users’ activities and disable their iPhone if they feel the users’ actions are ‘unauthorised’.  It seems as if corporations want to limit not only what you do with your files but also what you do with your devices.

What does the future hold for digital downloading in general? Corporations like Amazon and Apple seem to be taking the position of retaining ownership of digital media so that they may take action if necessary, such as deleting a file or prosecuting a customer, but avoiding doing so to elude bad PR. Legal action will hang over users’ heads in the hopes that it will offset most illegal activity, while the industry in general struggles to come up with a way of having complete control along with the image of a customer driven business model. With companies such as Netflix and LOVEFiLM reducing the need for ownership of movies, we seem to be entering a new era, one in which the consumer pays much but owns next to nothing. Do people care? If the emotional relationship we have with our entertainment is low, this seems to be the perfect scenario. To those with a greater emotional attachment, it’s hard not to envision an ominous future that relies on the benevolence of corporations in regards to reading, viewing, listening to and sharing what are seen as important works of art. Without the ability to control and share, we run the risk of losing something of value forever. Perhaps we should be keeping hold of our books, CDs and DVDs, for both the ownership value they provide and the feeling that they cannot be legally whisked away at a moment’s notice. Until we have the same ownership rights in regards to digital media, the relationship between corporations and its customers will remain an uneasy one.

(This article originally appeared in edited form on the Substance website)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Barbara Panther - Barbara Panther (album review)

Even though modern dance music is electronic based and as a result is seen as cold and inhuman, the desire at the heart of dance culture is an ancient one that is rooted in communal, transcendental ideas of surrender and losing oneself in mass ecstasy (no pun intended). Many dance compilations borrow imagery from Hindu or Buddhist iconography, reducing a genuine human longing to manipulative banality. This hackneyed, blissed-out, Goa-bound humdrum element of dance culture can be off-putting to those who supposedly seek more stimulating inspiration from the music they enjoy, despite the fact that pop, rock and hip-hop can (and will) be reduced to such one-dimensional caricatures by cultural commentators. Dance music’s passive surrender can be seen (as pointed out by, among others, Simon Reynolds) as feminine as opposed to rock or hip-hop’s masculine aggression. Behind the earth-worship of electronica’s placid symbolism, however, lies its mirror image: mother-earth as vengeful destroyer as opposed to loving nurturer. The dichotomy of destroyer/nurturer has proved popular amongst many women performers (perhaps indicating why the music press is so keen to seek out the cliché), with Bjork and Madonna circa Ray of Light aligning themselves with nature as a powerful, feminine force, and using electronics to enhance the message. In 2011 this mantle has been picked up by Barbara Panther whose self-titled debut harnesses the image of a powerful avenging female spirit aligned with mother-earth.

Born in Rwanda but raised in Belgium, Panther’s debut is produced by electronic wizard Matthew Herbert. It begins with the pulse-quickening “Rise Up”. Given her back-story it’s tempting to give Panther’s music an added seal of authenticity, especially when she calls for a ‘cosmic revolution’, but in the world of pop all bets are off and her call to rise up is no more authentic than the awful “Uprising” by Muse. What it is, though, is infinitely superior. Panther’s “Rise Up” punches your gut and all but compels you to move to its beat, with the tribal feel of the music playing in to dance music’s communal yearnings. From this we go to the excellent “Moonlight People” which seductively plays up the artist’s softer side. This contrast between vengeful anger and wide-eyed innocence continues throughout the entire album, with hardly a false-step (the opening lyrics to “Voodoo” produce a cringe). The effect of either approach can be similar in that they both result in a euphoric sensation of freedom. Panther’s lyrics emit a feeling of joyful emancipation which goes hand in hand with the album’s sometimes dark, sometimes soaring electronics. As far as debut releases go, it is deeply impressive.

In terms of her singing Barbara Panther is already being compared to Bjork. There is an undeniable similarity to their voices, but the likeness is superficial. Panther appears to possess enough charisma and wherewithal to shake off any resemblance to whatever female artists she will undoubtedly be compared to, be it Bjork, M.I.A. or Bat For Lashes. The album is replete with highlights, ranging from the already mentioned “Rise Up” and Moonlight People” to “Empire” and “Dizzy”. They buzz and throb with an uncontainable enthusiasm that merges perfectly with the pulsating music. Her talent and personality, coupled with her media-friendly childhood, seem perfectly designed for stardom. If that happens I hope she holds strong to her idiosyncrasies rather than allowing herself to be smoothed over for mass consumption. This remains a minor worry and right now we have a startling debut album that is indicative of a major talent hungry to be heard. Do as she wishes and pick this up as soon as you can.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)