Just before Thanksgiving, I found myself having an email conversation around an interesting Harvard Business School post regarding Spanish uber-chef Ferran Adrià and his world-renowned restaurant elBulli. The conversation started with this quote from the article:
“Adrià says he doesn’t listen to customers, yet his customers are some
of the most satisfied in the world. That’s an interesting riddle to
One of the conversation’s participants, Phil, then noted that
“All indications point to Apple/Steve Jobs using the same strategy. El Bulli isn’t at all a mass market success, but the other is. Interesting indeed.”
Gastronomy and my favourite computers, together at last? That really got me going…
A quirk of my music consumption habits is that I’m tied to eMusic’s sometimes-spotty label coverage. See, eMusic is basically awesome – a low, flat rate per month for 90 tracks’-worth of DRM-free mp3s.
The problem comes when something good is released, but doesn’t find its way onto eMusic. Then I have a dilemma – do I wait and see if it turns up later (which it often does, 2-3 months after release), or do I turn to an alternative option – buying the album on iTunes (frequently DRM-plagued) or Amazon (no DRM, just the stinging guilt of disloyalty to my girlfriend…), or getting the CD (no DRM, less guilt, more physical objects cluttering up my apartment…)
The upshot is often that I’ll dither for quite a while after a record comes out before shelling out cash for it, which means I’m sometimes hopelessly out of date on key releases.
So it is with Fleet Foxes, whose album I finally got around to buying in November, some 5 months after its actual release. I don’t feel completely left out on this one – I saw them play a fantastic show at SXSW in March, so I knew what some of the fuss was about. But still, 5 months is a long time to wait to properly listen to what is, in my opinion, the best album of the year.
Let’s get the cringe-worthy crap out of the way first. Beach Boys, Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, blah blah blah.
What’s fantastic about the Fleet Foxes’ first album (called, originally, “Fleet Foxes”) is that, yes, it reminds you of lots of acts. But really, it isn’t like any of them. Actually achieving this these days is a surprisingly difficult feat to pull off – just ask Coldplay (“here’s our Radiohead song; here’s our U2 song; here’s our Eno song…”).
The Beach Boys references seem to come from the solidly surf-style guitar underpinning many of the more energetic songs, whilst the more ‘folksy’ comparisons are obviously picked up from the combination of soft acoustic guitar and shameless harmonising.
You can keep comparing – at their crescendo (on, say, “Heard Them Stirring”) the choir-like harmonisations sound more like the most triumphal moments of Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinoise”. Or maybe the Polyphonic Spree, minus-tiresome-cult-overtones. The record is also awash with reminiscences (deep bass, those surf guitars) of the Crystal Skulls, which is unsurprising given Christian Wargo’s appearance.
(Side Note: searching for the Crystal Skulls on Youtube is painful, thanks to a glut of Indiana-Jones-related nonsense, still, here’s a live performance:
I could bang on and on and on about the Fleet Foxes record – it’s a rare thing in being an album which never really lets up, deeply satisfying little hooks and turns falling from it throughout its length. Rare is the day, these days, when I actually listen to an album without skipping at least 1 track.
And, in keeping with the season, it offers up an unmistakably wintery/Christmassy song which is (oh rare and precious thing) actually not completely annoying:
2 videos happened across my desktop today, in close proximity to one another, and gave me a moment’s pause for thought.
They shared some elements of their visual language, but what was most striking was the stylistic similarity to “What Barry Says”, a pretty bleak critique of US militarism from 2003:
Now, I was always a bit suspicious of old Barry – while some of his points hit home, the entire thing was cloaked in the sort of overblown language (“War Corporatism”?) which you usually hear peddled by the Trots who sell the Socialist Worker around London. Without the stunning visuals accompanying it, his narrative just comes across as a directionless paranoid rant.
Nevertheless, the overall effect is reasonably stirring. For my money, though, today’s 2 videos were far more effective
First up, we have “Iran: A Nation of Bloggers”, a succinct and moving summary of young Iranians’ embrace of blogging as a way to protest the wrong direction many of them see their own country taking:
And then we have a speech by Harvey Milk (who’s obviously in the news again right now), set to modern visuals and a bit of mildly stirring music:
It’s almost become trite, in the wake of Obama’s presidential campaign, to talk about “hope” and “change” – but to me the contrast between 2003′s paranoid rant and 2008′s uplifting hopefulness really hit home. All the more because, despite the phenomenal victory of our President-Elect a month ago, the economic outlook is crushingly bleak; even as Obama won, bigotry claimed a victory in California; people are scared, confused and uncertain.
And yet hopeful. If everything else is washed away, it seems we still have that.
Horns. If there’s one thing that sums Beirut up for me, it’s horns.
They’re never far from the surface of the band’s songs, often taking on central roles in the way a guitar might elsewhere, and the effect is beautiful. It’s a refuge from the standard guitar-bass-drums-vocals formula which makes up a large portion of modern Rock.
I have a particular fondness for horns in popular music, which I can trace back to the protracted Britpop period. For many people, Britpop might be most memorable as a Tabloid-newspaper-fueled “feud” between Oasis and Blur (with Jarvis Cocker standing bemusedly off to one side muttering about underwear), but to me there was a much easier, and more rewarding way to establish the ebb and flow of the movement – horns. Namely, the Kick Horns. Whenever I bought a new CD, I’d scan the liner notes for evidence of the Kick Horns’ presence. You could claim to be “Britpop” without them, but it all rang a bit hollow.
