Saturday, May 25, 2013

Post 13: Soulful Indie Bands Singing Quietly About the Trials of Being White And Middle-Class, Part 1 of 264

   Hello people! Before I get into the meat of my post, I just want to mention that I finally got around to getting Spotify, and I'm planning to start compiling playlists for posts as I go along, so that people can listen to all the songs without having to chase down all the links I so dearly love to pepper throughout these posts. I have no idea how people who read this like to listen to music (or even if you guys actually listen to the songs I talk about at all, or just read  the posts), so I'd appreciate it if y'all could let me know your preferred listening method, so I can tailor delivery to meet demand. Here's the link for today's playlist.

  Anyway, today I wanted to talk about something near and dear to my heart: indie music. Once again, like apparently everything else I talk about, it's an ill-defined genre. Technically (to switch out my pretentious snob hat for my pretentious pedantic snob hat), it's not even a genre at all; 'indie' just means that it's independently produced music. But come on, we all know what I'm talking about. If the band you're listening to has four guys all playing instruments, the lead singer is doing anything that could come close to being described as crooning, and more than half the guys have beards/stubble and enormous horn rims. We all know where I'm going with this.

  And naturally, to start things off I'm going to talk about the Shins. I mentioned them once before, but they're one of my favorite bands, and I won't be shutting up about them anytime soon. They've got several really good albums out, all of which are worth listening to, and other than that there's not much to say. They make good music with solid harmonies and nice, shimmery guitar noises, and you should listen to it. Personally, I'm particularly fond of the songs Saint Simon, For a Fool, Phantom Limb, and Simple Song. They released a new album last year, Port of Morrow, and while it's not as good as some of their earlier stuff, it's worth a listen. Both Simple Song and For a Fool came off of it, and they're two of my favorites Shins tracks.

   After The Shins comes Bishop Allen. Bishop Allen is one of those bands that make me feel both smoothly urbane and mildly dickish when I talk about them. This is the type of band you mention when you want to prove you 1) have musical taste; 2) have more of it than the person you're talking to; 3) found these guys back when they were underground, and 4) are a fundamentally better person than every other person you talk too (incidentally, talking about them like this guarantees the amount of people you talk to will get much smaller very quickly). That being said, they do make good music, and I like them a lot. They make (or possibly made, I think they may have broken up) light, fluffy songs that are about love and missed connections and how things are gonna pretty alright, probably (and also sometimes civil war ironclads). It's good stuff to hear when you need optimism and guilelessness. I think my favorite song by them is Shanghaied, which literally has a chorus that goes "La, la la, la la la la la la shanghaied", and is just as delightful as it sounds. Also worth checking out: Dimmer, Like Castanets, and Click, Click Click Click. And yes, the chorus of Click, Click, Click, Click does involve the word 'click' being repeated four times. They really like their repeated chorus lines.

  BUT, moving away from groups of twenty-something guys singing about love and stuff and playing their guitars together, my next pick is Matt Costa, a twenty-something guy who sings about love and stuff and plays his guitar BY HIMSELF (not counting his backup band). Frankly, he's pretty much a slightly less mellow Jack Johnson with a higher voice and a small infusion of surf rock. Fortunately, I like Jack Johnson and I love surf rock, so I'm a pretty big fan of his stuff. My favorite song of his definitely Sunshine, because it's simply wonderful. It's probably a metaphor for how he has a furious drug addiction or something, but I couldn't care less. It's great, and I won't let you spoil it for me. Most of his stuff does tend to blend together somewhat, especially if you listen to it all at once, but I still like it. My favorites are Mr. Pitiful, Acting Like a Fool, and Witchcraft. Witchcraft is particularly interesting; it's not my favorite song by him, but it's an almost perfect reproduction of the kind of song you'd hear on a mid 60's surf compilation, and I have to give him kudos for making such a flawless tribute.

