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In Praise Of

In Praise Of: Double Albums

Ah, the double album. Bastion of the ambitious artist or group. What purpose does a double album serve? Just a chance to include more material – a sign of the artist’s burgeoning creativity? A chance to make two statements in one package – two related but separate journeys?

There are probably as many examples of ‘failed’ double albums as there are of successful ones. Fraught with the possibilities of over-indulgence and bloating, they are a risky proposition; how often does a double album contain enough material for a superb single album but dilutes it with unnecessary filler? Is the double album sometimes the sign of an artist whose success has elevated them beyond the point where a producer/manager could get away with judiciously editing down to a single disc?

However, what can we do but reward ambition when it pays off? Here are a few memorable double albums from my collection, with their different approaches to the form:

The Beatles – The White Album 

This seems to roughly divide between chock-a-block pop marvels on the first disc (which would stand as my favourite Beatles album) and a more experimental / odd-and-ends second.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

A nicely balanced double album which actually feels like two separate albums – it certainly has enough quality material to have justified separate releases. I feel the first disc is slightly more serious, even dour, with the epic In My Time Of Dying as its centrepiece and the crushing Kashmir to finish. The second disc is a little more lighthearted, with the balance shifted slightly more towards the previously-unreleased tracks from the Houses Of The Holy sessions, as opposed to brand new material.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven

With four tracks at 22, 22, 23 and 18 minutes long respectively, this obviously had to be divided into two discs – each a manageable length, although it’s pretty clear that this is meant to be listened to in one, so it’s basically an 85-minute album. The natural quiet-loud-quiet ebb and flow of Godspeed…’s music makes this a manageable experience, if one hell of a voyage.

The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Evidence of the most creatively prolific phase of Billy Corgan (and the rest of the band)’s career. This is monstrously long, varied and ambitious but pleasingly divided into two vaguely stylistically themed halves – Dawn To Dusk (moderately more immediate – the daytime half) and Twilight To Starlight (more ephemeral – the nighttime half) which are great on their own, so it isn’t necessary to devote a single two-and-a-half-hour sitting to get through both discs.

Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

OK, so this is actually two separate albums but released at the same time, in the same package. The story goes that Weird Era Cont. was meant to be a surprise bonus disc included with Microcastle but lead singer Bradford Cox accidentally leaked the whole thing months before it was due to come out (it was actually his fault as he mistakenly included a link to his entire Mediafire account when trying to digitally release a single!). Deerhunter were at a pretty experimental phase anyway, but Weird Era Cont. is the more experimental and disjointed of the two discs, betraying its original intention as a bonus disc.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Basically two reasonably short albums packaged together – it probably could have just about been trimmed down to fit on one disc but that would have been one hell of an overload to listen to all in one, so it does make sense to split it up. Just flip a coin to decide which half to listen to!

This is obviously but a small selection of the form (NB – I’m deliberately not including compilations). What are your favourite double albums?

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In Praise Of: Anything But 4/4

Along with ‘why do major chords sound nice?’, I’d be interested to know what has led to 4/4, or ‘common time’, being far and away the most prevalent time signature in music. It’s so ubiquitous that I’d be willing to bet there are people who go through their entire lives without encountering a piece of music with a different metre. Is it something to do with the body’s rhythm – left foot, right foot, repeat? Nature or nurture? (Also, what about two-time? Too short a repeating unit, beyond marching music?) Common time is certainly the easiest time signature to dance to. And I’m not here to knock it – like everyone else, I listen to, and enjoy, a multitude of music in 4/4.

However, I do love it when artists stretch out and explore different time signatures. There hasn’t been a huge amount of it in popular music in recent years – at some stage, and for some reason, it seemed to become ‘uncool’ for musicians to display actual genuine musical ability, being pejoratively labeled “too clever” or “show offs” if they dared to. (This sentiment could also be applied to instrumental solos – although I might be alone in lamenting the death of the stirring guitar solo that once lit up the latter half of many a rock anthem.) We have become so accustomed to 4/4 (or perhaps it just comes so naturally to us?) that that part of a song’s structure is registered subconsciously and just ticks along unnoticed. This is what makes a different time signature so refreshing – suddenly the brain is engaged and can delight in grasping the new structure, like solving a puzzle; recognizing patterns and finding the groove. On top of that, the rhythms, melodies and phrases can sound more elegant, rather than stretched or squashed, as required, to fit the 4-beat straitjacket. 7/8, for example, reaches the next bar slightly quicker than expected, giving the song additional momentum, whereas 5/4 might stretch out a phrase, allowing it to linger. 3/4 , probably the alternative time signature of which people are most familiar, forces a completely different ‘stepping’ pattern – the waltz – and 6/8 gives delicious combinations of threes and twos, triplets and duplets. And that’s before getting on to 11s, 13s and 15s!

To celebrate the uncommon time signature, I plan on showcasing excellent tracks in as many different time signatures as I can find in my collection / on YouTube. Stay tuned!

In Praise Of: The Album

If you Google “death of the album”, you will find a plethora of articles detailing the demise of the album as we know it – albums sales are down, they say: no-one bothers with them any more – Napster then iTunes (etc.) brought an end to that. Who would buy an album when they can sample all the songs first then cherry pick the best ones – cutting out the ‘filler’, at a fraction of the cost of the whole album (or, for free, if illegal file-sharing is included)? Perhaps they are right, but from where I’m sitting, I see many, many albums released each year to be lapped up – read about, bought, listened to, discussed, listed, argued over – by an enthusiastic population of music fans, on websites such as Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, to name but a couple. Will this show up in the statistics? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps your average music-buying citizen has moved from perusing the Top 40 Albums in HMV to scrolling through What’s Hot on iTunes, leading to a decrease in the number of albums sold by ‘Top 40’ artists. However, there must still be a sizeable minority who buy albums – physical or digital copies – otherwise who is doing all the reading, writing, listing, discussing etc. that I mentioned earlier? Browsing through each week’s releases on the excellent www.normanrecords.com shows, at a rough guess, about 30-40 albums released each week (and that’s just the ones they stock – they know their patrons well). That’s an awful lot of albums, so could it be the case that the total number of albums purchased has actually remained pretty constant, just spread over a larger number of releases?* In which case, is the album still in relatively rude health?

I certainly hope so; I would be very sad to see the end of the album as a format. When it is done well, being able to lose yourself in that artist or band’s singular vision for an hour (give or take) can be wonderful; the tracks that might be dismissed as ‘filler’ when sampled individually add up to a whole so much greater than its parts. In fact in many excellent albums it is difficult to pick out any standalone highlights – the experience as a whole is the highlight.

* Of course, this does mean that any given album is selling fewer copies, which is a problem for people trying to make money from the process. Certainly it is becoming clear that to expect to make a living from making music is ambitious, at best. Some bands/artists may manage it, often by supplementing hard-copy sales with live revenues, but others may have to regard their music-making as a hobby that they do primarily for the enjoyment it provides them.

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