Das Wohltemperierte Bieber

I really should write a follow-up on Joseph Stiglitz and ask what the heck happened to his report to Nicolas Sarkozy on redefined GDP measurement. But no, I got distracted by Punky Meadows Justin Bieber arriving in New Zealand this week.

Now I’ve got nothing against Justin Bieber in particular or teenage pop sensations in general. As music critic Graham Reid expressed on his blog today, the kids are going to scream at whatever they want to scream at. too. (Although this footage reaffirms why 13 year-old girls are still the scariest thing on the planet).

No, my point is about Auto-Tune. It’s clear that Mr Bieber can actually sing quite nicely in a radio-friendly monochrome fashion, and even plays the guitar – you can check out all the original YouTube videos if you want, but here’s JB on ITV in the UK back in January:

So why-oh-why do they channel his voice (and all of his right-on offsiders like Ludacris and Usher) through a freaking Auto-Tune on all his songs?

Auto-Tune’s been around for a while now. I wonder if in ten years’ time we’ll regard it as a hopelessly outmoded sonic token of the current decade. Just like all song titles at the moment must include the letters “ft.”, (as if artists are afraid to be heard performing without at least one celebrity friend), singers must warble through Auto-Tune’s digital downpipe in order to satisfy 2010’s well-tempered-robot aesthetic.

“Auto-Tune”, with its Bryl-Creem hyphen and teen-snaring smoothness, is like fins on a Studebaker: the fins serves no practical purpose, but made the car look cooler. Similarly Auto-Tune has become the indispensable appendage to modern pop.

In many ways, not a lot has changed since that shiny atomic age when asbestos was futuristic. In the first 8 bars of Baby compulsorily ft. Ludacris, Justin’s Ooooh-Aaaah resembles the same shoo-wop-doo-widdy nonsense as Da Doo Ron Ron in 1963.

And the rest of the song is based around the same I-VI-IV-V progression that has served so many chart-toppers well – 1964’s Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las, and 1961’s Stand By Me by Ben E. King…

I hope Justin Bieber survives the screaming hordes and that he grows up to be happy and fulfilled in whatever he does. Time will tell if his musical career will be durable and interesting.

Maybe one day Justin’ll make an album without Auto-Tune.

And maybe one day I’ll write that follow-up post about Joseph Stiglitz.

Our revels now are ended.

A few not-quite connected thoughts, after which I can resume normal transmission.

1. Two words: Quincy Jones. Sure, Michael Jackson had a great voice, could dance a hell of a lot, and for a time in the 70s and 80s he had all the ambition in the world. But he only made 3 great records – Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, and the common denominator in all of them was Quincy Jones in the producer’s chair. Nothing Jackson released after Bad was worthy of the legacy created by these 3 albums.

Beyond Jackson’s remarkable voice, all the best musical moments in his catalogue are Quincy Jones moments: the crystal-clear orchestration of Rock With You, the synth stabs that announce the arrival of Thriller, and the classic soundscape of Billie Jean (undisputably Jackson’s most perfect song).

2. My generation essentially can’t remember a time before Thriller. Alongside fighting with lightsabres, dancing to Michael Jackson is something we’ve been doing since we were in nappies. Bubbles the chimpanzee was the common currency of  playground chatter, and when we danced to Beat It in my kindergarten girlfriend’s lounge (dodging scattered Lego blocks), we discovered for the first time that if we danced hard enough, we could make the needle jump off the LP turntable.

3. I was about 10 years old when Moonwalker came out. I can’t remember if I saw it in the cinema or not. But during a wet holiday with my grandparents in Taupo, we hired it on VHS. The Smooth Criminal dance sequence completely blew my tiny mind.

And even during my most annoying teenage jazz-fundamentalist phase, when good Michael Jackson albums were a phenomenon of a previous decade, there was still a part of me that thrilled to that singer who could tip his fedora forward and moonwalk across any stage he cared to.

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

O’Spada: Some Assembly Required

O’Spada – haunting Södermalm circa 1983 (Images:Pär Olofsson)

O’Spada – Time (unreleased single – Despotz Records)

It’s not yet clear whether reliving every single moment of 1980s pop culture is a good or necessary thing. It is clear, however that the resurrection of the 80s has been underway for at least the past half decade, and there’s not a dang thing we can do about it.

Riding this wave is a band from Stockholm called O’Spada, who design an interesting range of flatpack electro-funk furnishings. Whether they’re inspired primarily by Prince, the Jackson 5 or Justice is a matter for their record label presskit, but by the sound of their upcoming single, Time, they’re a band to watch if you like  spiky, funky synth-pop.

A Nord, played by a Nord

In keeping with their nordic DIY aesthetic, they’ve asked their audience to reconstruct their single to match their own décor. To this end, they have made available to the general public all the raw material from the single, and are asking us amateurs to remix the song, without the help of an allen key or pictorial instructions. The best remixes will be released on a limited-edition pressing of the Time single.

Not one to refuse to make a fool of myself, I had a go, and after several hours of sweating and swearing at Fruity Loops, I put together something resembling a song. It’s not particularly good, the house/broken groove is neither elaborate nor danceable. But it’s the first time I’ve remixed anything or made my own beats. Please be forgiving:

O’Spada – Time (etnobofin’s Clueless Thursday Remix)

Discount Disco for the Downturn

“Dad, can you put on Hercules and Love Affair again?”