  And lastly, I would feel ashamed if I failed to mention Death Cab for Cutie. I'm not a huge fan of them, but they're one of the icons of indie music, and they do have some great songs. The only two that I've really gotten into are Soul Meets Body and Crooked Teeth, but man. Those two are rock solid. Well worth taking a listen.

  And of course, last but not least, here's a bonus song! Apparently, before Jack White married Meg and they became the White Stripes, he apprenticed as an upholsterer and had a band with his boss. They made an album, which includes the track Pain (Gimme Sympathy), and I love it. It's loud, and kind of terrible, and not technically good at all, but it pulses with pure, unadulterated Jack White, and as a consequence is somehow very enjoyable in spite of that.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Post 12: WUBWUBWUB or: A Gentleman's Guide To Dirty Synth Bass

   So I was looking back at some of my earlier posts, and noticed that other than a few brief mentions of Daft Punk, I've almost completely ignored electronic music. That's not exactly earth shattering, I've ignored a lot a of different genres (I'm as aware as anyone that I've made a glaring omission of Mongolian throat singing, and I fully intend to rectify that at some point), but I do tend to listen to a lot of electronic music, and so I wanted to spend some time this week and talk about this stuff, because it interests me.

  One reason that I haven't spent a lot of time talking about this stuff is that electronic is just... just a freaking huge subject, you guys. It's a genre like "oldies" is a genre, but somehow even more vaguely defined. ...HOW. I mean, I know I complained about how genres tend to be very vaguely defined in my post on New Wave, but 'electronic music' is one of the single worst offenders, because all that word means is that it's made using electronic tools. So, technically at this point a hefty majority of music that's professionally produced, not to mention almost all pop music since the mid 90's has, at the very least, electronic elements even if it would not be considered electronic per se. It's a mess.

   Conveniently, however, there are a ton of sub-genres (and sub-sub genres, yea, even unto the seventh generations), so if you like this kind of thing you can get a fairly solid grasp on the electronic scene with relative ease.

-FAIR WARNING- I both find this stuff really interesting, and have only a moderate grasp of the underlying principles, so the next paragraph or so may be excessively obtuse for many readers, and might also be wildly inaccurate for all readers. You know the risks.

   What I'm mostly going to be talking about in this post is the stuff that's referred to overall as "Electronic  Dance Music", or EDM. This is, again, a pretty catch all term, but it refers to stuff that most people think of a electronic: entirely synthetic instrumentation, big, repetitive, driving bass and drum loops, and typically not a lot of vocalizing, if any. EDM breaks down into a lot of other things, but I'm going to ignore most of them and focus in on the two types of electronic that I tend to listen to most often: house and dubstep. Both of these are frequently reviled, and there's a very good reason for that; namely a lot of the music produced under those umbrellas sucks hard.

  I personally believe that's one of the reasons why stuff like dubstep is so constantly and ferociously reviled; it's not just because only a small segment of humanity finds that kind of music at all appealing (although that's definitely a factor), but also because bad EDM composes a huge quantity of EDM as a whole, even more so than you'll see in most genres, and crappy EDM is even more annoying than crappy music in general.   When you hear a crappy pop song, it's typically boring, asinine, and/or forgettable (generally: and). When you hear a crappy EDM song, it tends to be all of those, but also horrendously unpleasant, and a lot of the time they're also ferocious earworms that get stuck in your head and are impossible to dislodge. I won't be linking to any examples, for reasons that should be obvious. You are all welcome.

   Anyway, I have a lot more to say about this, but if I let myself get really truly started on the topic I may never get around to actually mentioning specific song, so I'm going to save that frankly enormous tangent for an addendum post that I will eventually write whether or not people care, because this stuff's fun to talk about. So without further ado, let's start off with some deadmaus! This is pretty much classic house, which is to say it's a 4/4 beat at right around 140 bpm, with a structure that starts out relatively simplistic but builds with increasing complexity throughout the song until tapering off and fading out on the drum loop. I promised myself I wouldn't talk about the mechanical aspects of this stuff but it turns out I'm bad at it.

