Little Simz Introducing Week

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Being able to write about music on a site like The 405 is a truly wonderful thing, though that’s something I often have to remind myself of. Whilst  would never go as far as believing I have influence over people’s music tastes the fact I get to hear new music, write about it and get really, really passionate about songs that inspire and excite me is all the reward I need. So it has filled me with tremendous pride to lead the first Introducing Week on the site.

Back in early February I received an email from Oliver asking if someone could cover an interview with North London rapper Little Simz. It was an interview that he’d been trying to sort out for some time,  with the original intention being to arrange a Skype chat due to SImz being out in LA recording a new EP. Having only heard Mandarin Oranges (but already excited to hear more) I offered to do the interview, if we we could sort something out for the evening. Fortunately Little Simz was due to headline the Roundhouse Rising festival the following week and we were able to schedule some time before her set to discuss her music, plans for 2014 as well as get to know Simz herself. The interview itself was conducted in a corner of the Roundhouse bar/restaurant, which sounds classy, but was really the only quiet spot in the whole venue.

A few days after the interview Oliver emailed me outlining his plan for a new series of artist introducing weeks. The idea was to run an interview with the artist on a Monday, then throughout the week post articles about artists seen as part of their ‘circle’ – both musically and geographically – culminating in a playlist that featured music from the artist, their circle and their influences on the Friday. Oliver wanted to know if I’d help him put together the first one for Little Simz.

It was clear to me, from speaking to Simz, and listening to her music, that she deserves recognition and for me this represented my first opportunity to really champion new music on The 405. Simz and her team were also extremely excited to be involved when I contacted them about the idea.

Unfortunately, Simz was due to be in SXSW the week we wanted to arrange the follow-up interview (to discuss influences and circle artists) so we had to postpone. But after a few more emails and a phone call that I conducted from a cafe around the corner from my office I had all the material I needed.

The introducing week was, I hope (I haven’t the stats to back this up), a big success. I felt that we were able to honestly capture the essence of Little Simz, her ideas as an artist, as well as showcasing a few new names as well. It’s something I hope The 405 continues with, because it reminds us of just how interconnected music can be, the lines that can be drawn from a simple sample, or a well-loved song that informs an album.

You can learn more about Little Simz over at her Introducing page.

Also check out her music on Soundcloud and Bandcamp (where you can download the excellent mixtapes Blank Canvas and XY.Zed.)

‘Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son’ by Damien Jurado

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Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son by Damien Jurado

The cover of Damien Jurado‘s latest album is an image that has been bugging me for a few weeks now. A solitary man (Jurado himself) stands, slightly hunched, at the edge of a large lake at the centre of which is a huge geodesic dome. The image conjures up an idea of exclusion, of a solitude that is perhaps not wanted, but rather forced upon the figure who seems so dejected in his stance. I’m also reminded of Sky Blue, a South Korean anime which depicts a future in which environmental catastrophe has led to the elite classes constructing protected cities which maintain a reasonable atmosphere, whilst the working classes toil amidst pollution to provide energy for the cities they are denied access to.

Jurado’s music, a kind of futuristic folk, continues to inspire these kind of images for me as he draws from the rich history of American music and incorporates these sounds with a more forward thinking production and tinkering. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son opens with a distant acoustic guitar, before the percussion lifts the song and a psychedelic swirling is introduced. ‘Magic Number’ is very much a scene setter, with Jurado hinting at a mundanity in which there is “work to be done” and steady passage of time. Yet even here, right at the very outset of the album there is a sense of mysticism and myth that comes not only from the psychedelic soundscapes that provide backing to Jurado’s guitar and quiet vocals, but also the way he sings “it’s my time to confuse”. The second verse, similarly uses far more evocative imagery as we are told of a stranger who arrived one morning and opened up the protagonist’s mind to new possibilities.