Is indie electro going to be the music of 2009 recession?  Building on fond memories of MGMT and Black Kids storming the summer festivals last year, it seems that slightly dark synthpop is what today’s students need while they’re applying for non-existent graduate positions. Here’s three bands that might cash in…

Emil and Friends – Downed Economy

The rather mysterious Massachussets band Emil and Friends were early on the act in November 2008, addressing financial turmoil directly in their single Downed Economy. Although you suspect that all this lamenting about the recession is just an excuse for some indie club madness underpinned with big farty synth bass lines.


Casxio, apparently ripping up some LA club. Before it got repossessed.

Casxio – Seventeen [Unreleased]

Hailing from southern California, Casxio do a nice line in straightforward groove. Their track Seventeen is as basic as it comes, and sometimes that’s the best style when you’re so poor you have to take your disco intravenously. Anyone lucky enough to be in Austin this week can catch them at SXSW.

“We have no confidence in Gordon Brown’s quantitative easing policy”

My Tiger My Timing – This is Not the Fire (Django Django Remix)

From the Cray Brothers to the Sex Pistols, snarky London accents have a knack for expressing contempt for the powers-that-be. Despite a band-name that reeks of “scene”, My Tiger My Timing‘s debut single This is Not The Fire has the makings of a summer hit. You can hear it on theirspace or wait until April 6th to buy it. That’s if you have any money left.

Menn Arsins

Menn Ársins – Þögnin heyrir allt
From Menn Ársins (Self-Titled) Free mp3 download [Buy album]

There’s a lot of bad news coming out of Iceland at the moment. So, in an attempt to warm the suddenly frosty relations between the UK and Icelandic governments, here’s some good news: Menn Ársins have just released their first album.

Menn Ársins (“Men of the Year” in Icelandic) were formed 3 years ago, and since then have developed nice line in artful pop – some songs sung in English, most of them in Icelandic. The group reached the Icelandic semifinals of Eurovision with their song If You Were Here (watch the video on YouTube).

Recorded at Lundgaard Studios in Denmark, this debut disc puts emphasisis on good pop tunes, with arrangements embellished by extra instruments such as the trumpet on Þögnin heyrir allt and the string section on Póstkort. Although the band initially was formed around the songs of singer/guitarist Sváfnir Sigurðarson, all four musicians contribute to the writing – for instance 12 Steps to the Liquor Store was built from some jazz material that bassist Sigurdór Guðmundsson had been working on for other projects.

I particularly love the subtle piano line that underpins Augun Opnast (apparently this means “Open Your Eyes” in English), and the video is equally understated:

I’m not totally neutral in posting about this album – Sigurdór has been one of the longest-lasting online correspondents on this blog, and not only is he a fantastic bass player and all-round Jaco Pastorius expert, he’s also a rather talented amateur photographer, and took the photo used on the cover of the album.  His Flickr site is worth a visit for some evocative images of Icelandic landscape and people.

Several mp3s are available free from the Menn Ársins page on Last.fm, and you can hear more on theirspace. And you can help rebuild Iceland’s foreign currency reserves by buying the album online.

Magic Wands

Magic Wands – Black Magic [iTunes]

Dang, the weather’s too hot now for anything but instant pop music. Here’s a song that arrived in my inbox last week, and I’ve been loving it.

The Magic Wands are a Nashville-based duo, a guy and a girl called Chris and Dexy. They’ve only been making music for about a year, but already toured to the UK (I didn’t see them). One of their publicity photos was taken at the Rollright Stones, which is just up the road from me in northern Oxfordshire.

Rollright Stones

There’s some low-level buzz out there about these guys, whose music reminds me a little of post-punk bands like Delta 5. They even played a side stage at Glasto this year, and apparently an album is in the works. Their first single Teenage Love is kinda cool too.

Liam Finn

This is possibly the coolest thing anyone has ever done with a guitar and a loop pedal. Perhaps not the most complex thing. But possibly the coolest.

Nice beard, too.

Hat tip to Tash, who posted it first.

This performance is taken from the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland. Liam’s also done the same thing on Letterman.

Liam Finn official website

Liam Finn on murdochspace

Alan Wilkis

Alan Wilkis – It’s Been Great
Alan Wilkis – Milk and Cookies

From Babies Dream Big: Independent [CD Baby]

Alan Wilkis

Brooklyn’s New Power Generation? (Photo: Alex Marvar)

In our continuing search for intelligent life on planet Earth, we have found some compelling evidence in the form of Alan Wilkis, a multi-instrumentalist and independent musician from Brooklyn.

His début album Babies Dream Big references a whole spectrum of pop, funk and soul from the 1960s onwards, and comes out sounding pretty darn awesome. White soul moments burn out of I Love the Way, and we get a deep-down Sly Stone-style singalong in the chorus of It’s Been Great. The acoustic guitar underpinning Astronaut (Would You Be One?) is such an obvious reference that you expect Major Tom to splash-down inside your stereo.

The Wilkis aesthetic is best exemplified in the meisterwerk of the album, Milk and Cookies, which is built on successive episodes of 808 drum loops, synth-laden power pop and an 8-bit Sega-style break 2’25 that sounds like its lifted from Super Mario (or should that be Sonic the Hedghog?). The hedonistic mix provides a reminder of Beck’s Midnite Vultures (1999), but Milk and Cookies is such a blast that I don’t think anyone will mind.

Wilkis plays almost everything on the album, apart from Eric Biondo on trumpet (Antibalas Orchestra) and Jason Treuting of So Percussion, who plays drums on a couple of tracks. For more of this soul-and-funk tinged fun, the album is available from CD Baby (CD and mp3), and songs can be heard on Wilkis’ myspace.

Album cover