Sunday, April 13, 2014


Blog is taunting me. Crazy schedule making it impossible. So sorry. Haven't forgotten.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Song #504 of 9999 - Hot Knife by Fiona Apple

Song #504 of 9999

Title: Hot Knife
Artist: Fiona Apple
Year: 2012
Album: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Way back in September of 2013 (yeah, way back then), I wrote a post about Fiona Apple's controversial beginnings as a pop artist, acknowledging there was more than meets the eye to the waifish 19-year-old. At 36, Apple has now spent more than half her life in the music-making business and her mature sound would come as a revelation to those who wrote her off in the late 90s.

I would count myself among that crowd if I had ever given any thought at all to Apple but she didn't fall very close to my tree in the 90s or ever. Only when I started writing this blog did I give her music a deserving chance and it has been a delight to uncover this singular talent. For The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Apple took a break from longtime producer Jon Brion and enlisted her touring drummer Charley Drayton to tweak the dials. Drayton apparently brought a dumptruck full of toys to the studio and the resulting intermingling of Apple's always interesting piano playing with his colorful percussion is refreshing. (Check out "Jonathan" for a track that really comes alive as a result of the percussion.) This addition of membranophones, metallophones and idiophones (oh my!) pushes Apple closer to a contemporary jazz sound than she's ever been and it seems to have especially had an impact on her singing, which is even more rhythmic and percussive.

"Hot Knife" is almost a novelty track, buried at the end of the album. But it's so much fun, I couldn't resist sharing it. I personally find the words to be a little silly but the conflicting-voices-in-my-head-concept works with this polyphonic multi-tracking. Anyway, it's not really about the words, is it? These are just consonants and vowels enlisted to deliver the rhythm and phrasing that she does so well. And instead of turning it into some funk thing or a big band-like a capella number a là Manhattan Transfer, she plays outside piano licks (like at 0:40) and keeps Drayton away from the drum kit entirely in favor of a tribal beat she plays herself on a pair of timpani. This track is stark! On top of all that, she enlists indie film darling Paul Thomas Anderson to make her video. If you ask me, little Fiona has grown into a pretty cool cat.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Song #503 of 9999 - Perth by Bon Iver

Song #503 of 9999

Title: Perth
Artist: Bon Iver
Year: 2011
Album: Bon Iver, Bon Iver

You can tell a lot about a band from its sophomore effort. I felt okay jumping on the modern folk bandwagon in 2009 or so, picking up records from Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons. And when late 2011 rolled around, I didn't hesitate to purchase their latest releases. What I experienced from each band was something very different. Mumford and Sons continued to tread in the same waters to a disappointing degree while Bon Iver found something new and creative while still retaining their signature sound. In fact, you may find Bon Iver, Bon Iver to be an improvement on For Emma, Forever Ago if you make the investment.

"Perth" is the first track from Bon Iver, Bon Iver and, while not a single, it epitomizes the album and the band for me. Justin Vernon's falsetto vocal is enveloped by a halo of harmony that follows just behind in terms of pitch and rhythm. It's at once both robotic and organic.

But what I really enjoy about "Perth" is its exemplary use of a musical motive. In the simplest of terms, a motive is a short, melodic/rhythmic idea that is repeated throughout a piece and serves as a unifying element. (Think of the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the quintessential example.) In "Perth," this motive (shown in brackets below) is first heard in the guitar part as a sequence of constantly rising segments which oscillate between dissonant-consonant and consonant-dissonant.

What I really like about this motive is that it provides this rhythmic flourish directly on the beat, almost like a Baroque ornament. This is really unusual for pop music and Bon Iver takes advantage of its power and fluidity. The figure returns most prominently in the chorus (at 1:28) but even before that moment, it can be heard in the snare drum that supports the otherwise naked first verse. When the song gets heavy and syncopated at 2:33, the motive is relegated to a supporting role in the responding drumbeat (at 2:40). But it emerges in full force at 3:48 before eventually giving way to Track 2 ("Minnesota, WI"). It's an auspicious opening to a fulfilling record, almost symphonic in nature.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Song #502 of 9999 - One Sunday Morning by Wilco

Song #502 of 9999

Title: One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
Artist: Wilco
Year: 2011
Album: The Whole Love

Short post tonight about a long song. Twelve minutes long! It must be an epic prog-rock thing, right? Nope, just a strophic folk song with minimal instrumentation and verse after verse relating a conversation about religion between Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and author Jane Smiley's boyfriend (whoever that is).

