Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Smell Of Five

If you want to enjoy British TV, there are a few easy-to-follow rules. The BBC generally does Drama and Sport well. Channel 4 can do sitcoms, ITV most definitely cannot. And, most importantly, anything, but anything associated with Five is utter, utter rubbish.

Honestly. Pick a day. Family Affairs, a soap that seems to soak up all actors fired from other soaps. Documentaries about serial killers, sharks and nazis (I know it's a cliche to say it, but they still bloody do it, look in the guides if you don't believe me), "the top ten best helicopters ever", "the speediest motorway in the world", "stories of people pronounced dead by mistake" - I'm really not making this up, all those were shown last week.

Do you think you could watch "five", as it likes to call itself? Well, do you like your films peppered with patronising news bulletins? Can you stand the sight of people like Matthew Wright, Russell Grant or Donal MacIntyre? Do you like the sound of cheap knock-offs of Channel 4's lower-brow shows ("House Doctor", "House Busters", "20 Quickest Ways To Lose Money On Your Property" - Phil and Kirstie really ought to sue)? Do you enjoy the European Football the other channels didn't want, ineptly reported? Do you feels challenged by quiz shows with all questions the level of the £100 question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Of course you don't.

This week, they produced their first attempt at original comedy - Swinging, a show about sex and relationships. And blow me if it wasn't brilliant. Clever scripts, impeccable acting from a talented cast, more laughs than any sketch show in recent memory. No, only joking, it was bloody awful. What was worse, to publicise the thing, they did one of those cheap, easy list shows that channel 4 trots out every week - Greatest TV Comedy Moments. And they couldn't even get that right. Mediocre comedy moments - the Talking Moose from Fawlty Towers (remember that bit? No, me neither), Tommy Cooper telling a bad joke (yes he was brilliant, but he did much much funnier things), Keeping Up Appearances for the love of God. And the talking heads - the neighbour from Gimme Gimme Gimme! Someone who was in I'm Alan Partridge for thirty seconds! Russell Sodding Grant!

ITV produces great shows once in a while. Even Sky One has The Simpsons. Next week, Five shows us "The World's Worst Celebrity Drivers". Doesn't that just scream quality to you? And it's on Every. Single. Day. Look, no-one succeeds making lowest-common-denominator TV. People like being challenged. Five doesn't do well in the ratings (last month it had just six percent of viewers) and it's most popular shows by far are complex, intelligent imported shows like CSI and House. Either the programme makers at Five aren't listening, or they're inept.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Music News Round-Up

So, Antony And The Johnsons then. Odd choice for the prize, but certainly the act who seemed to be generating the most buzz on the night (remember, the judges see everyone perform at the Mercury Awards show and only then do they retire to consider their verdict, so they're not at all immune to "buzz"). Still, his performance was absolutely spellbinding, and if his win makes people like me take a chance on a what sounds like a pretty left-field album (and the shelves in my local record shop were indeed empty today), then this must be a good thing.

Hear the new Elbow album, Leaders Of The Free World, at NME.com. God, it's good.

Chris Martin is reportedly very upset at the American reviews of X&Y. Bless. They seem to be a far more balanced view than the knee-jerk praise lavished by the British press ("They're great, aren't they? Aren't they? No they are, aren't they?"). Chris, you need to be more thick- skinned. Like your child Apple needs to be when she goes to school.

Isn't the new Franz Ferdinand single great? Just a fun, smart pop song, as if they'd decided that they really ought to be more like the Scissor Sisters. Hope you like their new direction.

Michael Jackson has announced that he has written a song that he wants his fellow superstars to record with him as a charity record for the victims of Hurricaine Katrina. His fellow superstars are so far conspicously not flocking to his side. It's called "From The Bottom Of My Heart", and might as well be called "No, I really Am Sincere, Law-Abiding And Caring, Please Love Me Again".

And Finally, fans of music would do well to listen to The Blagger's Guide, an hilarious yet sincere history of music. Presented by the fantastic David Quantick, it explains happily why Nirvana are so wonderful, what Britpop really meant and why Sting is the most evil person in the world.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Who Deserves The Mercury Music Prize? (part 1)

On Tuesday evening, the Mercury Music Prize will be handed out to whovever the panel of judges have decided has made the best contribution to British Music this year. And while they have made some horrendous mistakes in the past (M People, for crying out loud), at the very least their shortlist gives some otherwise unknown artists a leg up. Whoever wins on Tuesday, The Distractor, as per usual, thinks it knows better. While we can't report on the likes of Seth Lakeman or Polar Bear, here are some thoughts on a few of the main contenders, in reverse order of preference.

Coldplay's X&Y (Parlophone) feels like the obligatory big name group candidate. Yes it's good, but it's certainly not the masterpiece it was proclaimed by some to be. It starts brilliantly with Square One - brooding, pulsing, slightly odd - and tracks like Talk, Speed of Sound and The Hardest Part are big, widescreen anthems that you come to love despite yourself. But too much of the album descends into wet lettuce territory - you know my thoughts on Fix You, and A Message and not-very-well-hidden track Kingdom Come approach it for nasty, cynical sickliness.

