Nine Songs

21:42, Feb 26 2013

Don't worry - this is not about that porn/concert-film - this is about the perfect number of songs on an album. Don't listen to albums anymore? Albums are old and boring for old, square people? Fair enough, enjoy your free Mp3 rips of crappy pop tunes and fly-by-night hip-hop all you like, you trendsetter. Read another blog today. This one is about albums. I'm still, unashamedly, a fan of albums - and it's still very much the rule as a music reviewer too, while albums are being released I review albums.

But, as a listener, I still look forward to the great journey a really strong album can offer. I mentioned that - the idea of a journey - the other day when I linked to my review of Thom Yorke's new album with his Atoms for Peace band. And I mentioned, in that review, the length; crucial to the album's impact is its trim, taut time of 44 minutes, nine tracks.

That's optimum.

I'm convinced.

As a tape-buyer and listener in the first instance, and then on to records via my mum and dad's collection, I enjoyed the nine-song album. Specifically the nine-song album that is between 37 and 47 minutes; true story: I would time the records, I would sit listening to them and have a stopwatch running, unless the record or tape had the individual song lengths listed. They often did. If so, I would get out the pen and paper and total them up.

This started innocently enough, I reckon. I was seeing how much of an album I could squeeze on to a tape - the idea of ownership seeming so important that I would make dubbed copies of the records that mum and dad owned, that sat in the lounge in the house where I lived. They were fine to listen to with mum and dad and my brother, or on my own - but they became mine when I had made my own taped copy, a copy for my Walkman or the tape-deck in my bedroom.


And obviously C-90s were the way to go, so often you'd get one album on each side, you'd make great go-together doubles; better 2-for-1 options than some of the record store deals; Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock and Roll; Black and Blue and Some Girls - there's a couple of great twofers.

But all this taping and timing, timing and taping, it created an obsession. I'm still curious - I can fob it off as some form of professional curiosity, maybe - about running times, album lengths, song lengths, side lengths.

The nine-song album doesn't mean quite as much on CD/Mp3, because on tape and LP it was about the split. Was side one the five-track side? Often it seemed as though it was - with four songs on side two, one of them a bit longer, stretching toward six minutes, say. But sometimes side one only had four songs - a great example of this is Dire Straits' Communiqué, a brilliant album. The opening Once Upon a Time in the West and the title song (which closes out side one) both run over five minutes. So side two feels as though it bursts into life with Lady Writer after that lope of the song Communiqué (the title song is the weak link of the album, in fact). A run of four-minute songs makes room for the languid closer, Follow Me Home.

I have a lot of favourite albums because they are nine songs long. Mick Jagger's She's the Boss - a great nine-song album. Elton John's Madman Across the Water (and his live album Here and There). And one of my favourite albums of all time, Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow.

There are many more, but these are all albums I grew up with, had the tape/LP experience before re-purchasing them on CD. (More recently Dirty Three's Toward the Low Sun, one of my favourite albums from last year).

Among many crimes (shrinking/ruining artwork) the compact disc allowed people more space. And while my favourite "album" of this year so far is a playlist running to nearly two hours, Nicolas Jaar's Essential Mix, most albums are ruined by being too long. And that didn't use to happen pre-CD. Not as much, anyway. There'll always be the odd indulgent double-album but when records where 30-40 minutes long it was about punchy songs, about saying enough with a dozen tunes or less; it was about creating an album; not just pushing together everything you'd written/recorded to date.

Hip-hop albums are often bloated with torturous skits that are funny once if you're lucky.

But with the nine-song album there's no room to get it wrong. The duds stand out. You can have the one "miss" of the album - like the title song from Communiqué, like Constipated Duck on Blow by Blow, but you have three-quarters of an hour only, so there's a need to get it right.

Have I lost you all ages ago? Or are you with me on this? Nine songs - is that the perfect amount to tell the story in an album form? And do you agree that between half an hour and three-quarters of an hour is all you need/all you should have when making an album? If it's not good it doesn't make it; don't pad the album out. These bloated 15- and 17-song albums are just awful. You get six songs in and you're not even halfway. That's terrible.

And back in the day you'd have long gaps of tape on at least one side of your dubbed cassette. And that was not good!

So, any other nine-track album fans out there? And if not nine songs, what's the preferred length of an album for you? Also, I stretched it out to 45 minutes, but I'm most pleased with the 38- to 42-minute running time now that I'm not making tapes. Thirty-eight minutes would have been a bit of a pain in the C-90/C-60 days but I find, often, the shorter the album the more interested I am in spending time with it.

Postscript: I'm yet to hear Nick Cave's new album but I'm interested in checking it out. Even though I told you toward the end of last year that my interest in Cave is, overall, waning, I will give the new record a try. I've heard some good things about it. Some bad, also. But when I found out it was nine songs only I was newly enthused to give it a go.

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