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December 03, 2008

Amazon MP3 store comes to the UK

Follow-up to Amazon MP3 downloads from Autology: John Dale's blog

In September ‘07, I wrote about the US Amazon MP3 store, and noted that it was – for a very short time, as it turned out – available to UK customers.

Now there’s a UK Amazon MP3 store and it looks very promising; millions of tracks, high bit-rate MP3 files with no DRM, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, very reasonable prices, which don’t induce the usual US-UK comparison rage. The new Take That album, for example, is £3, and a random browsing of tracks suggests that a pretty substantial proportion of them come in at 59p, and the majority of the rest at 69p.

Kudos to Amazon: this looks like the best place for UK buyers to shop for legal, unprotected music, beating the iTunes store and other, less high profile competitors such as 7Digital (who are charging £5 for the Take That album, incidentally) by delivering the usual Amazon one-two punch of ease of use (I already have an account there, and my debit and credit cards are already set up ready for me to buy), a huge product range, and competitive pricing.

May 13, 2008

Mac desktop music video

Writing about web page

Cute video using the Mac desktop to illustrate a song (“Again & Again” by The Bird & The Bee):

July 18, 2007

Guitar Heroics

Writing about web page

You know what’s wrong with guitars? They’re not heart-shaped enough, and they don’t have enough necks – mostly one, sometimes two. It’s a relief, then, to find uber-widdler Steve Vai fixing both these problems with this frankly insane guitar solo during a Whitesnake concert in 1990.

December 18, 2006

Keeping the Dream Alive

It’s nearly Christmas, which obviously means that there have been Christmas songs played in shops and pretty much everywhere else for several months now.

Here’s a little snippet of a song I seem to hear more of around Christmas time:-

There are two things which I believed about this song, neither of which are true:-

  1. It’s a Christmas song. It sounds like it should be, with the strings and the twinkly synths and so on. But it doesn’t mention Christmas anywhere in it, and it’s not from a Christmas-specific album.
  2. It’s by Paul McCartney. It sounds uncannily like McCartney circa Pipes of Peace, I think, with a dead-on McCartney vocal-plus-harmonies and those cello-like synths. It’s even muscially like a McCartney composition; famously McCartney’s Beatles songs move up and down the scale much more than Lennon’s, who was apparently a lazy singer, preferring to write songs where the melody stayed rooted around a small range.

So I was wrong twice over. It’s by a German band called Freiheit, and I have no idea whether they intended it to sound as McCartney-and-Christmas-esque as it does. I gather that Macca does the occasional side-project which he releases under a pseudonym; it’d be nice to think that one of his pseudonyms is in fact a completely separate band with its own twenty-five year career. But I suspect not.

November 14, 2006

A nice day for a white… Christmas?

Writing about web page

Billy Idol’s dreaming of a white christmas. Is it just me, or is there something terribly, terribly wrong about this?

October 24, 2006

Jonathan Coulton: A song a week

Writing about web page

This guy is about the most enlightened non-DRM musician I’ve seen, not to mention one of the most prolific: he has a collection of songs called Thing a Week:-

Since September 2005 I have posted a new song every Friday in an effort to keep the creative juices flowing and to prove to myself that I can actually create on a schedule. It’s been a real learning experience – I’m not always happy with the outcome, but I’m learning to let some of the details go, and I’m figuring out how to keep from censoring myself all the time.

He needn’t worry. The songs are by turns catchy, funny, sweet and of the dozen or so I’ve listened to so far, I wouldn’t say there’s even one out and out duffer. And the reason I can tell this is because every single song is freely available for you to listen to, or download, or subscribe to via iTunes. If you like them you can pay for them, and the MP3 file you’d get would be completely free of DRM. But if you subscribe to the podcast, you get the songs for free anyway, and then you can just donate however little or much you think a new song a week is worth to you.

