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Record Spin

The Sue Me, Sue You Blues and “Blurred Lines”

There are a lot of music—what? Not purists, exactly. And not scholars. I guess music…grouches—out there crowing about the recent ruling against Robin Thicke and Pharrell re: “Blurred Lines.” I love Marvin Gaye as much as the next guy and also believe artists should be compensated for their work, but this verdict is nonsense. And the scale of it borders on dangerous.

The core of the case seems to be centered on whether Thicke and Pharrell “stole” Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up” as the foundation for the massively popular “Blurred Lines.” A jury sided with the Gaye estate and awarded them a $7.3 million settlement. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the music industry the last decade-plus but I can tell you making $7 million on any one song is quite a feat. The award basically negates any original contribution Thicke and Pharrell brought to “Blurred Lines.” You can find lots of debate about song structure, melody and scales elsewhere. The important thing to consider is that songwriters now need to document and compensate any and all sources of inspiration or face legal jeopardy.

Now back to those gloating about another upstart “entertainer” (vs. artist) getting what’s coming to him. Consider the number of songs from your favorite (read: legitimate) artists that might not be here if held to the same standard applied to “Blurred Lines.” You can Google how many times Keith Richards has acknowledged nicking riffs from Chuck Berry, and I won’t even get into Led Zeppelin’s long history of “borrowing” from their idols. Just consider two songs from our most beloved band, The Beatles.

If that riff doesn’t sound familiar then you need to go back and listen to “I Feel Fine” again.

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Father John Misty - Honeybear

Has Father John Misty become Roger Clarvin?

Father John Misty - I Love You, HonerybearJosh Tillman aka Father John Misty describes his new album, I Love You, Honeybear, as “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman” and his relationship with his wife. Being the kind of writer he is, he refuses to stoop to sentimental cliché; instead, he engages in mean-spirited honesty and sarcastic self-loathing. To call Father John Misty “sardonic” at this point is itself a cliché.

And yet this is an album of love songs.

“She and I have created a circumstance in which it’s safe to discuss everything, all this intense, deep-down shit,” Tillman told Pitchfork. “But there’s an anxiety because I don’t know if I trust the world with my intimacies. These songs were written about our experience, now it’s time to universalize them.”

This anxiety is not unjustified. At times I Love You, Honeybear veers close to the oversharing territory mined by Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as Roger and Virginia Clarvin. “At this point during the soak, my lover and I usually crave spiced meats.”

One’s bourgeoisie sense of propriety might be offended to hear about the “mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love.” Then again, the reference to Rorschach tests is telling, since Tillman is clearly proud enough of this line to print it on tote bags. What do you see in that line? If you’re skeeved out by it, well maybe these aren’t the love songs for you. If you appreciate the image, there’s plenty like it to follow.

These twisted tales are set against instrumentation far more lush than what we heard on Fear Fun. Almost every song features strings. Whereas a lot of Fear Fun sounded like the White Album, Honeybear sounds more like Mind Games or Walls and Bridges. The heavy-handed arrangements work great on intense songs like “An Ideal Husband” where everything sounds overwhelming and evil. But “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” sounds too much like terrible mid-70s puss-pop/soft rock; the slide guitar tone, the soul sister background vocals, the cloying strings, it’s just too much schmaltz.

“True Affection,” on the other hand, uses synth bloops and programmed beats and sounds out of place. Tillman wrote that song “on tour while trying to woo someone with text message and email and trying to make a connection that way and the frustration of that,” he told Grantland. “So that song had to be synthetic and inorganic.” Interesting concept, sure, but a little too clever for the song’s own good.

But these quibbles don’t diminish the impact of the album as a whole. High points such as “Chateau Lobby #4,” “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” more than make up for the occasional misstep. Producer Jonathan Wilson knows how to get a good performance down on tape, and as Tillman says, he is “truly singing [his] ass off all over this motherfucker.” His voice is incredible throughout.

I like Father John Misty. I feel like I get Tillman’s sense of humor, and I appreciate the high bar he set for himself on this album. “My ambition, aside from making an indulgent, soulful, and epic sound worthy of the subject matter, was to address the sensuality of fear, the terrifying force of love, the unutterable pleasures of true intimacy, and the destruction of emotional and intellectual prisons in my own voice.” Honesty and earnestness obviously do not come easy for him, but he’s trying…in his own Misty way. He’s still a smartass, for sure, but isn’t that the best kind of person to spend your life with?

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Seger System on Turn On

Holy Shit! See the Greatest Rock and Roll Photo Come to Life!

Five years ago we discovered the Greatest Rock and Roll Photo Ever and came up with 101 reasons why it was so great. I’ve stared at that photo for hours since then and dreamed of being at that show, sweating in an off-season ski lodge, sipping sodas with teenagers, rocking out to the System!

Well, video footage from that Mount Holly show still has not surfaced, but we’ve got the next best thing. Footage from the same era (bassist Dan Honaker is even wearing the same shirt!) has been posted to YouTube. Three songs from Barry Richards’ “Turn-On” TV show bring our beloved photo to life. It’s so cool to see young Seger tearing it up. And his band was something else. Drummer Pep Perrine (once again sporting his dog collar!) looks like Iggy Pop. Detroit!

