Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On albums and filler

In one of his occasional bursts of iconoclasm (previous targets have included Roald Dahl, who never did me any harm, and Dylan Thomas), the great Nige slates the Floyd for their preciousness about single-track downloads, and for their concept albums. Nige mentions in particular Dark Side of the Moon but I can’t agree with him on that one – Dark Side of the Moon, like the movie Casablanca, is surely one of those self-justifying cultural artefacts for which, by various flukes and inspirations, everything came together and it just works. Besides, the ‘concept’ is pretty loose compared to the more overt ones in later Rog Waters-led records such as Animals, which doesn’t make a lick of sense, and The Wall, which is, alas, in retrospect, a load of whiny old twaddle. In fact, downloading the handful of good tracks strikes me as being the only sensible approach to The Wall.

But leaving aside the badness or otherwise of concept albums, nonetheless I can’t help feeling regret at the threat of the iTunes culture to straightforward album albums. All music lovers prefer proper albums to compilations because they appreciate the LP as the unit in which musicians serve up their artistic efforts at particular stages in their careers. This is why, for example, Astral Weeks is better than The Best of Van Morrison. Of course, Astral Weeks is one those rare and cherished records devoid of filler, but the aficionado’s preference also applies to albums of uneven quality, these naturally being the vast majority. When one has spent a good deal of one’s spotty, repulsive youth hunched in one’s bedroom with headphones and lyric booklets, one becomes highly attuned to the art - which has survived the two-side format of vinyl and cassette and still exists in CD releases - of album sequencing, ie. tucking away the crap.

There are various approaches to dealing with album filler. There is the frontloader with all the best bits coming crash bang wallop at the start of Side 1. Nevermind, Funhouse, Gold by Ryan Adams and REM’s latest, Accelerate, to pick just a few off the top of my head, all follow this format and it does have advantages for the listener – there is absolutely no reason at all to listen to the second half of the Killers’ debut Hot Fuss, for example, which saves messing about. The backloader is a rarer but not unknown gambit (Magical Mystery Tour, Bringing it all Back Home, Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunnymen), the middleloader rarer still (Exile on Main St, Trompe Le Monde) and is probably usually accidental.

But most albums are much more calculating in their filler-placement, and follow a familiar sequencing method with the strongest songs opening (lead and follow-up single perhaps), track three an anthemic slowie and all the filler in the lower-middle order but interrupted by the third single to throw the listener a bone, a bit like having Shahid Afridi coming in to bat at number 8. The closing track will be an Epic or a memorable Incongruity (a slow song on a fast album for example). A variation is the use of a murky or quirky opener, with the lead single at track 2. Practically all Britpop albums followed this sequence, so we could call it the Morning Glory, or the Stanley Road or perhaps the Dog Man Star method.

To my mind it’s just plain wrong that the kids of today don’t have to work their way stoically through the filler and can instead gorge themselves on the sweetmeats alone. You need some rough with your smooth; this is why we must lace our Christmas dinner with sprouts. Mind you, a friend of mine did tell me about a friend of his who so loathed one particular track on an LP (Judas Priest or Saxon or similar) that he took a nail and (can this really work?) carefully carved a groove in the vinyl so that the needle would pass directly through it and on to the next number: I don’t want to listen to this song… EVER.


Willard said...

As an occasionally Pink Floyd fan (I actually enjoy some of RW's solo albums more), I find it's the tracks I don't know that I enjoy the most. But that's often true of most albums. Of course, there are occasional tracks which are real howlers (and sometimes whole albums which are a mistake) but the pleasure is finding the unknown gems. I usually find myself skipping tracks on The Wall just to hear that really odd track called, I think, 'The Trial', which I'd have never heard if I'd gone for the hits. It's why I rarely listen to Greatest Hits albums. They only tell you what you already know and even great tracks become bland after a while.

Brit said...

This is true and another argument in favour of albums - after a certain number of listens there comes a tipping point when you only want to hear the filler.

David said...

I hear what you're saying. I have also, however, stood in front of a class of 22 year olds and tried to explain what an LP is.

Finally, I had to tell them that an LP was what a old school rap DJ used to scratch on his dual turntables.

Brit said...

When I were a lad being a rap DJ were man's work. Worked our fingers to the bone we did on them LPs, none of this namby pamby MP3 wotsit southern softie roobish.

worm said...

have you heard the new gorillaz album yet brit? it's pretty good, and works as an LP very well

Hey Skipper said...

Your callow youth betrays you.

iTunes is nothing more than the 45 minus the B-side.