Picky – The Best Music Player for iOS7

Posted in Music, Technology on August 1st, 2014 by Tom

THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF OUR SEMI-REGULAR FEATURE:
“WHY DOES THE APPLE UX TEAM HATE MUSIC?”

Part OnePart Two

We spent most of last week discussing the abysmal state of the default iOS 7 music player- mainly that it’s pretty but not exactly high-functioning. Without any further lamentations, I offer what I believe is the best app in the game: Picky, by developer Charles Joseph.

You have the standard three sorting options (listed in decreasing hierarchical order: Artists, Albums, Songs), plus playlists. The primary draw for me was that the artist list can be filtered to only list artists for whom you have more than N songs, where N is a user-specified integer between 1 and 30 (I find that 7 does the trick, personally). This takes me from an artist list of 964 entries down to a far more manageable 228. Artists are represented by the album cover of the earliest work in the library, which is a classy touch.

Each artist sub-menu is sortable by title or ascending/descending release date, a feature I have literally been missing since 2010 (when I surrendered my iPod to become an iOS person), as well as a “play all” option. The individual album sub-menu features a shuffle button, and a clever mechanic to build a custom queue. My listening habits don’t demand this functionality, but it’s quite well executed:

It is also worth noting that the developer has done an amazing job of deeply and seamlessly integrating this with whatever under-the-hood machinery drives the standard iOS 7 music player. Play counts are recorded as normal, and playlists, including “smart” playlists, appear almost exactly as they should (one glitch: folders of playlists appear under the “Smart Playlists” heading, and humorously include every single song in your library! But: the playlists that should have been in that folder? They’re just fine, in their proper place in the alphabetic list).

A recent update even integrated functionality of sub-sorting the “compilations”-tagged albums into their own space (accessed at the very top of the “Albums” sorting screen), addressing the most niche feature I could have hoped to make it to Picky. I use it to tease out classical music, film scores, soundtracks and mixes from friends from more ‘primary sources’ such as LP/EP/Singles.

Picky’s settings are mostly sprinkled throughout the app itself, but a few more global settings live in their own page, featuring the details of artist sorting (giving you a choice to sort by either the “artist” or “album artist” fields, or to combine them!) and some aesthetic tweaks. The latter gives you access to the dynamically colored player (gives the player a hue to match the dominant color of album art), which is fantastically executed. It also can toggle artist images, the appearance of “cloud music” (something your humble blogger, old-fashioned as he is, can not comment on), and the ‘dark theme’ for those preferring a player with a little more… black.

So that’s a brief overview of the app. At time of press, it was $1.99 on the US app store- and I just can’t emphasize enough how completely worth the money it is for anyone giving even a fraction-of-a-damn about how their music is sorted. As a parting thought, when I started using Picky in November of 2013 I reached out to developer Charles Joseph about how much I liked the app, as well as with a few requests. He proved quite friendly and receptive, and less than one year later, I’ve seen the app meet every desire and expectation I had for it. Buy his app and start enjoying your library again.

Picky is available for purchase on the iTunes Store.

iOS7 Music Annoyances
(Solutions To Follow!)

Posted in Music, Technology on July 31st, 2014 by Tom

Greetings, blog readers! It is tonight I once again make my Nth triumphant return to the medium. It’s been quite a while since May, but I’m dusting off the ol’ keyboard and getting right back into it. Well, maybe not right away. Today’s post is more of a process story.

‘Process’ in the sense that the act of consuming music presents a unique set of challenges, ones entirely distinct from simply finding good music to listen to, which is the concern we typically address here.

God forbid you just wanted to listen to 'Separator'...

God forbid you just wanted to listen to ‘Separator’…

I guess, in what’s now Part 1 in my series titled Why Does the Apple UX Team Hate Music?, I’ve already started part of this discourse. Start there.

Briefly, the native Music app on the iPhone was pretty much terrible for even a modestly-sized library until iOS5, when it became marginally less terrible.

iOS6 saw exactly one (1) update to the music app, and if I recall correctly it was that the faux aluminum slider knob was given a ‘sheen’ lighting effect making use of the accelerometer data. ‘Neat.’ As stated previously, I’ve given up hoping for a customizable Music app. Audiophiles, or at the least library-organization-nuts like myself, are not, and have never been, the force driving changes to Music or iTunes.