Recommended examples:

  • Tom Cruise Crazy
  • Drinking with You
  • Flickr

I take my hat off to him: a new song a week for a few weeks is one thing, but every week for more than a year? That’s what I call a work ethic. Him and Ze Frank and Richard Herring. I get tired just visiting their sites.

October 06, 2006

Might as well… fiddle?

Writing about web page

Jump was one of Van Halen’s finest hours. But for me, it was always missing some crucial ingredients: Banjos. Fiddles. Accordians. Now, finally, this tragic oversight has been corrected. For your delectation, here’s Jump the way it always should have been; bluegrass style:-

(and yes, that is David Lee Roth. Good sport points all round!)

July 03, 2006

Alphabetical iPod

One side effect of transferring big chunks of your CD collection on to your iPod is that you get to see what your collection would look like if you were the sort of person who alphabeticised meticulously, but with no regard for genre, decade or anything except artist or group name. I find the juxtapositions that this throws up strangely pleasing: for example, when I look at my iPod and select Music » Artists, I find that:–

  • Dido is next to Dion
  • The Scissor Sisters are next to the Seekers
  • Cat Stevens is next to Rachel Stevens who's next to Sufjan Stevens

I don't know why that tickles me really, but it does.

March 08, 2006

Dizzy fingers

Writing about web page

When I was a child learning to play the piano, the two musos I aspired to emulate were Jon Lord, then of Deep Purple, and Rick Wakeman, then (intermittently at least) in Yes. This was the mid seventies, when rock and prog rock giants bestrode the globe like cape–wearing, private jet flying colossi (is that the plural of colossus?), and faster was very much better.

The phase passed, to the relief of everyone, especially my parents, who with hindsight must have been driven to the point of distraction by a ten year old trying to recreate minimoog solos on an elderly upright piano (though to their credit they never complained). But I retain a nostalgic soft spot for keyboard wizards so I was pleased to discover this clip of Rick Wakeman on YouTube. The music itself is nothing to write home about but his technique is still, to me at least, just dazzling. I've never seen anyone else play that fast with such great accuracy. I still play a little myself but I've decided that less – quite a lot less, in fact – for me will have to be more.

January 05, 2006

3tunes: Happy sad songs

Song writers who don't want to leave their listeners in any doubt about their songs stick with the rule of thumb that sad songs should be slower and in a minor key, whereas happy songs should be faster and in a major key. That way there's no confusion; the song sounds sad and indeed it is sad; what could be clearer? But a few brave souls flout convention and cloak their misery and angst in songs which for all the world sound as happy as a 1950's TV family. Here's three such:-

  • Cat Stevens, Here comes my baby. This one just sets out to fool you every way it can. Even the title seems like it's going to be cheerful, right? Here comes my baby, maybe we're going out for a pizza and a movie later, life is good. And the music seems to confirm this; a twinkling glockenspiel, a rolling, bouncy piano line. This song, surely, is about the joys of being in love. Except it's not. When we get to the chorus, we find that what Cat's actually observing is that yes, here comes his baby, but unfortunately, she's with another guy. And as if that weren't sad enough, it seems that this comes as no surprise to Cat. Low self-esteem, I guess. (Although it's also possible that this song's narrator is not in fact a jilted boyfriend but a stalker who chooses to believe that this woman should be his even though they've never exchanged two words. In which case it moves from "Happy Sad Songs" to "Happy Creepy Songs".) The song found its perfect visual representation on Scrubs, when JD, who's recently dumped Elliot, watches miserably as she strides joyfully through the hospital corridors with her new boyfriend. And since she's lit and photographed even more stunningly than usual, we feel his pain.

