Tag Archives: rock

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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spinning Presently: Jack White’s Lazaretto

It’s been awhile since I’ve been on board the Jack White train. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked him, my interest in his stuff just seems to be on a sine wave that moves incidentally with his releases. As soon as I heard Get Behind Me, Satan, I collected all the White Stripes albums I could (save their self-titled debut) and followed them until the high point they went out on, Icky Thump. Both Raconteurs’ albums I couldn’t get enough of, and I dug a couple of cuts from the Dead Weather’s two LPs, but that was about it. I was sort of ready to close the Jack White chapter for awhile. When White’s first actual solo album, Blunderbuss, came out, I did pick it up because I knew it would be something that I’d want eventually, but at the time I never really was able to give it the time of day, and that still colours my perception of it (apart from the infectious “Love Interruption”). I have no doubt that will change in the very near future, however, as I have listened to Lazaretto, and it is fantastic.

The very first impression I get upon listening to this album is that White is super happy to be free of the restraints that he had created for himself in the White Stripes. It was Meg on Drums and Jack playing one, maybe two other instruments over top. When Lazaretto starts with “Three Women”, he throws everything down on the table and molds it into a frenetic whole, over the skeleton of a straight-up blues song, his stock-in-trade since debuting. The heavily distorted organ that delivers the riff with an extended time signature sets the tone, as the distortion on this album is such that it in no mean feat to identify the instrument being played. Organ, guitar, piano, electric piano, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle – throw some synths in there, and you just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride. White has assembled quite a band to back him on all but the final song here (a solo acoustic number, as is tradition), giving him so many more moving pieces to work with; you gotta wonder if he was dreaming up the near orchestral sweep of “Would You Fight For My Love?” while pounding away at the three chords in “Jumble, Jumble”.

Though he is by far most associated with the guitar, the piano feels like it very much makes up the backbone of the album, peeking through at the end of every line and bashing away time behind every chorus, very much expressing the cute and coy riffs he never quite got to on the blocky chord bashing he did with his piano in the Stripes. It lends to the ‘open’ feel the record has. If you can throw layer after layer on top without worrying about limits, you could do worse that having a core piano track, which makes it feel as if White has moved into the “songwriter/arranger” role, moreso than the solo bluesman feel when he wields the guitar (though it is deployed handily for solos), as keeping track of everything that’s going on here is quite a feat in itself. On “Lazaretto” itself, White spits lyric upon lyric over top of a bassline of no lean distortion and a slick rhythm with no relief for its cymbals. The song eventually breaks apart from its rather mean feel to make way for a fiddle soloing on top of the bassline, which seems to come completely from left field, but not necessarily out of place.

In my experience, Jack White likes to hide a gem further down the track list, and Lazaretto is no exception. Right from the introduction of the electronically treated fake laughter to the headbangin’ riff, “That Black Bat Licorice” is a hell of a lot of fun. “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/Just a buncha propaganda to make my fingers histrionic” howls Jack before adding “Like this”, as he introduces a quick little high-string guitar riff; “and this” and unleashing the riff again with all the instruments crashing down and down on the same target. He screams about how “I never liked that black bat licorice” over it all, another in the list of little phrases that White uses that gives everything that specific, detailed flavour that you’re not personally familiar with but you know means something to him (as in “Lazaretto”, where he talks about “making models of humans out of coffee and cotton”).

Even though there are a couple of tracks in the middle of the record that drag a little for me (“Entitlement” in particular doesn’t feel as vulnerable as it ought to. There’s a lot going on, which is the record’s M.O., but it doesn’t suit the humble vocal), Lazaretto is a fantastic record and I would definitely argue one of White’s best, regardless of the band associated with it. The feeling that anything can come down the line and that the instruments effortlessly tag in and out while hanging onto a cohesive whole is incredibly exciting and White is a fantastic master of ceremonies while still being able to write a hell of a tune and a hell of a riff.

