Nothing compares to Nikka Costa

If you thought Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U was the best, think again. Nikka Costa — the ridiculously sexy, soulful and talented American singer — has just put out her version, and it’s pretty spectacular.

You can listen to it on your choice of digital service here. For my fellow Spotifyers, you can listen right here:

The single release is the prelude to the 44-year-old’s new album, which has been recorded with nothing more than a rhythm section, a string quartet and a few backing singers. If this track is anything to go by, the rest of the album will be an outstanding experience.

Upon announcing the project — a partnership with Pledge Music — Nikka said: “I’m switching gears a bit for a new album and am really excited to be recording with a rhythm section and a string quartet. I have some songs I’ve always wanted to record with this line-up and make into a very special album featuring this music I love.”

The album won’t be all covers, though. There will also be “some standards, some unexpected covers and some of my own new material, written especially for this project”.

“I’m so excited,” Nikka said. We are, too.

And get this: she recorded the whole thing in ONE DAY!!

There are many goose-bump moments on this first release. No doubt we’ll look like freshly plucked chickens upon hearing the rest of it.

Cigars Of The Pharaoh: my musical first love

Disclaimer: This is a self-indulgent post.

For the past several months, I’ve been part of a great little rock band in Sydney called Cigars Of The Pharaoh. We’ve been playing lots of shows in Sydney and Melbourne — and we head to Brisbane in April for more — recorded an EP, released a single and garnered the interest of The A&R Department, which looks out for local bands and helps with getting radio airplay and a number of other things.

Last night, we played one of our favourite venues — Frankie’s Pizza — and this is a clip of the last song we played, Mystery Highway, which was the single we released at the back end of 2015.

I hope you like it, and don’t mind me posting it here, but I figured it was a great way to publicise us and I’d love your feedback wherever you are in the world, because ideally we’d like to take this project out of Australia for all to hear and enjoy.

You can listen to the single on Spotify, purchase it on iTunes, too, so please do and spread the word. We’d love to be able to see you and thank you in person for all the support.

 

 

Massive Attack emerges from the darkness with an epic EP

It’s been five long years since we heard anything from Massive Attack, but it’s certainly been worth the wait. A new four-track EP, Ritual Spirit, arrived this week, featuring collaborations with Tricky, Young Fathers, Roots Manuva, and Azekel.

Tricky’s track, Take It There, turned up on YouTube, a track produced by one half of the Bristol duo, 3D (aka Robert Del Naja), and a clip directed by Japanese Hiro Murai, whom Australian music lovers might remember for his work creating Chet Faker’s clip for Gold, the one featuring a trio of roller-skating babes and faker himself in a car wreck, which they nonchalantly roll past.

Here’s the Massive Attack clip, and it’s quite mesmerising, as is often the case with Murai’s work.

Musically, Take It There features all the hallmarks of classic Massive Attack — hypnotic beats, dark lyrics delivered via menacing whispers — but the guitar and piano work is also superb. It’s more reminiscent of the collection of tunes on Mezzanine than those on Protection, which was the last album Tricky featured on. The tension is high, and the quality exactly what you’d expect.

As for the other tracks, again they’re undeniably the creations of Massive Attack.  Dead Editors, featuring Roots Manuva, is super industrial, very blippy in parts, while title track Ritual Spirit really ramps up the drama. Azekel’s vocal work is excellent, and wow, that bass line.

Voodoo In My Blood, which features Scottish hip-hoppers Young Fathers, is perhaps the weirdest track of this quartet of tunes, but that’s not to say it still isn’t magnificent, particularly towards its final stanzas.

You can listen to Ritual Spirit in its entirety right here.

It’s great to hear these guys making wondrous noises again. If only we had an album’s worth of material to plug into, though. Still no news on that possibility as far I can tell.

Adele sits up and says Hello with her most breathtaking vocals yet

Adele - Hello

Adele – Hello

Every now and then, I get a pang of jealousy for those lucky enough to have been inside the studio when certain songs were recorded. Sometimes it’s a guitar part, or a drum part like the one Neil Peart nailed in The Spirit Of Radio all those years ago.

More often than not, though, it’s a voice, a vocal take I would have absolutely given any or all of my limbs to hear when it was put to tape — or a digital file these days.

