Tag Archives: pop

Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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Toxic Canterbury Syndrome: Caravan’s Golf Girl

We’re practically awash in all manners of summer here in Southern Ontario, and summertime is when I reach for Caravan. Caravan is a part of that early 70s British prog scene, albeit a specific subgenre of which originated from one little area of the country. It basically started with one band – The Wilde Flowers, who eventually split up and whose members formed Soft Machine and Caravan. These would again split off and create new bands (Gong, Egg, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North), members would swap, and each new line-up needed a name – not to mention that other people heard what these guys were doing and wanted to imitate it as well. By that point, there were so many bands/projects/albums in that style that it was determined that it had to have a label, which ended up being the town of origin of the whole darn thing regardless of where the majority of the bands ended up coming from.

The actual Canterbury sound was not so interested in terror as King Crimson nor virtuoso performances like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It very much started out rooted in jazz, but with an appreciation for the stronger melodic content of a pop song and a preoccupation with absurd, silly lyrics. Caravan itself took a pastoral and slightly gentle approach, with the melody being the key. No more is this more evident than in “Golf Girl”, a prog pop song if there ever was one.

The song tells the tale of its narrator going out for a game of golf “dressed in PVC” and falling in love with the girl at the golf course selling tea (which is a lovely service for a golf course to provide). The trombone intro gives the song a little flash in straying from the standard rock instruments, as does the piccolo than can be heard throughout, but it plays a goofy little melody that perfectly sets the tone for what I can find no better term for than a light-hearted romp. You can hear the grin in Richard Sinclair’s voice as he documents the charming story, his voice warm and his accent pronounced – he’s not belting by any means, but simply relating – over top of the rest of the band marking the rhythm with some piano and acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit of an organ solo and a bit more of a piccolo solo, but there’s no feeling that the band is having to prove something here, unlike some of the other prog bands of the time. They’re just trying to write a fun pop song, but the combination of the musicianship and their love of marijuana ensure that it comes out with a few frills going off here and there – each instrument gets its chance to work its way into a silly little corner before coming back into the main tune.

The song doesn’t have any one unbelievable characteristic, it just always puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The story combined with the surrounding instrumentation is oh-so-English and paints a wonderful little picture of the time. Early 1970s Britain, as the post-Beatles rock explosion began, is one of my absolute favourite periods/places in music, so getting even a small idea of what it might have been like excites me. “Golf Girl” is downright pleasant and feels like summer – when I listen to it, I can feel the sun on my face, and the atrocious pants on my legs.

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Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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Toxic Pop Syndrome: The Strange Case of Dr. Oates & Mr. Hall

Welcome to Toxic Pop Syndrome, so named after the Britney Spears single that just seemed far and away in another category from the rest of her songs.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, per se, of Hall & Oates. I know a few of their big singles, and that’s pretty much it. They were pure 80s pop and did what they did very well. “Private Eyes”, “Kiss On My List”, “Maneater” and so on. But for some reason, every once in awhile, every single element comes together in a perfect storm and creates that pop song that it is impossible to sing, to groove with, to get up and dance to. “You Make My Dreams” is just such a song.

It is the only one that manages to surpass that “I’m listening to an 80s pop song” feel, and just move into “I’m listening to some damn good music” as I start throwing shapes like nobody’s business, bobbing my head back and forth and howling the lyrics without even knowing what most of the lyrics are. And it all has to do with that magic organ and its interplay with the beat.

The song opens with the organ by itself, the better for you to soak in the glorious riff it’s layin’ down. It fills up the sound nicely, but hits those offbeats heavily, which gives it that lurching feel – it’s always sort of leaning forwards to the next beat and gives that urgency and immediacy. The backbeat almost stands alone as the keys and guitar crunch down the chords on that offbeat. You can hear it when the electricity disappears for a second on the “Listen to this!” part, where they come down on the normal beats and it sounds a bit more like their other hits.

Just before the initial vocals come in, all the instruments stop to let them come in solo, creating much of what Queen called ‘hot space’ (on their album, Hot Space, where they got funky), the vocals going on their own half a step longer than it normally would, because the organ comes in on the offbeat. Leaving the listener hanging for that split second creates a great tension and excitement for when the instruments come back in.

Preliminary research (thanks, Wikipedia) tells me that this song wasn’t even one of their #1 Billboard singles, which boggles my mind. It’s basically the only Hall & Oates song I would consider to be a party in a can. Yeah, I can nod along to “Private Eyes”, but it doesn’t quite hit the same high. “You Make My Dreams” is, like, “Superstition” level (which, come to think of it, has that same offbeat feel). It gives a bit more of a peek into the duo that might have been. Even so, most groups don’t even get that effervescent moment.

