Thompson Family Album

My father is one of the greats to ever step on the stage
My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world

ThompsonFamilyFrontThose two lines open the album Family. The writer is Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda.

Richard and Linda Thompson’s best-known song is the title track of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an album released forty years ago. If you want to hear “I Want to See…”, and have Spotify, my Thompson Family playlist starts with that track, and continues with half a dozen selections from Family itself.

To be specific, the playlist continues with Teddy’s above-quoted song “Family”. Teddy produced the Family record, and describes it as:

an album of new songs by Thompsons written specifically for this project. It started with the idea of each of us [Richard, Linda, Teddy, and his younger sister Kami] recording two tracks and then we added my nephew Zack and my brother Jack each doing one.

Eleven people, all members of the extended Thompson family, are credited with performing on the album. See the Thompson Family Album site for further facts, photos, links to the web sites of specific Thompsons, etc.

Linda may well have started singing “Bonny Boys” while you were surfing the Family site. (I’m assuming here that you are listening to the playlist, and that you didn’t desert this page for good.) It’s the third song on the playlist, and the third with lyrics that initially sound hopeful, or even positive, then mix in darker matter.

So it may come as a relief when the next song starts gloomily (“We still keep falling for the same old lies… times are tough”), rather than raising hopes, only to dash them. This song is Richard’s, and it works well on this album, with much of the family to joining in on the title line: “That’s Enough”.

It may come as even more of a relief that the next track on the playlist is an instrumental. Jack Thompson wrote “At the Feet of the Emperor”, and plays bass on it. Richard plays guitars, but the track reminds me more of Daniel Lanois than of any Thompson.

If you wanted relief from dark lyrics, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this, and you won’t have got as far as “I Long For Lonely” in the playlist. This cheerful ditty is written and performed by Kami and her husband, James Walbourne. It closes the album.

“Perhaps We Can Sleep” closes the playlist. It’s one of Linda’s two songs on the album, although Teddy co-wrote it, and played all the instruments.

The Family album can be viewed from many perspectives. It is certainly a clan collaboration. It was also, to some of the musicians involved, a competition to provide the best contributions to the album. Blending this competitive perspective with my own judgment, I declare Linda the winner. I consider “her” two tracks the two best tracks on Family; that’s why I included both in the playlist.

Here’s my own perspective on the Thompson Family. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician, and probably always will be. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is my favorite album, and probably always will be. I am (to put it mildly) interested in the Thompson family. So there are many things about the Family that fascinate me. Is that Richard playing lead guitar on this particular track? How do the various Thompsons interact with other, musically and otherwise?

I sprung for the Deluxe edition, which at ~$15 includes the music CD, a DVD with a 15-minute “making of” mini-movie, a booklet with lyrics, credits, family snapshots, etc., and a foldout sleeve to contain those three items. (I should take a photo in the morning, when the light is good enough for my phone to get a quarter-decent shot.) It was excellent value for me, partly because I found the mini-movie moving and fascinating.

There are many things in the Family project that tie in with the ghosts of Thompson stuff past. Most of them are in the songs and performances. Then there are the other things. For example, there’s the remark on the sleeve (I presume by Teddy) that the family tree on the cover (and towards the top of this post) “does not illustrate how we are all related. We would have needed gatefold vinyl to even attempt that.” That reminds me of a certain double album I used to own on vinyl, with gatefold sleeve, part of which had a lovely illustration of the early Fairport Convention family tree.

Time to wrap this up. So, link again to the Thompson Family Album site. Point out that it includes links to online stores where you can buy Family in its various forms, with any affiliate money going (I assume) to the Thompsons involved in the project. Mention that the site also links to media coverage, including radio segments, but single out the excellent NY Times Magazine piece anyway. Sneak in, at the end of a paragraph, that the Family album is more likely to intruige those already pro-Thompson than to make new converts.

So, from my perspective, Family was a must-buy, and a good buy, but is not a great album. Feel free to share your perspective in the comments!

There's a Hole in My Spotify

I’m gradually putting together a Spotify playlist of 50 favorite tracks. I would be halfway through if every track I’ve tried to add was available on Spotify. But 5 of them are not. Here’s the missing handful, in what I perceive to be descending order of obscurity.

  • And Your Bird Can Sing, by The Beatles
  • Running Up That Hill, by Kate Bush
  • Walk Out to Winter, by Aztec Camera
  • As Soon as This Pub Closes, by Alex Glasgow
  • Sharon Signs to Cherry Red, by the Kamikaze Pilots (previous post, including the track itself)

You can find what was meant to be the 50-track playlist at Spotify. It currently has 20 tracks, not including the 5 I can’t include.