  In case that description of house music was as incoherent as I suspect it may have been, tough. I don't have  have the technical understanding to describe it in a more user friendly way, so here's a Wikipedia article on it, and best of luck to those who are interesting in finding out more regarding the mechanics. For any remaining readers, here's another house song. Like most of the house I like, I know basically nothing about the music or musician, and found it by the recommendation of a friend. If you feel dubious about the genre, just listen until you at least hit the 45 second mark, because it has a fantastic break.

   And on the subject of fantastic breaks, I'm going to use this as an opportunity to segue into dubstep. Yes, I like dubstep; haters to the left. I feel like I have to spend just a little bit more time talking about the musical protocols of dubstep, because it seems like most people have no idea what dubstep is, including those who make it. It's a rather contested genre; different people want to describe it in different ways, but as a general rule dubstep has about the same beats per minute range as house and most types of EDM (135-142 BPM, generally speaking), but is distinguished by not having the drums hit on every measure, which creates the very hollow, nervous feeling that makes dubstep so distinctive. I'm not sure how to properly explain this idea, so let me give an example: Gizmo by the artist Datsik. This is actually just as fast as both the house songs I linked to earlier, but the drums don't hit on every beat and it has much more distorted bass, which makes a very visceral effect on the listener. Listening to dubstep makes you want to flail violently and headbutt things. In case that description didn't make it obvious, it also tends to be very polarizing. People either love it or hate it, but they rarely feel ambivalent.

   Frankly, I'll be a bit surprised if many of the people reading this ending liking a lot of the music that I recommend today, as it has a considerably narrower appeal than most of the stuff I talk about, but I like it and want to share some of this stuff with people who would generally skip it, even if I don't end up converting anyone to it. Therefore, let me share just a couple more songs.

  Obviously I have to mention Skrillex, if only because he's the only dubstep artist that many people have heard of. I personally like quite a lot of his stuff, but I've found that he tends to be rather hit-or-miss. When I like his stuff I like it a lot, but when I don't it's just incredibly annoying. That being said, my favorite tracks by him are definitely Slats Slats Slats, Reptile's Theme, and Scatta. His stuff is much more melodic and in some ways more easily listenable than a lot of 'classic' dubstep, which means he gets a lot of hate, but honestly the songs are good. They're fun and silly, and would be good to headbang to, except trying to headbang to these songs is a great way to get whiplash really fast. Keeping time with breaks is not conducive to vertebral health.

   And lastly, here are two of my all time favorite electronic songs: first, Winter Winds by Fytch, who's some random guy in the Netherlands who makes music that I really like. This is my favorite song of his, mostly because it's awesome. Second, this one is technically more of a mashup than a song, and also it's a seven 1/2 minute dance routine. WATCH IT. WATCH ALL OF IT. I promise it is well worth the time spent. The song(s) is(are?) fantastic, and the choreography and execution are both perfect. You will not regret it, unless possibly you have brain problems.

And most lastly of all, here's a bonus song. I can't remember if I've mentioned this before, but I have a very soft spot in my heart for classic surf rock, and by far my favorite surf group is the Ventures, because they were great and had fantastic steel guitar riffs. Walk Don't Run has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember (literally. I learned about them because my dad had one of the records and he played it constantly when I was growing up).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Post 11:Covers Are Great. Aren't Covers Great? (Yes, Yes They Are)

Hey. You know what I love? Music. And I love when the artists that I love, love the music of other artists, and therefore proceed to produce covers of said beloved music, and then let me listen to it. It's lovely! Therefore, I wanted to talk a bit about covers, specifically rad covers that are great.

