This past Christmas my mother gave me a subscription to Listen: Life With Classical Music, “America’s classical music magazine,” which is published by Arkiv Music. In the Summer 2010 issue, there’s an interesting article about Brett Richardson, a pianist who performs regularly in a bar in New Orleans called The Spotted Cat. Along with the usual suspects–stride piano, ragtime, blues–he also plays Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, and the music of other classical composers. The article isn’t available on Listen‘s website, but Richardson had a couple of great quotes that I hope they won’t mind me sharing with you here.
“I’m disgusted with [the institution of classical music]. And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and furstrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted…. Ultimately, I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights, well, that’s fine, too.”
Although I wouldn’t say I’m “disgusted” with the institution of classical music, I do agree with his comments about it to some extent. That’s the reason why the institution is struggling all over the country–because it’s not conducive to the masses. And that’s why a lot of the contemporary classical music that matters isn’t being written for and performed in concert halls (though some of it is, to be sure). It’s being fused with popular music and played in spaces like galleries, lofts, and yes, even bars; places where it’s not portrayed as “sophisticated” or “high-brow,” for the “hallowed halls,” but for people to come together, hang out, share and enjoy. I certainly wouldn’t want my only experiences of listening to classical music to be in a noisy club. But if I knew of a bar nearby that played classical music, you’d definitely find me there a lot.
A little over a week ago I was both surprised and flattered to receive an email from a digital media company asking me if I’d like to review Sandra McCracken‘s upcoming CD, In Feast Or Fallow. I was planning on getting the CD for myself anyway, so I said I’d be more than happy to listen to the CD and post my thoughts.
In Feast Or Fallow, which was produced by Sandra’s frequent collaborator and always husband Derek Webb, is a followup to her 2005 album The Builder and the Architect. Both albums are comprised mainly of old hymn texts set to new music, sometimes written by Sandra herself and sometimes written by others, and several new songs written in a hymn-like style. She created a new website for this project, http://www.newoldhymns.com, which has information on her two hymns albums and includes a bunch of resources for reviving old hymns for a new generation. I am a big fan of The Builder and the Architect, and I’m eager to hear what Sandra and Derek have done on this new album.
I say I am eager to hear it, because I’ve decided to “liveblog” my first listen through the album: blogging as I listen, rather than writing my collected thoughts afterwards. I thought it might make for an interesting read (feel free to disagree in the comments if you don’t think it’s as good as a regular post). So, starting with track 1, here we go:
Track 1, “Petition” – The album starts with some interesting electronic sounds, heavily reverbed piano and shimmering high picking. Immediately something different from anything Sandra’s done before. The rhythms and meter are more syncopated and modern than the sometimes stiff rhythms of The Builder and the Architect. I like ‘em a lot. That album used acoustic instruments almost exclusively, heavily focused on guitar and piano, and none of the songs had a full drum set; this album starts at least with a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, and I like the sound. Wish the vocals were mixed a little louder.
Track 2, “Can’t Help Myself” – Sandra sings “I confess the things I am afraid of”–she’s said that this CD is 15 different ways of asking the question, “What are we afraid of?” Nice layered vocals in the middle–a whole chours of Sandras. “Oh, trust the Lord, my soul, and all that is in me”: the answer to the fear.
Track 3, “A Narrow Cradle” – Instrumental track: a gradually growing progression of not-too-realistic but intentional samples. Something Derek did on his album Mockingbird, though in his case with real instruments. I dig it.
Track 4, “Justice Will Roll Down” – A more typical upbeat guitar/bass/drums groove. Adds an organ on verse 2; a great picture of the “new old hymns” idea. Noticing that the songs are pretty long; first was 5 minutes, second was 6, this one is 4 (rewritten hymns can tend to go by pretty quickly).
Track 5, “New Wonders” – Slower, more ballad-like, but the chord progression grabs me more so than any of the songs so far. Very Sandra-sounding, with idiomatic guitar sliding progressions and lots of suspended chords. The organ makes another appearance.
Track 6, “Give Reviving” – More production elements back in this song. I like the give-and-take between a more traditional sound and a more produced one; both feel natural rather than forced, and it makes for an album that’s never dull to listen to. Again I wish the vocals were just a little hotter in the mix; they tend to get just a little obscured by everything else.
Track 7, “This Is The Christ” – Again back to acoustic guitar and piano. I like the texture, with the picking guitar providing the main movement, and the piano providing only punctuating chords. The march snare beat is a little clichéd, but interesting in that it’s panned to the left and right on different beats.
Track 8, “Bands Of Angels” – The snare roll is carried over from the last song (without the marching beat). Another short instrumental track. I like the way that they break up the vocal songs; provides some variety on a pretty long album (15 tracks).
Track 9, “Hidden Place” – The high glockenspiel-type instruments/guitar pairing, along with the dark piano bass notes, reminds me of the sound of Sandra and Derek’s Ampersand EP album. The album recalls a lot of Sandra’s earlier works in multiple ways (chord progressions, instrumental textures), but simultaneously represents something totally new.
Track 10, “Eighty-Eight” – Starts with an accompaniment of only strings–creative texture, not just boring block chords.
Track 11, “In Feast Or Fallow” – The title track starts with a different singer (I think it’s Thad Cockrell), and also features Derek singing verse 2. The determined guitars make it sound like an anthem–albeit an anthem with much deeper and more meaningful lyrics than anthems typically have. I like the harmony of the three of them singing together, but the blend isn’t as tight as I’d like.