If you don’t believe me, look at any substantive update to either since in the last 3-4 years. We got Coverflow, which made a lot of really cool commercials, and is fun to play with until you realize every single non-album track is it’s own gray music-note tile; and the new organizational scheme thrust upon iTunes in recent years which has a pretty slick adaptive color pallet that’s too beautiful (and it is beautiful, don’t get me wrong) to be cluttered with any useful metadata ever; and the Browser is gone, too; remember Ping?; Match sold some people more songs, and Radio is working as hard as it can sell even more… iCloud serves some purpose I’ve yet to divine. They did fix the search bar from resting the list view when you cleared the field, which is a small victory.

Admittedly, there are some shrewd business moves in there, and credit must be given to the graphics crew- it’s all gorgeous. But it doesn’t do anything. Form is supposed to follow function, but instead function is left to fend for itself while iTunes gets all tarted up for its photo shoot. Long story long, there’s no recourse for people who want to sort large libraries in specific ways that are not the obvious defaults configured for a music library consisting of: 6 full albums (Journey’s Greatest Hits, Queen’s Greatest Hits, Some Nights by FUN. because you really liked ‘We Are Young’, American Idiot, The Joshua Tree, and whichever Black-Eyed Peas album had “Pump It” on there), and over 100 singles (mostly KeSha) purchased from the iTunes store or imported from [p2p client c. 2005].

And whatever. That’s what most people do and that’s fine. Hell, I have my own obligatory KeSha single somewhere in there. But I also have every studio record (except Pablo Honey, shame on me!) from Radiohead’s entire career. So you can imagine then why the recent iOS7 update, wherein albums no longer get their own submenu, would be a Pretty Bad Scene for me (see, right). You click ‘Radiohead’ which may or may not be accompanied by the cover of an album -sometimes it’s one you hate, sometimes it’s one you don’t even own!- and sometimes it’s a picture of the band that you may or may not have ever seen in real life, making the functionality of some visual association aiding in search all but excised from the damn thing.

Thank goodness we got rid of all the skeuomorphisms though; what are we, savages? (Jokes on me, though. In a rarity for a native app, there were none to be found in any iteration of Music, excepting the aforementioned ‘shinny’ volume slider.) Has anything improved? No. Nothing has improved.

I parenthetically promised solutions, and they will follow this post shortly!

Optica

Posted in Music on May 7th, 2013 by Tom

opticaTo say that I approached Optica with some trepidation is putting it mildly. 2007′s Our Ill Wills is a frontrunner for my favorite album of all time, and in lieu of the disappointment that I found 2010′s Work to be, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for me and the SOLs.

I’m happy to report though that Optica makes for a tight, consistent, and moving listening experience. In terms of overall balance, it is one of the few records where I really like the back end more than the front.

The opening riffs on the sun-drenched ‘Sugar’ signal a return to brighter days for our Sweedish pop masters. ‘Illusions’, for me, really represents the sound I was looking for on Work but only caught glimpses of in tracks like ’1999′. It’s just fast enough to dance to, but not frantic; not to mention a beautiful example of how lyrics can manage to be enthralling and yet mostly meaningless.

The bizarre choice of lead single/gimmick of ‘Blue Ice’ is lost on me, and when I first heard it, I resigned myself on the spot to the fact that the SOLs as I’d known and loved them were gone. ‘Blue Ice’ is the exact kind of song I’d come to loathe/ignore on Work. In the end though, the track ends up being a much needed structural pause before we are finally treated to the focal point of the album:


‘14th of July’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

14th of July‘ was the moment I was waiting for. Once and future kings of my pop taste, the Shout Out Louds are back. Droning synth and wailing riffs wander through surprisingly well-crafted beats, which frame the painfully nostalgic lyrics that really packs some emotional weight/baggage:

Take me down on the 14th of July
Take me to the fireworks
Show me how fire works
Take me down
Take me to the room / where you grew up
I bet its got a great view
I bet no one loves you

Throw in a break-down bridge before crushing the chorus one final time, and you have the centerpiece of the record, as well as a subtle harbinger of what’s in store.

‘Burn’ is perhaps the canonical retro, lazy-sunday throwback song of the collection. Think days at the beach, matinee movies, and long walks through the neighborhood near dusk. In that vein, ‘Walking In Your Footsteps’ is proof-of-concept that the SOLs can write 70s pop so convincingly you’d swear it was authentic, not to mention a lot of fun.

‘Glasgow’, which I’ll call the first part of this track is a strange, unoffensive number, but the watery, ethereal flute-led melody which follows it steals the show, and turns the page to the final act of Optica which proves to be its darkest, and most memorable.


