Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sticky Wickets

The seemingly-eternal “is downloading music legal or illegal?” question is really only a few years old, but it will be debated and argued for years to come, by the looks of it. Though the issue as a whole is too vast to address in such a miniscule manner (i.e. anything less than a book, if not a series), there are a couple of initial issues that can be explained relatively quickly:

1. Why bands encourage downloading until they get signed, and then “sell out” and stop encouraging (or actively discouraging) such activities:

When a small band creates an album, they usually put up the money for it themselves; they pay the studio where they record and any relevant people there (producer/engineer), they pay for the duplication of the record and maybe for the design and layout (many times they do this part themselves). Once they have paid for that album, what they choose to do with it is entirely up to them.
This is why smaller bands generally encourage downloading. Once they are signed to a label, though, they are no longer autonomous. This can include lots of benefits, but it also means that they are not free to tell people to share, upload or download anything - they are in a business partnership with a label and it is in the label's best interests to sell albums, not encourage downloading. The bigger the label, the more likely it is that more money is paid out (by the label) for promotion, recording, touring, merchandise, etc. (Whether these contracts are always fair or equally beneficial to the involved parties is irrelevant - once the parties mutually agree to a contract they are bound to uphold it unless and until the contract ends or a dissolution of the contract is sought.) And thus it becomes more important for copies of the album to be sold – for the benefit of the label, the band, and their continued business partnership.

The fact of the matter is, nobody truly “owns” the music. What they own is the right to distribute the music AS THEY SEE FIT. If a band enters a contract with a label, it is expected that they will record and release an album and the label will be able to sell it, when they want, where they want, for the price they want to. There is not total freedom, of course - market forces come into play. If you do not have the means to pay for the way which the band and label have agreed to distribute their musical recordings, though, you have no right to be in possession of it.

Many people decry the current state of record label contracts, a complaint which seems to have some validity. But again, no one is forcing any artist to sign with any record label; that decision may seem unfair, but if they agree to it they are implicitly stating that it is the best possible avenue for them to take at the given time. Seeing as more and more people are aware of this trend, as well as the rise of agents and managers taking interest in smaller bands and alternate (label-free) forms of production and distribution, this argument is less and less relevant as time goes on.

2. The argument that downloading is a benefit for all those “too poor” to afford the music:

If you have a computer and a fast internet connection (fast enough to make downloading albums a viable option), you are not too poor. Poor means "I have a hand-me-down Windows '98 computer with a 14.4kbps modem and neither the luxury of money or the time required to invest in that." Poor means “I don’t even have a computer, I can only use one at school or the library.” Maybe you are too poor to purchase every album you would “kinda-sorta” like to, but that does not necessarily mean you are too poor to purchase the albums you really want.

I admit that I've been guilty of downloading beyond my means. What I discovered, though, as I went through my computer and deleted everything that I had not legally obtained, was that I didn't really miss any of it. It was all overflow and junk, flash-in-the-pan songs that were never listened to after the first week. And if I did miss something, I'm willing to analyze how much I want it and if I'm willing to invest in it, and I think the average person can do this as well. If so, purchase it; if not, don't, and forget it. It's not worth thinking about after that. We live in a culture of people that feel that they have the “right” to freely obtain any music they would like. This is an extension of the “right” to have the latest and the greatest fashions, toys, or hobbies. These are not rights, though; they are luxuries, and the difference between the two is distinct, unchangeable, and quickly being forgotten.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Bummer

Why Does Music Suck All of the Sudden?

I hate to admit it, but we’re in a slump. Forget complaints like declining sales, bland radio formats, and the lack of good spirits: I’m scrounging the internets, reading every magazine I can find, taking chances whenever possible (buying random albums, clicking on random links), and struggling to find a breath of fresh air of any type. Promising new artists seem extinct and new releases from established acts have been – almost across the board – disappointing. Every recommendation that comes my way seems mind-boggling; who could rave about the new Mae seriously? Even listeners who are enjoying new releases aren’t touting them as ground-breaking or amazing in any way. At best these albums are acceptable for the time being, but it is doubtful they are destined to become anyone’s favorite album or even end up on any top 10 lists at the end of the year. Whatever happened to the times of blasting Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American” while making a Slurpee run? Listening to “Understand This is a Dream” while ruminating the changes fall will bring to your post-high school relationships? Going on roadtrips where the music was a mix of the latest guilty-pleasure pop songs and Fall Out Boy? Those days seem much further away than they actually are. But fear not, friends, fall is almost upon us, and it looks to fulfill dreams we dared not dream this summer. In the meantime, here's a brief run-down of the latest summer releases:

Cartel, “Cartel”
Among the stronger releases this summer, Cartel still suffer from a severe case of takeourselvestooseriouslyitis. This is evident from the overwrought opener, brief though it may be. “Tonight” really gets the record going, however, and the next few songs are an enjoyable pop-rock set, though the marching-band brilliance of “Wasted” is again dragged down by lyrical missteps. The last few songs seem to have nothing in common with the first, though, and the band struggles through a number of songs before reaching the worst remix ever plastered together. Grade: B

Down to Earth Approach, “Come Back to Me”
One of the summer’s brighter spots, “Come Back to Me” follows almost exactly the same pattern as DTEA’s debut album, “Another Intervention.” And you won’t find me complaining about that. Musically falling between the Get Up Kids and the New Amsterdams (i.e. similar sound but middle-ground intensity), DTEA follow the time-honored tradition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus, but then again so did Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary.” While DTEA pumps out some good tunes, the lyrics lack a certain sing-a-long-a-bility, and are filled with non sequiturs and questionable grammatical choices. Also a bit of a letdown are the two tracks previously released as acoustic songs; their full-band incarnations seem like they’re trying too hard, whereas the acoustic originals were relaxed and easygoing. Grade: B+

Paramore, “RIOT!”
Paramore play to their strengths with their sophomore release, but reveal a striking number of weaknesses as well. Written and performed by mostly high school-aged band members (22-year-old bassist Jeremy Davis being the lone exception), their knack for catchy intros is, unfortunately, not paired with skills at writing the rest of the song. Most songs simply switch back and forth between two themes, never bothering to find a new melody or bridge. All that said, though, the majority of songs won’t drive you crazy, and you’ll probably find yourself humming at least a couple of choruses. Grade: B-

Mae, “Singularity”
What the hell? Mae is the perfect example of a band that has become more popular in an inverse ratio to the quality of their records. Their latest tour finds them supporting Motion City Soundtrack along with Anberlin, and their latest album is a Capitol Records release, engineered by the “great” Howard Benson (P.O.D., Blindside, Daughtry, Hoobastank, Papa Roach, Saosin, Flyleaf). Yet it also is their worst collection of songs yet, marred by uninspired lyrics (“Will you be my rocket?”), unoriginal melodies and poor arrangements. At its best it sounds like Switchfoot, Delirious?, and even Grammatrain at times; at its worst, it sounds like a poor mashup of two indistinguishable pop-emo bands (say, All Time Low and Amber Pacific), but slowed down. They also repeatedly succumb to letting their keyboard player play whenever he damn well pleases. Mae needs to take a cue from Chris Dudley of Underoath: the dude rocks out and, when necessary, has some smooth piano parts, loops, and atmospherics. Mae’s keyboardist Rob Sweitzer doesn’t “rock out” so much as “violently assault the air around him while playing,” which, I’ll grant you, is still entertaining. But worse than that, his musical contributions have now become overbearing and tasteless. The keyboards repeatedly ruin ideas that would be executed much more successfully with just guitars and bass providing the melody. To be honest, “Singularity” feels like a case of “too many Master Chiefs”; while talented musicians, they seem to have not figured out how to turn down any idea that is suggested, to the detriment of many bloated, forgettable songs. Grade: D-

Bright Eyes, “Cassadaga”
Bright Eyes meets Dylan, and everybody sleeps. Excepting “Four Winds,” which is phenomenal, “Cleanse Song” and “No One Would Riot For Less” are the only songs I didn’t find myself skipping through. Those three tracks would make the foundation of an A-grade EP; for the album, C.

Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky”
I just got this album from my brother a couple of days ago, but it is so far pretty damn good. I’ll give an extended review later, but I’ll give it a tentative B+.

The Starting Line, “Direction”
Did you like TSL’s last album, “Based on a True Story”? Then you’re going to love this album. Or maybe not. The thing is, “Direction” is arguably the closest a record has ever come to sounding exactly like the band's previous record. The band and producer proudly use the exact same drum, bass and guitar sounds, and even some of the same riffs (play “21” slowly and you’ve got “Bedroom Talk”). Ironically, then, what it boils down to is which batch of 12 songs the listener prefers. While “Direction” does have some strong moments (“Island,” “Hurry,” “Birds”), on the whole the band appears to be stepping a little too far away from familiar territory, though not erring nearly as egregiously as Mae. Also, expect TSL’s drummer to be replaced within the next year; it's obvious that he has reached the limits of his abilities and imagination. Especially since lead singer Kenny Vasoli has been performing and recording with Aaron Gillespie (all-star drummer of Underoath and the man behind the Almost), you can bet that his rhythmic expectations will continue to increase. Grade: B-

August Burns Red, “Messengers”
“Bone-crushing” is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this album. It’s intense. Almost too intense. And while ABR continue to thrill and excite with their phenomenal rhythm section and fierce vocals, they exhibit shortcomings similar to Paramore's, albeit in a much more terrifying manner. While the guitars have become more technical since their last outing, the band still relies too heavily on metalcore standbys like the jug-juggajugga-jug-jug-juggajuggajugga-jug-jug and the jug-jugjug-jug-jug-jug. You know what I’m talking about. Though they’ve mastered smooth transitions and memorable intros, most songs have interchangeable verses and choruses and run 60-90 seconds too long, each. But who cares? Have you heard their drummer?! Grade: B-

Coming Soon:

Saves the Day, “Under the Boards”
“Stay the Same,” currently streaming on their MySpace, is as intense and catchy as anything on their last release, “Sound the Alarm,” which is fitting, as “Under the Boards” is the second in a trilogy. The live versions of “Get Fucked Up” and “Bye Bye Baby” sound like contenders for Top 5 Songs of the Year lists. Needless to say, anticipation is running feverishly high.

Jimmy Eat World, “Chase This Light”
Having only heard one song in a live setting, I’m withholding judgment and trying not to get my expectations up. But when have Jimmy ever let me down? O.k., true, their post-Futures EP was sub-par, but let’s remember that this is the same band that wrote both “For Me This Is Heaven” and “The Middle,” so you never know what to expect from these guys.

Foo Fighters, “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”
Can you deny first single “The Pretender” rocks? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Returning to the producer that helped make “The Colour and the Shape” such a classic album (Gil Norton, also responsible for the production of Dashboard’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” and Jimmy Eat World’s “Futures”), the Foo give every indication that this will be their best work since at least “There Is Nothing Left to Lose,” if not TCATS itself.

Motion City Soundtrack, “Even if it Kills Me”
MCS have grown on me with each release (I don’t own “I Am the Movie,” and it took me a long time to finally pick up “Commit This To Memory”), and the 3 tracks they’ve released so far are promising. Though not extraordinary, they have a distinct sound and are concise, and there is something to be said for getting rid of the extraneous.

Coheed & Cambria, “Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume II: No World For Tomorrow”
“The Running Free” is more boring than most of Volume I, but it’s also the lead single (and most likely the "most accessible" song on the album); C&C are impossible to predict, so this one will just have to be given the proper full-album treatment upon release.