I’ve had two pangs this past month. The first came from Australia’s own Sia in her latest song, Alive, which I waxed slightly lyrically over here. But this past week, Britain’s own power-packed singer Adele absolutely nailed it. Her new track Hello honestly made me sit up and say “hello” as a result of her effort on the song.

I recommend not watching the video on YouTube, because it’s annoying, features underlying audio from the storyline, and some slightly off lip-synching. Instead, listen to it here (assuming you’ve got Spotify), and just close your eyes and marvel at this voice.

If you pay special attention to the way Adele sings — it’s kind of impossible not to — you’ll hear what an exceptional voice this girl has. We kind of all knew that, of course, but she’s gone up a notch with this track, I reckon. There is so much in there; emotion deluxe, insane power through the choruses, gentle story-telling in the verses. But there are a couple of standout points that just covered me in goosebumps, over and over again.

The first is her variation in the chorus around the 2:38 mark. The second time around — at 3:03 — her steadiness on the word “outside” as she pitch switches is utterly extraordinary.  There is another demonstration of her brilliance in the same section of the final chorus around the 4:18 mark, where she drops in some wicked trills that defy belief. If you understand what it takes to actually do that in tune, you’ll know what I’m on about.

Adele has plenty of subtlety too. She is perhaps one of the best singers I’ve heard in recent years, and she’s certainly proved that with this track. It’s astonishing to think that had it not been for a friend posting her demo on MySpace about a decade ago — yes, I said MySpace — and XL Recordings picking it up and signing her, we might never have been treated to this.

I wonder if it can get any better. It’s hard to imagine it being any more spectacular than this.

By the way, I’ve dropped the video here if you want to put yourself through it. Around 85 million (and counting) other people have.

REVIEW: Nothing But Thieves finally let loose

Nothing But Thieves

Nothing But Thieves have a killer record on their hands.

After a week or two of teasing snippets from their debut album, Nothing But Thieves have finally released their debut self-titled long-player. I say ‘finally’ because it’s been absolutely ages in the making. With 16 tracks on its roster, that’s perhaps not a surprise.

It’s been almost a year and half since we first brought NBT to your attention through this blog, back when they had only a few tracks online, including the stunning Graveyard Whistling. Back then, in early July 2014, we were given some glimmer of hope that the first album would be out by the end of that year, not least after they signed with RCA that same year. But here we are, zooming towards the end of 2015, and it has only just been allowed to run free.

After such a long wait, hopes were high that this wouldn’t be a dud release. It seemed impossible given the tracks that have been spilled in the many months leading to this week. Graveyard Whistling aside, NBT put out a number of other tracks that feature on the record, including Itch, Trip Switch (which made the FIFA 16 soundtrack), Emergency, Wake Up Call, Ban All The Music, with Honey Whiskey and If I Get High most recently. Some time ago, they also put out a beautiful live acoustic version of the haunting Lover, Please Stay.

It was easy to think maybe we wouldn’t have much left to listen to, but with 16 tracks available, thankfully there is plenty of fresh tunes to get stuck into. Believe me when I say, also, that many of them are breathtakingly good.

NBT’s sound is largely built around the vocals of unassuming frontman Conor Mason. We compared him to Thom Yorke, Chet Faker, Erik Hassle, and Jeff Buckley previously. Those comparisons remain valid. His contribution to this record is extraordinary. The emotional output is off the charts. One can only imagine the toll it takes on him. I have visions of him collapsed in a corner of the studio after every take, a sweat-soaked heap of angst and trauma. If you’re familiar with Mason’s methods, you’ll know what I mean. This kid doesn’t just sing, he invests everything.

The other members of course play their part, too. The compositions are solid, varied, interesting and complex, while allowing you room to move and shake as you desire. There are hooks here and there, but the straight pop structure is not the method chosen by these guys. Having been selected to join Muse as an opening act on the road recently, that much is clear.

At times they’re freely blasting out rocking jams, Mason’s voice soaring like a jet fighter above it all. Moments later, you could be dropped into the most delicate lullaby. The overall effect is pretty special.

The standout tracks are numerous here. Other than those already mentioned, Tempt You (Evocatio) is perhaps among the very best. While lyrically, it’s perhaps slightly simplistic, musically it’s rich with beauty, building superbly from a soft soulful groove into a dynamic denouement. Brilliant stuff.

The opening track, Excuse Me , couldn’t have been better selected. It showcases everything this band is about and gets things off to a rollicking start.