‘Hermila’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The sheer vibe dripping off of ‘Hermila‘ cements it as one of the best songs on the album. Bebban Stenborg lays a soft, cold croon on this eery tale of pursuit and demise. I can’t quite grasp the narrative thread here, but the lack of definition almost makes it creepier. The band has done painful, sad tracks before, but never anything this sinister. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and worth future pursuit.

Still holding out for some Out Ill Wills-flavored material? ‘Chasing the Sinking Sun’ proves well worth the wait. Excellent percussion through and through, which complements well whatever digital-marimba-filter-type-thing the melody comes out on. Plus I love the refrain,

We were here / that I know
We lost our minds here / long ago

‘Circles’ is the last breather we get before ‘Destroy’, which I consider the complementary song to ‘Hermila’. The flute here is used to a very different effect, a sharp burst of noise in contrast to the distorted cries heard in the background. The song wanders, but in a forlorn, desperate way, that you imagine could be born out of long, dark Swedish winters.

And so, Optica ends not with an exasperated, careless ellipses, nor a definitive exclamation point, but a dissonant question mark. I don’t know what this album means for the future of the Shout Out Louds, but with a much richer pallet of sounds than we’ve seen on anything previous, it’s nothing but encouraging.

I’m done wanting a new Our Ill Wills; that record would probably pale in comparison anyways. The band has something different and fantastic up their sleeves, and even if Optica isn’t quite a triumph of that sound… well, let’s call this the comeback.

Shout Out Louds – Optica

Featuring:

Pedestrian Verse

Posted in Music on February 27th, 2013 by Tom

frightened rabbit pedestrian verse I always love a good ‘surprise’ album- something that comes from out of left field to completely blow you away.

Part of the fun of pursuing music in earnest is that each new album holds the promise of being something you come to really love. But not every album can be that album, and what do you do when an artist whose work was genius fails to meet expectations the second time around? What then?

This was precisely my problem in March of 2010. I’d just finished being thoroughly engrossed in 2008′s Midnight Organ Fight (don’t forget: it’s a euphemism for sex! try working it into conversation), and was getting amped about it’s successor, The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Despite being similarly praised from a critical standpoint, Winter was a huge disappointment to me.

There were a few songs on it I liked OK. But there’s a handful of songs I like on nearly every album I listen to. Maybe it’s my fault, but nonetheless I never managed to connect with that album. I tried tracking back further, to 2007′s Sing the Greys, but at that point I just wanted vocalist Scott Hutchinson to shut up.

And that’s where I left it. So you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached Pedestrian Verse. Since I’d pirated every last bit of my Frightened Rabbit collection though, it seemed only fair that I at least put up the cash to buy one record, as a sort of amends. In case you can’t sense what’s coming, I’ll spoil The Twist: Pedestrian Verse is a(n understated) masterpiece.

Too much exposition; here is a track for your ears to chew on:


‘Holy’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

I’m throwing ‘Holy‘ out there because it was the first track that I found myself looking forward to on the album. It continues the trend (see: ‘Head Rolls Off’) of a highly sardonic attitude towards religion. The guitar work, both lead and bass, is top notch, and the lyricism, while evoking a pretty elemntary example of wordplay, does so to an impressive degree:

I don’t mind / being lonely
So leave me alone
Aw, you’re acting all holy
Me- I’m just full of holes

The further parlance of biblical terms into barbed criticisms on top of the up-tempo pace makes this great track have near the start of the record. I’ll save discovering the epic, expansive opener ‘Acts of Man’ for yourself. Painting a quasi-tragic picture of all humankind through a series of two-stanza vignettes, it’s incredibly heartfelt without being trite, getting at the wide spectrum of emotional experiences that define the human condition.

I’ll insert briefly my comment on the bizarre choice of ‘The Woodpile’ as the lead single for the album. It’s a perfectly fine song, and maybe it fits some criterion for radio-friendliness that I’m missing, but there are so many better tracks on the album. In fact, if it was up to me, ‘Late March, Death March‘ would be the song I’d most want to hear on the radio.


‘Late March, Death March’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

As with the earlier offered track, there is no love for religion to be found here. My own personal bias is undoubtedly bleeding in here, but I can’t help but appreciate how well this is done:

I cursed in church again, and the hand-claps all fell quiet
I watched the statue of you cry
. . .
There’s a funeral in your eyes
and a drunk priest at your side
. . .
Yeah, there isn’t a God, so I save my breath
Pray silence for the road ahead
And this March death march, March!, Death!, March!
Yeah I went too far

What’s interesting is the light, fast percussion that pervades the entire song is so much faster than any march could ever be. Typically marches are a slow affair, and they certainly never exceed ‘brisk’ in their describing. Yet here, ‘Late March, Death March’ is unbridled in its refrain, pausing only for the verses. Best lyric of the album is in this song, too, transcribed at the top of the entry (it is wrong everywhere else on the internet).

