02.14.2010

“Spies,” Parachutes, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:21 pm

I was listening to Coldplay‘s first CD, Parachutes, in my car this week. Released in 2000, it’s not up to the high bar set by the albums that followed, but it’s still a good listen and I enjoy hearing where my now-favorite band started out. I was struck by a particular chord in the song “Spies,” which is track 3; I have no idea what the song is talking about but I like it nonetheless.

I always appreciate it when songs evolve, when they end up somewhere different than where they started, particularly lyrically. As I’ve written about before (see the fifth paragraph in the linked post), I learned in my composition studies that it’s bad form to write something in a song that’s an exact repeat of what’s happened before, since you’ve already heard it and it tends to diminish any momentum that the song has. This is a particular danger for pop songs, because they tend to have a chorus that comes back and repeats itself. We need the repetition in order to create a coherent form to the piece (as I’ve also written about; last paragraph in that one), but the repetition should be balanced with contrast so you’re not hearing the exact same thing twice. In light of that, I appreciate songs and particularly choruses that evolve, so that (for example) the final chorus has words that are slightly changed, to reflect the progress on the journey that the song has taken us on; see, for examples, my songs “The Aisle”, where the last chorus is altered, or “Flame,” which doesn’t have a chorus but rather a single line that’s repeated after each verse, which is changed the last time around.

Coldplay’s song “Spies” goes through this change as well. The first two times, the chorus goes like this:

“And the spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so bad ’cause you know
That the spies hide out in every corner
But you can’t touch them no
‘Cause they’re all spies
They’re all spies”

The final time, however, there’s a change:

“And the spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so good ’cause you know
That those spies hide out in every corner
They can’t touch you, no
‘Cause they’re just spies”

And in typical brilliant Coldplay fashion, the band musically highlights the lyrical change from “feeling so bad” to “feeling so good.” The first two times through the chorus, the chord at the end of the second line is G-sharp minor (the G-sharp comes on the word “know”), which is the minor v chord in the song’s key of C-sharp minor. But the last time, the chords on the first and second lines are slightly changed–slightly enough that you only catch the difference if you’re listening carefully–but those slight changes set up the surprise change of the G-sharp minor chord to an F-sharp major, the major IV chord in C-sharp minor. This is a completely different chord than the G-sharp minor, and it serves to create a completely different, brighter feel to the line–which corresponds to and highlights the change from “feeling so bad” (minor chord) to “feeling so good” (unusual major chord).

You can hear the song “Spies” in its entirety, courtesy of our good friend Last.fm, here.

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11.11.2009

Songs From My Shelf Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:39 pm

Good news, my friends and fans: I’ve started recording for my upcoming album Songs From My Shelf! It started last week with some guitar and vocal tracking for “Too Far.” I’ve been busy with lots of different things and I haven’t gotten “too far” along yet (ha ha), but I’m already very excited about this record and I can’t wait to share it with you all. Unfortunately it looks like the release date will be pushed out to early next year, rather than the end of this year as I’d originally hoped. But I’ll get it done as soon as I can so you can all hear it!

There are several ways you can stay updated on the progress of Songs From My Shelf, if you’re so inclined:

That’s all for now! Keep tracking with me using one or more of these methods, and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop as I make progress on the record. And thanks for all your continued support!

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10.08.2009

“Ways and Means,” Final Straw, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:45 pm

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been listening to Snow Patrol‘s album Final Straw in my car recently, and one of the songs that has struck me as interesting is “Ways and Means,” which is track nine. The factor of interest is the chord progression in the verses. I’m not sure what key the song is in (I haven’t taken the time to check), but the progression is minor tonic and major tonic, alternating back and forth; or, in Roman numerals: i – I – i – I etc. Those are the only two chords throughout the whole verse, and although it’s a very unorthodox progression, it works very well (especially with the Mixolydian-ish melody line) and makes sense to the ear. I’ve written before about how Snow Patrol sometimes uses a single progression over and over in a song but can still make it interesting and not sound too repetitive; and “Ways and Means” is another good example.

You can listen to “Ways and Means” in its entirety here, courtesy of the latest free online music-playing site I’ve found, http://listen.grooveshark.com.