  • Fleetwood Mac, I don't wanna know. Actually I could have picked just about any song from Rumors since they're pretty much all sunny 70s pop made by a group who famously at the time were sleeping with each other, marrying each other and divorcing each other, sometimes simultaneously. Second-hand news is equally sunny sounding, while Never going back again pulls off the difficult trick of being about the misery of failed relationships while sounding for all the world like a particularly catchy new theme for Watch with Mother. (Apologies if you're under 40 and this means nothing to you.) But I chose IDWK because over and above all the pop harmonies, the guitars and the rest, somebody (and I suspect uber-producer Lindsey Buckingham) felt that the song still wasn't quite conveying the misery that comes of never finding love sufficiently, and decides that the way to ice the cake, misery-wise, is to add just a few extra hand-claps in one speaker (eg. 0:55). Every time I hear it it makes me smile. Nothing says angst more than hand-claps.

  • Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere. Not all angsty songs have to be about me and my baby. In concert, Byrne often introduces this song by explaining that "the Republican Party asked me to write a campaign song for them; I hope they like it." In interviews, he's described it as a "cheery, upbeat number about the coming apocalypse". And although his lyrics are sufficiently elliptical for the listener to read most anything they want into them, that rings true to me.

If only there were more sad songs that sounded ridiculously happy, life would be good. And yet bad.

October 06, 2005

Mercedes–Benz mixtape

Writing about web page

For a while now, Mercedes-Benz have been making "mixtapes" available for free download. They're a collection of a dozen or so tracks which you can either listen to online at their web site, or download as a ZIP file to play on your own PC or iPod or whatever. The latest volume, number 9, has just been released and it's eclectic and fun – well worth a listen, especially since the download is completely free, completely unencumbered by any sort of dumb DRM and requires no sort of registration or otherwise handing over any personal data to MB.

It's a shame that they don't keep the earlier volumes around once they release the latest one; I only started collecting them at around volume 6 or so, so there's a fair few tracks I've missed. And it turns out that I only actually like about a third of the tracks in each collection. Nevertheless, it's still a cool and slightly unexpected thing for MB to be doing. They even provide a stylish PDF for a CD jewel case cover if that's how you want to use the files.

August 31, 2005

Filler–free albums

Way back when, I wrote about albums where every song is great and there isn't a single bad track on the whole disc.

The same topic has popped up over at Plastic, with rather more suggestions than my original entry generated. Someone went through and tallied up all the votes and the top ten were:-

  • Radiohead — OK Computer
  • Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
  • Radiohead — Kid A
  • The Beatles — Abbey Road
  • Pink Floyd — The Dark Side of the Moon
  • The Clash — London Calling
  • U2 Achtung Baby
  • John Coltrane — A Love Supreme
  • My Bloody Valentine — Loveless
  • The Beach Boys — Pet Sounds

The complete list of voted-for albums is well worth a look, though, because once you get out of the top ten things get much less predictable.

September 01, 2004

3tunes: Country titles

Country songs famously have grimace-inducing titles but many of them are either deliberate comedy songs, or entirely made up. These are three real titles from CDs you can actually buy:-

  • Cleopatra (Queen of Denial), Pam Tillis
  • Did I shave my legs for this?, Deanna Carter
  • (No use crying over) spilled perfume, Pam Tillis

August 04, 2004

Shatner & Cocker: Together at last!

Writing about web page

William Shatner has covered Pulp's Common People*. The result is just awesome. For a 73 year old he's retained an admirable sense of irony and the ridiculous, and later in the song, he also demonstrates an impressive set of lungs. I hope I'm that cool in my seventies.

* Quicktime required to listen.

July 27, 2004

This month's best song title

I wish I had an evil twin

… from Magnetic Fields, I. And if you suspect that the words "doing people in" might also feature in the lyric, then you obviously know Stephin Merritt's work already. In my iTunes collection from tomorrow.

July 16, 2004

CD Baby

Writing about web page

CD Baby is an excellent online store selling CDs by independent musicians. There are several reasons to recommend it; the selection is interesting and eclectic, they write knowledgeably about the CDs they sell, and they include 2 minute previews of most songs on most CDs that they sell. But what's particularly charming about them is the fact they are a small team (they even list all their employees; hard to see Amazon doing that) and the style of their web site is just incredibly welcoming and informal, with a real human voice to it. When a CD is sent out to you, you get the following email:-

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as 'Customer of the Year'. We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!"

