File under "How could I have missed this?" – Stephen Duffy & Lilac Time

In terms of my musical taste, I’m definitely a Brit. I blogged about how this shows up in my music library, and when I checked my car CD changer last week all 6 slots were filled with British artists. But having been out of the country for so long I’ve definitely missed some important artists. And one of these is Stephen Duffy. The story of how that changed is a nice little example of how the Internet has changed how we I approach music.
I’m a big fan of Robbie Williams music, and my favorite album is Rudebox. It’s an eclectic mix of songs, and Robbie worked with a number of different artists and arrangers to put it together. There’s a video on “The Making of Rudebox” (which seems to have disappeared from iTMS in the last few days), and in it there is mention of the fact that one song – “Kiss Me” – is a cover of a Stephen Duffy song, and that Robin and Stephen have worked together.
I vaguely remembered the song – a classic Europop number from the early 1980s – but I’d never heard of Stephen Duffy. Wikipedia came to the rescue, and I saw that he’d worked with Duran Duran, Tin Tin (which was where “Kiss Me” had come from), done some solo work, and also been involved in two other groups: the Lilac Time, and the Devils. Duran Duran I knew (obviously), but everything else was new to me. So I explored the Amazon MP3 store (which I find to be cheaper than Apple, as a rule), and listened to samples from an early “best of” the Lilac Time: “Compendium – The Fontana Trinity“. And I was hooked.
I bought “Compendium” and played it several times over the next few days. It was good, and I wanted more. Reading around, I found that most fans seemed to think that “Astronauts” was the best Lilac Time album. But there was a problem: it was unavailable on CD anywhere, and the only MP3 download version was in the UK iTunes store. No problem: I asked a good friend of mine over in England to buy me a copy and upload the MP3s. (I’ll see him when I visit England next week, and I’ll pay him then. No illegal file-sharing here!) And the fans were right: “Astronauts” is brilliant.
What about The Devils? This turned out to a a real oddity. In 1999, Stephen Duffy unearthed a collection of old Duran Duran tracks, laid down in 1978-79 before the band hit the big time. He and Nick Rhodes (also ex- [CORRECTION] co-founder and current member of Duran Duran) re-recorded the songs as close to the original sound as possible, and released the result as “Dark Circles” by The Devils. New CDs are hard to come by, but I found a good second-hand copy through Amazon.
Most recently I bought the MP3 version of a collection of Duffy’s solo work, “The Ups and Downs: A Very Beautiful Collection“.
A month ago I’d never heard of Stephen Duffy or Lilac Time. Today I’ve got a CD-changer full of their music (and obviously its on my iPhone and iPad). Nice.

Remembering all of the words. Every one.

I’m an old Deadhead. Not an obsessive, completist, following-the-band kind of Deadhead, but one who was spellbound by their second album, “Anthem of the Sun”, back in 1968, bought most of the studio albums from then until Jerry’s death in 1995, and who saw the band live half a dozen times between 1972 and 1990. Just an average kind of Deadhead. Someone who can play “Dark Star” from start to finish in his head. And someone who thinks that the most important member of the band was Robert Hunter.
Back in the 80s I bought cassette tape copies of several of Hunter’s solo albums, and played them over and over again. Hunter’s voice is pretty uneven, and the arrangements range from magic to banal. But the words are pure gold. Poetry. Not metaphorically, but literally. One of the more obscure albums was “The Flight of the Maria Helena”, a 37 minute poem recounting a phantasmagorical seven day journey aboard a vast raft, recited to a plangent musical accompaniment. At some point in the 1990s Hunter published a book containing most of his poems and song lyrics, called “A Box of Rain”.
After Jerry Garcia’s death led to the end of the (real) Grateful Dead, I drifted away from their music, and that of Robert Hunter. I don’t know what happened to my old cassette tapes, but as I started to replace tapes with CDs I didn’t include any of the Robert Hunter releases. I kept the book, though, and a few years ago I re-read it. The poems and the songs flooded back, and I resolved to find copies.
It was hard. Hunter’s CDs had all been discontinued, and they weren’t available from any of the download sources. The few unsold copies were commanding fairly high prices, and they still are, although they’ve come down a bit. ($25-70 is typical, but a new Box of Rain will set you back $146.) Eventually I came across an MP3 of “Flight of the Maria Helena”, as I blogged here. But that was it.
And then a few days ago I noticed that a few CDs of “Rock Columbia” were available for as little as $6.98. I immediately ordered one, and it arrived yesterday. This morning I slipped it into the CD changer in my car, and as I drove off to work I hit PLAY.
I sang along with every song, word perfect, from my apartment in Palo Alto to the Yahoo! offices in Sunnyvale. That took half of the disc (“side one” of the old cassette!). This evening, I sang along with the second half of the album. The rollicking “End of the Road”, the challenging “Aim at the Heart”, the haunting “Who Baby Who”, and the expansive title track. Yes, Hunter’s voice was as weak as I remembered it, but that was supremely unimportant. The songs were wonderful, the poetry extraordinary.
This evening I sat down to write this blog piece, but after a couple of paragraphs I broke off and spent a couple of minutes searching the web to see if I could repeat my good fortune. I visited the various Hunter-related web sites, many of which are stale and broken. I looked at the online catalogs for the companies that once produced his CDs – Rykodisc, Relix, and others – but they had forgotten him. I started writing again, went to check something on Robert Hunter’s Wikipedia page, and I saw a line that I hadn’t noticed before:

In 2010 Robert co-wrote Patchwork River with Jim Lauderdale. The Album was released on the Thirty Tigers Label.

