Monday, 4 August 2008

The Concept Album is back - not before time

Here’s my favourite music industry stat – the number of albums released in the UK (2007): 32,459. Unbelievable. What other consumer business puts over 30,000 separate branded products on the shelves in a single year in the hope of making a return on each one? As industry sales decline, the number of commercial release has actually increased over the past five years by 30%.

This is commercially released albums only. If we add the one zillion unsigned bands on MySpace who also have song collections on CD-R & websites, it’s easy to conclude that there is currently far too much music for us listeners to get our ears around. And so all labels and artists face the same conundrum with each release – how to get ‘cut through’.

Many releases these days strive for cut through with increasingly elaborate publicity stunts around distribution – honesty box payments, 49 pence albums, cut & paste your own album from these 30+ average songs, free songs or albums and most boring of all ‘mix your own songs from ‘stems’’ (god help us all). Here’s my advice – get cut through with the music itself. Make music about your obsessions, passions or interests (a Robbie remake of War of the Worlds perhaps? – i’d be interested). Here are a few excellent examples of the genre...

I never thought i would ever bother with a Mick Hucknall record, but having heard about it (and seeing a show-stealing performance by Hucknall on Later With Jools Holland) i was intrigued to hear his latest – ‘Tribute to Bobby’. It’s what it says on the cover – a tribute album, to Bobby Bland. I’d never heard of BB and don’t particularly like American Blues, but the story behind the project, along with Mick’s performance of ‘Farther Up The Road’ had me intrigued. It’s really not bad at all. It’s introduced me to a new genre for which i’m always grateful. And its touching that on the sleevenotes (wonderful these records lend themselves to this old fashioned but great concept), Hucknall himself concludes “I’m taking a big step and going to disband Simply Red...after recording these songs, I don’t see going back to that style...This is the beginning for me”. Side benefits to society have come from this project as well.

Other recent music projects of note include the Mercury Nominated “Stainless Style” by Neon Neon. It’s a concept album about John DeLorean - the man and the car. It’s a cracker 80s retro pop album that has everything except decent sleevenotes explaining the concept.

But the master of the genre has to be Ry Cooder. He has recently released the third album in his trilogy of lost American folklore (how’s that for a theme). This began six years back with Chavez Ravine (my favourite album of 2005), which focused on the demise of a Mexican suburb of LA in the 50s. It continued with 2007’s “My Name Is Buddy” about a travelling cat (the pet kind)called Buddy in the heavily political backdrop of 30s Depression Era mid-west America. Both excellent, fascinating records.

The third final instalment is I, Flathead, subtitled ‘The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns’, a fictional (only it’s so authentic it seems real) blues band with a penchant for salt flats speed racing. The album special edition comes with a 100 page Novella telling the story of same (£13, absolute bargain). It’s wonderful stuff. All albums in the trilogy are released on Nonesuch, my favourite record label – of which more detailed posts later.

Personally i have an ongoing problem getting through my ‘music pending’ pile, which just gets bigger & bigger each week and ends up with albums being pruned from the pile before i’ve had a chance to actually hear them. There are certain records though, that stay there until i’m damn well ready to give them a proper listen – and these often share a characteristic - they have a story i’m interested in.

Themed records often go way beyond mere concept albums in that they have a whole backstory to them, which lends itself to great cover art, ‘label copy’ and even a whole range of supporting products (books, documentary films etc.). These records can be musical odysseys’, essentially, and much more entertaining for it.

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