Sunday, January 19, 2014

How This Freegal Flew, or, Three Immigrants' EDM

I've discovered that Freegal is a good source of dance music singles.

This is an important discovery for me as I really like dance music, and I've always loved the single. I used to spend many hours (and dollars) in record stores digging through bins of vinyl singles, checking the little 45 RPM 7" singles for rare b-side tracks, and the big 12" singles for otherwise unavailable extended and/or remixed versions. Then record companies decided that singles "cannibalized" sales of full LPs (making me the oddball in the crowd who'd take great pride in placing every single associated with a given album next to the LP on my shelf). After 2000 the singles bins began to disappear from record stores. By 2010 record stores had disappeared as well (for the most part), so I've been lost at sea here in the desert, unable to find or buy the music that once kept my feet dancing. However, there's some hope for the dance single in the digital age, with online retailers both big and small beginning to sell .mp3 and higher quality .wav tracks, but the collections and browsing functions always seem haphazard, making any new vendor of dance singles welcome just because each one broadens the palate of options just a little.

Freegal (as in "free"+"legal") is a digital download service which allows access to most of Sony's catalog as well as the many subsidiaries and licensees with which Sony works. Freegal is limited to the Sony et. al. catalog primarily because the other big players in the music industry have been wary of allowing free downloads. So, right from the start, things are a little quirky with Freegal. However, the fact that Freegal allows any patron of Pima County Public Library to download up to 3 tracks a week for free, without the application of Digital Rights Management or any self-deleting feature to those tracks, is pretty cool by me. While the 3-track limit complicates things if you want to download an entire album, should you happen to be a fan of the single (and if your favorites are carried by or licensed to Sony Music), you can fly like a Freegal. I actually rather like how the 3-track limit alters how I interact with music: I am now in charge of what song is released (to the "marketplace" of my car, iPod or home stereo) as a single, and which songs appear as the b-sides. This is great fun for me (OK, I'm easy).

The two big hurdles with Freegal are finding an artist whose material is offered on the site (obviously), and learning how to use the site's search function effectively. It can be a bizarre experience at times, whether you're searching by artist or genre. Search for "Luther Vandross" (who recorded most of his material for Epic Records, a subsidiary of Sony), and you'll get almost his entire catalog. Search for "Peter Gabriel" (who has not recorded for Sony), and Freegal will offer you a collection of Karaoke in the Style of Peter Gabriel (what is that?! Songs that sound like "Sledgehammer" but aren't? "Rubber Mallet"?). Browse by genre and, for example, you may discover that an album made up of meditative synthesizer drones by Global Communication is not ambient music at all--it's rock (OK...). So, some patience and practice are necessary.

Here's how I search on Freegal for an artist:

Type an entry in the search field and click on "Browse" (I'd keep the drop down search option set to "All").

If you get a hit, click on "See more albums" as this will display singles as well as albums.

Clicking on the artist's name (under the "Artists" heading to the right) eliminates most variations in an artist's name (including alternate spellings, duets or odd pseudonyms), as well as anything which appears on a compilation (i.e., a great many singles). Obviously, if you're after singles (like I am), you don't want this. In those instances where most of an artist's catalog is owned or licensed by Sony, you can find some really sweet rarities. Here are some results of just a few of my more successful searches for dance music...

Astrid Suryanto:

Born and raised in Indonesia, after moving to the U.S. Suryanto bought a microphone second-hand and downloaded freeware off the net to record and produce demos of her songs. Big name DJs like John Digweed, Victor Calderone and Morgan Page soon began spinning and remixing these tracks, and by her mid 20s Suryanto had a growing number of hits on the Billboard Dance charts. Suryanto's music tends toward a melancholy mood which is reinforced by her impressionistic lyrics and plaintive vocals. Freegal has many of her more recent releases, including "More & More" (which in its Chus & Ceballos remix--a pair of DJs from Spain--is an excellent progressive house number). She's lately begun to work with Tracy Young, a producer/DJ who's worked with Cher, Madonna, Pink, Shakira and others, which I guess means Suryanto has truly arrived. Their latest collaboration, "To Find You," is a nice vocal trance number, which has some of the unfortunate histrionics of techno/trance music, but it's still a good song overall, opening with the line: "Not crazy, just overwhelmed/Not going insane, driven mad." I liked it immediately (Young's "Cheddah" mix avoids the abrasive moments, but misses out on some of the hook-laden groove--I suggest starting with the "Main Mix"). Alternatively, one Freegal download of the Chus & Ceballos remix of "More & More" will get you a nice 10+ minute introduction to her music.