“I was met on the road by a face I once knew / shapeless was his frame and his colours were few”

That’s how the following track ‘Silver Timothy opens. It’s here that the weaving of American folk stories, religion and science fiction that features throughout Brothers and Sisters, really begins. The singer met on the road by a supernatural being instantly calls to mind the legend of Robert Johnson. Yet the character in ‘Silver Timothy’ doesn’t exactly meet the devil, rather a replica of himself. Brothers and Sisters weaves these folkish tales with sci-fi elements.

‘Metallic Cloud’ is a great example of this. Amidst the piano and acoustic guitar there are ambient swirls over which Jurado sings of someone on life-support (it’s been suggested that this follows a car accident). The metallic cloud of the title is the machine keeping the person alive – “it’s a temporary fix / in case you don’t come down”. The following track, ‘Jericho Road’, with its references to resurrections and crashes, seems to continue the individual’s tale; it certainly serves as a counterpoint to the contemplative nature of the former track, with it’s booming drums and grand strings. I fact it could be argued that ‘Jericho Road’ is both the crash and the aftermath shown backwards as referenced by ‘Metallic Cloud’s line concerning life lived in reverse.

It’s been a few months since I started listening to Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son and I still feel no closer to unwrapping its secrets. Jurado has crafted a rich sonic tapestry that is still revealing bits of itself. Glimpses of new sounds, a buried vocal that opens up more of the wider narrative and an allusion that there is something larger than all of this to be found. What that is, I’m not sure, and it might not even be something that can be found within just this album – ‘Return to Maraqopa’ draws a link back to Jurado’s previous records, so perhaps that’s where my journey through this wilderness should take me next.

Elsewhere – 11th February 2013

Aside

Elsewhere is a collection of links from around the web of things I’ve found interesting or worth sharing. Hopefully there will be stuff in here that will inspire and entertain.

A New Home

Bright North, the company I recently started working for, have launched a new website and identity.

See it here

 

I don’t believe in men and women, but when you’re dealing with a topic like misogyny you have to deal with it within your own world, within your own community, dealing with this topic, living this topic. When it’s about your life you can be very articulate, you are very aware of it.

 - Planningtorock

New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer was an interview series on Electronic Beats that spoke to artists challenging traditional power structures through music and performance. As well as speaking to Planningtorock, Louise Brailey also interviewed The Knife and Terre Thaemlitz.

Read more here

 

‘Choreograph’ by Gilligan Moss

This glitchy delight was recently track of the day on The 405. It is quite simply astonishing.

 

But when a company like Google — which has had numerous run-ins over privacy in the U.S. and abroad — plans to buy a company that makes products equipped with motion detectors that track what’s happening inside the home, it’s time that conversation about privacy and the internet of things takes a step forward.

Stacey Higginbotham of Gigaom reacts to the recent news of Googles acquisition of Nest

Read more here

 

Flappy Bird

It was a viral sucess and now it’s been pulled from the app store. Benedict Evans recently shared the Google trend graph comparing it’s rapid (and trust me it’s crazy) ascent against Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds

 

Coffee!

Coffee fans may be interested to know that the UK Barista Championships have just started this week in Birmingham. Kate Beard has put together a handy guide to this year’s competition for Sprudge.

Read it here

 

Lego

In order to promote the new Lego Movie (which I really want to see) ITV dedicated a whole ad break to specially constructed, Lego based advertisements of familiar services.

Watch the whole thing here

Who’s Afraid of Squarespace Logo?

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Last week web publishing platform Squarespace launched a new product called Squarespace Logo. In many ways an extension of what they’ve been doing the last few years with their core product – simple to produce and beautiful websites for those without the skills – this new service was aimed at providing businesses, bloggers or anyone really, with a quick tool for creating a quick, clean logo. Using a basic editor users could enter title text, a tagline and then select an icon from the thousands available through The Noun Project. When the user is happy they simply save the logo (free if you are an existing Squarespace customer, $10 if not).

Here’s one I made in a couple of minutes.

