If you follow music industry news, you’ve no doubt seen this story. Album sales, as recorded by SoundScan in record stores and retail outlets all over the country, have hit an all-time low. The week of July 26 saw the lowest weekly sales figures – 4.68 million – of the SoundScan era. (That’s since 1991, for those not keeping track.)
And of course, this news has precipitated a flurry of “What Does This Mean??” commentary and think-pieces. The consensus is that a perfect storm of illegal downloads, legal streaming, lousy new releases and dwindling catalog items has led to these historic lows. The warmer months are a notoriously crappy time for new music, and when the song of the summer is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” you know it’s a particularly down year. And most of the big catalog names have already repackaged their material for the CD and vinyl audience.
That has all certainly contributed. But this news got me thinking about SoundScan, and how it may not be the right tool for our emerging musical age. I buy a lot of records in the store (Kiss the Sky in Batavia, Illinois, the best record store on earth), but I think I buy an equal amount directly from the bands themselves. Downloads, both legal and illegal, have turned the music world upside down. But the Internet has even revolutionized the way physical products make their way from the musicians to their fans.
We’ve talked about Kickstarter at length here, and we’re going to talk about it again, but that’s not the only game in town. Virtually every independent artist you can think of has a functioning webstore, and many of them have taken to Bandcamp and Noisetrade to sell their wares. The pre-order model spearheaded by Marillion (check out Mark Kelly’s TED talk about it here.) is now a popular method of bringing the fans in early. I just reviewed Over the Rhine’s new album, funded this way, and next month, Scottish legend Fish will release his new crowd-funded opus.
This is the new way forward, and it bypasses record stores and SoundScan entirely. (Many of these albums do find their way to stores, but usually after the fans have had them for some time.) The old methods of determining sales aren’t equipped to keep up with this, and more and more bands are turning to the ‘net and working directly with their fans to fund and distribute new albums. Hell, I have two of them to talk about this week, and I know of several more on the way this year. Both of this week’s bands used Kickstarter to pay for their long-awaited returns to the music scene.
First up is the Polyphonic Spree, floating back into our hearts after a six-year absence. I can understand Tim DeLaughter’s use of Kickstarter – it can’t be easy or inexpensive to get all 23 members of this band into the studio. The Spree remains one of the most expansive acts in the world, dressing up DeLaughter’s hippie-joy anthems in strings, horns and choirs. They’re a theatrical outfit, wearing matching robes onstage and fully committing to the orchestral sweep of their sound. The band’s third album, 2007’s darker The Fragile Army, streamlined things a little, and became their least successful effort.
So I wonder why DeLaughter continued in that direction for their fan-funded fourth, Yes, It’s True. This record returns to the anthemic bliss of earlier efforts, but keeps song lengths short – mainly between three and five minutes. While the songs are fine, and DeLaughter sounds energized, the scope of the band is overlooked here in favor of sharper focus. Ordinarily I’d praise that kind of buckling down, but in the Spree’s case, I miss the sprawl. I miss the extended introductions, the orchestral interludes, the sense of dynamics.
Instead, what we have here are simpler, more direct pop songs. The album is still fantastically detailed, much of the texture coming from trumpets, trombones, violins and cellos. Opener “You Don’t Know Me” is as fine a Polyphonic Spree single as there has ever been, surging to life on an insistent beat and a chugging guitar-and-piano rhythm. The choir repeats the title phrase while the trumpets add fist-pumping accents. It runs out of ideas about two minutes in, but it’s still a good tune.
The album continues in this vein, DeLaughter shouting out the joyous “Hold Yourself Up” and doing his best Wayne Coyne on the lovely “Carefully Try.” These are good songs, and I’m impressed at the way DeLaughter and his co-producers keep layering in orchestral sounds while not breaking the bounds of his four-minute tunes. (The radio voice at the end of the latter song is the only false note.) There’s nothing really wrong with this, but I think the streamlined approach robs the album of the impact prior Spree releases packed. Even the final song, the remarkable slow-crawl piano piece “Battlefield,” promises 7:27, but delivers a restrained 3:52, with the rest devoted to organ noise.