Vanessa Daou:

Another immigrant to the US, Daou came here from the Virgin Islands to go to all the right schools in New England (she attended both Vassar and Barnard) and wound up marrying a New York DJ named Peter Daou. Their first release as The Daou, a song called "Surrender Yourself," went to number one on the Billboard Dance Singles chart in 1992. A few years later she recorded a record entitled Zipless based on poetry by Anne Sexton and Erica Jong (Peter Daou's aunt). Zipless is one of the smoothest yet still thought-provoking albums I've ever heard, blending spoken word and cocktail-hour electronica. Since then Daou has formed her own record label, releasing music which fuses jazz and dance, often with blunt and explicit lyrics. Freegal offers downloads from almost her entire catalog, including her debut album Head Music (featuring a 14 minute mix of "Surrender Yourself"), an expanded edition of Zipless (the highlights of which are "Sunday Afternoons," "The Long Tunnel Of Wanting You" and "Near The Black Forest"), and a number of great dance singles. If anyone has ever wondered if dance music can be intelligent music, Vanessa Daou's got a big "YES" to answer that question.

[Freegal gets really goofy in its presentation of Daou's catalog. There are two entries for Zipless, one of which is the complete expanded edition of the album, while the other appears to be a promotional EP with a few alternate versions, but the only way to tell which is which is to click and look, as the titles and art work are exactly the same.]

Nadia Ali and iiO:

Back before the single was killed off, I was fortunate enough to pick up a vinyl 12" single of "Rapture" by iiO. Reviews in Billboard raved about the song, and for good reason, as vocalist Nadia Ali is a talented songwriter. Yet another immigrant to the U.S., Ali was born in Libya to Pakistani parents and raised in Queens. Her singing has been compared favorably with that of Stevie Nicks and Madonna, and her dance/pop is catchiness defined, with slight Middle Eastern influences. Back in 2001 Ali teamed up with a New York producer named Markus Moser, and the two of them released a series of extraordinarily successful dance singles under the name iiO (a variation on Vaio, the laptop Moser used to create their music).  In 2005 Ali decided to go solo, but Moser has continued to release material he recorded with her vocals, culminating in two full-length CDs (each of which is available on Freegal).

In its original, non-remixed form, iiO's music is usually made up of short pop tunes with a mild dance feel. However, their originals always strike me as rough drafts of a more sophisticated sound, and that is where the remix comes in.  A veritable herd of DJs have remixed iiO's songs, and in some instances the results are transcendent slices of the most progressive and propulsive dance music around. "Rapture," their first release, is an excellent example of this pattern. The original version is a simple electronic pop song, a little over three minutes in length, and unremarkable to be honest. A prominent duo of European DJs, John Creamer & Stephane K, transformed the song into a 10 minute progressive house stomper which remains--over a decade later--one of my favorite moments in dance music. Anchored by a powerful 4/4 beat and a haunting, gradually modulating synth bass line, Ali's slightly processed yet highly evocative vocal tells a classic tale of love found on the dance floor (there's also a very good remix of the song by Deep Dish--a pair of Iranian immigrant DJs--which is available on Freegal in an edited version).

Freegal offers a slew of iiO and Nadia Ali songs for download, among them the Creamer & K remix of "Rapture" (which is available on a collection titled "Rapture Reconstruction"). Although I'd start off my freegaling of iiO with "Rapture," two other tracks standout from the crowd of possibilities. Listed under "iio" is a song called "At The End," which is a very Stevie Nicks-styled plea for understanding from her partner:

"I don't mean to when I hurt you
But I need you, I can show you
Just let me be when I'm crazy,
At the end you're still my only."

Nothing profound, but in Saeed & Palash's fiercely percussive remix (available on the "At The End" single), it sure sounds that way. Finally, a song called "Runaway" (released by iiO, but listed on Freegal under "Nadia Ali") is--in its "Buzzfiend Remix" by Scotty Marz--a wild ride nearly 13 minutes in length. The breakdown toward the middle of the song is ceaselessly captivating for me, as Marz shifts the song's gears from trance-style overdrive into a funky breakbeat rhythm. In fact, I think I need to take a break so I can go listen to this mix right now....

But before I head to my car, here's one final note:

All three of these women would probably benefit from a bit of buzz surrounding their music. If you find something you like, tell a friend; if one of them should come to Tucson to perform live, tell everyone. Downloaded freebies can really help an artist if they lead to increased concert ticket sales and visits to the artist's website. In the current climate of record-low album sales, concerts and ads on frequented websites are among the few sure ways one can make money while making music.

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