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The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2006, Volume 13, #9

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.

August 27th, 2006

Album Download Chart

With two huge gigs at Reading and Leeds alongside many other Ďfringeí events nationwide, the last two weeks has seen the culmination of the annual British summer festival season. As usual at this time of year, the biggest-selling artists seem to be the ones who can keep the crowdsí collective arms swaying the longest during these long, hot, summer days.

Currently at the top of the list is Snow Patrol. The bandís audience-pleasing sets typically are composed of songs with so many sing-a-long choruses that fans are in need of vocal exercises before the show. This Edinburgh-based outfit has come a long way since 1999ís Songs for Polarbears and 2001ís When Itís All Over..., two albums on which the band sowed the seeds of its indie rock style by mixing acoustic-based ballads with pop-rock anthems. Sounding a little light and raw, but boasting catchy, endearing material, these efforts served as a precursor to better things. Without the production qualities to really push its music forward, however, Snow Patrol failed to excite a wider audience. Yet, on 2003ís Final Straw, producer Garrett Lee created a sound that helped the group not only to fill speakers but also to fill stadiums. Further pushing the boundaries of quality production, Lee added a symphonic sound stage to Snow Patrolís arrangements that enabled the ensemble to grab the attention of potential fans.

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Snow Patrolís latest offering Eyes Open subsequently is seen by many as the "difficult second album," and many newcomers who latched onto the group in the wake of Final Straw were waiting to see if the band could continue to develop its newfound symphonic grandeur. The ensemble did not disappoint, and on its new album, Snow Patrol uses its familiar choruses and guitar hooks as the basis for an even bigger sound. It has succeeded in raising a few eyebrows across the water as U.S. audiences have begun to take notice of this new, Scottish import. Thereís little doubt that Snow Patrol is heading in the right direction as its music contains an endearing bashfulness that is refreshing. The top tracks to hear include Chasing Cars, Youíre All I Have, Run, Chocolate, Hands Open, Spitting Games, and Open Your Eyes.

Muse originally was a Brit-pop outfit, but lately it has been fusing an indie rock style with American grunge influences to create a unique sound of its own. Its strength lies in its live performances, which have been honed in pubs and clubs across the U.K. The ensembleís confidence on stage is impressive, and its energy and presence transports its music to new dimensions. Not that the groupís albums are lacking in urgency, however. In fact, its latest endeavor Black Holes and Revelations is a triumph of raw power that is released through dirty, thick bass lines; searing guitar work; and vocal performances that are equal to those of Prince and Radioheadís Thom Yorke. Black Holes and Revelations is recommended for downloading as a body of work on its own, but, for a glimpse of bandís musical development and a taste of the whole Muse experience the following tracks are a must: Supermassive Black Hole, Plug In Baby, Feeling Good, Hysteria, New Born, and Starlight.

Razorlight is another example of a band that takes its music to a new level on stage. Subsequently, it has been a hit with festival-goers across Europe this summer. A recent addition to the British rock scene, the groupís debut album Up All Night contained a Strokes-ish ambience that was delivered with a British attitude. The ensembleís latest self-titled effort, which was released earlier this year, is a true, garage rock outing, and its rawness and simplicity comes alive in concert. Lead singer Johnny Borrell has adopted a Mick Jagger-esque persona, and he frequently struts around the stage declaring "this is how a rock Ďní roll band finishes a song..." before embarking on a frenzied Ďtear-upí with his ensemble at the conclusion of a tune such as Rock Ďní Roll Lies. Tracks to download include: In the Morning, Somewhere Else, Golden Touch, I Canít Stop This Feeling Iíve Got, Rock Ďní Roll Lies, and Who Needs Love.

Another musical trend taking hold this summer (and also being reflected in the album download chart) is the re-emergence of the singer-songwriter. Enthused, over the last 12 months, by the successes of James Blunt and KT Tunstall, record companies have been investing heavily in young artists, two of whom recently have surfaced among the Top 10 downloaded albums. Firstly, James Morrison has produced a memorable debut effort entitled Undiscovered. The outing is a prime example of fresh, young British soul that is sung with maturity and confidence, and it is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder just as he was beginning to embark upon his legendary journey. Beautifully crafted and excellently produced, the outing provides an intimate and ultimately warming experience. Key tracks include the single You Give Me Something as well as Wonderful World, Better Man, and The Letter.

The second promising, new singer-songwriter is Paolo Nutini, who recently has become a rising force within the singer-songwriter genre. A young Scottish teenager with Italian parents is perhaps an unusual combination for a musician, but Nutini has delivered one of the key albums of the summer. His voice has the texture of fine gravel (as opposed to the coarseness of those like Ray LaMontagne), and he is remarkably soulful for one so young. This ó combined with his simple, melodic tunes and beautiful, acoustic-minded production ó provides another irresistible sound of summer 2006. He is definitely an artist to watch with interest over the next few years. Key tracks include Nutiniís hit song Last Request as well as Loving You, Jenny Donít Be Hasty, and New Shoes.

