Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Whither Heavy Soil?

So: 2009.

Heavy Soil has, we may observe, become a little less dense on the ground as the late months of 2008 have worn on. Posts have become a tad infrequent, &c &c.

For this, Heavy Soil apologises. Y'all must be devastated.

I've been reviewing what works well – the points at which Heavy Soil is at its earthy best – and have fixed upon a change of emphasis for the new year.

Henceforth, expect to see a shift away from 'Song of the Day' posts toward review-type shenanigans. The most 'popular' (in terms of visits) post of the year, y'see, was my thoughts on Ben Folds' latest (disappointing) album, Way To Normal. Ultimately, there are many people ont' blogosphere with more time, bigger iTunes libraries, and fingers closer to the pulse.

Reviews is wot we does best. So reviews is wot we will be writin.

Enjoy the dregs of 2008, won'tcha? Slurp 'em all down, ready to refill your metaphorical (and quite possibly literal) glass in a few hours' time ...

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Escaping Hallelujah Bollockry with Joan As Police Woman

With all the talk of Jeff Buckley, lately – thanks (if 'thanks' be quite the word) to X-Factor 'Hallelujah' bollockry – Heavy Soil is impelled to direct its followers ears in a wholly different direction at the Buckey crossroads.

That direction? Joan As Police Woman. Who – to these ears – is rather Buckleyesque. Not so much in terms of her vocals themselves (considerably less acrobatically inclined); more the character of the songwriting and the soul-infused performances.

I've been listening to 2008's album To Survive, from which today's Heavy Song is taken:

The swoops, changes and intensity all recall Buckley.

I'd recommend giving the whole album a listen or five – as the above track illustrates but one facet. Opener 'Honor Wishes', for instance, is like a lush, woody Portishead (combining hypnotic presence and near-funereal groove).

Throughout the album, there's a sparseness and a freeform quality to the songs that's almost classical, at times. Certainly, the music gives the impression of organicity, rather than contrivance – full of sinuous lines and pellucid arrangements.

Alternative, soul-soaked chamber pop? Something like that, perhaps.

I remember reading something said in an interview by Fyfe "Dangerfield", lead singer of the Guillemots (alongside whom I once sang tenor in the school choir, would you believe?). He said that Guillemots' aim was to make soul music cool again. Or something along those lines.

I have to say, old boy: Joan beat you to it, rather.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Heavy Downloading. Do you?

Troubled as Heavy Soil is by the weight and volume of its collection of compact discs, mp3s have long shimmered, mirage-like, as an attractively portable, low-maintenance and (above all) neat means by which to own music.

Obstacles to my adoption of (paid-for) downloading of music, however, have been numerous.

(Well, there are four of them. Which is a number. So numerous.)

1. Cost
Considering the infinitesimal cost of a single mp3 to the vendor (by which I mean the lack of physical material costs, shelf space costs, distribution costs &c), it has always annoyed me that an mp3 album is so close in price to its CD equivalent.

Especially since the quality of artwork supplied with most downloads is pitiful (come on! A single bloody thumbnail replica of the CD cover?), I feel cheated of the added-value aspects of a CD purchase. As the (altogether rather inspired) Andrew Dubber has said many a time on his New Music Strategies blog, there is vast scope for innovation in terms of the electronic freebies bundled with an mp3 download. Without prohibitive printing costs, why not include a pdf e-book chronicling an album's creation process? Demo tracks? Photos from the sessions? Videos? All things that would previously have added hugely to production/distribution costs -- now easily within reach.

2. Transferability
Thanks to the DRM copy-protection built into many mp3s available online, I am prevented from copying/sharing/freely moving my music collection. Making mp3s significantly worse than CDs – from which songs may be ripped and shared ad infinitum.

3. Quality
Often, I don't mind listening to music at 128kbps. If I'm on the bus – or listening through my computer speakers – other factors are contributing far more significantly to downgrading my listening experience than the bitrate of the mp3. But I balk – once again – at paying a premium rate (given my comments in point 1) for a product that is inferior in quality. Buying a CD, I know that the choice is mine as to the quality at which I rip the tracks. Paying to download from vanilla iTunes, I am hobbled with the worst option.

4. Choice
Here, I think, is possibly the weightiest factor in my reticence to download, however. And it's a wee smidgin on the paradoxical side.

On the internet (as many have pointed out) we have become used to getting things free. That paradigm is lodged in our minds.

The fact of this became starkly clear to me, when I realised I'd spent an hour or so searching for a free equivalent of an iPhone application I'd found that would have cost me £1.49 to buy. Because I instinctively thought: there will be a free version of that.

I'm a relatively busy fellow, who values his time highly. And – in retrospect – that wasted hour was worth far, far more to me than the £1.49 I saved myself. I don't particularly enjoy lengthy online bargain-hunts (let's be honest, indeed: I abhor them), and could certainly afford the sum in question. But my instinct led me to broaden the search.

Likewise, I have found that vast online stores such as Amazon often serve to increase my tendency to vacillate and procrastinate rather than make a purchase. If I am to shop efficiently, I know I must either discipline myself consciously (ie. set myself a time limit, budget &c in advance of commencing the online shop) or do things the old-fashioned way: get my ass out the door and into the city centre.

This is because – online – I have an inbuilt expectation: if I search longer, harder and more diligently, I will find a better/cheaper/more desirable version of this product.

In Oxford city centre, by contrast, I know exactly what shops are available, and how likely they are to contain desirable and valued items. The selection on offer is reassuringly (and purchase-encouragingly) finite – even at the same time as it may be frustrating.


I think this choice factor has been discussed less extensively than my aforelisted factors 1-3. But I think it's hugely important. Especially to vacillators and postponers such as myself.

What think'st, o readers? What are the top factors that detain you from (or encourage you to) download rather than buying physical copies?

Tell us, tell us, my pretties ...

Monday, 1 December 2008

Tendrils, Colours, Dogs and Farts ... Arvo Part

Okay, so we've had a couple of literal takes on the falling theme. All well and good. But Heavy Soil ain't just about what it says on the tin, you know.

(You've read the tin, I presume? If not, you know what to do.)

So, let's have a listen (shall we?) to music that embodies – rather than simply referring to – the concept of descent.

(The Concept Of Descent. Prog-rock album-title, in the bag.)

For our embodiment of descent, then, a bit o' the contemporary classical, courtesy of the allround superb composer Arvo Part.

(Yes, it has the syllable fart in it. Grow up.)

Listen to those gossamer strings – vibrato-free, icy sonic tendrils. The way they seem constantly to strain wanly against the chords in which they find themselves bound, the melodies making futile sequential bids to rise, but being dragged ever deeper by the unremitting bass.

This is a beautifully conducted and performed recording – each entry impeccably timed, each phrase tapered with masterful control.

There's an elemental quality to the music ... earth and air ... wonderfully colourful orchestration.

Nowhere is the subsiding nature of the music better illustrated than in the passage beginning at 3.26 – built around a descending chromatic scale (series of semitone drops).

In the end, though, I suppose descent is escaped (though hardly triumphantly) – as the violins (with agonising slowness) climb to dog-whistlingly high reaches, settling finally on a faint, unwavering unison. But, what the hell. It's mostly about falling.

And wouldn't this just make cracking film music, eh?

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