I first heard this song live in concert at the Meriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. The song was played by Tweedy with just an acoustic guitar in the middle of their set. I remember saying to my friend Erik (frequent contributor to the blog) that I wasn't sure if the song was "working" or "going over very well" or something like that. It was interesting to watch the revved-up crowd completely deflate while the concert ground to a halt. If memory serves, The Whole Love hadn't been released yet, so no-one knew the song and it......was......loooooooong. Erik, naturally more attuned to the artist than I, said he thought it was remarkably brave to play it and I simultaneously admired Tweedy and Erik just a little bit more at the thought. 

Later on, I remembered the catchy guitar riff and, upon hearing the studio recording, found myself enjoying this experimental (for attention-span-lacking 21st century fans) folk ballad more than I ever thought I would. There is something meditative about the song's repetition that is fulfilling in a way I haven't experienced in pop music for some time. I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Song #501 of 9999 - Default by Django Django

Paul Costello holds the distinction of being the first guy I mean when I say "my English friend". (I like him so much I'm going to let that period I just typed sit outside of the quotation marks just for his benefit.) I suspect he is able to tolerate me only after years of working with spoiled American kids at the British American Drama Academy. He records songs and plays shows under the moniker Johnny Cashpoint and writes a daily webcomic called 1000 Days of Paul. He has impeccable taste in music, notwithstanding a soft spot for Supertramp.

Song #501 of 9999

Title: Default
Artist: Django Django
Year: 2011
Album: Default

I don't about round *your* way, but 2011 was a bad year for music in the UK. Lester Bangs was still dead, Florence and her Coffee Making Machine were covering Buddy Holly, and Mumford was raising his Sons on meaningless folk whimsy ... The spirit of punk (whatever you think that means) couldn't have felt further away. A year of butter-faced dimwit Cameron and it felt like things, sadly, could only get *worse*.

And then - through a complicated series of events, I ended up in a box at the Royal Albert Hall to see Spiritualized - Not a huge fan, exhausted from work, not entirely sure that the RAH was a place to see an Indie band, blah blah blah, - but this "who now?" support band blew them off the stage and me away. Embracing those elements of the past they loved - surf guitar, sour Beach Boys harmonies, big 80s reverb drum sounds, squiggles of krautrock electronica, dominant dub basslines - they melded them together into a sound that was simultaneously as old as Neil Young, and immediately new. They made me want to dance, and not care what people thought of me dancing - music at is best. 

The recordings I hunted down the very next day lacked their visceral live rush but showed four intelligent musicians who understand it was smart to be dumb when it mattered, and vice versa. They scavenged the past and found something new in the spread. Recycling as an art-form, if you will (and you probably won't). Released properly in January 2012, "Default" was a massive surprise hit, which warmed my angry heart. It's an easy default for people to think no good music has been made since we were teenagers - but the truth is people continue to want to hear good music - and, surprisingly, are willing to be patient for it. Sing it (in a silly robot voice) "Diddy diddy default"!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Song #500 of 9999 - Cruel by St. Vincent

Song #500 of 9999

Title: Cruel
Artist: St. Vincent
Year: 2011
Album: Strange Mercy


Well, here it is. The big 5-O-O. I made it to 500 songs, even though you and I both know I accidentally used "That Teenage Feeling" by Neko Case twice. Someday I'll figure out an elegant way to fix that. 