Nothing But Thieves is available from all the usual digital outlets. I might get myself a vinyl copy of it, too, because it really is very, very good.

I Of The Storm is another Monster tune

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir from Of Monsters And Men :: Pic: The Reykjavik Grapevine

Of Monsters And Men have done it again, with a beautiful new track from their upcoming album released this week. I Of The Storm is a rolling, melancholy ballad which will tug your heart-strings hard.

While the video is a little strange – a drag queen lip-synching the song, and often getting it wrong – there is nothing wrong with the song. We’d recommend listening to it rather than watching the video clip, although that’s pasted here, too, via Spotify.

This song follows the release of Crystals, the first sounds we received from the new record, Beneath The Skin, which will be available on 9 June.

What’s interesting about both tracks is that Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir appears to be getting the principle vocal duties. That might not be the case across the whole new album, but it’s curious that both tracks released are of that nature. After all, the runaway success that was Little Talks was built on the fabulous chemistry between Nanna and fellow vocalist/guitarist Raggi Þórhallsson, as were many other tracks from the band’s debut album My Head Is An Animal. No doubt the new album will surprise and delight as much as the last one did regardless.

Of Monsters And Men will visit Australia again in July, playing at the Splendour In The Grass festival on 24 July after a couple of side shows in Melbourne and Sydney.

Back on the Tidal wave

Tidal.

Tidal.

Had to post this. Says it all, really. You only need to watch the first five minutes or so. Enjoy. I know I did.

For more of my rantings on Tidal, you can click here. You can also click here, for something lighter still in video form. I’ll stop now.

Tidal hammered in this video

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj isn’t woth enough, right?

As some of you will know, I recently posted my thoughts on Tidal, music streaming in general, and the bleating of mega-rich artists rallying against such services. Thanks to Unamed Media Insider, I know have a video I can share to sum up a little of my own train of thought. Well played!

Why I’m not fooled by Jay-Z and Tidal

Jay-Z - Tidal

Jay-Z spinning his message at the Tidal launch (YouTube)

When I was growing up, I used to visit lots of record shops. I had my specialist shops – usually Shades (RIP) in Soho, London. I had the mainstream outlets – Tower Records (RIP), HMV. I had local record stores, good for white label rarities. Even WH Smith, a newsagent, used to sell music. I think my sister and I bought our first LP there. While some more niche tastes weren’t available in the bigger stores, I could usually find them somewhere else. And for the most part, you could buy the same record in several different locations.

What’s baffling me now is why musicians and their labels, particularly those who have already made millions of dollars, are trying to reverse that in an age where we’ve never had it so good in terms of access to music in multiple formats.

The recent launch of Tidal – the music streaming service backed by a billionaire’s row of Jay-Z, Beyonce, Madonna, Jack White, Rihanna, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Coldplay, and others – has tipped me over the edge. And it can stick its “lossless audio” tag up its overly-inflated egotistical backside.

Are we really expected to subscribe and pay for music on yet another platform? Are these artists really going to start removing their works from Spotify and other services, locking them away on their own platform to service nothing more than themselves? Seems that way, given Jay-Z has already pulled his 1996 album Reasonable Doubt from Spotify and put it on his new toy.

Thank goodness I’m old enough to earn a wage, because if I were back in those youthful days I described earlier, I’d be struggling to keep up with this so-called “revolution”. A $10 subscription here, another one there; it all adds up. I could be spending $50 a month. If these artists were ever to tour my town, I wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket – which will probably be in excess of $100, let alone a t-shirt and souvenir programme.

Jay-Z, who paid $56 million for Tidal – an illustration of his wealth – and his cohorts claim the platform offers a better model for musicians because it has no freemium tier, unlike Spotify and Pandora, which continually bear the brunt of high-profile millionaire musicians’ protestations. It streams music in the highest possible bit-rates, which only a handful of us with a sound system good enough to showcase that could benefit from anyway.

But regardless of that, is this really the right way to go if you want to save the music industry and spark creativity? Personally, I don’t think so. Tidal claims to offer artists higher royalties than other services, but how its lower-tier artists will benefit has not been made clear. And without a huge subscriber base, which will be very difficult to build given the competition, the proportion of cash left over after Jay-Z and his pals have lined their pockets is likely to be paltry at best.

As Randall Roberts pointed out in his excellent analysis of the topic, there are much better ways to benefit poorer artists if you’re int the lofty position of a global music superstar.

