When Tame Impala released “Eventually”, the fourth single from the Currents, a caption on Instagram noted, “Last one before the album.” If that’s true, the track marks the end to a particularly masterful streak for the Kevin Parker-led Australian band, and the start of something else. After the dramatic gestures of the future-RAM epic “Let It Happen” and quiet-storm confessional “‘Cause I’m a Man”, followed by the chugging, sepia-tone miniature “Disciples”, this stately, finger-snapping synth ballad might, at least superficially, risk getting drowned out in the promotional noise. It’s too well-crafted for that fate, though.
“Last one before something else” might also describe the theme of “Eventually”. Like someone pulling the Band Aid right off to abbreviate the pain, or just following Robyn’s advice from “Call Your Girlfriend”, Parker is inflicting harsh emotional wounds as mercifully as his plainspoken narrator can manage: This might hurt a little bit, but it won’t be that way forever, right? It’s easily a breakup song, although as Parker told Under the Radar, it’s ambiguous enough to leave room for other interpretations. And anyway, here he’s less focused on what’s ending than what might later begin. “I know that I’ll be happier/ And I know you will, too,” he repeats in the soft-focus chorus, pausing just long enough before adding the title phrase. Eventually. It’s the hope the word contains, potentially false, that makes it devastating.
The song arrives at a time when Tame Impala find themselves in their own phase of transition. They’re kaleidoscoping outward after Lonerism‘s electronic-savvy expansion of 2010 debut Innerspeaker; they’re building on their covers of late-period Michael Jackson and late-period OutKast, as well as their frontman’s appearance on the latest Mark Ronson full-length. In a recent Reddit AMA, Parker singled out “Eventually” as a Tame Impala song that’s still “very moving” for him. If it’s a harbinger of what to expect from Currents‘ nine remaining unreleased tracks, I know that many of us will be happier, and that “eventually” means July 17. But for now, it’s enough to be moved, in motion, suspended in time.
We often talk about the lost magic of owning a physical thing, whether that’s books, CDs, or the wondrous black slab of plastic that is the vinyl record. Holding that object in your hand, flicking through its dog-eared pages and admiring its intricately crafted artwork, imparts a sense of ownership that you just can’t replicate with a Kindle or a convenient subscription to Spotify. The trouble is, making physical objects is hard, not to mention expensive. That’s especially true of the vinyl record, where pressing plants aren’t exactly ten a penny. And yet, despite the high cost of manufacturing and end price to the consumer, vinyl sales are very much on the up.
According to Nielsen, vinyl album sales in the US have grown an impressive 260 percent since 2009, reaching 9.2 million units last year, while in the UK sales reached a 20-year high of 1.29 million in 2014. Of course, these numbers are but a tiny fraction of music sales as a whole, but—regardless of whether it’s customers chasing that creamy analogue sound, or there are just a lot more hipsters around these days—there’s a demand to be satisfied. But if you’re not a big record label with deep pockets, getting the capital together to produce a run of vinyl is tricky. Even if you do raise the cash, how do you decide how many to make? Too few and people are left wanting; too many and you’re left with stock you can’t sell.
It’s a problem that the recently launched Qrates is hoping to solve. Qrates is an intriguing mix of the old and the new, consisting of a vinyl pressing service, a crowdfunding system, and a digital store all rolled into one. Using the site’s online tool, you can upload your music, design the label and sleeve, choose your preferred playing speed (33 or 45), the weight and colour of the actual record, and how many you’d like (there’s currently a nice low minimum order of 100). Qrates gives you an estimated cost, and then works with a regional pressing plant to fulfil your order.
Instead of paying upfront for the pressing, the idea is to fund it with pre-orders directly from fans. Similar to other crowdfunding services like Kickstarter, Qrates’ projects are only pressed if the final funding goal is reached. Artists can upload songs for download and offer branded merchandise to fans to help push sales through the maximum 90-day funding period. Qrates can also be used as a regular vinyl pressing service by building a project and then simply fronting all the money yourself. The site says that it takes around six weeks for the records to be pressed, during which time you can tide fans over with digital downloads and updates.
While Qrates shares some similarities with Bandcamp, which also allows artists to push their wares directly to fans, the site’s vinyl manufacturing, and in particular the ease with which you can place an order, is a unique proposition. It fares pretty well on price versus going directly to a pressing plant too, and removes the much of the associated fuss in the process. That said, Qrates takes 15 percent of anything you fund or sell through it, and that’s without any form of distribution to actual record stores—or what’s left of them anyway. There’s also no indication that you’ll receive the level of same input into the mastering process that you would by going direct.
Mastering is particularly important when dealing when vinyl, due to its analogue nature. With digital, it’s far easier to push the extremes of treble and bass for a snappier sound, but with vinyl they have to be reigned in to avoid distortion and skips. The length of record also affects its sound, with shorter songs allowing for deeper grooves, and thus more volume. Back when vinyl was the format to listen to music on, great vinyl mastering engineers were extremely sought after, and you can often find their signatures etched into the record around where the label is placed. Thanks to the proliferation of digital music, there are simply less vinyl mastering engineers and decent lathes doing the rounds these days.
