31/10/2014

Reading - October 2014

Yes Man by Danny Wallace (2005)
Read this on the bounce from Join Me! and initially I thought that it wasn't as good, but it won me over. Danny's willingness to pursue a silly idea past the point of common sense ends up achieving something, and his willingness to share elements of his life gives this a reality that fiction would lack. Ultimately rather sweet.
The Week (4 October 2014 / Issue 991)
Brian May's Red Special by Brian May with Simon Bradley (2014)
Fantastically detailed examination and account of Brian May's iconic,  home-made guitar. The thinking that went into it is amazing, as is the fact that it has survived 50 years of rigorous life on the road. The more I learn about Brian May, the more I am impressed. He really is a unique player, and I love listening to him talk too. I would have liked a little more info on the backline - since the sound of an electric guitar is the whole thing, particularly so in May's case, where it's the combination of the guitar, a Rangemaster-style treble booster and AC30s. Nevertheless, a real feast for a guitar geek.
The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
One of my favourite books, although I haven't read it for a while. An astonishingly complete vision of otherness as well as an engrossing thriller. Fantastic.
Star Guitars by Dave Hunter (2010)
A coffee table tome for guitar geeks (hi!) describing 101 famous guitar players and the guitars they are most associated with. Some odd omissions: Jimmy Page's Gibson doubleneck warrants a mention, but not his Les Paul, for example. The book is well but somewhat randomly illustrated - although there's at least one picture of each guitar being described, there are many more of assorted records, sleeves, tickets and posters of the artist, which seem a bit pointless. Still, any guitar porn is good guitar porn as far as I'm concerned.
The Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp & Steven Daly (2005)
Pitch perfect piss take of the elitist, obscurist mentality of the worst kind of rock fan; the one for whom it's not about sharing but competing. Very funny and surprisingly informative. Multiple excerpts available online!
Guitarist (November 2014 / Issue 387)
Comes with a free supplement all about effects. I feel my wallet is in danger again ... might have to try and distract myself with a project to build a treble booster!
The Week (18 October 2014 / Issue 993)
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
I still can't believe this hasn't been made into a film - it seems custom designed for it.
Passion For Speed by Nick Mason & Mark Hales (2010)
A multi-millionaire plays with his toys.
Playing To The Gallery by Simon Hoggart (2002)
Subtitled "Parliamentary sketches from Blair year zero", which all seems a very long time ago now. Very, very funny in places, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, but a warmth and fondness too.
The Week (25 October 2014 / Issue 994)
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton (2012)
Well worth the re-read, in the same way that reference or educational books are - to remind oneself of the principles, ideas and thoughts within. Not just thought-provoking, but an inspiration. (I do wish the paperback edition stretched to better quality reproduction of the various photographs though.)

26/10/2014

Passion For Speed

Twenty-four classic cars that shaped a century of motor sport
Nick Mason & Mark Hales
2010

A multi-millionaire plays with his toys

I thought that Passion For Speed would just be a glossy coffee table book with pretty pictures of Nick Mason's many fabulous cars. And it is - but it's more too. In fact, it's a lot more than that: essentially a detailed track test of each car, arranged in chronological order from a 1901 Panhard B1 to a 2003 Ferrari Enzo.

It could have been rather dull or even just an excuse to get Pink Floyd and/or car enthusiasts to part with their money. However, it's clear Nick Mason is a huge car nut and wants to actually tell us about the cars in detail, and thankfully the book is really interesting. Nick provides an short piece on each car, describing why he bought it and what he's done with it. Mark Hales provides a much longer insight into what each car is like to drive; how it grips, how it steers, its quirks and foibles. Since the cars are discussed in chronological order, you get a real sense of how the technology developed - from the initial, primitive designs (the Panhard, a Bugatti Type 35), through the pinnacle of pre-aerodynamic, pre-big rubber (the classic Ferrari 250 GTO) and up to recent hyper cars like the McLaren F1 GTR.

In between there's a real range, including an astonishing BRM from 1953 which has a power to weight ratio (and resultant acceleration) unmatched until twenty years later, and only then in Formula 1 cars; the iconic Maserati 250F (the "perfect" front-engined F1 machine); a bunch of racing and road Ferraris, and even a early 80s Tyrrell F1 car. My personal favourite is the legendary Porsche 962, a thoroughbred bruiser of a racing car and utterly invincible for decades.

Nick Mason seems to buys cars like the rest of buy clothes - in fact, I'm pretty sure he has more cars than I have socks. It's an admirable collection (the cars, not the socks) which serves to emphasise how incredibly successful Pink Floyd were - although he still manages to get a (good-natured) gripe in about how drummers are lower down the pecking order than singers and guitarists - he had to wait until after Eric Clapton and Jay Kay for his Ferrari Enzo, the poor lamb. But for allowing his cars to be actually run and raced, he deserves full marks.

06/10/2014

Deserter's Songs

Mercury Rev
1998

I remember this album being released. It was well and widely reviewed in the many music publications I read at the time (Q, Select, Vox and Muddly Mucker) but for some reason, although I got as far as purchasing and enjoying the singles "Opus 40" and "Goddess On A Hiway", I never bought the album until this year. I haven't even heard it before.

Still, apparently this hasn't prevented me from forming preconceptions about how it would sound, since my overriding feeling is that it isn't what I was expecting. The track that comes the closest is "The Funny Bird", an epic-sounding roller-coaster with some nicely squalling lead guitar.

Much of the rest is a little fey and wan by comparison. Not that, after several listens, it doesn't have its appeal. "Pick Up If You're There" is a lovely, ethereal instrumental. "Tonite It Shows" steals sweetly and shamelessly (and without credit) from "Hushabye Mountain" (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). "Hudson Line" is cute, mainly remarkable for featuring Garth Hudson himself!

Overall, though, I had expected something with a little more substance. Perhaps, given the well-known connection between Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips, I thought we would get something as well-rounded, powerful and imaginative as Lips albums Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots or At War With The Mystics - although that said, it does seem fair to point out that, if it's hard to slip a cigarette paper between the two bands, Mercury Rev got there first.

03/10/2014

Distortion Of Sound?

The Man prevents altruistic musicians from improving our souls. Or something.

I just watched "The Distortion of Sound", a documentary about the evils of compressed audio. It's interesting and has a star-studded cast, but nevertheless manages to miss several points in a short time.

Firstly: there never has been some golden age when recorded sound was perfectly reproduced or reproducible. Mass dissemination has always required a compromise. They claim that there is a "striking" decline in the quality of sound in the last two decades, but answer me this: do MP3s on your iPod sound worse than a ten-year-old mono transistor radio receiving an AM signal?

Secondly: lossy, audio data compression is not the same as audio dynamic range compression; they are only related inasmuch as audio with less dynamic range can be compressed into smaller files. You could have 24-bit FLAC files that would still sound shitty if they had been mastered with too much compression.

Thirdly, and most importantly: I think there is a difference between music as art, which has a relatively small audience, and music as a consumable item, which has a big audience. The artists interviewed could maybe insist on only the best quality versions of their music being available. They could say "sayonara" to Spotify, "arrivederci" to Apple and "piss off" to Pandora. In doing so they would sacrifice a large part of their audience and their business. Would they do that?

There's no question that the problems highlighted are eminently soluble, now or soon. It's also clear that they won't be until there is a demand. The film essentially claims that most people don't know to ask. I think the better question is whether they would care if they did.

[Asides: David Hepworth makes similar points better than I can. And Greg Milner's book "Perfecting Sound Forever" is a fascinating insight into the history, techniques, technicalities and politics of recorded sound.]