I checked the Thirty Tigers website. No mention of Jim Lauderdale or the album. Surely some mistake. But before I returned to my blog, I decided to check for Patchwork River. Bingo! I listened to a couple of samples. The sound was a little more country than is usually my taste, and the voice will take a bit of getting used to – but the words, all the words, are pure Robert Hunter. And so I downloaded the album, put the headphones back on, fired up iTunes, and finished this blog piece. Which I have now done.

A coda to yesterday's piece on "50+" artists

I rushed out last night’s posting about the “50+” artists in my iTunes library without mentioning a few points that I’d noticed.
First – and rather obviously – the artists with the largest numbers have been very prolific, which takes time: I’ve been listening to most of them for many years. I was surprised to find that there’s only one whom I started to follow since the turn of the century: Robbie Williams.
The second thing that struck me about the list was how English (or, more accurately, British) it is. Of the 40 that qualified, 24 are originally from the UK, 12 from the USA, 3 from Canada, and 1 from Ireland. In fact 12 of the first 13 artists hail from the UK, although the Legendary Pink Dots have lived in Holland for many years, and Al Stewart is comfortably ensconced in Southern California with his wine cellar. Clearly I’m still very much a Brit, even though the “expat” phase will soon exceed the original.
Finally, this collection of “50+” artists accounts for just about 31% of my total library – 4,657 tracks out of 15,031.

Who's in your music library?

The other day, somebody asked me what kind of music I liked. At first, I thought that this was a silly question, but then I realized that I had some relevant data: the most frequently occurring artists in my iTunes library. And so I decided to generate a list of every artist for whom I had (arbitrarily) 50 tracks or more in my library. There were 40 of them, listed below. I collapsed a few side-projects into the main artist heading: for example, the total for the Legendary Pink Dots includes Edward Ka-Spel’s solo work.
A few things stand out. First, there are two big categories in my library – “Trance/Electronica” and “New Age” – which are under-represented here, because they are dominated by anthologies, compilations, and DJ mixes. Second, I am (obviously) something of a “completist” for certain artists, such as Al Stewart and the Dots. And third, these numbers don’t really represent my day-to-day listening preferences: right now I’m mostly listening to (checks iPhone playlists) Robbie Williams, Pet Shop Boys, Faithless, and Mark Knopfler. On second thoughts, maybe they do after all…..

Artist Items
Legendary Pink Dots 452
Al Stewart 305
Pet Shop Boys 270
Porcupine Tree 254
Grateful Dead 223
Beatles 192
Marillion 189
Saint Etienne 165
Faithless 143
Mark Knopfler 134
Orb 131
Divine Comedy 128
No-Man 128
Heart 105
Love 102
Bob Dylan 100
Steve Miller Band 93
Enya 92
Sunscreem 89
Dire Straits 87
Men Without Hats 84
Robbie Williams 83
Moby 79
The Who 79
Frank Zappa 69
Jane Siberry 66 88
Radiohead 64
Rolling Stones 64
Scritti Politti 64
Captain Beefheart 62
Simon & Garfunkel 59
Country Joe & Fish 57
Mamas & Papas 55
Procul Harum 55
Crass 54
Led Zeppelin 54
October Project 53
Cream 51
Leonard Cohen 51
David Van Tieghem 50

P.S. I forgot to include the ISSA tracks in Jane Siberry’s total. It’s so complicated when artists keep changing their names….

Earwig: "Speedway at Nazareth" by Mark Knopfler

Ever since we went to see Mark Knopfler in Oakland last month, I’ve had this track “Speedway at Nazareth” playing in my head. I listen to it at least once a day, and I usually tweak the equalizer to pump up the bass in that wonderful last line. It’s a clever composition: an account of the 2001 NASCAR season told in the style of a Civil War campaign song. It came out on the 2000 album “Sailing to Philadelphia”, and the studio recording does a decent job of capturing the intensity of the instrumental jam at the end of the song.
And now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to put on the headphones again…