“Three Women”:

“Lazaretto”:

“That Black Bat Licorice”:

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Don’t Pass Me By: 5 Songs Sung By Someone Other Than the Lead Singer

It’s nice to see when a band can substitute in different elements while keeping their sound intact – they can swap instruments a la David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” or bring in another musician to liven things up a la The Beatles Let It Be with Nicky Hopkins on electric piano. Sometimes it just takes shoving a different guy from the back of the stage in front of the mic and into the spotlight. Hearing a new voice behind a familiar band can radically change of the feeling of the song or get you to notice a facet of the band that you had never noticed before, not to mention some long-hidden-away vocal talent that was just begging to come to the surface. Presented here are five instances of a different person taking the helm and letting ‘er rip:

1) R.E.M. – Superman

On the grounds that Michael Stipe thought the song was too silly for him to sing, bassist Michael Mills stepped up to allow the audience to hear a but of what happens when R.E.M. has a little fun with their material and covers an old favourite by Texas band The Clique. The melody bounces along in a way that R.E.M. songs rarely do and there’s a totally different, fun energy present with Mills’ rendition (though, admittedly, his singing voice is a lot like Stipe’s, if a little less polished). As the album closer to Lifes Rich Pageant, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, as the band does not do a whole lot of covers on their albums – it feels like a “let’s throw one more on there” and I’m glad they did! Apparently Stipe was not too embarrassed to do harmony vocals over top, so you end up with a very different sound overall as you get a glimpse of the music that was making them excited. Funnily enough, it ended up being one of the singles from the album and received a decent amount of air play.

2) The Clash – The Guns of Brixton

Paul Simonon’s songwriting and vocal debut for the band on their smash London Calling conjures images of rough lower-class resistance “when they kick at your front door”, not just in lyrics but also in the reggae feel of the music and the accent Simonon adopts to sing the song. The rough and angry timbre of his voice suits the sentiment perfectly as he muses on the heinous acts of the local police towards the immigrants there, issuing a warning to them that “you can crush us/you can bruise us/but you’ll have to answer to/the guns of Brixton”, which is fantastically ominous and a reminder that nothing is forgotten. The way the vocal falls to “the guns of Brixton” is where you can hear the narrowing of the eyes instead of producing a big loud chorus, as the whole song is very much uniquely suited to Simonon’s voice – had Mick Jones or Joe Strummer tackled it, it might not have stood out quite so much as the rebellious anthem it clearly is.

3) Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar

Not even in the band, but in the studio next door, British folk great Roy Harper sings vocals on this track about the emptiness of the music industry. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour had tried to record the vocals (both separately and together), but were not satisfied with any of them. In a way, it’s perfect. The song is from the perspective of a record label exec or a manager who’s supposed to be addressing the band, so for the vocals to be by someone else, you really get that sense of someone interfering in the record – “You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people”. He has just the right amount of sleaze in his voice to deliver the faux-fawning patter as he asks them “oh, by the way/which one’s Pink?” as you wonder who the hell this guy is and why he should be strutting in the middle of this Pink Floyd album to chum up to the band. He knows when to keep it conversational and when to stretch the notes out and sounds like a total natural fit. Had it been Waters or Gilmour, it might not have had that visceral, unexpected punch to it.

4) Queen – Good Company

While Brian May’s can be heard on virtually every Queen track – he is approximately a third of the harmonic assault at any given time – his vocals don’t get spotlighted that often, as he was in the same band as Freddie Mercury. On this track from A Night at the Opera, it’s pretty much just his show as, apart from creating an entire Dixieland jazz band from his guitar, he sings about a man gradually losing his friends and loved ones as he gets further and further into his work, providing lead and backing vocals both, which gives it a different feel from when Mercury and Roger Taylor are also in the vocal mix.  Unlike some bands where the vocalists seem to share a lot of similarities, the singers in Queen actually have quite diverse voices that blend well – the song still has that big ‘Queen’ feel, but May has a more nuanced and lower voice than the other two and is a perfect fit for this humble tale.

5) Genesis – More Fool Me

Back in 1973, it was unusual for Peter Gabriel to relinquish the microphone, but they took a chance on giving their young drummer a track or two to sing his song, that drummer’s name, of course, being Phil Collins. Yes, Collins would go on to front Genesis for longer than Gabriel did at the end of the day, but at the time, this was only the second song he’d sung lead vocals on and the first that was over two minutes, and the music being made scarcely resembled what the band would become later. The simple strummed acoustic guitar, along with Collins innocent vocals sound miles away from “Invisible Touch” or “I Can’t Dance”. You could tell right away, however, that the man knew a hook, as this song picks up quite nicely at the chorus and provides a sense of quietude on the sprawling Selling England By the Pound, in both instrumentation and subject matter. This was the initial flag-planting for Mr. Collins within the band that proved he’d be able to step out from behind the drum kit and take the mic (and sound a heckuva lot like Peter Gabriel, quite honestly).

