07.29.2009

Also Sprach Zarathustra in Movie Previews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:24 am

This past weekend, my lovely wife and I went to see Up, Pixar’s latest movie (I know, you don’t have to tell me how far behind I am in seeing it…). It was really awesome, by the way–probably the most emotionally powerful and best-looking animated movie I’ve ever seen. But before the movie started, we were watching the previews, and I noticed that two of them in a row used the exact same music in their trailers. (One was Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but I can’t remember what the other one was.) The music was the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, perhaps best known as the theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I guarantee you know this theme; if that doesn’t sound familiar, watch the YouTube clip below.)

This piece has been used bazillions of times in movies, commercials, previews, etc.; in these two trailers, it was being used as a parody of itself–a monumental, epic theme played humorously against animated films. But it struck me as pretty ridiculous that two animated previews in a row used the exact same music for the exact same purpose. Doesn’t anyone have any original ideas for music anymore? Why don’t they get a young up-and-coming composer of rocking music to write a new theme for them?

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07.26.2009

“Strawberry Swing” (music video), Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:37 pm

If you haven’t seen Coldplay’s new music video for “Strawberry Swing,” or even if you have already, you need to watch it right now. Do it!

http://www.coldplay.com/videostrawberry.php

I know this is technically The Listening Blog; but the visuals (and even just the concepts behind the visuals) are amazing. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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07.23.2009

Live Under Lights and Wires, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:20 pm

A few days ago I downloaded Sandra McCracken‘s latest album, Live Under Lights and Wires. It’s a live album, recorded by Sandra and Derek Webb (her husband) at a house show they performed in their own living room, just the two of them and their guitars. Derek just provides guitar and backup vocals, though; it’s Sandra’s show, and most of the songs are from her last album Red Balloon, which I wrote about a few months ago.

Live Under Lights and Wires is a fun listen–a glimpse into the songwriting process, by virtue of Sandra’s incidental comments and hearing the stripped-down versions of the songs, and a chance to listen in on a concert for the hundreds or thousands of fans who weren’t able to attend the private show. Sandra’s style is (as I mentioned in my Red Balloon post) “a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring,” and it lends itself well to acoustic-guitar-only arrangements. She’s definitely a talented songwriter, and the personal songwriting shines through a personal and intimate performance. And it’s cool to hear her and Derek playing and singing together; if you ever get the chance to see them both live, it’s awesome to see the way they interact with each other during a performance, and there’s a small taste of that here.

A digital download of the album is only five bucks on Sandra’s webstore; a physical CD plus an immediate digital download is ten. The videos for “Halfway” and “Lose You” I linked to in the Red Balloon post are actually from the same show, so you can watch them as well. Sandra is an independent artist I would highly recommend, and this should be an enjoyable CD for fans and newcomers alike.

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07.19.2009

Fastest Violinist In The World

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:23 pm

I came across this video on CNN.com a few days ago. The violinist is David Garrett, a Juilliard graduate who studied with Itzhak Perlman, did some modeling on the side, and wears (for the interview) a leather jacket and a Von Dutch cap; he plays both classical music and pop music, “channeling” Michael Jackson and Metallica. But he’s also going in the 2010 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest violinist for playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in 66 seconds–13 notes per second. If you’d like to skip the opening segments with the gushing interviewer who is clearly smitten with him, skip to the 1:30 mark.


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07.17.2009

Open Sound New Orleans

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

My lovely wife grew up in the city of New Orleans, and I was tipped off to this project by my cousin-in-law who emailed her and her parents when he heard about it on NPR. It’s called “Open Sound New Orleans,” and it describes itself as “a community media project that invites and enables New Orleanians to document their lives in sound.” The main page is an interactive Google map of the city, with sound bubbles in three categories (ambient sounds, music sounds and voice sounds) scattered around. You can click on the sound bubbles to hear the sounds that were recorded in that location of the city.

http://www.opensoundneworleans.com

Eleanor and I clicked around for a while last night, and it was pretty fun. In the right sidebar there’s a list of “greatest hits,” which provide a better chance for interesting material than clicking on a random bubble. I’d highly recommend listening to “Amazing Grace at Cafe du Monde,” which is a recording of a violin and guitar playing the song at the famous Cafe–I think it’s the most soulful (and bluesy) version of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard. Eleanor also liked “Cicadas at dusk,” which she said was a very familiar sound to her, though a new one for me (I’ve never lived in a place that had cicadas before). And, just for a laugh, listen to “Who dat!” on the last page of the “greatest hits”–the excitement and then disappointment of New Orleans Saints football fans (“Who dat” is their official chant).

It’s certainly a cool idea for a project, and it’s fun to click around for a while. I wonder a bit about the long-term value of the idea. But here’s their “vision statement:”

Our intent is to make more accessible the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans. Sharing the sounds of our city as we hear them, move through them, and create them, is an act of celebration. But it also serves each contributor – you and me and anyone else who might participate – as a simple way to extend our own experience to others, harness our representations and those of our city, and participate in New Orleans’ public culture with intentionality.

Reminds me of The AudioBus Experience in San Francisco that I wrote about last summer, except less mobile and more authentic (since the AudioBus manipulated the sound live rather than recording it). What do you think? Cool idea that contributes to community, or a novelty with a little interest but no lasting value?