Mark Knopfler in Oakland

Last September, my friend Kyle forwarded me an announcement of the US tour dates for Mark Knopfler, which included a show in Oakland, California on April 13, 2010. It seemed a long, long time in the future, and I was worried that I might be traveling in China, but no matter: that very day I ordered two tickets from TicketMa$ter. They arrived. I added the date to my diary. And life went on.
Last week I realized with a shock that the tempus fugit stuff had been doing its thing, and the concert was taking place this week. I hunted for the tickets, and couldn’t find them. Never mind: a quick email to Ti¢ketMa$t€r resulted in the order being converted to “Will Call”. And so this evening I picked up Kate from the apartment and we braved the traffic and spine-crunching pavement of Interstate 880 to drive up to Oakland. We parked without difficulty, picked up the tickets, had a wonderful nouveau-Vietnamese dinner at Vo’s Restaurant, and went to the Paramount Theatre (which is worth a blog entry for itself).
Now I’ve been a huge Dire Straits fan ever since they released their first album in 1978, but I have never seen Mark Knopfler in concert – with D.S. or solo – before tonight. I know the “Alchemy” concert recording so well that I can play every number in my head, note-perfect. (And I was recently delighted to discover that the DVD of “Alchemy” is finally due for release this year!) So it’s fair to say that my expectations were unreasonably high, which also meant that my fears of being disappointed were also spiking up.
I was not disappointed. It was a simply wonderful show.
If you want to understand the lyrics to a Mark Knopfler song, you have to listen to the studio recording. In concert, he often mumbles the words and skips whole phrases. But it really doesn’t matter, because you can supply the words yourself, as you listen to the exquisite musicianship from Mark and his band.
It was a long set. I haven’t found the setlist on the internet yet, but I’m sure I will soon. (UPDATE: Here it is.) They played songs from most of Mark’s solo albums, and of these the standout was a glorious “Sailing To Philadelphia”. And they did five Dire Straits’ numbers: “Romeo and Juliet”, “Sultans of Swing” (yay!), “So Far Away”, “Brothers in Arms” (as powerful as ever), and (be still my beating heart) “Telegraph Road”. Complete. Uncut. Glorious. One of my favourite songs ever.
Forty years ago, I saw Pink Floyd at Essex University, and they played all of the numbers from the “live” disc of “Ummagumma”, which had just been released. I can still remember the quasi-spiritual experience of listening to “A Saucerful of Secrets”, with Dave Gilmour’s wordless “celestial voices” soaring over the mellotron. Today I saw Mark Knopfler and his band play Telegraph Road. It was another almost spiritual experience. What more could I ask for?
Thanks, Kyle!

Some music for commuting

For the last three years, I’ve lived without a car, and this period coincided with a big push to move most of my music from CD to computer. Whenever I listened to music, I used iTunes on my computer or iPhone; I’m used to having at least 8GB of stuff to choose from.
But now I’m reverting to commuting by car. And while my 2007 Prius gets fabulous mileage, the audio is a bit awkward. There is an Aux coax input, so I could hook up the headphone jack of my iPhone, but the socket is buried in the glovebox in the center console, and it’s awkward to reach.
The obvious thing to do is to revert to loading up the CD changer, but the vast majority of my discs are tucked away in archive folders back in Massachusetts. So this evening I decided to burn a couple of discs of favourites. Since I ripped everything into AAC format (hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time), I can only burn conventional audio CDs, not MP3 CDs. Anyway, here’s my first selection:

  • Alabama Song by The Doors
  • Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around by the Steve Miller Band
  • Shady Grove by Quicksilver Messenger Service
  • Paradise By The Dashboard Light by Meatloaf
  • Singing Cowboy by Love
  • I’m Going Home by Ten Years After (from “Live At The Filmore”)
  • Davey’s On The Road Again by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
  • La Grange by ZZ Top
  • Cowgirl by Underworld
  • Radioactive Toy by Porcupine Tree
  • Jesus Built My Hotrod by Ministry

Nothing too radical there; it’s mostly from the 70s, with a couple of things from the 80s and 90s. However Cowgirl and Jesus Built My Hotrod definitely fall into the category of “music to damage your speakers”.

Yes, yes, yes

Over the last two weeks I’ve been listening to just one album: the Pet Shop Boys “Yes”. The first couple of times I was doubtful: there was none of the political and sexual drama of “Fundamental”, which I’ve decided is one of their finest albums ever. But “Yes” grows on you – or at least it grew on me. If “Fundamental” was dark, “Yes” is quietly positive about life and love. The Amazon MP3 album includes a bonus “track”: a full-length repeat of the album with commentary from Neil and Chris. MP3 imitates DVD, I guess – but it works very well. Recommended – emphatically so!

Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

We went to the Showbox last night to see Amanda Palmer and friends. They’re touring in support of the new album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? I first encountered Amanda’s work with the Dresden Dolls through the Legendary Pink Dots connection, but I haven’t seen her on stage for many years. From her DVDs and YouTube videos, I was prepared for a theatrical experience, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Oddly, the purely musical highlight wasn’t Amanda’s new songs, but the solo contribution of cellist Zoë Keating. She uses a foot-controlled computer to lay down complex delay loops that she can then sequence and play against; her cello becomes a complete string ensemble, with percussion. The effects are quite thrilling.
Other “friends” included The Builders and The Butchers, a band from Portland, OR that would have been excellent if their kick-ass energy and instrumental prowess had been applied to some songs that weren’t so similar (and uniformly depressing), and the Danger Ensemble, who provided theatrical interpretations of many of Amanda’s songs. (There was also a local guy whose name I forget, who improbably wowed the packed house with a drinking song, accompanied on accordion…)
Overall verdict: a bit uneven, but tons of fun. Check out the new album (and use it as an excuse to dig out the old Dresden Dolls stuff you haven’t listened to in a while).