Music to write copy by

7 02 2010

Here at CJS we have recently dived head-first into the relentless routine of production days.

Unforgiving deadlines, strict word limits and gripping features are now the order of the day, and we need to be focused on the job in hand.

While a clear mind and a readiness to communicate are musts within the confines of the newsroom, many of us will no doubt find ourselves constantly on the go, chasing stories and writing features away from the order-in-chaos.

I cannot be alone in using music to help focus the mind, and in this post I will share with you just some of the bands and artists I turn to when I have work to do.

Be it revising for a testing public admin exam or writing a 750 word feature on Formula 1, music tends to help my productivity. I’m sure it does the same for some of you too.

At the very least, I hope I can introduce a few more names to your Spotify playlists and provide a gift that stays with you for years to come.

1. Electric President

I was introduced to Electric President just over a year ago, and  the Floridian duo instantly won me over with their blend of haunting vocals and mellow beats.

Alex Kane’s electronic input perfectly complements Ben Cooper’s vocals, both providing a subtlety lacking in the work of may of their peers.

They have been compared to Postal Service and The Weakerthans, but such comparisons do an injustice to a band whose music will engross but not engulf the listener.

2. Mogwai

As far removed as possible from the energetic Gremlin with which they share their name, Mogwai are on a level which most bands can only dream of.

For more than a decade they have treated fans to expansive post-rock so grand in scope it makes Lord of the Rings look like Superbad.

They went some way to getting the recognition they deserve after being asked to compose the soundtrack to Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait in 2006. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength with recent album The Hawk is Howling showing the band’s unerring ability to captivate observers with every movement, much like Zizou himself.

3. Jurassic 5

Of course, I appreciate that different people work best when listening to different genres of music. As such, I feel it would be both ignorant and inappropriate of me to omit hip-hop in my discussion of music to write by.

Kings of the genre, in my humble opinion, are California-based act Jurassic 5. Showing more versatility than many of their peers, J5 span all elements of hip-hop, often providing more relaxed and mellow music but never being afraid to show more aggression and panache on live favourites such as A Day at the Races.

Their music might not seem conducive to writing at first glance, but check them out for yourselves and you may well be pleasantly surprised, even if hip-hop isn’t usually your cup of tea.

4. Explosions in the Sky

The word ‘epic’ is used all too frequently when it comes to today’s music. But one band which really does merit that description is Explosions in the Sky.

The Texan quartet have spent the last decade or so making music you thought couldn’t be bettered…and then bettering it. Their crashing guitars and vocal soundscapes add an unquantifiable sense of grandeur to whatever you are doing while listening to them.

So stick any one of their albums on, be it one of the earlier classics or the new groundbreaking material, and it will feel like that MPs’ expenses story you’re writing is the next Ulysses.

5. Sigur Ros

Perhaps the most famous of the five bands I have mentioned here, Sigur Ros have still taken far too long to gain the recognition they deserve.

No one else makes music quite like the Icelanders, whose vocalist Jonsi Birgisson sings in an invented language – Hopelandic – as well as in his native tongue.

It is perhaps the use of Hopelandic which give the quartet their almost magical quality. But the whole-hearted desire to experiment also has something to do with it.

Their music puts you in a state of mind so peaceful all other concerns will be brushed to one side, letting you focus your energy on almost anything.

If you are yet to discover this masterful band, I urge you to sit back, relax, and enjoy.


Album of the decade poll

30 11 2009

After arguing the case for At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command to be named album of the decade, and seeing many of my colleagues get in on the act, we have drawn up a poll so you can have your say.

Happy voting.

Album of the decade: At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command

29 11 2009

Muse. Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Clash. What do these three bands have in common?

They all released great albums in their time, but none of them knew when it was time to stop expanding and experimenting.

The failure to cut the multitude of dross from the final cut of RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium epitomises this fact, as do the unreal overproduction of the Clash’s Cut the Crap and the OTT aberration that Muse have tried to pass off as a new direction on Uprising.

It is frustrating to see once-great bands fall by the wayside in such a manner, and has convinced me to put my case forward for At the Drive-In’s swansong Relationship of Command as the album of the noughties.

Push becomes shove, days become months

When ATD-I split up in 2001, they were at the height of their popularity, with a sell-out world tour emphatic of their rise to the top.

Not only that, but they had just released an album – in the form of Relationship of Command – which ticked all the boxes.

Lyrically ingenious, wonderfully paced and the perfect length, the album had it all. Not only that, but it silenced those doubtful of the band’s ability of topping their stunning 1998 release In/Casino/Out.

It is impossible to single out one track from the album, but this is the moment which made me realise ATD-I were far more than just another great post-hardcore band.