I’m surprised that 25% of my selections aren’t available on Spotify. I think I was hoping for something under 10%.

If you use Spotify (or another music service) what is your “unavailability percentage”?

NPR: It's Not Just For Radio Any More

When I listen to the radio in the car here near DC, I’m usually tuned to WAMU on 88.5. That’s one of the local NPR stations. For readers outside the USA, NPR stands for National Public Radio. That may be misleading: NPR is not run by the federal government (or by any government). Neither is it only about radio.

NPR is also behind one of my favorite music sites. NPR Music includes such features as First Listen, which previews albums in the week leading up to release. Although there are only a few albums previewed each week, there is usually at least one to which I’m looking forward (e.g., Shearwater’s Animal Joy) or that I enjoyed, but might not have listened to had it not been featured (e.g., Grimes’ Visions).

NPR relies to a large extent on contributions to fund its programming, on the airwaves and on the web. So I’m glad to say that I did get round to contributing recently. Or rather, when told that I was difficult to buy presents for, I suggested a donation to WAMU. What do I get for the $120 the present cost? A non-lousy t-shirt. And the knowledge that I’m helping to keep NPR programs, stations, and websites going.

Do you use NPR? Do you contribute?

2011 Music

It’s mid-December, I think I have one review of the year post in me, and as you can see, that one review is of the year in music. So, on with remarks about music itself, and about how I access it these days.

I’m old-fashioned enough that I listen mainly to albums, rather than to say, playlists. Among many 2011 albums I enjoyed, three stand out. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key. If I had to choose a best, I would wonder what I meant by that, and decide that it was something to do with being likely to feature on best of the decade lists when they appear. Then I’d go for PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Cults’ self-titled debut is the third of my picks.

Each of these three is among the top 25 albums of the year as chosen by listeners to the NPR show All Songs Considered. I hope that doesn’t make me too predictable: at least none of my three was higher than number 20. NPR Music has been a big part of my listening this year.

If you like album of the year lists, check out Metacritic’s meta-list, derived from “year-end Top Ten lists published by major music critics and publications.” PJ Harvey and Bon Iver seem to have first and second place, respectively, sewn up. If you really like music of the year lists, check out Largehearted Boy’s list of online music lists.

So, how to listen to albums these days? When I buy an album, it’s almost always in the form of a download. It’s usually from Amazon, since I get an immediate download, further downloads if I need another copy, and access via a Cloud Player stream from pretty much any device I might be using. I also use Google Music, in a “let’s try the service out, and may as well have yet another copy of the album somewhere” way.

If I want to listen to a whole album without buying or even downloading it, I usually use Spotify. I use the free version, and so can’t run Spotify on my iPad or Android. Here’s a Spotify playlist, with a track from each of the three albums I mentioned above – plus “Suck It and See”, since that seems like a good sentiment with which to kick off a sampler playlist, and I like the Arctic Monkeys and their new album.

I wish I could review some live music, but I don’t get out to see much live music these days. Nevertheless, it was a good year to be a music lover.

Google Music: Initially Underwhelmed, But…

Google Music launched to a rather lukewarm reception. Don’t Be Too Disappointed By Google Music’s Lackluster Debut was the advice from TechCrunch. Here’s How Google Music Plans to Compete So Late in the Game was the slightly-perkier reaction from RWW. GigaOm was rather more upbeat:

The service mirrors smilar offerings from Apple and Amazon, with a unique social twist: Users will be able to share their purchases on Google+, giving their friends and followers a chance to listen (one-time only) to singles and complete albums for free.

So essentially it’s a music locker linked to an MP3 store (i.e. Android Market). We can browse, sample, and purchase. The browsing works fine. The sampling, not so much, when I tried it on iPad: the browser-based player seemed to think it was playing, but there was no sound. Playing is fine on the Windows/Chrome setup I’m currently using. The Google Music/Android Market apps won’t work on my Android phone, but then, not many recent apps work on a G1…

I tried music purchasing in two ways. First, I compared Android Market MP3 prices with Amazon. Amazon was usually less expensive; for example, Laura Veirs’ Tumble Bee is $9.49 in the DroidMart, rather than $7.99 at Amazon.

But I did already make one purchase from Android Market: Los Campesinos!’ Hello Sadness for $5.99. I’ll get round to making a Google+ playlist including tracks from this, and other music I own, soon. Right now, I’m uploading a lot of music from disc, while barely making a dent in the 20,000-track Google Music allowance.