Everything after, the alternating tempos of ‘December’s Traditions’, the honest confessions of ‘Dead Now’, is part of a circuitous route towards the cinematic climax at the album’s heart, ‘State Hospital’. Released as a single a few months before the record, I head it, liked the video, and didn’t think much of it. But in the context of Pedestrian Verse it’s so much more.

‘Acts of Man’ sets the stage: we see, from far up above, a world full of flawed, selfish people doing their best but failing, often quite miserably. ‘State Hospital’ plunges us down into that world, until our vantage is limited to a single individual. And there, amid the desperation, is a song about hope. It’s one of my favorite moments of the album.

‘Nitros Gas’ is a little indulgent, if I’m being honest; it’s my least favorite type of FR song. That said, it’s a serviceable comedown track, and sets up the playful ‘Oil Slick’ for a very satisfying close.

Frightened Rabbit has never suffered from good songcraft, but I maintain that they’re at their best when that skill is used to communicate something worthwhile. Pedestrian Verse is an elegantly layered construction with strong narrative framing and thoughtful motifs threaded throughout. The expanse of it is breathtaking. Listen to this record.

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
(At time of press, the CD was cheaper than the MP3s!)

Featuring:

Heartthrob

Posted in Music on February 21st, 2013 by Tom

tegan sara heartthrob

Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara have been making music professionally since they were 19, and so by their 7th studio album, this perhaps seems like old hat to them. To the extent that the pair continues to churn out power-pop gold, it is business as usual, but Heartthrob is noticably distinct from its predecessors.

The album I’m most familiar with, So Jealous, featured comparatively sparse instrumentation, and the lighter soundscape was the perfect environment for more intimate moments. Even at its most gutsy, the tracks were no-nonsense and got right to the point.

On 2009′s Sainthood they further steeped themselves in new wave trappings, while still maintaining the characteristic punch and grit of their vocals. This trend is extended even further with the Katy Perry-influenced (inspired?!) Heartthrob.

It’s one of the most refined pop records I’ve ever heard. Though the Quinn sisters are decidedly outside the teenage period of their own lives, they still effortlessly tap right into the issues at the heart of the trials and tribulations of young people. And as adult songwriters, they are completely licensed to sensualize their music for a little flavor. Opening track ‘Closer’ features the humorous confession:

All you think of lately / is getting underneath me
All I dream of lately / is how to get you underneath me

This works quite well because it isn’t delivered in some pouty voice, meant to titilate or arouse- it’s a fun turn of phrase because the assertion is something the assert-er is apparently just as guilty of. The nuance and precise humor of it derives largely from the tone and delivery, a subtlety few pop songs can boast.

And the melodies! It will never happen, but the earlier parts of the record are built to be put through countless plays on the radio well into the summer. We could pick almost anything in the first act of the album to make this point, but as an exemplar I’ve chosen ‘Drove Me Wild‘:


‘Drove Me Wild’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Light, bouncing vocals tracks over slightly fuzzy guitars and a few layers of synth keyboards make for a perfect driving-with-the-windows-down tune. Truly, these ladies know their craft.

But to do that for an entire record is almost too easy, and we are treated to a change of tone in the second act. ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me Now?’ is a biting, accusatory song lamenting a love had and inexplicably lost. It’s still pristine synth-pop, but with a bit of an undertow now.

The album continues with the excellent ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend‘, which turns the tables. Here, the voice of the song is more akin to the antagonist of one of these unplesant situations, admitting freely,

Now you wanna cry / call me a cheater
Left you to die / though I did neither
I thought that it would / that it would be best for me


‘Couldn’t Be Your Friend’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Maybe its just my world-weary self looking for another well-traveled soul, but the lyrics here read like someone doing the dirty work of breaking up for good. Somehow the battery of pitch-modulated ‘oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’s make it easier to bear, though.

This all leads us to the closing track, ‘Shock to Your System’. It’s easily the darkest moment of the album, what with its big Depeche Mode tones opening the song. Another honest assessment of a bad situation, the refrain of ‘what you are / what you are / what you are is lonely’ is more haunting that hurtful. It’s a plain statement of fact, rather than a lament.

All of this to say that Heartthrob is a pop record built on heart rather than fluff. The sisters Quinn offer you substance and style. No need to compromise. First great record of 2013.

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

Featuring: