The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2006, Volume 13, #10
Written by Simon Baker
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.
September 25th, 2006
With last week’s launch of a new user interface, Apple not only has improved the look, intuitiveness, and feel of its iTunes software, but it also has added new functions and features that surely will cause an even more dramatic change in the manner in which MP3 players are used and developed. New features that are not yet available to U.K. users — but are viewable on the U.S. version — include favorite television shows as well as weekly, team-specific, NFL game highlights packages. Both of these are available for a subscription-based download alongside the much improved music video, movie trailer, podcast, and, of course, music sections. All of this certainly bodes well for the future of the medium.
Album Download Chart
Three key outings have dominated the album download charts over the past 14 days, and it would be difficult to find a more eclectic mix of styles. Over-the-top disco campiness sits alongside a British punk debut as well as a concept album that oozes sheer nostalgia.
After months of endless hype and promotion, the Scissor Sisters’ sophomore set Ta Dah finally has arrived. In the wake of such an intense marketing campaign, it would be easy for the album to been an utter disappointment, but by employing the "if it’s not broke, don’t fix it" theory, the band has stuck with the format that brought huge success to its eponymous debut. Stuffed full of references to the past 30-odd years of disco, glam, rock, and pop classics, it’s difficult to listen to the Scissor Sisters’ work without constantly trying to dissect its influences. Donna Summer, Jean Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode, Queen, Stevie Wonder, Supertramp, and Parliament are just a few of the artists that spring to mind at various points throughout the affair. The opening track I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ is a prime example. Echoes of Leo Sayer lurk within the vocals; the high-energy synth effects and drums are plucked straight from the ’70s; and the piano riff is instantly inviting and familiar. Each track is a veritable trip down memory lane, and 40-somethings undeniably will come face-to-face with thoughts of drinking in sweaty discos with sticky carpets as they desperately try to explain to their children why they have dusted down their flared trousers and big-collared shirts. Although every song is worth sampling, if only to play the inevitable pop quiz game of "where’d I hear that before," the black comedy of I Can’t Decide; the rock inspired Everybody Wants the Same Thing; and the driving,’80s-oriented, disco-inspired Kiss You Off are particularly noteworthy.
Although its debut singles Henrietta and Chelsea Digger did a superb job of priming the market, Scottish ensemble The Fratellis did little more than produce a decent debut. Indeed, Costello Music is a rather unspectacular collection of songs that merely jumps on the increasingly tiresome indie rock/Franz Ferdinand-wannabe bandwagon. The perfectly agreeable singles are, unfortunately, the only real high points of the set, which boasts the usual guitar-based melodies that were recorded with a lo-fi punk ambience. Throughout the affair, originality is severely lacking. Nevertheless, there are a few moments that provide hope for the future, and both Creepin’ Up the Backstairs and For the Girl offer a glimpse at the band’s potential.
Thirty-one years between sequels is a gap of George Lucas-sized proportions, but considering that Elton John could be regarded as the musical equivalent of the Star Wars guru, he can be forgiven. The Captain & the Kid is the follow-up to his defining classic Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, an album that, released in 1975, not only has become etched into the memory of many, but also has become a standard component in almost any music collection. In recent years, John has been edging back toward his roots, and his last two offerings (Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road) have seen him return to his familiar piano/vocal style. This collection serves to transport him fully back in time.
The Captain & the Kid is a rarity in that it is a true concept album. Providing emotional insight into John and songwriter Bernie Taupin’s experiences in America during the early ’70s, the outing makes palpable the excitement of the duo’s arrival in America, their subsequent love affair with New York City, and their sometimes difficult working relationship. The album also offers insight into how the excesses of fame and fortune caused everything to go wrong, and it reflects upon the friends that have been lost, while expressing gratefulness at having survived their self-destructive tendencies.
Initially, The Captain & the Kid is a like putting on an old, but still warm and familiar, overcoat. It’s immediately comfortable, and although John’s voice has matured, he seems to have rediscovered the exuberance of his early years. His performance is enthusiastic, and with the exception of a rather tame attempt at political satire on Postcards from Richard Nixon, Taupin’s lyrics are as strong as they have ever been. Real emotion is conveyed in Blues Never Fade Away, while both Tinderbox and The Bridge are honest and heartfelt. John definitely has found peace with his past, and his ability to laugh at his missteps only helps to make his material resonate more strongly. The fact that The Captain & the Kid arguably will sit quite comfortably on the shelf next to the iconic Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is praise, indeed. It’s highly recommended in its entirety.