Squarespace Logo Attempt

Of course, designers (particularly logo designers) were up in arms about what they saw as a devaluing of the profession. In a world where many clients still don’t fully grasp what value design can offer their business, here was a company offering them the opportunity to brand themselves for next to nothing. A quick trip to the excellent Clients from Hell will reveal hundreds of posts where clients believe that the work of a designer is as simple as matching an image with some text and Squarespace have, unwittingly, reinforced that point. By introducing Squarespace logo to the world Squarespace have told clients everywhere that you don’t need a designer and you don’t need to pay a large amount of money for a logo and this has designers worried about the impact it will have on future work.

Yet, to me it seems strange that this sudden anger is happening now. Sure, Squarespace have automated the process, but they aren’t the first to offer generic logos at ridiculously low prices. Design ‘contest’ sites like 99 Designs have long offered this kind of service. Although they still pretended it was proper design, they’ve never really offered a threat to the traditional designer and client relationship. Before that there were the likes of Vista Print, and the local printers, all of which offered a rudimentary logo service. As long as there have been designers, there have been clients who want something cheap.

Yet there is something different with Squarespace. It could be that unlike 99 Designs and Vista Print, Squarespace has established itself in the web community as a peer, and now appears to be undermining this relationship to make money. Not only that but the users it targets are perhaps not the kind of clients likely to run a ‘contest’ for design, they are people with something of an appreciation who now see a tool to do it themselves.

So logo designers have a legitimate grievance then? Well, no. Just like how Squarespace and WordPress and all the other site building tools haven’t killed the web design industry I doubt Squarespace Logo will kill logo design. It might offer an alternative for start-ups, but if the service takes off I think the rapid increase in very similar looking logos (icons on the noun project have a very distinct style and the editor is limited to about a dozen typefaces) will prompt people to look elsewhere and, therefore, return to the traditional paradigm.

The other issue, which I’ve not mentioned here is branding. Now a brand is far more than a logo, it encompasses everything about a company – from the typefaces used, to the tone of voice in website copy, to the use of images, colour and then a logo which ties all this together. There is no way an automated tool can replace this and it is important that designers articulate this clearly. In the same way that web designers don’t have sleepless nights because of the thousands of people using WordPress or Etsy, designers shouldn’t worry about people utilising another tool to help them get going online. Instead emphasise the value you can offer in creating something unique, appropriate and long-lasting.

P.S. Check out some of the fantastic parody logos over on Yay Squarespace Logo

Where Were You…?

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Kennedy App

Kennedy for iPhone (image by Brendan Dawes)

“Everyone remembers were they were the day Kennedy was shot.”

That’s a phrase which has become an undeniable part of pop-culture, a short hand way of describing the significance of an event that has world-wide implications. It has been referenced, parodied and appropriated. It also serves as the jumping off point for a new journal app from designer and data-wrangler Brendan Dawes.

Kennedy is simple. Tap the screen and the app will pull in the time, date, your location and the weather. You can then add a note (what you were doing, who you were with) and include a picture. What really makes Kennedy special is they way it also pulls in a recent news headline so you can remember exactly what you were doing when the Mali ex-leader was implicated in a high treason probe. For the record it was ‘Quarter to five on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in New Orleans’ and after a late breakfast at Green Goddess I had taken a bus ride away from Canal street to explore the growing coffee scene, finishing up at District for burger sliders.

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This contextualisation is one of the key appeals to Kennedy, although given the nature of most news reports it often stands opposite to what are sure to be more positive and upbeat personal notes. A recent update to the app does allow the option to change the news feed used in the app (default is yahoo) to any RSS you want though I personally like the way that Kennedy reminds me of larger things happening outside of my immediate existence.

But then, Kennedy is easily adaptable to your needs. It is easily used as a quick (and data rich) journal tool, whilst the adaptable news feed will allow people to record their life against more specific news types – how about tracking your days against tech developments? Also, because none of the information is shared online it allows people to use the app in a much more personal way, as opposed to being just another micro-blogging app. You may not even use it to monitor your own life, the notes added to the app could be for anything, what if you used Kennedy to track the progress of a year-long project? Even better, Kennedy promises you direct access to your data so you can use the information you collect outside of the app. Brendan Dawes has already demonstrated a couple of ways to use Kennedy data to create 3D representations of his life as recorded by the app.