I feel rather overwhelmed, in a good way, by the options open to the web-based music listener. I’m not blown away by Google’s offering right now, but will keep on comparing it with Amazon’s – and with Apple’s, and Spotify’s, and with other – and plan to post as I compare. I’m interested in your comparisons also, so feel free to post them as comments here.

Spotify Arrives – By Flying Pig?

I was among those who thought that flying pigs would arrive in the USA before Spotify did. Well, Spotify has arrived. The pigs probably did too, when I was too distracted by Google+ and SpotifyUSA to notice.

I’m using the free version right now, and liking it. The range of music is wide. The only thing I’ve been disappointed at not finding is the new Gillian Welch album.

I’m currently listening to Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music (which I really should have bought by now). The first thing I listened to was Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die (which I bought on iTunes, but promptly lost due to a computer accident and due to Apple’s ridiculous policy against re-downloading music one already owns).

Here’s what has most impressed me so far about Spotify. When this computer (old PC running Windows XP) lost its wireless connection, and I couldn’t get to my email, bank account, etc. in the browser, Spotify kept playing. It kept playing Radiohead’s Amnesiac (yet another album I should have bought by now).

So, I am impressed by free Spotify and am considering paying for one of the premium versions. I’m sorry to say that I have no invites to give out…

Music Spotlight Turns From Spotify to Facebook

Facebook’s music plans involve Spotify, others, revealed Om Malik, thus setting the tone for this week’s conversation about online music.

Last week’s conversation was more about Spotify itself, with $100M in new funding giving a bump to the long-running rumor that the US launch really is near. A deal with Facebook was often mentioned (although sometimes with a note that Facebook was probably not interested in teaming up).

I have more curiosity than enthusiasm about Spotify’s arrival, music on Facebook, and the intersection of the two. I miss Lala, which was acquired by Apple back in 2009, and haven’t enjoyed any other service nearly as much since. Amazon, Apple, and Google have of course each launched a music locker, each with different features above and beyond the basic locker. None of them gives me the control that Lala did.

I’ll try Spotify when it launches, but I fear that its US launch will come too late, and in the shadow of Facebook.

Amazon Cloud Drive and Player

Cloud PlaygroundAmazon Cloud Drive is your hard drive in the cloud. You can use it, along with Amazon Cloud Player, as a music locker.

There’s coverage all over the place. NPR is mainly positive, but points out that there are legal challenges to music lockers. TechCrunch describes Amazon’s offering as fierce competition for existing music locker services, given the space it offers and its integration with Amazon’s MP3 store.

At Mashable, Ben Parr actually used the service before posting about it. Good for him! His first impressions are more positive than mine. To Ben, “it became apparent that Amazon wasn’t launching some half-baked product.” To me, it seemed strange that deleting just one MP3 file caused Amazon Cloud Drive to think that I had no files left, even though I was using some of my space allowance.

I’m confident that Amazon will fix the early bugs quickly, and otherwise improve its cloud drive and player. As an example of an improvement, how about looking at my prior Amazon MP3 purchases, and offering to shift them into my locker without having to locate them on my computer and then upload them?

This music locker service combines several of Amazon’s strengths: cloud management, MP3 store, brand name, etc. You get 5 GB of storage for free. To add another 20 GB, you only need to buy one MP3 album. MP3 purchases are automatically added to your locker, and do not count against your storage quota.

Now, let’s see what Apple, Google, and others come back with…

Changing Year: The Music Edition

Arcade Fire won the Grammy for album of the year (via HuffPo and lots of other places). Are they indie? Sort of. Did they deserve it? Well, it’s a very good album, and to criticize an album called The Suburbs for sprawling is perhaps to miss the point.

That said, I think that my album of the year was Laura Veirs’ July Flame. It was among my top 5 of the first 6 months of 2010, and overtook the midpoint front-runner by lasting particularly well. My favorite album released in the second half of the year was Lisbon, from The Walkmen.

Although there was no one release that told me in no uncertain terms that it was my album of the year, 2010 was a pretty good year in music. But it was, according to NPR and other sources, a very bad year for trying to sell music.

Which brings us to 2011, to Radiohead, and to their latest attempt to sell recorded music. I, and many others, will be downloading The King of Limbs in less than a week. The download, which costs $9, is one of two formats in which KoL will initially be available. The other is very analog, with two 10″ vinyl records, and lots of pieces of artwork. It also includes a digital download – and even a CD, to appease those stuck between the analog and download eras, and those who think that for $48 they should get a CD as well.

My album of 2011 so far is Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key, which will be released tomorrow. So today is the last day on which it can be streamed on NPR.