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Panic! Attack, Part 1: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

Welcome to my non-consecutive (currently) five-part series taking a look at the discography of Panic! at the Disco (formerly ‘Panic at the Disco’, who was formerly ‘Panic! at the Disco’). At only four studio albums (and one live one), their oeuvre is not particularly daunting, and I’m particularly curious to see how they have evolved their sound. My only memory of them from when they broke out in 2005 is the one line from the chorus “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, but other than that particular vocal I remembered absolutely nothing. At this time, I was heading backwards into music’s history (I have a distinct memory of my friend Nik walking into my dorm room, handing me a huge shoe-box of CDs and saying “this is ‘A.'”), and was really selective about what I put in my ears, with much of my palette consisting of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since that time, I hadn’t really given them a thought until my lovely girlfriend Chloe told me that they were one of her absolute favourite bands. Not even knowing that they were still producing music, and after a little chin-scratching, I decided the only thing for it was to see what was up with these guys. The prospect of widening my tastes and having more music to listen to is one I find terribly exciting!

The first thing that struck me listening to A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is that singer Brandon Urie is all over this album! He rarely stops to break, but that’s because he’s not just the singer of the band – he’s also the emcee. The album begins, appropriately, with “Introduction”, where someone’s clicking down the dial on a radio and looking for something that speaks to them before hearing “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present a picturesque score of passing fancy”, everything very much muffled and distant before we delve into the meat of the album a few seconds later as we accept out invitation to this world.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” begins the album proper as an invocation and a pledge to the audience that they’re going to get a show if they only promise to pay attention (much like Queen’s “Let Me Entertain You” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) – “Swear to shake it up/if you swear to listen” rings the chorus. The song is all about establishing that relationship with the audience up front, as Urie and the band will be your guide through this world so you gotta know you can trust them going forward (“Don’t you see/I’m the narrator and this is just the prologue?”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the first few seconds of the song where it’s made clear that you are not just listen, but you are having a conversation – “Sit tight/I’m gonna need you to keep time/Come on just snap snap snap/your fingers for me”. All very well and good, audience participation is encouraged. It’s that the next line is “Good good/now we’re making some progress” that makes you take a step back and go ‘whoa, he’s paying attention’.

Not that it’s difficult to keep your ear on the beat. There’s a lot of straight ahead backbeating and guitar crunching with the amount of swagger appropriate to the theatricality of the show. The energy is so high here and things move at such a swift pace it’s easy to miss things as they go by – a few bars of out-and-out EDM spring fully formed out of the bridge and we whip by a quiet multi-faceted harmony before launching back into the chorus.

That first song is a great example of what makes the album such a joy to listen to – it’s clear that the band’s influences are legion and they’re eager to get as many of them into the proceedings as possible (hence the “passing fancy” of the introduction). They have thrown everything on this record, hung on the skeleton of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums punk rock format. “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” begins with a great overdriven synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Metric track; “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written By Machines” features a space reserved for a gain-drenched drum kit to pound around; “Intermission” is part-synthesizer disco track until the interruption and apology by our radio announcer friend before moving into a frilly classical-sounding piano piece.

Each track on the album is a little journey with all the parts with different instruments, tunes and beats that build up to the chorus – the unison section of “But It’s Better If You Do” is casual demonstration of the band’s skill while still keeping things terribly exciting before the refrain comes around again and everyone can relax (comparatively speaking). “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, the album’s and possibly the band’s most popular single begins with a riff on a plucked cello with some bowed bass notes and a xylophone tinkling the rhythm away during the verses – another nod to the influence of classical music on the band – before launching into the straight-ahead thrashing of the chorus while nodding and adding “Seriously!” when Urie asks “haven’t you people ever heard of/closing the goddamned door?”

As an album written with a clear love of music in every corner and an equal love for all things proper and theatrical (“Please leave all overcoats, canes and top hats/with the doorman”, Urie requests in “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”), A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is one of those very rare debut albums that quite possibly gets out everything the band wants the public to know about it while maintaining a certain cohesion and boundless energy. 40 minutes from open to close, Panic! makes their statement without wearing out their welcome and having you itching to get back to that world at your earliest possible convenience.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”

“But It’s Better If You Do”

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies”

Happy Anniversary. 🙂

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another.  These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most obtuse angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.

Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:

1) Don’t Let’s Start, They Might Be Giants (1986)

Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry) The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.

2) They’ll Need A Crane, Lincoln (1988)

From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.

3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)

Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.

4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)

One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.

5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)

“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of  one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another  song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”

6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)

Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental repertoire as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.

7) Older, Mink Car (2001)

There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.

8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)

“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.

9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)

One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.

10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)

This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs That Are Pastiches of Other Artists

Bands going outside their comfort zone produces some interesting sounds. But bands deliberately imitating other bands makes the situation so much more interesting! Why exactly are they going lengths to ape someone else’s sound? Is it an homage, a rip-off or a send-up? More importantly, do they hit the mark or do they fall short?