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10.01.2009

Final Straw, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:19 am

One of the most brilliant things Amazon has ever done is introduce their Free Super Saver Shipping program, which gives users free shipping on any order over $25. This has worked on me numerous times to get me to buy something I otherwise wouldn’t have, just to get free shipping (even though the price of the item was probably greater than the cost of the shipping it removes). But recently, I ordered a few things from the site and to get the free shipping, also ordered Final Straw, the third album by UK band Snow Patrol and the one immediately preceding Eyes Open, the only album of theirs that I have.

Eyes Open, which I’ve written about before, is a very enjoyable CD and one that I’ve returned to in my own listening quite often. And Snow Patrol gets extra points because they opened for Coldplay earlier in their tour this year. So I was interested to see what Final Straw would be like.

I wasn’t disappointed, although I have to say it’s clearly not as good as Eyes Open. There are some really great tracks (I particularly like “Chocolate” and “Run,” tracks 6 and 7), and the sound is similar enough to Eyes Open to identify it as the same band. There’s a lot of minor electronic experimentation, mostly with little blips and bleeps that sound as if they’re somehow slightly outside the sphere of the band’s style. I also noticed that the singer’s voice is mixed differently on several different tracks; rather than finding one setting of reverb/delay/effects that makes his voice sound good, the band (or rather the producer) changed it multiple times–not only in obvious ways like adding distortion as in “Wow,” but different types of “normal” sounds to fit with different moods. And there are a plethora of short melodic ideas that are not quite hooks but serve to give the songs an identifying motif and fill empty harmonic space.

But it was interesting to listen to Eyes Open after I’d familiarized myself with Final Straw. It was clear that the band had learned lessons from the previous album and really crystallized their style. Mostly gone are the sometimes random electronic effects; the guitar playing is simpler, clearer and more direct. In a word, Eyes Open is a distillation of the best elements of Final Straw without the clutter and filler that the earlier album sometimes stumbled through. But I certainly enjoyed both records, and very much enjoyed seeing the band mature between the two.

Now I’m even more interested in getting the band’s latest release, A Hundred Million Suns, that came out last year and was the followup to Eyes Open. Anyone have that record and care to give me a sneak preview?

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09.29.2009

Stockholm Syndrome Remixed

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:08 pm

As part of the highest tier of preorders available for Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb offered a disk of full album multi-track stems for remixing–in other words, the original recorded tracks for the album, so that they could be digitally altered and manipulated by others into remixes. A cool idea. The remixes all have a home at SoundCloud, and the Stockholm Syndrome group can be found here:

http://soundcloud.com/groups/derek-webb-stockholm-syndrome

Not all of them are particularly creative, but I really liked “Black Eye (Shiner Mix)” by user anothermisty. It was an excellent example of taking the original material and doing something unique with it–something that was clearly derivative of the original but took it in a new creative direction. My favorite thing that anothermisty did was take Derek’s vocal track, duplicate it, and manipulate the pitch, thereby adding a harmony vocal line that didn’t exist in the original song. Very cool. “Cobra Con (Acoustic Remix)” is fun too, as it retains only the acoustic guitar tracks and the vocals from the original. “8-bit ConGame,” another remix of “Cobra Con,” imagines the song as music from a Nintendo game back in the day, with Webb’s vocals superimposed (quite quickly) over the chords of the chorus played in a loop. On its own it might not be terribly interesting, but if you know how the song goes, it’s cool to see how the different sections of the song interact.

Those are the highlights, but some of the others are interesting in their own ways. And you can keep checking back, since more will continue to be added as they’re created!