Top Downloaded Tracks
This week provides a good example of how the various features of iTunes will inform one another. Here It Goes Again, the punk-y, Elvis Costello-inspired single by Chicago’s OK Go, has experienced the unusual phenomenon in which its corresponding video has outsold many of the traditional music tracks that rank in the regular download chart. Nevertheless, the track itself holds up rather well on its own, though the video is likely to be seen as one of those defining moments in music video history. As usual, it’s a remarkably simple idea that has been exploited to produce a startling visualization. Eight treadmills were positioned strategically in opposing directions, thus creating alternating platforms upon which the band — very skillfully, it must be said — moves around in an excellently choreographed sequence. Over the last few weeks, clips of the video have been appearing in email in-boxes across the world, but the exposure has enabled the video to achieve enough legitimate purchases on iTunes to see it bubble to the top of the video charts for the duration of its release.
Other key tracks that have featured in the listings over the last two weeks include P!nk, who has followed her Top 10 single Who Knew with the cryptically entitled U+Ur Hand. It is another rock-inspired composition that combines multilayered vocals, "big" production, the obligatory catchy chorus, and a sassy attitude.
Also landing in the list is the retro sound of The Feeling with its Supertramp-inspired single Never Be Lonely. The song has ranked among the Top 5 downloads since its release two weeks ago.
The success of intertwining contemporary music with advertising can be observed by the inclusion of French DJ David Guetta’s track entitled Love Don’t Let Me Go (Walking Away) and Canadian outfit Bedouin Soundclash’s jaunty foot tapper When the Night Feels My Song. In the U.K., both tunes, at present, feature prominently in television ad campaigns. Unfortunately, both songs suffer from the fact that their best parts were plucked for use in their corresponding promotional spots.
New Musical Journeys and Inspirations: Focus on Jazz
Due to its many variants and styles, the world of jazz can be a scary place for the neophyte. Unfortunately, many people also have a preconceived notion that jazz is simply a collection of different musicians, each of whom simultaneously is playing a different tune. Sure, there are times when jazz can sound like this, and most notably, its freestyle improvisational forays are viewed as ‘noise’ by the uninitiated. Rest assured, however, that there also are plenty of knowledgeable jazz enthusiasts who would be inclined to agree with this viewpoint!
Fortunately, browsing through the appropriate section in iTunes unearths some excellent examples of modern mainstream jazz. One of the most popular downloads, over the past few weeks, has been the lounge-oriented jazz of Diana Krall’s From this Moment On. Throughout the set, Krall lends her beautiful, sultry vocal style to some terrific standards by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin, and she succeeds in keeping them fresh and new while also remaining faithful to the original arrangements. Considering that the songs are very approachable, this set is a very good place for a newcomer to begin. Krall’s voice is smoky, lazy, and, in places, deep, and backed by a small ensemble, the well-produced outing conveys a very intimate ambience. This personal connection, of course, is a very important part of listening to jazz, though it does feel a little strange, at times, when one is not quite accustomed to it. Other prime examples in a similar vein include Nina Simone, for whom a remastered greatest hits collection (The Very Best of Nina Simone) recently was released. For pure lounge jazz without vocal accompaniment, try the Esbjorn Svensson Trio’s latest outing Tuesday Wonderland.
In new listeners, modern or contemporary jazz often can produce feelings of confusion and dismay. However, Wynton Marsalis has helped to make this style more accessible than ever before. Subsequently, he has been hired by Apple/iTunes to assist in promoting the medium. As an introduction, there is no better example than his iTunes exclusive Live Sessions, a small set of three songs and three videos that retails for a bargain basement price. The sampler does include Sparks, which appeared in 2005 in a television advertisement for the iPod, but all three tracks are perfect representations of the style. With over 35 albums in his back catalogue Wynton Marsalis undeniably is worth further investigation, and since issuing his debut in 1980, he rapidly has become a jazz legend who is as revered by his peers as he is by his fans.
Of course, no jazz collection would be complete without a set by Miles Davis. Containing material that was recorded between 1956 and 1984, the newly compiled retrospective Cool & Collected provides an excellent introduction to the man and his wide-ranging music.
There’s little doubt that an appreciation of jazz, in all of its many forms, does require devotion, but the music is full of feeling, both emotional and physical. Take, for example, the saxophone solo that appears midway through The Girl from Ipanema by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. Initially, the air traveling through the instrument can be heard alongside the softest notes that emanate from it, thus creating such intimacy that it’s easy to imagine the caress of a gentle breeze upon one’s face. As the solo reaches its apex, the effect is enough to lift the listener out of his seat before gracefully returning him to it. In essence, the power of jazz can be summarized by this one classic moment. When viewed as an investment, jazz has ability to produce great rewards.
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box