18 Mar 2012
It is impossible to really describe the chaotic, cacophonic spirit of South By Southwest (SXSW), the music business festival in Austin Texas. Thousands of bands, singer-songwriters, hip-hop crews dreaming of pop stardom colonise every car lot, bar, tattoo parlour and vacant space in the city to ply their wares for managers, record companies, agents, PRS, hustlers, journalists and fans, all searching for that something special, pop’s holy grail, the very future of music.
Bruce Springsteen, visiting for the first time, described it as “a teenage music junkie’s wet dream.” A man once himself heralded as rock and roll’s future declared his amazement at being in “a town with ten thousand bands. Back in ’64 when I picked up a the guitar it would have seemed an insane pipe dream. There wouldn’t be enough guitars to go around. We’d have to be sharing.”
Springsteen delivered the festival’s keynote speech, an inspiring address aimed at encouraging a new generation to reach for the highest artistic levels. Later that night, he put his own advice into action, with a masterclass in performance that may well be the greatest show this festival has ever seen. His expanding 17-piece line up of the E Street Band brought out the folk, gospel, funk, soul and blues roots of his trademark epic rock. Listening to Springsteen is like hearing the beating heart of of America.
While established stars like Norah Jones, Keane and The Shins use the festival to showcase new material, the emphasis is on the up-and-coming. This is the place where a buzz begins that can be heard through the whole music world. Pick of the festival, for me and many others, were Minneapolis quartet Polica. Featuring two drummers and a high-powered bassist, they sound like the future: understated, ethereal space age pop that explodes into furious groove, all brought into focus by the effects laden vocals and mesmerising moves of frontwoman Channy Leaneagh. With the poised, self-contained beauty of a young Jean Seberg, her understated yet electrifying sensuality is set to make her the new hipster pin up.
29 Feb 2012 Dry the River, Shallow Bed, (RCA)
An extraordinary debut from a new British-based band who combine a gipsy swagger with tremulous sensitivity and gothic rock drama. They are not particularly fresh-faced and fashionable: five scruffy, tattooed veterans of hardcore and emo bands fronted by a 25-year-old anthropologist and medical school dropout, but they have the stamp of greatness about them.
They are a big canvas band making folk rock; a fusion of the accessible pastoral pop of Mumford & Sons with the epic electric soundscapes of Radiohead. But when he drops to the fragile intimacy of an acoustic guitar, singer Peter Liddle’s choirboy tenor evokes the tender melancholy of Nick Drake while the group harmonies swell with the sacred hush and precision of 16th-century madrigals. The multi-instrumental band can gently rock like Fairport Convention or pitch in with the messianic melodrama of Arcade Fire.
All these musical riches are naturally connected to the songs, which unwind with flowing melodies and poetic lyrics, shifting and twisting in unusual ways but never straying too far from the kind of chorus that would have Chris Martin humming all the way to the charts. No Rest and Weights & Measures boast singalong hooks you might not expect from songs that employ the imagery of the King James Bible, framing narratives of complex relationships in historical and mythic settings.
Norway-born Liddle’s high language alerts you to his intense seriousness
January 12th, 2012
The BBC today reported comments by a leading British music industry boss, suggesting that record companies are “scared” to sign new guitar bands “because not much of it is succeeding”. Actually, “not much” can be translated as “none”.
Jim Chancellor, managing director of Fiction records, was talking up the chances of his own new guitar band, Spector. They are an interesting outfit, with a polemical drive and a strong pop sensibility, trying to bring a brash, modern swagger to classic sixties song formats, although it still strikes me as the kind of thing more likely to inspire NME editorials than contemporary audiences. The NME’s great guitar hopes of 2011, the Vaccines, barely dented the annual best-selling album charts, just scraping into the top 35. And they were the only new guitar band to make a breakthrough in 2011 at all.
It is not all bad news for rock music. U2 were apparently the highest earning musical act in America last year, and they didn’t even release a recording. Veteran rock still thrives in the live arena, where the genre’s very visceral sense of attack and communion has an emotional blockbuster impact that is hard for other genres to rival, at least for audiences who grew up on it. And Coldplay’s new album has just passed a million sales in the US. Whether you think they are the saviours of rock or the death of it is probably a matter of taste, although I think they should be applauded for pushing the sensibilities of rock music into keyboard-led, 21st century pop terrain.
05 Jan 2012
Despite the apocalyptic predictions of the ancient Mayan calendar, I don’t expect to witness the end of the world in 2012. The end of the music business is another matter. The sense of decline is inescapable, with a once mighty string of major global music companies reduced to just three in 2011, and quite possibly down to two by the end of this year (with Warner Music still looking vulnerable). Dwindling sales, collapsing profits, falling budgets and the general turmoil stirred by the advance of new technologies may be old news but that doesn’t make it any less grave.
For music fans, the shrinking of the industry may have been disguised by the avalanche of exciting music available to be heard , often for free. Looking ahead, however, there is little to suggest that 2012 is shaping up to be one of pop’s glory years. I just hope this is not a sign of chickens coming home to roost, with years of falling investment resulting in talented music-makers not being given the support they need .
So what mighty Amazonian warriors do we glimpse on the horizon, ready to save pop from itself? Last year, women ruled the charts, and in 2012 the original pop queen goes head to head with the pretender to her throne. Madonna has been the dominant female pop icon of the past three decades, but, at 53, has she still got the swagger and cutting edge to see off the challenge of Lady Gaga? Both are set to release albums and embark on world tours, with armies of fashion couturiers, milliners, production designers and choreographers drafted in to combat. May the best hat win.