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Single review: Harry Styles’ ‘Sign of the Times’

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You can blame it on Trump, global warming or technology, but whatever the cause – even pop music can’t escape a good old existential crisis these days.

Case in point: Harry Styles’ mammoth debut solo single, Sign of the Times. A cold, harsh, 5’40” epic that doesn’t so much as offer us a tissue in our hour of need, this surprisingly dark offering is a strange note on which to embark on a solo career.

Blunt, moody piano chords accompany the unsympathetic opening line: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times/Welcome to the final show, hope you’re wearing your best clothes”. Is this a somewhat arduous attempt to be taken seriously? To move as far in the opposite direction of You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful as possible? Whatever the motive, Sign of the Times is surely the music equivalent of the ice bucket challenge for the fluffier 1D fans out there.

If we follow his lead and put Styles’ musical past firmly behind us, there’s a good chance we’ll get swept up in the majesty of this song once the post-rock electric guitar catapults the chorus into the stratosphere. We could note the falsetto that is so clearly of the same mould that spat out Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk and the horrifyingly ubiquitous I Don’t Wanna Live Forever. We could even cheer up a little by the third refrain: “Just stop your crying, have the time of your life”.

Eventually, though, you’ll start wondering who this song really sounds like – because while it may be revolutionary for Harry, it’s a drop in the pop ocean creatively. Dredge up vague references to power ballads and rock bands and finally you may settle, as I did, for the thought that it sounds rather like a Michael Buble/noughties-U2 collab. Then again, that is something I’d pay to hear. 2.5/5 STARS

 

 

Why Mozart didn’t really win 2016.

As 2016 wrapped up, the world was reeling from the news that a 17th century classical composer had outsold the likes of Beyonce, Drake and Adele.

For those of you whose Christmas-addled brains missed the news, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold the most CDs in 2016, thanks to Universal Music’s 200 CD box set release of his complete works. Cue classical music nerds fist-pumping and saying things like “Classical music will never die!”.

Well, this just in: young people weren’t the ones buying the CDs. Thanks to Apple Music and Spotify, streaming has captured the hearts (and bank accounts) of twentysomethings everywhere, including yours truly. So really, the fact that Universal filled the stockings of our parents and grandparents is nothing much to whoop and cheer about.

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“Adele who?”

Excuse my pessimism, but if you’re under 30 and not working in the classical music industry, I am willing to bet Mozart is not in your daily playlists. He might pop up on your ‘music for sleeping’ or ‘music for studying’ compilations, but who really has the time to sit down and listen to anything longer than 3’10”?

Don’t be offended: I’m including myself in this sweeping generalisation of millennials’ music habits.

My cynicism is well-founded. Since the age of 6, I was trained in classical piano until the completion of my AMus diploma some years ago. For the best part of my life, I was playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic music almost every single day (note the almost: I had my rebellious moments). But as soon as that diploma was on my wall, I ceased to listen to or play classical music (meant here in the broad sense, encompassing music from Bach to Beethoven-ish) on a regular basis…eventually, my interest in it just faded out completely.

And yet. My most formative musical moments dogged me, even as I buried myself in musical theatre, pop and jazz. My father introducing me to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My obsession with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My early fascination with Chopin’s polonaises, nocturnes and mazurkas.

As a teenager, I used my finely honed technical skills to accompany singers, play in theatrical ensembles and teach a multitude of students aged 3-90. Occasionally, I played a little Beethoven, a Chopin waltz or two – just to remind myself that I could. But for the most part, I shunned my classical days as lonely, finnicky training that had never enabled me to ‘join in’ with other musicians. Clearly, popular music was the way forward.

Strangely, my students thought otherwise. And damn it, they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “They always pick Bach,” my own vastly experienced piano teacher told me on numerous occasions. Having known the pain of learning to play five (simultaneous) voices with ten fingers, I privately thought my students would not be so moronic. In years to come, they proved me wrong (or right? I eventually recognised that appreciating Bach was anything but moronic), choosing J.S. and Mozart time and time again. They seemed to enjoy their choices, too – and on the occasions students chose popular songs to play, they almost all lost interest (which, I might add, had been BLAZING interest initially) within a week or two.