Bob Seger System – “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” (live in 1970)

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Overall album sales

Music Sales Over the Years: 2014 Year-End Soundscan Data

In last year’s wrap up I wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if within a few years Billboard starts incorporating streams into their year-end charts somehow.” In fact, they started doing it in November. Which proves that actual sales of albums are becoming irrelevant as more and more people turn to streaming instead of purchasing.

Personally, I still like physical media. I found a dope old school integrated amplifier for $20 at a garage sale this summer and after some minor repairs it’s powering my main system that I’ve been putting together over the years. I upgraded the cartridge on my turntable and I’ve finally got a setup I’m pretty happy with. I wish new vinyl sounded better, but I’ve been having fine luck in the used bins. It’s a great time to buy used CDs too. Neil Young might be crazy and crotchedly (and Pono was doomed from the start) but he’s right about the difference between lossy sound files and high fidelity recordings: the average listener might not be able to consciously hear the difference, but you can certainly FEEL it.

That said, my favorite album of the year is one that I downloaded for 99 cents via the Microsoft Music Deals app: Taylor Swift’s 1989. Even as crappy old MP3s it’s still totally infectious. I also just ordered it on vinyl, allegedly for my 8 year old who got his own record player from Santa. Other highlights for me this year were Run the Jewels 2, the CSNY 1974 box, Spoon’s They Want My Soul, Tweedy’s Sukierae (which I wasn’t really expecting to like as much as I do), Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager, and Conor Oberst’s Upside Down Mountain. And I was super excited that Tim Warren and Crypt Records resurrected Back from the Grave for Volume 9 of the ultimate sixties punk compilation series 18 years after the release of Volume 8.

So anyway, here’s the Soundscan data for 2014 compared to as much prior history as I could scrape off the internet. If you can help me fill in any gaps (especially 1991-1995, the early Soundscan era), I would certainly appreciate it.

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Sam Herring

Live: Future Islands in Portland

I finally saw Future Islands last night and am now ready to say I am absolutely a fan of this band. I’m kinda ambivalent about the music—I like electro-pop and disco beats as much as the next guy, but it’s not blowing my mind or anything. What is blowing my mind is the effect this band has on people and it’s about goddamned time someone dropped the pretense and just let their freak flags fly.

The Crystal Ballroom was decked out in some kind of weird prom-like theme in support of local radio station KNRK’s annual December to Remember concerts series. There were thirteen shows in this year’s roster with the likes of The War on Drugs, KONGOS, Cage the Elephant, TV on the Radio and Alt-J being among the Indie heavies. Despite an astonishing year of hype and national TV appearances, Future Islands only scored an opening slot. Spoon topped the bill, but our man Samuel T. Herring was the must-see.

He did all of his moves, and did them with gusto. There were bizarre snake dances and gorilla chest thumps and even the bent-knee Mashed Potato and it was beautiful in its awkwardness. And that’s what makes this band special, because not three feet away from me were three dudes one would not mistake as hipsters or scene makers just JAMMING with our man Samuel. They had their own awkward hand-claps and slight hip twists and would occasionally look around the room to make sure it was cool. And you know what? It was cool. Portland is not known for it’s grooviness but to see most of the room stumbling happily through the night in a blissed out psudo-prom…well, it was heart warming.

Samuel T. Herring is not a good dancer. He’s terrible. He’s the Elaine Benes of front men, but he owns his goofiness. He moves where the music takes him and it’s usually to some pretty freaky places. As long he stays true to himself and never, ever edit his moves, I will follow him there.

Record Store Day at Vertigo Music

Music Industry Gives Up on Albums

Last night Billboard announced some big changes to the way it calculates its Billboard 200 album chart, incorporating streams and individual track sales. Who cares, right? I do.

Billboard has been charting albums since 1945 under many different names and formulas, but since May 1991 it’s been based on album sales as reported by Soundscan. They used to exclude “catalog” albums from the chart, which seemed ridiculous to me around the time of Michael Jackson’s death when his old albums were selling better than any current releases. I campaigned hard to have these included in the Billboard 200, because I believed the main album chart should reflect which albums people are actually purchasing. That’s what it’s all about: the top selling albums.

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Taylor Swift playing pool

Selling a Million Albums in a Week is a Big Deal

Taylor Swift has sold 1,287,000 copies of 1989 in its first week of release. That’s a lot of albums. Only 18 other albums have managed to move a million copies in a week since 1991 when SoundScan started tracking sales.

And that 1.287 million isn’t even counting everybody in the U.S. who legally purchased 1989. Microsoft was selling the album for 99 cents via its new Music Deals app, but none of those sales are counted. (Billboard’s Keith Caulfield confirmed this to me in a tweet.) We may never know how many additional albums were sold this way. I can personally vouch for one sale.

First week album sales are a measure of true fandom. Real fans get excited to support their favorite artists, and the number of selfies with the 1989 CD on Instagram is anachronistically hilarious. I wonder if half of those kids even own a CD player. Doesn’t matter. They need it.

It’s sometimes tough to remember that even back before Spotify, YouTube, the Pirate Bay, and Napster, it was still rare as hell for an album to break that million/week point. In the first seven years of SoundScan tracking, only one album managed it: The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1993. After that it was almost six more years before another album did it: Garth Brooks’ Double Live at the end of 1998.

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