I talked about covers a little bit quite a while ago; in my post on folk music, I may have implied that basically every folk song from the 60's was originally by Bob Dylan. I'm going to go ahead and stand on that, and back it up with a couple of fantastic covers of his stuff. Specifically, Gun's N' Roses Knockin' On Heaven'sDoor (here's the original), and Hendrix's version of All Along The Watchtower (ditto). I mean, I don't even like GnR, and I still love Knockin' On Heaven's Door. And as far as All Along The Watchtower goes, I don't even know what to say. I realize not everyone likes listening to long jamming solos being played virtuoso-style, but I don't see how anyone can hate on this song. It's just... so good at being what it is, even if you don't like it you still have to appreciate it. Personally I'd recommend loving it instead of appreciating it, but I'm not your mom. You should listen to it, though. (also, as a side note: while I was looking up links I found a live cover Jimi did of Like a Rolling Stone, and it's awesome. It's very long and meandering, and overall I prefer the original, but this is still a really good version, well worth listening to).

Next up is something newer and not by Dylan, for once. I'm pretty fond of Mumford and Sons (particularly Winter Winds, which is a fantastic song in every way), and it turns out they've done some rock solid covers! My personal favorite is actually from Disney's Robin Hood; they did a version of Not In Nottingham (original here), and gosh dang son. It is just ridankulous. They have also done a cover of The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel, also fantastic, although I wouldn't exactly describe it as ridankulous. To be fair, that's mostly because The Boxer is a really depressing, beautiful song, and that would just enormously inappropriate.

Moving on, here are two covers from bands that became famous through viral hits on Youtube, both of which I'm very fond of. Pomplamoose and Walk Off The Earth have both done a TON of fantastic covers, but I just wanted to highlight a favorite from each of them. I think Pomplamoose' cover of Aerosmith's Don't Wanna Miss A Thing (original) was the first song of theirs I heard, and it's still one of my favorites. Who knew wall of sound vocals sung in a minor key could be so appealing? As far as Walk Off The Earth goes, they've made a silly number of great covers, but one of my favorites is Ice Cream, which was apparently originally by Sarah Maclachlan. I have no idea who she is, but I really like at least one of her songs, when it's covered by a different band in a different style. Still, she has good lyrics.

I would also feel remiss if I failed to mention Cee-Lo Green's cover of No One's Gonna Love You, originally by Band of Horses. I like the original, but comparing it with the cover is like comparing skim milk with heavy whipping cream. Literally, the experience is very similar; one is watery and almost translucent, one is so thick that drinking it straight is almost a physical impossibility, not to mention kind of disgusting. The one you should listen to depends on your mood. If you're feeling slightly strung out and don't really want to gin up the energy to string yourself back together, consider the original. If you want to get keyed up with a love ballad that may actually have more hair on it's chest than Band of Horses does on all its combined chins (for the record, that's quite a lot), go with Cee-Lo. You won't regret it.

Lastly, I have recently discovered that apparently there's a thing where modern bands do shimmery, super synth heavy covers of 80's pop, and I LOVE IT. In particular, I'm thinking of two songs: a version of the Jackson Five's I Want You Back (original) by Discovery, and a version of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (original) by a band called STRFKR (fun fact: their original name was way less socially acceptable, but they changed it last year when they kept mysteriously not getting any popular notice. I'll let you figure out what it was on your own; it will not be difficult). I love both of these songs, and I really like shimmery synth, and both of these covers are great. Seriously, listen to them and be enriched.

  And even more lastly, here's a bonus song (with an awesome music video to accompany it, no less)! Goldfishes song We Come Together is... I'm not sure, exactly. It's possible to swing to, albeit it very aggressively,  and it might be considered electro-swing (a genre that holds a very soft spot in my heart, which will have to wait for another day), but I don't think it is exactly. Regardless, it is a great song, and it has a music video where an animated band rescues a princess by fighting a group of evil cats through an 8-bit world. If you can't love that, we need to talk.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Post 10: On Gum, Bubbles, and their application Re: Pop music