The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” might serve as the most famous example, hitting both simultaneously: a loving homage to the Beach Boys right down to the lyrics, which of course substitute the  then-verboten USSR where otherwise would be the good ol’ US of A. Whether it was overtly political or they were just having a laugh at transplanting American music, it creates the interesting effect of hearing a band through someone else’s ears first, at which point it’s then handed over to you. It sometimes can offer a different perspective on an act you already thought you were intimately familiar with! Without further ado, five more examples:

1) R.E.M. – “The Wake-Up Bomb” (T-Rex) (1996)

One thing I don’t think people were except from R.E.M. in the 90s was a paean to glam rock, but then sprawling, hour-plus-long New Adventures in Hi-Fi surprised a lot of people. The lyrics recall in crystalline detail the experience of the young glam rocker of the early 70s who would “practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene”, complete with requisite descriptions of the garish outfits. Despite their staid image, there’s no way this song is emerging from anywhere but experience. Michael Stipe delivers his lyrics with an unusual sneer as he defiantly informs us that “I get high in my low-ass boot-cut jean/I like being seen”, very much expressing the all-too-familiar confidence and vanity of youth – a journey that the band takes right along with him. There’s no subtle textures or nuance to the track, just big swaggering chords and a good ol’ beat to swing around to, with an organ being slammed in the background for good measure. On an album full of introspective and ponderous songs, this one for the extroverts does its job admirably: sometimes you just wanna wear your “metallic sick wraparound blackout tease” and rock the hell out.

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (Bob Dylan) (1966)

While a cover of Bob’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on their first album would suggest a reverence for the folk-rocker’s work, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” perfectly captures Dylan’s new (at the time) electric sound, while lyrically sending him up. The song is stuffed with contemporary references at every line (even in the title), while in between them Simon blows tunelessly into his harmonica. “He’s so unhip, when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was!” is perhaps the most telling line as Simon’s lyrics send their barbs at the ultra-hip of the time, whose dialogue is alive with current topics and a myriad of slang terms (“I smoke a pint of tea a day”), but really pay little heed to the intellectuals that preceded them, and are really just playing at intelligence by using obscenely clever words while getting high. The fact that that is followed up with “But’s alright Ma/Everybody must get stoned!” leaves little doubt at who the figurehead. Though it seemed to be a little too pointed to be a pure jest, the fact that his last harmonica solo is punctuated with a declarative “Folk rock!” followed by Simon dropping the the instrument and sullenly stating “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert…” is enough to make it at least hilarious.

3) The Guess Who – “Friends of Mine” (The Doors) (1969)

It’s nice to know that musicians are listening to the same music that you are. One of Burton Cummings’ idols entering the rock world as a singer was Jim Morrison, and this track makes it very plain. The song runs an exhausting ten minutes, much of which is Cummings repeating “Buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-ay!”, spouting lines of pop culture, personal anecdotes and vague psychedelia as the band vamps underneath on a couple of chords. Not long after that, the band becomes quieter, opening the door to show you Cummings channelling Morrison’s rambling soothsayer persona for the telling of a macabre story Though it doesn’t quite have the conviction of “The End”, I would argue that the climax is even better. In case you forgot of the band’s country of origin, and because they presumably gotta make the ten minutes, Cummings begins to recite In Flanders Fields before changing the lyrics – “To Flanders Field the hippies go!”, he spits. The affection for the Doors’ original material is clear, as the whole band sounds the part, right down to the deft organ work thoughout, the jazz-inflected drumming and even the seeming telepathy of the original band, as they ebb and flow with the vocals just as well. Any ten-minute-long parody song is going to have to be a labour of love.

4) The Beatles – “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (John Lennon) (1968)

Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a basic blues song with a screaming sort of vocal a la Lennon (the genuine article of which can be found on the same album – “Yer Blues”) only contains the words in the title plus “No one will be watching us”, repeated over and over again. Apparently inspired by McCartney seeing two monkeys copulating in the middle of the road while on the Beatles’ Indian retreat, it’s his meditation on “how simple the act of procreation is”*, but might also be saying the same about Lennon’s songs. At under two minutes, the song was never going to have fantastic legs (he’d revisit the idea more fully a few songs later on “Helter Skelter”), but it makes its point and displays a sort of rawness that always seemed to come without hesitation to John and didn’t fit as well with Paul’s more orchestrated songs. Fitting, too, that it makes its home on the incredibly disjointed White Album as the portrait of the band fracturing (only Paul and Ringo recorded the track, at which John was miffed) – why not send up one of your own and try something silly if everyone’s recording in their own little corner?

