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The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2006, Volume 13, #10

Written by Simon Baker

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Welcome to iRevue, your guide to the world of downloading. Each fortnight, we will examine the iTunes charts in the U.K. and provide you with the latest news, views, and reviews of the most downloaded singles, tracks, albums, and podcasts. Our goal is to highlight an eclectic mix of musical genres and artists, both new and old, that will help and encourage you to get the most out of your MP3 player.

October 9th, 2006

The onset of autumn traditionally sees the music industry priming itself for the rapidly approaching holiday season by releasing what label executives hope will become the biggest-selling albums over the Christmas period. It has been no surprise, then, to have seen some major album releases, alongside some pro-active singles, making their way onto the charts over the course of the past two weeks. New outings from The Killers, Sting, and Evanescence as well as pre-release activity from Robbie Williams have all started the ball rolling.

Top Downloaded Tracks

As the Scissor Sisters’ dominance over the singles charts has faded, Razorlight has picked up the slack. On America, the second single from its eponymous effort, the band has toned down its usual exuberance in favor of a pleasantly melodic, almost acoustic-minded ambience. This formula has proven to be conducive to gaining attention from radio stations, and the song subsequently has featured heavily on playlists throughout the U.K.

Though it has failed to make a dent on the traditional sales charts, David Hasselhoff’s Jump in My Car has turned up on the iTunes list, providing positive proof of the power of radio. The track arguably says little about the musical capabilities of Hasselhoff. Considering that its explosion followed an ironic marketing campaign that was instigated by a national DJ, it more aptly (and worryingly) demonstrates the gullibility of some radio listeners.

Snow Patrol’s haunting Set the Fire to the Third Bar from its recent outing Eyes Open features a guest appearance by Martha Wainwright, and having gained some serious momentum, it appears likely that it soon will overtake the "official" single Chasing Cars. Other featured tracks in the recently disappointing singles category include the high energy, workout tune by Bob Sinclar entitled Rock This Party (Everybody Dance Now); the annoying Checking It Out by Lil Chris; and the slightly more palatable offering by Lily Allen entitled LDN.

Album Download Chart

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On a happier note, the market for albums has seen, over the course of the past two weeks, a number of major releases by some highly regarded artists. The first of these is Sam’s Town, the new offering from The Killers, which is sure to be one of the most requested outings of the year. After the worldwide success of its 2004 debut Hot Fuss, The Killers has had to cope with the usual pressures of producing a follow-up set that extends its enormous momentum. Typically, the end result is a rushed-to-release affair that finds a band not only failing to progress, but also containing a slew of leftovers that didn’t make it onto its first effort. Hence, the term "sophomore slump" customarily is invoked.

With Sam’s Town, The Killers easily could have fallen into this category. Yet, the ensemble has produced an album that is not only worthy of the first, but also raises the bar that was set by it. The collection expands the boundaries of Hot Fuss’ very commercial, British new wave/indie references into a wider, more serious work. The influence of Bruce Springsteen can be heard throughout the collection, and its grandiose production combined with its soaring wall of sound echoes the Manic Street Preachers at its best. Lyrically, however, The Killers has not moved forward with any significance, and perhaps this will be the focus of its next outing. Key tracks include Why Do I Keep Counting?, When You Were Young, and Read My Mind.

With the lute music set Songs from the Labyrinth, Sting also has made an attempt at diversifying his stylistic range. Using the works of 16th Century composer John Dowland, he has produced an effort that, although interesting, unfortunately sees him further substantiating the claims of pretentiousness that have been lobbed at him by some critics. The exclusive addition of a documentary film, a music video, and a track-by-track listening guide that he narrated himself provides iTunes users with a complete package to complement the album. This idea may prove to be useful in the future, but, its inclusion in this case merely suggests an innovative, commercialized, marketing ploy. Key tracks include The Lowest Trees Have Tops, Fine Knacks for Ladies, and Fields of Gold (New Version), the latter of which also is an iTunes exclusive.

Robbie Williams’ forthcoming outing Rudebox, which is slated for release on October 23, boasts a similar slate of market-driven incentives. The collection currently is available for pre-order, and a number of exclusive bonus tracks and videos along with a "making of" documentary are being offered to early adopters. The album reflects the current trend toward invoking musical influences from the ’70s and ’80s, and featured on the effort are "tongue-in-cheek" cover versions of Kiss Me by Stephen Duffy (of Tin Tin fame) and The Human League’s Louise.