And if you buy from them more than once, they put a free CD in with your second order, selected by a human being, based on the orders you've placed with them. Something they think you'll like. This is, I think, both (a) absolutely genuine, and (b) a customer experience that's just second to none. I wish everyone I shopped with was like this.

June 25, 2004

3tunes: No filler

One of the predicted consequences of iTunes and MP3 players generally is the demise of the album. Most albums, so the thinking goes, have some good tracks, some middling, and one or two pure filler. Why would anyone buy the whole thing, filler and all, if they could cherry-pick just the tracks they like?

An interesting associated question is, when you rip CDs into iTunes (or whatever), do you generally take all the tracks, or just selected tracks? If the latter, maybe the album doom-sayers have a point.

So I had a look through my iTunes collection. Turns out I have exactly one complete album on there - Paul Simon, Graceland. Thinking about it, that's plausible; for me, it's an album without a single bad (or even middling) track on it. But I can't think of any other albums I feel the same way about. Are there other albums where every track is a gem?

June 14, 2004

3tunes: Funny ha–ha

There's no shortage of songs which are funny peculiar, or even funny just-so-bad – but songs which set out to amuse and succeed at it are rare. Perhaps it's just that by its nature, humour doesn't stand up to repetition, or maybe it's too subtle, too different from person to person, and that makes it too risky to attempt – so much easier to write, for only the millionth time, about how much you want/miss/hate your baby. But just occasionally, someone pulls it off. Here's three:-

  • Paul Simon, Pigs, Sheep & wolves Very hard to do that semi-spoken, semi-sung style and to make your narration style sufficiently whimsical and apparently off-the-cuff. But here it really works.
  • Dar Williams, I won't be your Yoko Ono Listen to this and then tell me: is Dar Williams a fan of Yoko Ono or not?
  • David Byrne, Tiny Apocalypse Wildly off-the-cuff, bizarre verses (but cleverly undercut by the narrator's admission that he doesn't know how to rhyme) and then sonorous, harmonious choruses made up of public service announcements and instructions. Has the line "Good for a limited time" ever been used better in a song?

All songs in my iTunes collection as usual. Who else does songs that can make you laugh?

June 10, 2004

3tunes: Summer songs

I wanted to do a CD review. But (a) the Amazon link-up for CDs isn't ready yet, and (b) who buys (or listens to) a whole CD any more? I've got maybe 1,000 or so songs in iTunes and on my iPod, but not a single album in its entirity. Plus reviewing 10 or so songs all at once seems like hard work. So instead I thought I'd devise a theme and then pick out 3 songs from iTunes that fit the theme and write about those. Easier, quicker, more fun.

So, first theme: Summer songs:-

  • Kate Bush, Eat the Music Kate goes calypso, and manages to make the idea of five fruit portions a day seem strangely appealing.

  • Hothouse Flowers, Don't Go If you could distil happiness and convert it to music this is what you'd get. The words just tumble out – fresh-cut grass, soft sandy beaches, sun sparkling on the undersides of the bridges, and more. It's like a thesaurus of summer.

  • ELO, Mr Blue Sky This song is around a bit at the moment. It's in a US advert for the Beetle, and on the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Terminally unfashionable, and frankly, a man who rhymes with the aid of a dictionary, and not a big one. But they don't come much more strings-choir-guitars-piano-48tracks-all-used full-on pop song than this. How come Abba became retro-cool, but ELO didn't? Time for rehabilitation?

iTunes users in e-lab can find any of these tunes in my shared music collection if you want to give them a spin. Sadly iTunes sharing only works across small sub-sections of Warwick's network, not the whole campus, which is a pity – if it did, there'd be more music than anyone could possibly need just waiting to be explored. Ah well.

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