Must have read a thousand faces

Now, for all their popularity across the pond, I am aware that ATD-I are not as well-known in the UK.

Some of you may, god forbid, never have even heard Relationship of Command in all its glory.

Consequently, I feel it my duty to give you a brief run-through of the album itself, through all its peaks and its troughs (ok, there are no troughs), and provide you with links to each individual track.

That way you can either see for yourself what you have been missing, or simply relive the glories of this majestic record which has been topped by nothing in the nine years since its release.

Bitten on the entrance

The band dives in at the deep end, the blistering drumming of Tony Hajjar on opening track Arc Arsenal letting the listener know he or she is in for one hell of a ride.

In fact, it is nearly a full minute until you are introduced to the primal roar of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, barking his lyrics out loud so clear.

It is not long before all the pieces of the jigsaw come together, with the guitars of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward, as well as the wonderfully understated bass-playing of Paul Hinojos, coming to the fore on the multi-layered Pattern Against User and the deliciously uncommercial lead single One-Armed Scissor.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (left) and Cedric Bixler-Zavala

If there’s one main strength to be picked out of ATD-I’s music, it’s their ability to continually engulf and amaze the listener.

After a long, relaxed playout at the end of One-Armed Scissor, Bixler-Zavala launches mercilessly – and without warning – into the uncompromising vocals and surreal lyrics of Sleepwalk Capsules, before taking some time to chill out on the beautifully mellow Invalid Litter Dept.

Pacifier Pacifies

If the genre of post-hardcore has had to face one criticism, it is that the music is often unrelenting and brash, not allowing the listener to recover.

One of the strengths of Relationship of Command is its ability to let the listener breathe without bombarding them with an aural assault throughout the album.

This is demonstrated by the fact that two of the heavier tracks, Mannequin Republic and Rolodex Propaganda, are broken up by the chilling and complex Enfilade.

It is clear that this is an album which makes you, nay, forces you to think.

With a track as accomplished as Quarantined so far down the track listing, ATD-I could almost be forgiven for setting up the preceding tracks as a countdown to the album-defining moment.

But anyone who has heard the ambition of Cedric and Omar’s new band The Mars Volta, or even Sparta, the less-successful side-project of the band’s other members, will realise these guys don’t do things by halves.

Rather than sit back and wait for the majesty of this pivotal track to astound everyone within the vicinity of the listener, they almost set themselves the target of improving on perfection. And of course they pass with flying colours.

Not only that, but they follow it up with a triumvirate which showcases their versatility and unreplicable talent.

First comes the affecting Cosmonaut, whose closing lyric ‘Is it heavier than air…am I supposed to die alone’ presents the track as a heavier, yet no less poignant, repositioning of Pink Floyd’s forgotten classic The Gunner’s Dream.

Then, as if the album was not already heart-wrenching enough, Non-Zero Possibility comes along.

A tale of desertion and depression whose true meaning only the band will know, the penultimate track paints a moving picture which will stay with you for weeks.

And, appropriately, the closer Catacombs is a fitting way to end not only a classic album but also an accomplished career, bringing together all the strengths of this incomparable band.

Dancing on the corpses’ ashes

So, what of the band’s legacy?

As I have already alluded to, three of the band broke off to form the unheralded Sparta, who in my opinion never received the plaudits they were due.

The reason for their lack of attention? A little band who go by the name The Mars Volta.

TMV’s debut De-Loused in the Comatorium, a concept album based on the life and death of artist Julio Venegas, features on many people’s lists about the best album of the decade, yet for all its brilliance it is not a patch on ATD-I’s final bow.

To relegate such an inventive follow-up to the status of also-ran shows how marvellous an album Relationship of Command really is.

In the nine years since its release, many pretenders have attempted to usurp its position as album of the decade, but in my opinion it has brushed this plethora of challengers to one side and retained its crown with ease.

The other entries so far:

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – by Ciaran Jones

Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinoise – by Alex Smith

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm – by Joe Curtis

The Libertines – Up the Bracket – by James Franklin

Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Meby Hugh Morris

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Agoby Ammelio

Daft Punk – Discoveryby Will Gilgrass

The Killers – Hot Fuss by Nick Moore

Kings of Leon – Only By the Night – by Caroline Cook

Bright Eyes – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn – by Emma Davies

Coldplay – Parachutes – by Dan Bloom

The Strokes – Is This It – by Alfie Tolhurst

Kings of Leon – Youth and Young Manhood – by Becky Rutt

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open – by Sarah Scott

Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope – by Fiona Roberts

Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around – by Mike Brown

Arcade Fire – Funeral – by Rob Goodman

Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP – by Tom Mooney