5) Talking Heads – “The Overload” (Joy Division) (1980)

This one might be a little bit of a cheat, as no member of Talking Heads had ever heard the music of Joy Division before – “The Overload” was an attempt to emulate them as they had been described by music critics. They didn’t get it totally wrong. The song is all gloom and dourness, with a buzzing, impatient guitar in the background and David Byrne intermittently being roused from his sleep to deliver the vocals – you can feel the cold sweat and longest nights behind them (probably the closest the song gets to the actual sound of the band). What sound like submarine signals ping back and forth in the background as a heavy beat trudging a path through the whole proceeding. It’s gloomiest the band ever sounded, but is a welcome experiment to add to their oeuvre.

*Source: Wikipedia’s page on the song, quoted from the Barry Miles biography of Paul, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Modern Concepts: The Dear Hunter’s Act I: The Lake South, The River North

There’s no way I wasn’t going to like The Dear Hunter from the get-go. Look no further than the title of the first album: “Act 1”. If that doesn’t bode well for a concept album-loving nut like me, I don’t know what will! In fact, the reason that I looked this band up in the first place is that, much like Coheed and Cambria, all of of their output (at the time) was devoted towards following a single narrative over multiple albums. This was all I needed to hear – and I was not disappointed.

“Battesimo del Fuoco” has the honour of being the third-most listened-to song in my iTunes (it has stiff composition), and opens the album, in my opinion, perfectly. A majestic modern Greek chorus announces the protagonist, born into the world amidst serious strife, as we will find out in two songs or so as the story opens. An interlocking chorale with no instruments to be found, each vocal line interlocking with the array of harmony vocals behind it as we are told “the flame is gone/the fire remains.” This, combined with the somewhat gentle instrumental that follows (“The Lake South”), both about two minute introductory pieces, would not nearly prepare me for the onslaught of the rest of the album, as I thought I might be getting some standard orchestral prog flare to this tale, so I sat back with my cocoa and prepared to soak it in. I was not ready for “City Escape.”

A rhythm section barrage starts off the proceedings as a guitar comes needling in, and then sets the rhythm, barely able to keep itself under a breakneck pace, clenching its fists as more harmony vocals come in, masking the assault of the chorus that is about to come. Casey Crescenzo screams the song’s refrain, both aggressive and verbose – “plagued by practical/and a mercenary lust/they tear at her skin” – while the bass rumbles and the drumsticks are finally let loose to wander as they please. The song the weaves back and forth, switching from piano, to electronic effects, to more choral vocals to slow the tempo down before unleashing the chorus once again, showing off an impressive arsenal of instruments for what is essentially a solo project. We even hear some animated trumpet lines in “The Pimp and the Priest”, which has a vague New Orleans feeling about it, with the brass, jaunty piano and shuffling 3/4 time.

As the story is detailed of the protagonist’s mother raising her son in a whorehouse, we move through a number of almost uniformly muscular six-minute songs. Each has its own little facets and tempo changes and a killer hook; out of the chaos of just about every song on here, comes a melodic phrase that’ll lodge itself in your head for days at a time. For me, Crescenzo’s voice was the initial stumbling block. Far from your classic prog singer, his voice has a timbre heard in a lot of punk bands, and “City Escape” had me worried that there was going to be a significant amount out and out screaming vocals on the album, which is one of the few things that will get me to turn an album off immediately. Luckily, he remains just on the edge of it the entire time, which I actually find gives the album a little excitement – he has incredible restraint, but gives the illusion of none.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the scope of the story just yet, for a few reasons: a) only half of the albums in the story cycle are out as of right now b) Acts II and III are Leviathans compared to the scant 40-minute running time of this album (I initially heard it described as an EP, which I goggled at, but made more sense once I saw the length of the other albums) and c) I can’t stop listening to this one. Top to bottom, there’s not a duff track here, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Always one of my go-to albums. Not that Casey Crescenzo is making it easy to pick one.

Since releasing the first three acts, The Dear Hunter has taken a break from the narrative and has produced both a standalone, non-concept studio album (Migrant), and a set of nine EPs based on the colour spectrum called The Color Spectrum, each EP carrying with it its own distinct style of music, but all thoroughly enjoyable. I’m eagerly anticipating his next release, but will be listening to this pretty constantly  until that arrives.

“Battesimo del Fuoco”:

“City Escape”:

“The Pimp and the Priest”:

Tagged , , , , , ,