   Ok, I have a confession to make. Sometimes (more often than I am entirely comfortable with admitting in a public space, to be honest), I like to listen to really stupid pop. Let me be clear here; I'm not just talking about classic 80's schlock like Wham!, at least not exclusively (although who doesn't love Wake Me Up, am I right? ...Please tell me I'm right). I'm talking Venga Boys and Aqua. Yes, that Aqua. I'm talking about bubblegum pop in the purest, most literal sense of the word: the type of music that is not only absurdly sweet and leaves a faintly nauseating aftertaste, but that miraculously manages, somehow, to actually SOUND neon pink. I remember once seeing a an aphorism that said something along the lines of "there should be no such thing as guilty pleasure music. If you like something enjoy it and don't feel bad." Frankly, I disagree. I honestly and unironically enjoy the songs I'm about to share with you, but I am not proud of that fact. Just because a jelly doughnut with ice cream on it sounds DELICIOUS does not mean that if I saw you eating in public, I would not judge you. I would absolutely give you the judgement you so richly deserved, and then I would ask for one, because I'm really hungry and that sounds kind of amazing.

-Fair warning, this is mostly going to made of objectively terrible 90's pop, because these are my most deeply buried guilty pleasures. I do like some more recent stuff, but I don't feel like there's any real value in introducing people to Lady Gaga. Either you've heard of her, or you have somehow managed to steer clear of all popular culture for the last five years, and have more pressing concerns.-

   I would feel frankly remiss if I didn't start the list off with, naturally, Aqua. Aqua is as central to my perception of bubblegum pop as hideous bleached tips and choreographed dancing (both which Aqua had in spades, not coincidentally). Their most iconic piece is Barbie Girl, of course, but they actually have a couple of others that I really like. Most notably, Dr. Jones and Candyman. Looking back at these with the jaded glasses of maturity, it's depressingly obvious that every song I'm talking about was made as absolutely filthy innuendo, but that's all part of the joy. If you don't feel like you need to rinse out both your mind and your ears after coming off an Aqua binge, you're doing it wrong.

   Next up is Ace of Base. Also 90's, also featuring lots of promo shots of bleach haired dudes singing with their razor sharp cheek bones, but with twice as many female vocalists (for a total of two) and switching out the neon music videos for artful bloom effects and atrocious green screening, the other favorite staple of 90's music videos. I listened to a ton of their stuff growing up, but my favorite song was always Beautiful Life, because who doesn't love three chords, a keyboard and a drum set? I've also always loved Cruel Summer and All That She Wants.

   This next one is slightly less well known and a bit more recent, but he's also one of the most ridiculously fun listens I know of. Mika is very much a spiritual successor of Freddy Mercury, basically a more androgynous, higher pitched and glam-oriented version. I think we can all agree that this is awesome, and the music backs it up. The first Mika song I heard was Grace Kelly, and it's still one of my favorites, but he's got several singles worth checking out, like Lollipop (which, now that I think about it, feels kind of like a spiritual successor to Aqua, complete with an over the top music video and some innuendo that has all the grace and subtlety of a root canal from Andre the Giant). Another particular favorite of mine is Big Girl (You Are Beautiful), which is a delightful tribute to the classic Queen song Fat Bottom Girls, basically just Fat Bottom Girls 2: Fatter & Friskier.

   And last of all, this may be the greatest song ever made to sing along with. I Believe In A Thing Called Love is awesome, it will always be awesome, and this is one song that I will never feel guilty about loving, because it's FANTASTIC. I mentioned it in a previous post, wherein I also mentioned my love of leaping falsettos, and this song may be the root cause of that obsession. It's the best. THE BEST. If you get nothing else from this post, get this: Never feel bad about loving I Believe In A Thing Called Love, because if you can't love it, you'll have a hard time finding any joy in your life.

   Also, here's a bonus song! I've been a bit of an oldies kick recently, and rediscovered the Hollies. They were  an interesting band; they had an unusual ability to make lots of good songs that range all over the soundboard, so they end up being easy confuse with basically everyone else. I thought Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress In A Black Dress was a Rolling Stones song until I was like 18. Nonetheless, Carrie Anne is probably my favorite of their songs. It's got good harmonies and a simple sweetness that'shard to pull off without being cloying and saccharine, but I think it manages nicely.