Blog on the Tracks

Writer/reviewer Simon Sweetman covers music for The Dominion Post and North And South. He cares far too much about music, and the list of bands he loves is far longer than the list of groups he has shown no love.

Guest Blog: The reality of being a music journalist in New Zealand

02:26pm 01 Sep 2015


This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I offered readers the chance to Right This Blog! Today's post, about the reality of being a music journalist in this country, comes to us via artificalred. Many thanks and take it away...

Rocksound, Rolling Stone, Kerrang! Just a few of the big name UK and American music magazines that I grew up buying and reading obsessively cover to cover. You know how it goes, you love music so much you always dream about being a rock star and when the latter quickly disintegrates because you struggled to even learn the recorder growing up, that's when most of us float back down to the real world and put aside the silly notion of anything rock stardom and move on with life.

But that wasn't for me.

Growing up, music was always around me, on the TV, on the radio, and especially on the cassette player that was always centre stage in our lounge. I was never musically gifted as a child, my sister and I struggled our way through the aforementioned recorder lessons at eight years old and it became no better at eleven years old as I fumbled my way through guitar lessons, every week trying my best to keep in tune with my peers and hoping my music teacher didn't notice that I didn't really practise.

But the one thing I knew I was good at was Reading and Writing. The written word came naturally to me and chances are you'd always know where to find me because my head was either buried in a book or writing something. It wasn't always fun though. While my classmates sometimes struggled with Spelling and Similies, I was acknowledged for my advanced Reading and Writing skills by being put into extra curriculum classes that didn't earn me any brownie points with my peers. Maths however was a different story and a constant misery to me.

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Guest Blog: Don't look back

02:03pm 01 Sep 2015


This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I offered readers the chance to Right This Blog! Ken offered to talk about why black music is obsessed with the future and white music is obsessed with the past. So here, now with "Don't Look Back", is Ken. Thanks Ken.

Absent qualifications in sociology or anthropology but as capable of gross generalisation as the next woman/man with three pints in her/him, I see no reason why I shouldn't offer the following inflammatory thesis.

Over the 20th century and into the current one, black music in America has been a competitive innovation machine while a significant chunk of its white counterpart toys with nostalgia, revivalism and bogus notions of authenticity.

There is no black equivalent of, or participation in, the Americana phenomenon, even though a lot of the music it celebrates is black in origin. And thirty five years into its history, certain Caucasians still think hip hop isn't "real" music. Hell, MS Word wants me to correct the phrase hip hop because it thinks it's a typo. To coin a phrase, what's going on?

This year, the Grammy Album of the Year went to Beck for Morning Phase, a retread of the pretty but one-dimensional Sea Change. Like Arcade Fire four years earlier Beck benefitted from a nominating system that allocates albums by category. As the only "rock" record in the race, it snuck up the inside by consolidating the traditionalist vote.

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Guest Blog: We need to talk about Jimi

12:21am 01 Sep 2015


This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I offered readers the chance to Right This Blog! Sue Egypt wanted to talk about Jimi Hendrix. Said we needed to talk about Jimi Hendrix. So take it away Sue Egypt.

I'm not actually going to discuss misconceptions about Jimi Hendrix, because that's a 5000 word essay right there (and needs someone who actually knows stuff). This is more about his legacy - has it been a good thing or bad thing for pop music?

The Best Guitarist in the World

This was partly kicked off by S. Sweetman's blog "The best guitarist in the world" (07/08/15). Because this was frankly, a shocker - especially the subsequent comments. I think it's fair to say it was not this blog's finest moment. Gary Moore, Neal Schon, Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Johnson, Mark Knopfler are just some of the names chucked around. 

There was talk of 'chops' and 'shredding'. Even talk of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani (I actually can't dislike these two - they're sort of the Donald Trumps of hero guitar - you sense that at heart they know their shtick is absurd and pointless). But this was like a list put together by 13 year boys. It bowed to all the clichés of the sainted guitar hero - the magic romantic (in an 18th Century sense) shaman sexgod bluesMAN approach to guitar that I thought had disappeared in the flood. I actually went and listened to Eric Johnson because I hadn't heard of him - I will never get that time back (and now you don't need to).  There were some interesting suggestions to be fair, like Bo Diddley and Hank Marvin. (To be annoying I've included a list 'The Only 16 (Electric) Guitarists that Really Matter' at the end.)

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Guest Blog: Songwriting vs. production

06:36am 31 Aug 2015


This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I once again offered the chance to Right This Blog! So we start the week with our "wild card" Mark Twang. Thanks Mark.