In the meantime, I'm going to use tonight's post to make some restitution. I've been unduly critical of Annie Clark and mostly for issues that are almost entirely unrelated to her music. For reasons I don't really understand myself, I a) hate her stage name, St. Vincent, even when while understanding its clever origin (it's the hospital where Dylan Thomas died), and b) hate her association with David Byrne, who I generally like. If I could add a part two to my letter b, it would be that I hate that she is starting to look like a female version of David Byrne—see the cover of Digital Witness (2013). And yes, I did give a fair hearing to 2007's Actor, which I found unnecessarily quirky.

But I may have been wrong and I'm willing to admit it. "Cruel" is an amazing concoction that is as poppy as it is artful. And it fits perfectly with a concept I was explaining to my music theory class earlier today: the use of non-diatonic elements in a diatonic context. In the lesson, I was demonstrating how Baroque composer Henry Purcell uses descending chromaticism to illustrate a character's death in the recitative "Thy Hand, Belinda" from Dido and Aeneas. 

While no such tone painting exists in "Cruel," there are some really interesting non-diatonic elements dressing up an otherwise (mostly) straightforward chord progression. The first of these flourishes occurs right at the outset of the track on the ascending vocal line. Clark sings a major scale in the tonic key of F#, but the keyboard (or vocoder or whatever) that supports her vocal is set to an interval that results in some very unusual (and clearly non-diatonic) parallelism. This is followed immediately by a chromatically descending chord progression. It's a captivating opening that quickly gives way to some harmonic normalcy (I-IV) and a slick guitar lick at 0:26. Later, at 2:10, we're offered a slowly creeping portamento in the keyboard that would have made George Martin proud. Another non-diatonic element that adds interest and intrigue to a very satisfying pop song. You win, St. Vincent—I'm a convert.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songs #498 & 499 - It's TWOsday!

Song #498 of 9999                                   Song #499 of 9999

Title: Song & Dance                                  Title: The Words That Maketh Murder
Artist: Peggy Sue                                      Artist: PJ Harvey
Year: 2011                                                 Year: 2011
Album: Acrobats                                       Album: 
Let England Shake


Sometime around 2011 (or maybe 2010), I returned to vinyl. I felt disengaged from the music I was listening to and hoped a return to records would restore my focus by demanding a dedicated listening experience. I wanted to go back to the days of looking at album art, occasionally following along with lyrics, and being absorbed by a single artist's work for an hour or more. I wanted to have to get up and flip the record over; or perhaps, abandon it in favor of another. I was hoping a greater investment of my attention would yield the reward I used to get from listening to music.

So I started buying records like I did when I was kid: if I heard a song I liked, I just bought the album hoping for the best. And, for the most part, this worked out okay. Of course, there were occasional flops (I even sent Feist's Metals back to Amazon at great loss to get it out of my house—deplorable record) and some wonderful surprises (bought Vampire Weekend's Contra on a whim and couldn't stop listening to it). But one of the things I also discovered is the focus of tonight's post. Which is to say that some artists work better in small doses.

I first heard Brighton-based Peggy Sue on NPR's All Things Considered. It was an interview segment with snippets of songs played in between questions and I found the record quite intriguing. When I put it on my turntable, I was greeted (not the right word really) by something menacing and dark and commanding. By the second track, "Song and Dance," I was sold on the band's creative guitar work, playful tempo changes and "in the ballpark" vocal harmony. It was a very charismatic sound and, by the middle of the second side, I wanted to pull my ears off. I had had enough.

I don't know if Peggy Sue has been directly influenced by PJ Harvey but they certainly have some things in common, including an occasional harshness (at least in 2011) that will wear you out. Let England Shake is a disheveled collection of discordant songs sewn together into some sort of flag or protest, I suppose. It's hard to tell—maybe it's an English thing. Anyway, if you were to ask me if I like the record, I would enthusiastically say yes! But I can really only listen to about a third of it before I'm ready for a break. Harvey's quivery helium-boosted voice is a good delivery system for her thought-provoking lyrics but it takes on a fingernails-on-slate quality after twenty minutes or so. I think the overly enthusiastic percussion on the record must share the guilt as well.

Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. See you tomorrow.