My heart began to sink every time a student requested a ‘radio’ song, and jump for joy each time they chose a star of the Western Canon. Popular music might be fun to sing along to, to share with friends, but those students who were most curious about music, most eager to learn the innermost secrets of its makeup, kept choosing Bach et. al.

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The author, not playing Bach.

Gradually, I lost my resentment for this music that made me a ‘lonely’ musician, and instead began to relish the joy and intellect it brought to my lessons with students. Classical music, in its finest forms, is a celebration of aural architecture on a grand scale. It plays with expectation, pushes at the boundaries of creativity, and connects us with both our innermost selves and something far, far bigger than our human existence.

So here’s my challenge to you: listen to some classical music. Now. Today. If you don’t like it the first time, listen to it again. This is music to be savoured, to be explored, to be absorbed. Be patient. Be open-minded. Be awestruck. And if there are children in your household, let them listen too.

“Won’t music so complex blow children’s minds?” I hear you ask. I say, let it. And once they’ve picked their jaws off the floor, let them ask questions, work on the techniques, learn the theory and have their minds blown all over again.

Then maybe, just maybe, Mozart will fly up the charts once more – this time on the Spotify Top 100.

Single review: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ & ‘Castle On The Hill’

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Is it just me? Am I just an old humbug? Or are Ed Sheeran’s two new singles really nothing special?

There. I said it. I am underwhelmed.

It’s not that Shape Of You isn’t sensual, poetic and catchy – it is. It’s not that Castle On The Hill isn’t a tender, uplifting piece of pop – it is. And it’s not as though either of those singles could do anything other than hit the apex of the charts in a heartbeat – they did.

But after two years of the incessently ubiquitous hits of X, surely it wasn’t too much to hope for something…fresh? Sheeran has always been a passing interest of mine, an artist to play when I need a sentimental or angst-ridden singalong. He owes me no particularly great debt of fandom, and yet I feel cheated.

If you’re not too outraged to keep reading, I’ll explain myself now, I swear.

Shape Of You was always going to steal the limelight. Flirty, sexy, catchy as all hell…on paper it works, out loud it sounds like a rework of Nina with a little bit of Don’t thrown in. Is this really all Sheeran has to offer? It’s a solid comeback, but it’s so. damn. safe. Also, TLC’s No Scrubs keeps popping into my head every time the pre chorus starts and that is just not a good thing.

Castle On The Hill offers a surprising change of pace – perhaps Sheeran’s attempt at a new flavour of songwriting? – but it sounds strangely anonymous after the textbook songwriting of the sister single. Although Sheeran delivers with satisfactory character, Castle On The Hill could belong to anybody. Most plausibly, in the introduction, U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

Are you still reading? Did you make it? Do you think I’m crazy?

It’s just…after the sweet nothings of +, 2014’s X offered grit and swagger and a maturing sound. While Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill are deserving chart-toppers amongst the swirl of radio favourites, they have ultimately failed to build on Sheeran’s ever-promising foundations. Did Thinking Out Loud leave such a big void that we will happily greet regurgitated inspiration with such enthusiasm? Evidently so.

But keep grooving, kids – there are worse songs you could get excited about. Having had my vent, I shall now banish my disappointment to the quietest murmurings and leave you be. (Bah. Humbug!)

In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

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There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

On repeat lately (#1)

The Trouble With Us – Marcus Marr & Chet Faker

Marcus Marr + Chet Faker = beautiful, crazy-cool pop. I’m a sucker for a groove and this is a good ‘un.

 

Skeleton – Gabrielle Aplin

Punchy pop-rock with a slick vibe, finds a ballsy mid-ground somewhere between venom and broken-hearted indignation.

 

Style – Taylor Swift

Send help, I’ve been possessed by the (darn good) mainstream.

 

All Night – Slum Sociable

Sensuous, dance-influenced indie-pop that was probably written at 2am. Listen when in languid mood (perhaps after a glass or two of red).

 

I’m Growing A Beard Downstairs For Christmas – Kate Miller-Heike ft. The Beards

Amongst the piles of mass-produced, soulless Christmas cheese (*coughsKylieMinoguecoughs*), this gem flips the bird to all the fakery of modern society. And it’s catchy as all get-out.