The thing about the Kick Horns, interesting as their ubiquity was, their contribution was generally to add an upbeat, triumphal air to Britain’s poppy opuses. Or opii. Or whatever the correct plural is. Horns these days though, they’ve moved on a bit. Rather than being the shiny detailing on a song which is underpinned by something else, they’ve moved a little more into the fore, and broadened their range – from Jazz stylings to Mariachi leanings to Marching Band pomp.
And yet, important as the horns are to Beirut, it’s actually deeply unfair of me to focus on them. Beirut’s music is made of a far more complex interplay of elements. Accordion; trombone; violin; Jack Condon’s distinctive voice; wheely bins.
Um, well, at least, there’s wheely bins in this fantastic version of Nantes, recorded in the streets of Paris:
I’ve been threatening to do this for a while, in response to Mr Wistow’s excellent “Nineties Music Monday” posts, and now seems as good a time as any.
Since Simon is firmly stuck in the music of an increasingly distant decade, the premise here is simple: to highlight interesting artists and tracks which are, ahem, somewhat more recent. Using the same meandering-narrative-spliced-with-Youtube format which has served him so well.
How recent is “more recent”? I’m starting with a “last 5 years” rule-of-thumb, hopefully with a heavier emphasis on new(ish) releases, as and when I get my hands on them.
We’re kicking off somewhere completely arbitraty, mainly because this song happens to be the current one which I can’t skip past if I see it skit by on the iPhone.
By November 4th, I suspect that a lot of people in America are going to be heartily sick of hearing about voter fraud.
Over the past week, the spectre of widespread voter fraud has been relentlessly pursued by various factions, most of them aligned on the Republican side of the bitterly divided 2-horse American political system.
So, do we really need UN Election monitors at the polls? Will this election be decided by shadowy “leftist” groups who manage to nefariously concoct millions of fake ballots nationwide?
For anyone who wants to see them, I’ve finally managed to upload the slides from my SXSWi talk “Taking over the World: the Flickr way”, a broad-sweep view of some of the issues and solutions we encountered whilst taking Flickr from an English-only site to supporting multiple languages.
This year at SXSWi, I was invited to take part in 20×2, an event where 20 people are given 2 minutes each to answer an “open-ended question”. The question this year was “What is the difference?”
I was blown away by the range and quality of the other participants’ answers. This was my humble effort, delivered as a straight-up talk.
The difference, in a word, is passion.
In all our pursuits and endeavours, it is passion which leads to the creation of the genuinely great, or the superlative experience.
Thank about it – who do you most associate with passion; Steve Jobs and his irritatingly exquisite products, painstakingly put together by folks who care about the minutest details or… well… Bill Gates?
I’ve seen the effects of passion in the panels I’ve attended here at South by Southwest. All of the best panels have been hosted by people with a genuine passion for what they’re talking about.
In all honesty, some of them have had so little real content that they’ve actually subtracted from the sum of human knowledge.
But when that nebulous non-content is delivered with infectious passion, it still has value. The raw emotion itself inspires, leading us to new insights and ideas.
One day – one day – I’ll actually find a coherent theme, and a workflow which means that I post here regularly, and it’s interesting, and people are so enthralled that they actually subscribe to the RSS feed.
I’ve started vague plans in that direction which will hopefully coincide with my rapidly-approaching 30th birthday.
But in the meantime, I’ll be at South by Southwest in Austin TX from this Thursday. The interactive portion of the festival will mean actual work for me, schmoozing with people who make me feel tremendously stupid in comparison, and speaking a couple of times.
If you want to see me and my new haircut fumbling their way rustily through public speaking, you can catch me at the following times:
The second event is the one which has me stressing manically over slides, being an hour-long presentation by little ol’ me on exactly how we turned Flickr from an English-only colossus into a globe-spanning 8-language slightly-bigger-colossus.
I promise that, as much as such things can, it’ll be fun.
So I was digging through old files tonight, trying yet again to get to the point where I have one simple, neat hierarchy of the gigabytes of digital crap which I’ve accumulated in the last 10 years. During the process, I stumbled across a little cache of writing exercises which had never seen completion, and in particular, the effort reposted here. I think I sat on it expecting to polish it up at a later date, but (at least) a year after writing, it made me laugh, so what the hell; I guess it was ready after all…
In the vast pantheon of multinational corporations, few are more hell-bent on willfully causing international confusion and consternation than the Hershey’s empire.
Even after two years on the West Coast, as a Brit I am still not 100% sure what lies under any given tastefully-designed candy bar wrapper.
For example, let us take the American staples “Milky Way” and “Three Musketeers”. Both fine blends of sugar, fat and various unnatural syrups for sure. But for me, years of childhood wonder must be suppressed in order to remember that, in fact, what Americans call “Milky Way” is marketed in my homeland as a “Mars Bar”. Meanwhile the American “Three Musketeers” is, in the Land of Tea and Questionable Dentistry, a “Milky Way”.
(A note for the pedantic: “Three Musketeers” is not exactly the same as the British “Milky Way”. The British version has denser nougat, but there’s a definite shared design ethic going on.)
The transposition of these names is particularly, egregiously confusing, but they’re not the only Hershey’s confections to suffer from odd transatlantic translations.