I'm not a big fan of The Eagles but there are a few of their songs I quite like. I'd say my favourite is New Kid In Town. Quite a nice understated arrangement. Nice chords, nice vocals and some tasteful guitar and piano. A bit like something The Band might have done in one of their more laidback moments. But around three minutes and forty seconds something else happens. The song transforms into layers of vocals repeating a few phrases with a few variations here and there - and this all carries on for another ninety seconds - all oohs and aahs. By now I'm reaching for the fast-forward button. Everything I liked about the song is a distant memory. Why? Why did they have to do that?

That song is credited to Henley, Frey and Souther. I have no idea what input the various writers had or what they were hearing when they wrote it but for me that song ended at 3:40 - everything after that is just studio fluff. It's like someone decided this song is too short. "It needs to be at least five minutes long!" I call this the "Hey Jude" syndrome. The need to take a good song and make it bigger. A whole bunch of singer/songwriters got this treatment back in the 70s - Neil Diamond, Albert Hammond, Glenn Campbell. Love them or loath them these guys did have some great songs, but someone, either the guy in the sound booth, or some accountant upstairs, decided  that these songs needed improving. Smother them with strings and backing singers and the punters will lap it up.

There is a slight variation on this crime - and I have a name for this too - the "Dire Straits" syndrome. Now Mark Knopfler is a great songwriter and on his best recordings he takes great care to make sure it's the song that shines. More often than not his guitar playing takes second place. But live, at least in the 80s shows I saw, every song gets turned into a bombastic piece of stadium rock. They play a couple of verses, then they take it down, then they take it up - on every song. What makes each song unique is lost. Perhaps that's the way people like their stadium rock. It has a place I guess but at the end of the day they may as well be playing some old 12-bar.

So what I'm trying to get at is that a song is a song. A well written song has its own structure and architecture and the melody and words will carry it through. It doesn't need flashy vocals but a competent singer helps. There may be a solo (not too long) to add some colour and the dreaded middle eight may make an appearance - probably three quarters of the way through. So who decides on how all this will hang together? When does it stop being a song and start being a recording? A talented band may work on an arrangement for a song and then perhaps a producer might suggest a different bass and drum pattern. Perhaps the producer will want to add strings and oohs and aahs at the end. It's that "adding" bit that really annoys me. The morphing of the song into something else.

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Guest Blog: Substance over style

12:20am 28 Aug 2015


Today, and next week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I asked readers to Right This Blog! (And if you hadn't caught up already, I announced the winners earlier this week - their copy in). But we have to start somewhere. So we start today, with Darryl and his post is about good albums with bad cover artwork. Thank you Darryl...Shredding...

After postulating the idea of bad album art as an idea for a blog post I then wondered if it might be a redundant topic given the current forms of music consumption. Cover art has been atrophied down a digital black hole, withering from substantial physical forms to a few hundred pixels on iTunes or Spotify.  Does anyone care? Is the art of the album sleeve as dead as most musicians' royalty streams? Is anyone making an effort to produce challenging cover art when their canvas is so diminished?

I recently read the 33 1/3 Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kirk Walker Graves. It read more like an analysis of a major historical figure than a paean to a beloved album. The author spent a sizeable chunk of one chapter discussing the cover art for the album, its relationship to Mr. West's previous works, and it's relevance to his public persona. West's grumpy pan is scatter-gunned all over the media landscape, and that's no fun for anyone. The internet and the trash blown ghetto of the tabloid press present an endless river of musicians and other celebrities doing their best to break the narcissism meter.

Born to AddThe profligate media is something of a reversal of fortune when compared to my early record (wax kids!) buying experiences. All I knew were the mysteries the album cover showed me and the glimpses offered by publications like Rip It Up, NME or Melody Maker. We handled albums with a reverence that correlated to their expense and delicacy but also to their significance as a substantive cultural event that was ours alone. My parents were unlikely to understand or care for Fire Dances by Killing Joke which was as it should be. This imbued the experience of owning and playing those albums with a sense of separation from my parents generation.  It also split us into tribes and the sleeve of an album was one of the signifiers of those allegiances.

The range of imagination or lack thereof in the arena of album art is truly as diverse as the music they are designed to contain. Music packaging has a rich history, most of which I'm not prepared to tackle. For the purposes of this blog, we will stick to 1960 to the present day. Marketing departments exist to sell a product. Musicians, photographers and designers have often thwarted that ambition with their influence over the image of an album. Some covers are downright lazy or cobbled together afterthoughts. Others appear to be drug-fuelled follies, or are concepts so overwrought in detail and execution that they get in the way of the intent of the record itself.Little Feat

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