Bravo, Messrs. Hall & Oates, bravo.

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#25: Lorde – Pure Heroine

(Universal, 2013)

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(Image from recordstore.co.uk)

It’s very rare that I listen to an album blind (deaf?) anymore. I will usually sample a track or so before committing to purchase – don’t want to a spoil a majority of the experience. Even if I’ve yet to even hear a track on the album, the reputation of the particular band/album will have gotten to my ears in one way or another, making me feel justified. So when an album appears in front of my eyes with an austere cover (seen above) that registers zero information in my brain, my eyebrows will begin to arch even as that sneaking suspicion passes through the back of my brain: “what if it’s crap?” I tried to use all the clues available: prominently available on its own rack, on sale, so there’s probably quite a marketing push behind it. Had a sticker advertising “Tennis Court” and “Royals” as being on it, meaning it must be getting some kind of airplay. Could be good, could just be another pop album. I let the idea of ecstasy at getting a completely foreign album to me die and quickly look the album up on Wikipedia on my phone. Praise! Bought.

It’s not that my tastes are necessarily dictated by critics on the internet – though it’s hard to argue that that is how my ears are pointed to a lot of recent releases – but there is often overlap, and is nice to be able to participate in what quickly becomes codified as cultural cache. I have seldom been steered wrong by a general critical consensus.* Rather than confining my listening, that practice has gotten me into listening to more music than I would not have normally listened to than anything else and opened up my mind to more and more from disparate genres.

Lorde is 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor attempting to carve herself a piece of the ample pop pie. She has a fantastic voice, and her melodies are all solid tunes (and often earworms, especially in the case of lead single “Royals”). The main thing that caught my attention going through the album, though, is something which a lot pop these days seems to lack but Pure Heroine seems to have in spades: space. There is room from every song to breathe here – no huge waves of synthesizer and incensed four-on-the-floor beats. Her voice is free to wheedle as it will (layered with her own harmonies), with only a couple of instrumental accessories – a strong array of electronic beats and some synthesizer (mostly filling in the bass and a few chords). There is nothing to distract the ear from the melody here – just a bare but sturdy framework to hold it up.

The content of the lyrics on the album do not belie Yelich-O’Connor’s youth, but the distance and hindsight with which they are written do: “I’m kinda over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” she sings on “Team,” commenting as a consumer of the same musical arena in which she’s dropped this album, and pushing her pop peers aside at the same time. Nothing she sings about seems to be beyond the scope of what she’s experienced in her life so far, but it’s striking the amount of disillusionment she has having set in already at sixteen – “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies” she croons in “Royals”, hitting right to the heart of and laying by the wayside the marketing/culture feedback loop impressed upon teen girls. Later in “Royals”, she uses the language of the songs and culture she’s satirizing to list off various accolades and possessions worth bragging about that she says everyone’s all about just to reject them afterwards.

At ten songs and 37 minutes, Pure Heroine is perfect album length – not a huge investment of time, but enough to get an idea of Lorde’s songwriting style and to already get excited about whatever her next project is. This is a masterfully formed debut album one only wonders how her music will develop if this is what she’s capable of now.

9/10

*This is why a majority of my entries are positive reviews – I review every album I listen to in full during the year, but the albums are usually vetted beforehand before I listen to the whole thing. The ones I pick are ones I feel I am likely to enjoy.

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#24: Raine Maida – We All Get Lighter

(Kingnoise Records, 2013)

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(Image from confrontmagazine.com)

It’s been a long road. Our Lady Peace was one of my favourite bands in high school, and my fondness for their first four albums has never really diminished. It was after Spiritual Machines that the change started (new guitarist, new producer, no falsetto!?), and Healthy in Paranoid Times when I parted company with the band. I would listen to the occasional single and then turn back around, disappointed. Their most recent, Curve, caught my ear and kept me there. It wasn’t a matter of ‘returning’ to an earlier period in the band’s life as was promised quite a few times. Can’t step in the same river twice and all that. It was more as if both they and I were more comfortable with the band that they had become. It only does so good to stamp your foot and say ‘where’s the falsetto?’ and ‘where are the sweet riffs?’ because you’re not going to find them. The band has ten plus years of time put in since then, and they have all, obviously, matured. And, in a way, it got me ready for this album.

I bypassed Maida’s first solo album, The Hunter’s Lullaby, as I was still not ready to accept the fact that the band I loved had changed; hearing their lead singer doing singer-songwriter material was NOT going to help with that. Having enjoyed the approach on Curve, however, and hearing the lead single from the album (the brass-tinger folk of “Montreal”), I decided to make the leap.