Evanescence has issued its sophomore effort The Open Door, much to the delight of its large fan base, which has been instrumental in keeping the album firmly planted within in the Top 10 since its release. However, this lofty position may be limited by the outing’s rather finite appeal. The gothic rock ensemble has produced another heavy set that boasts multi-layered guitars, haunting vocals, and oversized production, and on occasion, it is reminiscent of Korn and Linkin Park. Nonetheless, Evanescence has found it difficult to compete with its peers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the notion that the vocal style of Amy Lee doesn’t sit well within the outfit’s adopted hard rock persona. She sounds a little too twee in places, which has the effect of giving the music a lack of authority. The other major issue facing the band is that, much like Creed, Evanescence’s often Christian-oriented lyrics can create an oxymoronic problem for many hardcore fans of the genre, who subsequently opt to disregard its music completely. Still, the set is well produced, and it has all of the trademarks of a good gothic rock endeavor. Key tracks include Call Me When You’re Sober, Cloud Nine, and Like You.

New Musical Journeys and Inspirations: Focus on New Age

New age music is frequently overlooked when one is trying to explore new musical terrain simply because, outside its biggest admirers, few seem to follow it. Of course, when pushed to define the style, many instantly think of whale music or relaxation tapes, while others simply stare blankly. Unfortunately, these subsections of new age are the only elements that have shown any real commercial success, which is due, at least in part, to the relatively recent attention that has been given to relaxation therapy. These days, new age music is just as likely to be on sale in a pharmacy as it is in a good record store. As is the case with most musical styles, however, there is a lot more to the genre than initial thoughts typically imply.

"Sonic painting" is a term that frequently is utilized to describe new age music, and it is an apt description that is worth keeping in mind while one is beginning to investigate the style more fully. A key component of the new age genre is ambient music. Much like its descriptive namesake suggests, it affects both mood and atmosphere, and it predominantly employs electronic instrumentation and features little or no persistent rhythm or tempo. The hugely influential Brian Eno has been an ambient music ambassador for many years, and not surprisingly, he has produced some excellent examples of the style. One of his most acclaimed sets is Ambient Music 1: Music for Airports, on which Eno creates "sonic art" that not only can be visualized in the mind of the listener but also can affect subconsciously the atmosphere of the area in which it’s being played. Arguably, more accessible examples of ambient music that have broken into the mainstream market include Vangelis’ End Titles from "Bladerunner" and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Not all new age and ambient music, however, is instrumental. Many artists have employed vocals in order to create similarly atmospheric moods. Two performers who have been particularly successful in doing this are the Ireland-born Enya and the Spanish outfit Enigma, and although their techniques are very different, they both provide perfect examples of the style. Enya uses her multi-layered, haunting vocals as an instrument, and, with little reference to lyrics, she enunciates in a manner that allows her voice to meld with the lush music, thus becoming an integral part of the overall sound. Enya has many albums from which to choose, but her most popular outing is, not surprisingly, Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya.

Enigma also employs layered vocals, but it does so in a very different way. The ensemble creates a monastic sound with its echoing, austere voices, which fill the speakers with Gregorian chanting. Sometimes, this is fused with thumping dance rhythms and rumbling bass patterns. This unlikely mixture of styles became a sensation in the early ’90s, thereby forming the basis of the group’s success. On its latest offering A Posteriori, Enigma has moved away from the Gregorian chanting style in favor of a more traditional, synthesizer-oriented approach. The collection features strong modern bass sounds and rhythms that are overlaid with atmospheric synthesizers and effects. The end result is reminiscent of Vangelis and William Orbit. On the other hand, Enigma’s first album MCMXC A.D. is the iconic original set that includes Principles of Lust: Sadness and Callas Went Away. It typically is regarded as the group’s best work.

Considering that the new age genre boasts some of the most beautiful and calming sounds available for human ears to hear, it certainly isn’t surprising that, over the last two decades, it has become synonymous with relaxation, meditation, and yoga. Other artists worth investigating include the quirky Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the incredibly tranquil, acoustic guitar work of Pierre Bensusan. For those seeking to immerse themselves in music that affects not only one’s surroundings but also one’s inner state of mind, then new age music must be experienced. For many, it simply is a welcome relief from every day life as well as every day music.

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Copyright © 2006 The Music Box