“A true artist-friendly revolution would involve an action more substantial than investing $56 million and holding a press conference,” he wrote. “For example, how about financing a Kickstarter-type service for musicians seeking funding, one owned and operated by successful artists interested in furthering the development and bank accounts of their less-fortunate peers.”

Hear hear. That’s far more pro-active than just making everyone pay more, creating an eco-system where music discovery is a pain in the arse. All these guys are doing is turning people away from music, putting up barriers, and making it less likely that kids will ever be inspired to create music of their own, and possibly release the tunes future generations will love and cherish.

So what’s the answer?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting music should be free and that’s that. I also don’t claim to have all the answers. But there is certainly room to think outside the box here.

It’s a fact that if you love an artist enough, eventually you’ll pay for the stuff they produce. I’m a paid subscriber to Spotify. I think $10 a month is reasonable, considering I’m only getting streamed audio, not a physical copy of anything. I’ll use Spotify, free services like SoundCloud and YouTube, and other platforms like BandCamp to sample things, and when I’m hooked, I’ll pay more for a CD or record, dig a little deeper for a concert ticket, and sometimes order a deluxe vinyl box set. But I’ll only do that if I’m able to hear that music for free somewhere in the first instance, whether it be on a radio station or a streaming service.

Think about it. It’s the oldest model in the book. As an artist, you’d record something, try and get some radio airplay, build a following via that “free” platform to a point where you might play a live show, make more money there on the door, sell some merchandise, including your CDs, and the snowball is rolling. It’s not rocket science. The only difference now is that instead of waiting for your song to come on the radio, a punter can discover it on demand, at their leisure. What these artists seem to be missing here is that there is so much less noise around them. People can go directly to your tunes without waiting two or more hours to get through a DJ’s curated playlist to hear it. That’s so powerful. What an opportunity.

Getting radio airplay is a nightmare unless you’re sleeping with the network programmer or have friends to give you a leg up. Now, you don’t need them at all. Some smart social media marketing can get you heard, and on a platform like BandCamp, you’re not restricted to a few royalty payments. You can set your own price, set up a subscription service if you want, sell other merchandise, too. You don’t need a label. You just need some desire and drive. And there is room for freemium models, in my opinion. It’s been shown that by offering a free service, you can drive higher paid subscriber numbers. That’s not exclusive to the music industry, of course.

Let’s not pretend the concept of free music is something new, either. How many of you used to record the Top 40 on a cassette tape and listen back to it over and over, week after week, without ever going to a shop to buy the records played in it unless you really loved them? Technically, that was illegal. But nobody cared. Musicians were banding together to remove tape recorders and Walkmans from kids’ bedrooms. But they’re doing the equivalent now, and trying to brainwash us into believing it’s a good thing.

I thought back to Taylor Swift’s swipe at Spotify in amongst all this. Why is she angry when it pays 70 per cent of its revenue back to the rights holders of the music it hosts? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. Absolutely, Taylor, and thanks to models like Spotify and BandCamp, many more people are paying for music again, and the user numbers have only gone up since they all launched. Spotify has succeeded in growing revenues for both labels and artists in every country it operates in. Why spoil the party now?

The irony of all this is that many musicians who haven’t made it big are often prepared to give their music away for free, whether via playing a live show or uploading tunes to SoundCloud, YouTube, Facebook, or other platforms. They want people to hear it. After all, music is nothing if it’s not heard. How is Tidal going to help them? Will they be offered a place on the platform? Of course they won’t.

The revolution is not in what Jay-Z and Co are doing. The revolution is, and always has been, the responsibility of the consumer. We’ve been down this road before with Napster. The actions of its founders John and Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, while questionable to some, revolutionised the music industry’s outdated distribution model, and drove creativity by allowing artists to share music that would otherwise never be heard because of the restrictive interests of record labels and mainstream radio. That’s a lot more than Tidal is offering.

There is money to be made, but who ever got into the music business for the cash? Only a fool would do that. The payoff is a bonus. I felt sick hearing Jay-Z and Madonna, sit at the table like some wise professors, harping on about how this is getting back to the music, the art, the creativity. Please.

What irks me most is that these highly-privileged few, who have already made their money from us, feel they have the right to dictate to us how we consume our music, and claim it to be for the betterment of the industry as a whole.

That, quite frankly, is bullshit.