 

Top Downloaded Tracks

Thereís a real mixture of musical styles appearing in the top downloaded tracks at the moment, beginning with the over-the-top, highly campy pop of the Scissor Sistersí I Donít Feel Like Dancing, a single that brings up-to-date, with both enthusiasm and humor, the soundtrack of a í70s nightclub. It is the first song to be released from the groupís long-awaited sophomore outing Ta-Dah, and once again, it has captured the British music-buying publicís imagination. Similarly Justin Timberlake has seen success with his new album teaser SexyBack. Nevertheless, this rather repetitive, stuttering dance single has not been accepted by all, leaving some fans to question if perhaps some cracks are appearing in Timberlakeís facade.

The Fratellis is a new band that achieved underground success with its first single Henrietta, and its latest offering Chelsea Dagger has landed it in the Top 10. With the jaunty, well-produced, and downright catchy tune, The Fratellis is following in the footsteps of Razorlight and The Killers, though it may have missed the boat in joining the congested pop-rock scene so late in the game. The groupís debut album is slated for release in September, and it will be interesting to see if The Fratellis can bring something different to the genre while simultaneously living up to the expectations that have been thrust upon it by the success of its singles.

 

New Musical Journeys and Inspirations: Focus on the Blues

The blues is the starting point for many other musical genres, and it is one that hugely has influenced many artists for decades. Surprisingly varied, modern blues throws up a kaleidoscope of different Ďtakesí on tradition, and there certainly is a lot more to the style than the depressing, antique-sounding mono tracks that many people conceive it to be. For example, two artists currently featured in the top album downloads would sit quite comfortably within the rock genre. However, their vocal styles as well as their obvious blues guitar influences, means that many rock fans sadly will never discover these wonderful examples of modern blues from musicians who are experimenting and pushing the boundaries of the genre still further.

Joe Bonamassa is an artist who is doing just that. Although he remains true to his blues influences, this guitar hero also manages to create a fresh, new sound. His latest album You & Me features classic blues guitar riffs and a vocal style that one would, perhaps, expect, but the overall production, with its multilayered arrangements, is more reminiscent of a commercial-minded rock star. Boasting a hard-driving blues groove combined with a wide sound stage, the track Bridge to Better Days, for example, contains an expansively produced "rock" sound that easily gets the adrenaline flowing. Similarly, High Water Everywhere immediately transfixes the listener before Bonamassaís vocals provide transportation straight to the heart of the blues. For the uninitiated, it is quite an eye-opening experience. Bonamassaís back catalogue provides further examples of his superlative fusion of rock and blues, such as My Mistake (from So Itís Like That) and the more traditional When the Sun Goes Down (from Had to Cry Today), which showcases both harmonica and slide guitar. Browsing through the examples of tracks from all of Bonamassaís albums provides a whole new experience for both existing fans of the blues as well as for any newcomers to the genre. Recommended selections include: Bridge to Better Days, High Water Everywhere, My Mistake, So Itís Like That, When the Sun Goes Down, Had to Cry Today, The River, A New Day Yesterday, and I Donít Believe.

Another artist seemingly straining at the leash to push the sound of the blues to a new level is Jonny Lang. Over the last few years, he frequently has stormed into the top sellers list by offering an eclectic mixture of soul, rock Ďní roll, zydeco, and country-inspired blues. Langís vocal dexterity and youthfulness affords him the luxury of experimenting fully with the genre. He recorded his first album Lie to Me at the age of 15, and he has continued to amaze critics with his vocal prowess and maturity. The title track from Lie to Me is as good a place as any to start exploring his catalogue, and his vocal performance alone is mind-blowing. Infused with classic blues riffs, a soulful chorus and funky bass lines, the song is drenched in Memphis Soul. If This Is Love from the outing Wander This World is another highlight. Call it rock Ďní roll, call it skiffle, call it the blues ó if ever there was a defining moment in a young manís career, then this is it. With a vocal performance that is reminiscent of a young Elvis Presley, he barks out his lyrics with such raw passion that itís likely he was unable to sing again for a week. The sonic variations in the vocal track suggest that Lang possibly was asked to stand a few feet from the microphone so that it could withstand this aural assault. Browsing through Langís work ó which shifts from hardcore blues to soulful ballads and contains both understated guitar solos and country tunes with simple instrumentation ó is a musical journey in itself. Recommended tracks include Lie To Me, If This Is Love, Back for a Taste of You, Still Raininí, and Second Guessing.

There are countless other blues acts to discover ó including Elmore James, Lightniní Hopkins, Kelly Joe Phelps, Chris Thomas King, Eric Clapton, and John Lee Hooker ó and many of them are a lot more Ďclassicí than Lang and Bonamassa. One thing is clear, however: A journey into the blues brings up a lot more than one might expect. The genre is full of a diverse array of artists, both old and new, but above all else, it includes good music across all generations.

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Copyright © 2006 The Music Box