The instrumentation is the first thing that struck me, as the first track on the album (the provocatively titled “How to Kill A Man”) begins with a sharp violin tremolo and female backup singers beautifully harmonizing on the chorus; the aforementioned “Montreal” has a jaunty horn line adorning the hook; both “Rising Tide” and “Numbers” employ drum machines, which I never imagined I’d hear paired with Maida’s voice. It’s fun to hear all different kinds of instruments being drawn on to fill out and suit each track (the anarchic, jazzy trumpet on “Rising Tide” is not something I expected to hear! It almost sounds like a brass line from Radiohead’s “The National Anthem) – it makes each song stand out more. This is especially true after being used to mostly hearing him front a guitar-bass-drum trio for so long. The album sounds quite lush as a result. It’s sparse when it needs to be, but the range of frequencies is filled out quite nicely as each track progresses.

Maida has managed to find a second somewhat unique voice after dropping his down post-Spiritual Machines. His assured baritone carries the melodies he’s written quite nicely, though it feels as if its timbre is lending the proceedings a more melancholic air – even the joyous-sounding “Montreal” feels bittersweet because of it. The best example on the album is probably the appropriately sombre “How to Kill A Man.” The melody is ponderous, as I have found they have been on the last couple of OLP releases, but not in the least bit boring (he commits a brief brush with his old falsetto during the verses) – the multiple Maida vocal tracks move smoothly with the backing vocals and manage to hit just the right peaks to create a haunting effect on “bury your heart with this guilt and regret/it’s the surest way there is to kill a man.”

At only eight tracks and 32 minutes, this is one of the shortest modern albums I’ve seen, not that I begrudge Raine Maida for being selective with his track choices – I’d rather have a fantastic short album than a decent longer one. And this one falls somewhere in between. Each track stands on its own quite easily, though the two singles (“Montreal” and “SOS”) are apparent, being the only ones that have notable hooks. The orchestral arrangements are a fantastic compliment to Maida’s voice, and I hope there are more of them in the future. My one complaint would perhaps be that the arrangements are at certain points more interesting than the melodies themselves! Nevertheless, a quite good collection of songs worth hearing, especially if you’re in a calm, introspective mood.

7.5/10

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#12: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

(Warner Bros., 2013)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’m going to be honest, the first couple of times I listened to this album, it came as a shock to me when it ended. A lot of that I can chalk up to the relatively short running length of the album (it falls a few minutes short of the 40-minute mark). It bears the hallmarks of a classic pop album in that way – sub-40-minute running time, no songs past 4 minutes (“I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” being the exceptions, tipping the scales at 4:19 and 4:09, respectively), and each a solid, densely-packed little nugget of catchy melodies and ear-catching tones exploring personal themes of love and heartbreak. It also all kind of sounds the same.

There is an insistent beat that moves throughout every track of the album, moving it along at a reasonable pace, doling the bass drum out fairly and liberally which serves to sort of flatten a lot of the proceedings – you never get a chance to forget you’re listening to a pop song; there’s no sort of “out” moment that makes you cock your head and say “wait a second…”, there’s no sharp chord or quail that juts out.  It’s all determined by the straightforward beat.

The glossy production has a lot to do with the uniformity of the sound. The details within the tones of the songs have been tweaked to within an inch of their lives. The synthesizers are buzzing with just enough gain to be noticed, very occasionally pulling back their lips and baring their teeth, but never with malice. Every corner of the aural space is filled right up most of the time, leaving no space for extra emphasis or ‘heightening’ come the chorus (the slower piano-based “I Was A Fool” provides a couple moments of respite).

Having a homogenous sound is detrimental in some ways, but can afford the listener a different perspective on things. Since each song is using the same set of instruments – the same constraints – it’s easier to focus in on the differences that do exist between each song. In the case of the sisters Quin, it’s the melodies.

The melodies themselves are quite engaging – swooping down, stopping and starting, charting an actual interesting course through each song, in sharp contrast to the ‘bed’ upon which the melodies sit. These comprise the heart of the album and the rewards to be taken away from it. They are surprisingly heartfelt and would sit just fine on top of a threadbare acoustic guitar as they do in their original context.

When blended together, Tegan & Sara’s voices actually sound like a patch on a very articulate synthesizer, which provides a solid vehicle for delivering the melodies – a very rounded, whole sound with the harmonies woven into the structure as opposed to just sitting on top of the ‘real’ melody.

Overall, I found this album fairly disappointing. The core of the songs are quite good, and would not be out of place in a singer-songwriter context, but are confronted on all sides by instruments taking up the vast amount space that exists between the headphones and a glossy sheen that lays on top that would rather you dance instead of getting too close.

6/10

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