Wednesday, October 09, 2013

What the pop papers say: The rinky-dinky Express

I was going to do a quick review of the new-look NME, but it doesn't appear to have arrived yet.

Hang on... what's this, underneath this postcard?

Why, it's a diddy little NME.

Seriously, this is a tiny little magazine. It appears to be smaller than the Melody Maker when it turned into a little magazine shortly before it closed for good. The official line is that this is a tablet-sized format, which makes economic sense - no need to redesign for digital - but a slap in the face of the 20,000 print readers who now get a product optimised for the few hundred electronic subscribers.

Still - it looks great on the front page, and there's a little bit of a secret message down the edge of the page. Yes, it looks like The Face, even down to the plus signs where the downline appears to hover over the crossline. Looks more like The Face than it does the NME, in fact. But it looks like a magazine that has tried.

There's even not one, but two, mission statements - the new slogan "the past, present and future of music", plus a promise of "more new music... more reviews... about %#@!£ time".

It's not quite an apology for the Gallagher years, or the light reviews section of recent times, but it's a start.

It's a front page that wants you to cut some slack, to approach in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.

Sure, it's a Bowie cover, which isn't the most dangerous choice, but last week they had McCartney; as I observed earlier in the week, Bowie was the only strong sales performance in the first half of 2013 and Bowie has appeared on the cover more than any other person, so it's a nice way of tying in history and present. Fits with the mission statement. (Indeed, the Bowie piece shares the new slugline.)

But can the magazine deliver where it counts: inside?

Let's take a peak.

Page 3: There's a full contents page on page three - the index of what bands appear inside is also back. Fela Kuti on page 30; Tindersticks, erm, also on page 30. Oh! Gary Numan. He's on page 30, too. Busy page, then, page 30.

We'll get there in a minute.

Page 4: It's Angst! Or Tool! Or NMEmail! Except now its called Sounding Off. There's only four letters now. One is Abigail Jones in Fleetwood complaining about Haim hanging out with David Cameron; In response, Mike Williams manages to blame this on Tony Blair and Noel Gallagher.

But only four letters? Really?

(They publish a postal address, which is sweet.)

Page 6-7: Double the number of tracks for On Repeat. Kurt Vile, The Wytches and BEEDEEGEE amongst others.

Page 8-19: "The Week", which isn't (just) news. It's basically Thrills, before Thrills became a sarc-muffin.

So there's Jake Bugg meeting someone who is dressed as Elvis, but it gets better. Brandon Flowers talks about playing China. No, it really does get better.

Andy Welch contributes a piece about Muscle Shoals Sounds studios, admittedly inspired by a film that's coming out but feels like a story that hasn't been told to death.

MIA is given space to explain why she gave the finger during the Superbowl. Interestingly, she goes down a 'hey, it used to have a totally different meaning, like the swastika, yeah?' line, which makes her sound like Crispin Mills.

"The only time you'll see a green representation of a woman in the West is a witch, in a musical called Wicked" claims MIA.

I'm not entirely sure I agree, but I can't put my finger on why.

There's a traditional In The Studio bit - this week Metronomy - and an "Anatomy Of An Album" which is Kid A. Not perhaps such a fresh choice.

Back, back, back comes the charts. Not a double page spread, but just a listing for the Official Record Store Chart. Which is sort of like an indie chart, but is more muddled-up, what with Roy Harper and Elton John in there.

Tinie Tempah does the Soundtrack of My Life feature - he wishes he'd written Isn't She Lovely, because it makes women melt.

Pages 21-25: Radar. Dead Coast! Puffer! Jungle!

Pages 26-31: Reviews - albums (and also a book). There's a "play it again" side panel which will remind older readers of Select - the NME column, not the magazine, that repeated sniglets of the last few weeks warmest reviews. (There's a lot of small ideas like this that suggest the team working on the redesign worked their way through a lot of back issues, and with good effect.)

There's probably more reviews than there were before - as promised on the front cover - but it's not like going from a pair of puppies to a hundred and one dalmatians; it's more a few extra. Perhaps it's a quiet week. (Oh, and page 30? That's where five reviews cram into the smaller page size.)

Pages 32-37: Reviews - live. Actually, the smaller format really makes the live photography look a lot better; especially the Nicky Wire and Katy B shots. Not sure what trick has been pulled here - maybe it's with less space to fill, the photos are having to justify every square centimetre they cover rather than cover up gaps in the page?

Theres some adverts then, until we get to...

Pages 44 - 47: Guide.

A moment of silence, please.

The world's most comprehensive gig guide is dead. Effectively, the line-by-line listings have been exiled to the web. Oh, internet, with your tables and mark-up, and real time updating and 'buy ticket' buttons, you are a more obvious home for the comprehensive gig list.

But nobody would ever have heard of Mung Bean Jesus or Who Moved The Ground were it not for the time-killing game of reading the listings for really shit names.

On the other hand, you only ever played that game while waiting for internet to become a consumer product, so swings and roundabouts.

And there's still a list of highlights, plus a nifty collection of free gigs - you can see Pins for less than two pins in Sunderland.

And Staying In rounds up music on TV and radio in the coming days - 6Music sessions given the prominence they deserve at last.

Page 49: Hungerford's crossword, along with a quiz (14. Who was in both the Sesame Street house band and the black panthers?) and... yes... a cartoon.

A cartoon! In the NME! See what I mean about the eye on what worked well in the past?

It's not a great cartoon; it's not a Ray Lowry cartoon, but it's a cartoon.

Pages 52-61: Feature articles. I'm hoping that in coming weeks this space will get a bit of variety in it, but this week it's all Bowie. And it's an awkward taste of 'what had gone wrong with the NME' lingering in the mix because other pop stars have been asked to offer an article about how great Bowie is.

So we're treated to the insight of Faris Badwan, which is a bit like getting Bernard Matthews to talk about Mrs Beeton. I could just be being bitter, though, as Badwan reveals he got loaned the Bowie At The Beeb CD collection when he was still at school, and I listened to it while driving around my wedding venue, so it makes me feel older than even remembering when Ray Lowry cartoons were in the NME does.

And, to be fair, even with Faris on-board the line-up of fellow musicians bowing the knee is pretty impressive: Black Francis, Trent Reznor, St Vincent...

Tony Visconti pops up to talk about the extra tracks on The Next Day Extra - which is surely the first time the NME has offered quite so much promotional space to a 'buy a record you've already bought because we've added some second-string tracks' gambit.

Pages 62-64: An old article about The Sex Pistols. Old habits die harder than old addicts.

Page 65: A look back ten years to a Kings Of Leon cover

Page 66: Brett Anderson does the Does Rock & Roll Kill Braincells, which has been given a new format: The questions are from "the fans". ("Is the window [on Dog Man Star sleeve] open or closed?"). It doesn't quite work, as the questions are mostly 'what job were you doing when you wrote this song' type-affairs. Even so Brett only scores six.

And... that's it. It doesn't quite live up to the promise of the front page, but it shakes up a magazine that had gotten tired, while picking through some ideas that had been dropped in previous overhauls.

Will it find a big new audience? It feels unlikely. But it might just stem the bleeding circulation long enough to allow digital to offer a stable future for the title.

It's a little more new; it's a little bit more musical; it's just been a little expressed.