The Magic Numbers (Heavenly) make a wonderful sound, but the album does feel like it's just a place to park their singles. Forever Lost and Love Me Like You are great summery pop songs that actually go somewhere, almost turning into different songs by the end. One or two other tracks approach them, but many are countrified dirges, especially toward the end of the record. Still, the lovely harmonies sparkle in otherwise unremarkable songs, and those whose taste encompasses the twee end of the Country market may find a lot to love.

The Kaiser Chiefs' Employment (B-Unique) I love to bits, mainly because it's Britpop, and I do love my Britpop. Again, the singles are fantastic, and songs like Modern Way are almost as good. Na Na Na Na Naa and Saturday Night are basically Supergrass at their poppiest, no bad thing. But there is the nagging suspicion that a good many of the tracks are a bit ordinary - great on first listen but quickly becoming dull, irritating even. And their attempt at a This Is A Low-style anthem, Caroline Yes, is just laughable. There's nothing wrong with disposable pop, but an album full of it ain't a classic.

Hard-Fi's Stars Of CCTV (Necessary) approaches greatness. It's difficult to fault the first six tracks or so - big, throbbing, celebratory anthems about boredom, victimisation and having nothing to do on a Saturday night in a faceless commuter-belt new town. And they sound fantastic - Hard To Beat in particular has a great Northern Soul vibe, and on Gotta Reason the drums and bass lock into an irresistable pounding groove. It sags a bit in the middle, but Living For The Weekend and the title track end proceedings on a high. A bit like The Jam when they remembered to temper their social comment with great pop.

The Go! Team's Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Memphis Industries) is the one that, in my opinion, should clinch it. I loved it on first listen and still do. It sounds like almost nothing else - a bit Avalanches, a bit Manitoba, but mostly like a big, barking pile-up of groovy samples, girly shouting and thumping beats. Junior Kickstart is one of those I-can't-believe-it-wasn't-massive tracks, all grin-inducing parping horns and clattering drums. Bottle Rocket is just bonkers (and worryingly, the re-recorded version for their major label re-release seems a little tamer - I'd get the original album while you can). And the more reflective Everyone's A VIP To Someone closes the show with, of all things, a banjo. Fiercely original, sure to be huge if enough people hear it, it's The Go! Team who will benefit most from the Prize and attendant publicity.

Then again, the Prize has been as much curse as blessing in the past. Maybe Coldplay should get it after all.

Friday, September 02, 2005

How The Internet Saved Music

A few short years ago, the music industry was in severe danger of eating itself. The supermarkets started selling music cheaply to the masses. But they could only afford to sell cheaply those CDs they could be certain would sell: those that are already popular. So that's all the masses bought. Commercial radio stations, desperate to appeal to the masses, only played the popular stuff. So that's all the masses heard. And to make things worse, less people bought records in small but well-stocked independent record shops, so they had to close down. It was almost as though you could only get CDs in big shops with a small range. In some small towns, it was very much like that. Only the big names (or those so offensively bland they appealed to the average supermarket shopper) did well.

Now, the music industry seems to be in a much healthier state. Daytime radio sounds more diverse than ever. So what has saved the day? Well, it's partly Radio 1's relatively daring new music policy. It's partly because the success of people like Coldplay opened the doors for Indie music again. But it's mostly down to the internet, and the downloading revolution.

For those of us that love to hear new music, it's incredibly heartening to learn that there is an awful lot of great music out there. Mp3 blogs are a good place to start looking for it. There's nothing like word of mouth, and these sites basically rave about music they've heard and love. Then they post that song so you can download it (strictly for sampling purposes only). I tend to think of these sites as being like magazine cover-mounted CDs. Downloading from them certainly hasn't slowed down my rate of purchasing records (more's the pity), and without them I'd never have heard of, or bought albums by, such delights as The Arcade Fire, Annie, MIA, Clor, Spoon, The Rakes, Imogen Heap or The Shins.

So I would suggest browsing several Mp3 blogs until you find some that suit your taste. They often link to each other, so you can spend all day skipping between them. The Daddy is Fluxblog - not only great for new music, but also for obscure tracks and remixes. Take Your Medicine has a pleasing Indie slant. Teaching The Indie Kids To Dance Again is always an entertaining read. And for advanced users, The Hype Machine aggregates the day's Mp3 postings, and even plays them to you via Windows Media.

And then, once you find you love that track, you can download it from the huge repository of songs that is the legal download site. Sure, there's your itunes and your MyCokeMusic. BigNoiseMusic lets you download and even donates to Oxfam when you do it. KarmaDownload has all the independent music you could ever wish for, and even some unsigned stuff. Alternatively, buy your music on that revolutionary format you can keep forever, the CD. Amazon has a hugely impressive stock of obscurities (they pass the Dukes of Stratospear test). Or better still, search out your local independent music store, and buy it from them. As far as I'm concerned, you still can't beat the feeling you get when you walk out of a record shop with a freshly bought CD in your hot sweaty little hands.

When I was a teenager, my musical epiphany came when I realised that just because a song isn't popular, that doesn't mean it isn't good. It's rare that you love music on first hearing, it needs to grow on you. Some music just hasn't been heard by enough people enough times for them to love it. And some music is special precisely because no-one else has discovered it yet. That music lurks on Mp3 blogs, in the catalogues of download sites, and in the dusty racks of small record shops. Go get it.