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As befits the app’s functionality, Kennedy uses a very minimalist interface. The main screen is mainly devoted to a large circle from the centre of which tiny circles flow. A single word ‘Now’ sits in the middle of the screen. This is the button to ‘capture the now’. Once the data has been collected an edit icon in the top right corner allows for the addition of a note and photo, plus you can also change the headline and choose a more specific location – based on foursquare’s list. Two more icons on the home screen take the user to the app’s about screen (and option to get .csv or JSON formatted data) and the list of captures made by the user. This list of captures is searchable and each one can be edited as well.

I’ve recently returned from the US where I used Kennedy extensively – sometimes recording several moments a day. I loved how quick it is to add a new moment, so much so  that my hosts often didn’t notice I was sat across from them at the dinner table updating a journal. I also admire the fact that it is completely personal (no prods to share your update on twitter) and that it allows you to take ownership of the data you record. It is quite simply a joy to use.

Kennedy is available now on iPhone for £1.49

Albums of the Year 2013: #1

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Shaking The Habitual by The Knife

It’s fair to say that The Knife are a band who defy expectations. Whilst ‘Heartbeats’, a charming electro-pop track first got them noticed, it was the moody electronica of Silent Shout that really gained the critical acclaim and predicted a movement in electronic and dance music that’s still going. Yet after that album the brother and sister duo announced a hiatus. Karin released a solo album under the name Fever Ray, whilst Olof worked on releasing EPs and singles under different alias’. They may have reunited for 2010′s Tomorrow, in a Year but, as you would expect for an opera, it didn’t reach a large audience. Despite all this the fan base had grown considerably as the influence of Silent Shout was felt on the industry and so when it came time for a new Knife album to be released this year expectation was high.

And some people, unfortunately, were disappointed.

Shaking the Habitual is not Silent Shout. It’s loud, disorientating, aggressive and the middle of the album is taken up by a twenty-minute noise composition. Shaking the Habitual is a statement of intent which covers the ideology behind the music, the lyrics and even the divisive live show, it’s the most politically charged album of recent years and in its quest to challenge the status quo it makes for an album which is anything but an easy listen. Yet indulge yourself and you’ll find something truly incredible.

The lead single, ‘Full of Fire’, is a strong indicator of what to expect on Shaking the Habitual. A hard driving beat runs through the track, slightly distorted, whilst Karin’s vocals, far less modulated than on Silent Shout, are far more antagonistic. It’s an almost industrial dance track, and the full 9 minutes is a brutal sonic assault that features menacing rattles and growling bass. Meanwhile Karin sings of battling patriarchy – “all the guys and the signori telling another false story” – and mocks political structure in lines like “liberals giving me a nerve itch”.

Musically, Shaking the Habitual is a much noisier record that any previous album by The Knife, with clear drone influences – though it must be said the production is excellent throughout with each song still being as richly textured and constructed. ‘Cherry on Top’ is a great example of this. It opens with an extended ambient passage that builds and groans before the sound of metal strings being plucked in a haunting, slow melody. ‘Cherry on Top’ is one of the more ambiguous tracks – it’s just four lines long and mainly lists fruit and deserts – but the reference to a residence of the Swedish Royal family (“the Haga Castle evening cream”) seems to suggest a mocking of decadence, and perhaps even pop-culture’s obsession with celebrity and greed.

Whilst The Knife have been more willing to give interviews, in which they have discussed the themes of the album, they don’t go into specifics with tracks and seem to be more open to listeners interpreting the album. Whilst discussing the live show – which angered a number of fans because of the lack of live instrumentation and vocals – the band acknowledged that what they were doing was never going to please anyone, but was an extension of the ideas on the record, and the only way they could see themselves truly performing the album. In many ways that’s the genius of The Knife, a willingness to play with convention and to create music, art and performance pieces that are intelligent and challenging. Shaking the Habitual isn’t just the best album of 2013, it’s one of the most important albums of all time.