Yes, It’s True grows on you the more you listen – it feels designed to, as layers of instrumentation make themselves heard over time. It would be wrong to say I’m disappointed with this effort. But when the Spree began more than 11 years ago, using full orchestration to augment anthemic pop tunes like this was a new thing. Now it’s pretty commonplace, and the Spree needs to stand out, and the way they used to do that was by stretching out, giving the full breadth of their wingspan room to move. I found that I wanted more of that, more of a sense of ambition and freedom. And what does fan-funding buy you if not that?
It’s been six years since we’ve heard from the Spree, but a full 16 years since the last Toad the Wet Sprocket album. In that time, frontman Glen Phillips has carved out a diverse solo career, from the full-bloom pop of Winter Pays for Summer to the more stripped-down Mr. Lemons and The Coyote Sessions, to his collaborations with Nickel Creek. But there’s something magical about his band, and Phillips seems to know it. Toad reunited a few years ago, re-recording older tunes for a collection called All You Want, and then asking fans to help them record their comeback, New Constellation.
And man, this one was worth the wait. Toad has never been as quirky as their name, which they took from a Monty Python sketch. They have always trafficked in well-written, solid guitar-pop music, the kind that allowed them to ride the college-rock wave in the 1990s. Phillips is an underrated songwriter, and even Toad’s hits are splendid little tunes. Their deep cuts were usually leagues above those of their contemporaries, to the point where the band’s rarities collection, In Light Syrup, is a better record than most of their peers managed on their main releases.
If you ever liked them, you’re going to like New Constellation. It’s a distillation of everything the band does well, and from its first notes, it’s a sterling reminder of how good Phillips is when he’s with these guys. Phillips certainly dominates the proceedings – this could be a particularly good solo record – but the ringing guitars of Todd Nichols are unmistakable, and the rhythm section of Dean Dinning and Randy Guss plays these new songs like old friends.
And again, while I love the ones that could be hits – the rousing title track, the loping “California Wasted,” the slightly off-kilter “Get What You Want” – it’s the deep cuts that thrill me, and that show just how good this band is. “The Moment” feels like riding through a tunnel at night, its minor-key atmosphere enveloping a galloping rhythm. “Of everything you taught me, here’s the one I learned the best, there is nothing but the moment, don’t you waste it on regret,” Phillips sings, before launching into an unexpected chorus. “This is the price of our mistake, and I’m not sorry…”
“Golden Age” may be the best, most mature song Phillips has ever written. It begins with a delicate acoustic guitar pattern, then subtly builds. The final minutes shift into another orbit entirely – “Walls and barricades surround our golden age, we will return someday,” Phillips sings, over a martial drum beat and some gorgeous guitar chimes. I’m a big fan of the hard-won smile of “Life is Beautiful,” and the knotty melodies of “The Eye.” But I love the closer, “Enough.” Building on the bare-bones version on Phillips’ Coyote Sessions, this six-minute slow burn finds him singing like he never has – raw and exposed, straining his voice, reaching for the notes on the refrain: “Tell me when I’ve had enough!”
There’s plenty here for Toad the Wet Sprocket fans to get excited about, and plenty for people who have never explored this band. Even the bonus tracks are great, including a version of “Finally Fading” that shows off just what the three other members bring to Phillips’ songs. New Constellation is a textbook case of trust paying off – the band asked for $50,000 on Kickstarter, and the fans gave them $264,000, believing that a band that had not recorded new stuff in 16 years would deliver the goods. And they did. It’s proof this new model works, proof that beyond the SoundScan numbers, great music is happening, in the communion between bands and the people who love them. It’s a new constellation, and we can write our names.
Next week, the wuss rock revolution with John Mayer and Travis. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.