Still, Qrates’ attempt to commoditise a difficult-to-access segment of the music industry is an interesting development in what is, strangely, a growing market. The likes of Spotify and Tidal may be out there fighting for your digital dollars, but maybe the smart money for artists is in ignoring them completely and embracing a 100-year-old technology instead.
Early in the jarring opening pages of science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, the author appears to catch a glimmer of the actual future. Protagonist Guy Montag comes home from work to find his wife limp and dying of an overdose on sleeping pills. Montag calls for assistance and hangs back helplessly as paramedics revive her, thinking to himself, “There are too many of us. There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone.” Could Bradbury have foreseen the quiet anomie of faces bathed in smartphone light, shuttling through overcrowded cities, alone together in only tangential acknowledgement of one other’s humanity? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Singer-songwriter Damon Albarn invokes Bradbury’s sentiment on “There Are Too Many of Us”, the emotional centerpiece of The Magic Whip, the reunion album from his reconstituted flagship Blur, as he muses about an Australian hostage crisis he once spectated on television from a hotel room above it. “For a moment I was dislocated by terror on the loop elsewhere,” he admits in verse two—not horrified, just momentarily “dislocated”—as if to call into question our dwindling concern for people in places outside our cubicles of convenience. Technology has made our world smaller, but it hasn’t made us less isolated. Ease of access doesn’t equal closeness.
The Magic Whip is the first Blur album since 2003’s Think Tank, the first with guitarist Graham Coxon onboard since 1999’s 13 (Coxon was booted from the Think Tank sessions a week in and summarily quit), and the first with producer Stephen Street since 1997’s Blur. In 2013, a lucky twist of fate netted the group some downtime between festival dates in South China and Indonesia, and Blur holed up in a Hong Kong studio to workshop new material. Anyone who’s waited a decade and a half for Albarn and his songwriting foil to resume tussling over bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree’s lithe low end will find a lot to enjoy; something special happens when these four get in a room, and you can still hear some of it happening here.
The distant traveler’s conflicting sense of wonder and alienation is the running theme here. “New World Towers” gazes at the web of neon signs overhead in awe of their glow, “Go Out” details nights alone at the bar and defeated late-night self-love. On “Thought I Was a Spaceman” Albarn recasts a longing for the comforting familiarity of London as a space-wrecked astronaut’s homesickness. The Magic Whip was conceived as Albarn wrapped work on his 2014 solo album Everyday Robots, and it’s tempting to see its disaffected tourism as a sister to Robots’ shattered workaday ennui back home.
Sensibilities from Albarn’s extracurricular projects frequently bleed into the frame, especially the Gorillaz, which shows both in dubby, beat-oriented cuts like “New World Towers” and in the lyrics’ pervasive sense of Englishness-in-exile. “Thought I Was a Spaceman” could easily serve as a prequel to Demon Days’ post-apocalyptic opener “Last Living Souls” in sound and story, and “Ghost Ship” wouldn’t look out of place anchored off the shores of Plastic Beach. At times the sonic tug-of-war feels like Albarn clawing at the restrictions of a framework his ideas have outgrown.
In the moments when The Magic Whip is most interested in sounding like a Blur album, it is perhaps too interested. There’s a nod to nearly every epoch, from the synth-accented Parklife alt-rockisms of “I Broadcast” to the busy Great Escape pop of “Lonesome Street”, the Blur-ish guitar squall of “Go Out” and the winding 13-influenced electro-psych of “Spaceman”. Whip functions as a career travelogue in that sense; one wonders whether the decision to have Street, the band’s Britpop-era producer, helm the sessions hasn’t aroused a certain sense of nostalgia. Restless innovators deserve a cycle back through the worlds they’ve crafted here and there (see: the last decade worth of Prince and Beck) but it’s disorienting for a band as keenly interested in artistic recombination as Blur.
Sometimes the album veers into sleepy territory: The ambient washes and close mic’d, reverb-drenched strumming of “Spaceman” are welcome flourishes, as is the cluttered keyboard-and-acoustic bounce of “Ice Cream Man”, but both are better showcases for production than song structure. There’s also sluggish, saccharine adult contemporary on “My Terracotta Heart” and closer “Mirrorball”, though, momentum-killers in a back end that sometimes lags where it should lift. The tempo only picks up on “Lonesome Street”, “Go Out”, and “I Broadcast”; the rest of the album bobs calmly adrift. It suits the album’s geographical fixation on Hong Kong, Indonesia, and especially the beaches and waters in between, but not the band’s own sweet spot.
All these frustrations fall away when the quartet locks into its signature jangly strut, as it does on the late album highlight “Ong Ong”, a chugging rocker outfitted with a chorus of lilting la-la’s. Its sunny soul is infectious, as Albarn, who once lamented he had “no distance left to run,” professes a love no measure of forbidding space could quell. Coxon’s in the wings playing hokey luau guitar, zeroing in on Damon’s seafaring yearning and playing it up for yaks until he storms center stage as the song draws to a noisy close. Blur’s always been puckish in spirit, its greatest gift the identification and gleeful subversion of listener expectations, and in moments like these it re-emerges, untarnished by the passage of time.