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09.21.2009

Another one of my favorite tracks on Derek Webb‘s latest album Stockholm Syndrome is the last one, “American Flag Umbrella,” which is track 13 on the “censored” version of the record (without the song “What Matters More”) and track 14 on the full version. The lyrics speak to the racism still lurking in the undercurrents of American society and the tension between how things are and the way they should be, ending the album on a final note of hope. They’re some of the best on the album, in my opinion, belonging on the same category as “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” the amazing understated finish to his last album, The Ringing Bell, and one of my favorite of his songs overall. And the music is intriguing as well: also in the tradition of “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” which consisted simply of Derek’s voice and a solo acoustic guitar, the accompaniment to “American Flag Umbrella” is mainly an acoustic piano, with some percussion and synthesizers taking a back seat role, reversing the concept of most of the rest of the album. And, even more intriguing, the entire song is based on a single chord progression, which itself is based mainly on two chords: Gmaj7 – D/F# – Gmaj7 – D/F# – Gmaj7 – D/F# – A – Bm – Gmaj7 – D/F#. I think that the simple music makes the lyrics stand out even more and lends them a directness and power that more complicated music might have obscured; but I’ve also read reviews that believe that the music distracts and detracts from the lyrics. What do you think?

To listen to the song, click here, click on the “Lala” player and scroll down to the last track. When I first clicked on it, it looked like it was going to play the whole song; but after I stopped it and went back later, it only played a 30-second clip. But it’s the only place online I could find that had at least the possibility of hearing the whole song. If you find another one, let me know; otherwise, try that link out and see if it works. And leave a comment to let me know what you think of the song and the music!

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09.18.2009

Despite what I wrote a month ago, partly because I finally got the physical copy of the album, I’ve been listening quite a lot to Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb’s latest record. One of the tracks that has stood out to me is “I Love/Hate You,” one of his self-so-called “sabotaged love songs” (or at least I presume that it’s one of those songs). His philosophy is that although most love songs are “you’re great, I’m great, we’re great together, our love is great,” real life is not like that, being something more like “I’m broken, you’re broken, our love is messed up but we’re still committed to making it work” (he’s said “The truth will kill a good love song”). “I Love/Hate You” is the latest installment in the series, and follows a similar pattern as the previous versions, talking about a love that is simultaneously messy and even dangerous (“Your love is a noose around my neck”) and yet also a necessary and integral part of who he is (“But I don’t know who I am unless you’re holding me”). And the music makes it one of my favorite tracks on the album. It opens with an Eastern-sounding flute line, which makes for an interesting blend and contrast with the synthesized beat that enters next. This is one of the songs that bothered me due to its exact repetition, as I wrote about in my intial review; each of the three verses repeats its opening line three times, with no variation. But I believe it’s an intentional artistic decision on Webb’s part, and when paired with the hypnotic synths that fill out the harmony, it creates a trance-like effect that’s really cool. And I think the music of the chorus is some of the most accessible and Top 40-sounding on the album, along the lines of “Cobra Con” (and I when I say “Top 40″ I mean it in a good way–it sounds more like pop music, and less like electronic, and thus may be appealing to a wider variety of listeners). It’s another fun and very listenable song on my latest favorite album. You can hear the song in its entirety by playing the YouTube video below.

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08.14.2009

Elemental, Loreena McKennitt

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

I posted back in April about “eclectic Celtic” artist Loreena McKennitt, and after listening to Live Under Lights and Wires for a while and passing it on to my lovely wife, I picked up another of Eleanor’s McKennitt CDs, this time her first recording, Elemental.

Apart from suffering from a really weird cover picture (is she wearing a trenchcoat over a nightgown? Why is the harp standing by itself out in the grass while she’s running away? Is the building behind her a country ruin or her studio?), Elemental is a fine little album. It’s her first recording (from 1985, although I have a remastered version from 2006), and it shows a little, in a few simplistic arrangements and rough edges; but it’s also nice to hear the simpler, more traditional sounds of this record compared to the multilayered, polished tracks of The Book of Secrets. McKennitt’s harp playing features in most of the songs, as well as her voice–also a little rough around the edges and a bit shrill at times, but still haunting and perfectly suited to the Irish ballads she sings. Her guest collaborators are well chosen too: Cedric Smith turns in a very strong performance of the traditional song “Carrighfergus,” while Shakespearean actor Douglas Campbell’s thundering voice is unforgettable as he recites a William Blake poem in the final track “Lullaby.” Apart from “Lullaby” and “The Stolen Child,” with text from a W.B. Yeats poem, all of the tracks are traditional Irish songs “adapted and arranged” by McKennitt.

I still hold that Irish music is good for the soul, and this album is filled with the evocative, longing side of the genre. It’s not McKennitt’s best record, but it still repays a good listen.

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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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