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07.14.2009

Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:41 pm

I’ve been a big fan of Derek Webb for almost 10 years now, from his involvement with Caedmon’s Call through his solo career. Each of his solo albums thus far has had a completely different style to it: She Must And Shall Go Free was folk/acoustic/bluegrass; The House Show was just Derek and his acoustic guitars; I See Things Upside Down was more experimental and had lots of atmospherics and a much thicker texture overall; Mockingbird, as I’ve written about before, has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel; and The Ringing Bell had a classic rock, Creedence Clearwater Revival-type sound. His most recent record, Stockholm Syndrome, keeps the tradition by going in a completely new direction: It’s an electronic album, full of drum loops, synthesizers and lots of fun “blips and bloops” (as Sean Dunnahoe would say)–a sound that he has described as “intentionally inorganic.” Live drums (played by Mckenzie Smith) appear on four tracks; other than that, every instrument on the album was played either by Derek himself or the album’s producer, Josh Moore of Caedmon’s Call.

Derek’s sure to win some new fans and alienate some old ones with this record, not least because of the content, which deals with issues of race and homosexuality. (Derek’s label, INO, refused to release one of the tracks on the album because of some of the content; the preorders available on his website will be the only way to get the CD with that song, “What Matters More,” and the physical CDs which are released on September 1st will have 13 tracks instead of 14.) And the musical style is sure to surprise many who are used to Derek as a singer/songwriter; despite the different styles of his earlier albums, this is surely the biggest departure from what people expect from his music.

Par for the course for Derek, the preorders available on his website all come with an immediate digital download of the full record (although the order volume was so high on the first day of preordering that some people waited more than 20 hours to download it). I downloaded it after things calmed down a bit, and have listened to it a few times since then.

On the first listen through, I wasn’t sure what to think, although I was pretty sure I liked it; on the second and third listens I was definitely sure I did. Electronic music is not something I typically listen to, and so I can’t offer an informed critique of the quality compared to other electronic music, but I like what Derek has done a great deal. The upbeat songs (like “The Spirit Vs. The Kickdrum” and “Jena and Jimmy”) have some pretty rocking grooves, and the slower songs (especially “The Proverbial Gun”) have a unique atmosphere and an emotional power familiar to Derek’s listeners but accomplished in a new way. The first line of “Black Eye,” the first track with vocals after the instrumental “Opening Credits,” introduces Derek singing in a low, gravelly voice we’ve never heard before, along with dissonant and funky backing music; the next song, “Cobra Con,” sounds almost like a Jason Mraz tune with more of a pop/rock feel and some falsetto vocals. “Freddie, Please” was described by Derek on Twitter as an “electro-industrial do wop song about fred phelps” [sic]. And those are just three of the first tracks!

The main thing that I didn’t like about the album was its use of repetition. When I was studying composition at Cal State Fullerton, one of the things my best professor told me was never to write the same thing twice; if you’ve already heard it once, you already know it, so if you write it again change something about it, even if it’s a small thing. Otherwise what’s the point of repeating something you’ve already heard? On Stockholm Syndrome, however, there is a lot of exact repetition, particularly in “The Spirit Vs. The Kickdrum” and “I Love/Hate You,” in which the exact same line with the exact same music is repeated three times with no changes. That rubs me the wrong way, for the reason mentioned above. However, it happens a lot on the album, and I think that it was done intentionally as a stylistic choice. Electronic music as a style/genre uses a lot of repetition musically, and the choice of continuous repetition in the lyrics (I think) was meant to reflect the musical style.

The music itself is not always top-notch–it’s not bad, but it’s not always terribly interesting. There are lots of “blips and bloops,” but most of the time those little details add up to a very simple whole without too much musical complexity. But I think this is intentional as well. At a live show I attended a few years ago, Derek said (in reference to Mockingbird) that you could either have complex lyrics or complex music, but not both, because if you had both they would detract and distract from each other; simple lyrics with complex music, or vice versa, helps to highlight one or the other. (I don’t necessarily agree with this, myself, but it’s Derek’s view.) Derek has always, and especially on his last few albums, been all about deep, thought-provoking lyrics; so I think that he intentionally simplifies the music in order to focus on his message.

All told, this is a great album and I can even see it topping my favorites of Derek’s solo albums eventually. You may see some posts about individual songs in the near future. In the meantime, six different packages of preorders are available on his website at http://www.derekwebb.com/store, ranging from eight to sixty dollars. You can hear the controversial song “What Matters More” on YouTube here and see a live solo performance of it here; and you can also find a press release/review/recap of the release process (which included a crazy country-wide scavenger hunt) from Christian Newswire here.

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07.07.2009

“White As Snow,” No Line On The Horizon, U2

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:30 pm

I’ve been playing U2‘s latest album No Line On The Horizon in my car for the past few days. I still haven’t gotten all the way through it, despite having downloaded the music from iTunes quite a while ago. But it’s really intriguing. I think it’ll take me a few listens to really get into it, but I like what I’ve heard so far.

The song I want to mention today, before I do a full review of the album, is “White As Snow,” track nine (you can hear a sample on the Amazon product page). I was listening to it for the first time yesterday, but the melody sounded familiar to me. It only took me a few moments to realize that (for the verses, at least) the melody is a slightly-altered version of the Christmas carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” It fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the song, and the lyrics, which are evocative and filled with longing.

The melody of the carol, of course, is public domain; ideas on when it was written range from the 8th century to the 15th. But it’s interesting that the band chose to use that melody for a new song having nothing to do with the original carol. I’m aware of several instances of new music being written to old lyrics (for example, the Indelible Grace Music project or my own new music to the hymn “Just As I Am”); but I’m not sure I know of new lyrics being written to old music. How about you? What do you think of “White As Snow,” and do you know of any other examples of new lyrics using an old melody?

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