CD Review: sunlight to blue… blue to blackness by The Durutti Column

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been a fan of The Durutti Column, the name used by multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Vini Reilly. I discovered The Return of the Durutti Column, Vini’s first album, back in 1980, shortly after it was released, and was immediately hooked. His combination of catchy melodies, his unique style of guitar playing, and his laconic voice give his music a tone that is his alone. So as, each year or so, a new Durutti Column album comes out, I buy it unhesitatingly.

The latest album, sunlight to blue… blue to blackness, is available from Kooky Records, a small label that has released the last few Durutti albums. (It is actually not released until June 23; I got a pre-release copy of it.)

Vini Reilly can be said to repeat himself; but that’s part of the charm of each Durutti Column album. The first track, a heart-rending acoustic guitar piece called “Glimpse”, is a reworking of a few early Durutti Column melodies, but is played with such delicacy and beauty, that it makes me melt. The first five tracks on this album are instrumentals, several featuring themes and riffs from earlier works, and the sixth track is a rhythm-box version of “Never Known”, a great old song from the 1981 disc LC. I’ve never been a big fan of Vini’s “electronicized” music, such as his Obey the Time album, but the song works well. “Ananda” is a beautiful piano-based track, written and performed by Poppy Morgan, with “intrusive guitar” by Vini. “Head Glue” is a very languid duet sung by Vini and XXXX, and “Demo for Gathering Dust” is, as its title suggests, a version of a song on the Idiots Savants disc released last year, in which Vini shows off his acoustic guitar skills (though it gets a bit vague near the end as he riffs out on chords). “Cup a Soup Romance” is another guitar instrumental, and “Grief” is a solo piano piece.

All in all, another beautiful album from Vini Reilly. In a way, though, the three songs with vocals don’t really fit with the other eight tracks; this album would have been a bit more satisfying as an instrumental-only disc. But there’s not a weak song on it, and I’d recommend it to all, fans of The Durutti Column or newcomers.

Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.

The Demise of the Recording Industry

As music fans know, the recording industry is in a shambles. The labels, and the RIAA, like to blame it on file sharing and illegal downloads, but what if the reality were different? What if the recording industry has sown the seeds of its own destruction? Prospect magazine has an interesting article looking at how the industry is killing itself, and how it seems unlikely to pull out of its current slump.

From the article:

“Yet the music industry itself must take some of the blame for the decline of the CD. For the past 15 years, free covermounts [CDs included for free] on magazines and newspapers, licensed or even paid for by record companies, have diluted the perceived value of recorded music in general and CDs in particular.”

Hattogate, or, The Music You Hear is Not What You Think

Fans of classical music know that there are great performers and there are the rest. But those with any experience listening to music also know that a lot of what you hear depends on context: if you think you’re hearing a great performer, you’re likely to appreciate their performance even more.

In addition to my activities writing about Macs and iPods, I also review CDs for MusicWeb, an independent British web site that publishes reviews of classical CDs. So I was quite amused this morning when I read an article on the web site of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, entitled Masterpieces Or Fakes? The Joyce Hatto Scandal.

Joyce Hatto is a late pianist who had recorded a handful of good discs then suffered from cancer, from which she died in June 2006. Somewhere in the past year of her life, recordings started spewing out from a small label, run by her husband, showing this woman to have a surprising range of talents, and Gramophone, along with other publications, began championing these recordings. But some months ago, posters to the rec.music.classical.recordings newsgroup began questioning the possibility that this woman could have played all these works, with styles that sounded so different. One poster said:

“After hearing so much about Joyce Hatto, I started purchasing some of her recordings. While nothing I have heard is bad (in fact, I am glad I bought these CDs), I have noticed something eerie: that the pianist playing the Mozart sonatas cannot be the pianist playing Prokofiev
or the pianist playing Albeniz. I have the distinct feeling of being the victim of some sort of hoax. Does anyone else share these feelings?”

Well, where I come from, you might say, “them’s fightin’ words”, but they incited some people to start looking more closely at this phenomenon. The results seem to be clear (as shown in the Gramophone article linked above): not only was this a hoax, but a purely monetarily-driven one, which simply took copies of some works, fiddled with others, and released them to a world of people who fawn after the latest sensation.All this raises many questions, of course. First, you have to feel bad for the professional critics who, hearing something they liked, not only lauded it, but created the context to fulfill their wishes with each subsequent recording from this pianist. Second, it shows that there are, perhaps, some recordings by lesser-known musicians that had been “pirated” and branded with the Joyce Hatto name which merit further attention. Had these same critics panned the discs that were the actual sources of the Hatto recordings?

Finally, and perhaps more important, it shows the futility of any kind of criticism. Well, you can’t copy books or movies, but for classical music where critics review not so much the music as the interpretation and performance, how much criticism is truly objective? Perhaps it is time for critics to work blindly, getting nothing but blank discs (or digital files) and reviewing these, then, only after the reviews are filed, finding out who the performers are. This would, of course, not be to the liking of the major record labels, for whom marketing is often more important than actual performances. (Granted, this is only really valid for instrumental performances; it is relatively simple to recognize a familiar voice in an opera or other vocal recording.)

There has always been criticism of critics, but nowhere other than the classical music arena does the concept of “great performances” or “reference performances” hold sway. These are the benchmarks against which other performances are measured, and they can be self-fulfilling: the more familiar you are with your benchmark, the more you will like it and reinforce its validity.

I tend to be somewhat obsessive about music, and, for some composers, actively seek out different versions of works I like in order to have a variety of performances, because no one performance can be considered final or perfect. I have never succumbed to unfailing appreciation for a specific artist (though Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is by far my preferred singer of German lieder), and tend to search broadly. It’s a shame for those who do think they found the new musical messiah, and many music publications–including Gramophone, who will have to make a serious mea culpa–will suffer from this type of hoax.

While it’s almost surprising this hasn’t happened before, there are actually a few reasons that make this case different from others. Joyce Hatto had not performed anywhere for a long time, so no one would have been able to compare her performance style with her recordings. Also, this was a very small label, and, while Hatto-mania may have blossomed, it certainly never went far enough to generate large sales. It seems that the greed behind this hoax was limited to a single person, the late pianist’s husband.

But with digital technology so prevalent, such that anyone can copy a CD and release it as their own, no one has time to check all the recordings that are released to make sure they are what they say. (Kudos to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for taking the time to analyze these recordings down to their waveforms; check this link for examples, both audio and visual, proving that the Hatto recordings are not indeed Hatto recordings.) While it is unlikely that there are many unscrupulous record labels who would consider perpetrating such a hoax, the cat’s out of the bag, and this may give ideas to others. Caveat emptor, right?

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

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Five Mistakes Band & Label Sites Make

I don’t usually post articles here that simply point to other web sites or blogs, but today I’ll make an exception. Merlin Mann, writing at 43 Folders, has a very insructive article entitled Five Mistakes Band & Label Sites Make. He points out how many bands and record labels just get it wrong when it comes to their web sites. From Flash-based sites, to non-existant MP3 tags on downloads, lots of bands just don’t grok the web. (Though it’s not necessarily their fault; a lot of these problems come from general web-design trends, and most musicians don’t know enough about the web to understand how limited their web sites are.)

When I was researching my latest book, iPod & iTunes Garage, I came across the same problems. One of the most annoying was the lack of any contact information for many bands and musicians, even those whose renown is limited. Since, for my book, I wanted to contact musicians and ask them what they considered “essential music”, I found this especially annoying. Sure, the bands would have to filter out basic fan e-mails from serious requests, but unless you’re an A-list band, you should welcome any kind of publicity.


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