Track 12, “I Glory In Christ” – A song made up almost exclusively of produced sounds; reminiscent of Derek’s latest album, Stockholm Syndrome. Again a nice change-up from the guitar-based acoustic sound, and not at all out of place.
Track 13, “980 Anne Steele” – A bit of shifting meter here. Not as musically interesting as some of the other tracks, and the slow tempo makes it feel a little dragging. Kinda disappointed in this one.
Track 14, “Sweet Sorrow” – Nice finger-picking, but I was hoping it would be a little bit faster and more upbeat to pick up where the previous track took me down. Ending (particularly with the drums) feels a little awkward.
Track 15, “Faith’s Review & Expectation (Amazing Grace)” – This is, of course, one of the greatest and one of the most overdone hymns of all time; but Sandra said she wanted to record a version unlike anything you’ve heard before. She certainly succeeds with me. Starts off with just vocal and organ, but then the percussion and guitars kick in, followed by drums and organ. Rollicking in a folky kind of way; not what I’d call “rockin’,” but fun and upbeat nonetheless–and certainly very different. A few of her chord changes are unconventional and serve to change up the progression nicely. I’d like the texture to change a little more throughout the song, and particularly on the last verse to build rather than repeat a texture we’ve heard before. But she delivers a version of “Amazing Grace” simultaneously different from any I’ve heard and very patently her own.
My overall impression is of a record that is unmistakably a Sandra McCracken record, while taking her music in an entirely new creative direction. The juxtaposition of acoustic instruments and new electronic sounds is a perfect symbol of what she’s doing with the “new old hymns” concept, and produces a surprisingly coherent and natural synthesis that balances perfectly throughout. A very worthwhile listen, and one that makes me look forward with anticipation to what Sandra will do next.
In Feast Or Fallow officially releases tomorrow, April 27th, and can be bought on iTunes, Amazon and Sandra McCracken’s website.
My good friend Courtney Patino, a rabid Dave Matthews Band fan, recommended to me a website sent to her via DMB’s email list. It’s called “Pairings,” and it details an evening of music, wine and food last fall when Dave Matthews met with New Orleans chef John Besh at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, California. There are five videos on the website featuring interviews with the two of them and Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking, as they tour the winery and kitchen, taste wine and food, and listen to an acoustic performance by Dave Matthews at the dinner culminating the event. It’s pretty interesting to watch, and there are some good parallels drawn between food, wine and music as being more thoroughly enjoyed when experienced together rather than individually, and how they are all meant not to be kept to yourself, but need to be shared to be experienced to their fullest potential. There’s no timer on the video frame, but I’d say each video is short–between three and five minutes long. Just one warning: don’t watch the fourth video, “A Magical Evening,” if you’re hungry–it shows the menu that John Besh put together and it’ll make your mouth water!
I hope one day to be able to say, like Dave Matthews, that I have a small vineyard and a go-to winery for myself. Although I hope that unlike Dave Matthews, I will continue to pronounce “New Orleans” “New OR-luhns,” as opposed to the way he says “New OR-lee-uhns.”
The final song on Prospekt’s March, clocking in at only 2:27, is “Now My Feet Won’t Touch the Ground,” the coming to fruition of the theme of that phrase from Viva La Vida and this EP. In this song it comes to its full expression, and the lyrics seem to be accepting of death, even implying that it’s time–again envisioning death as freedom. It begins with just a solo guitar and Chris Martin’s voice, like “Prospekt’s March/Poppyfields,” but it’s much more upbeat and fuller-sounding. The guitar is tuned in a different way than a normal guitar, allowing it to utilize more strings for each chord, play melodic lines within the strings and provide a richer sound (like the guitar in “Kingdom Come,” the hidden track on X&Y). It has an almost folk-song-like quality to it, with its simplicity, easily singable melody and basic chords (I, IV and V). Some electronic effects are added in the background after the first chorus, which sound like manipulated brass samples; they foreshadow the repeat of the chorus, where the guitar and effects remain the same but a full brass section accompanies them (along with a doubling of the vocal line an octave higher). The last line (“now my feet won’t touch the ground”) is repeated with only the brass as an accompaniment, recalling the strings-only accompaniment to the chorus of “Rainy Day” earlier in the album; and with that, Prospekt’s March comes to an end.
And with it this series of blog posts! I hope you enjoyed the last two weeks, and aren’t too offended that it was published a year late. Hmmm… what to write about next?
The penultimate track on Prospekt’s March is the “Osaka Sun” remix of “Lovers In Japan,” a song from Viva La Vida. It’s almost exactly the same as the album version, which is pretty disappointing, especially considering how cool the acoustic version is (which was a bonus track included in the iTunes preorder of Viva La Vida). It’s a fun song though, with a unique sound: toy piano, rhythmic snare pattern, shiny electric guitars that fill out the sound and add character. The chorus maintains the same feel and instrumentation but adds a couple of electric guitar riffs to add intensity. The main difference in the remix is the addition of some background vocals after the first chorus and a slightly more lively tempo. I would have liked something a little further removed from the album version, but at least I have the acoustic version to fulfill that desire.
And there’s only one song remaining….
After the rocking energy of “Rainy Day,” Prospekt’s March chills out with the title track, “Prospekt’s March/Poppyfields.” It begins with a solo guitar and voice, which creates a simple yet powerful texture. The guitar itself is very thin-sounding with lots of fret noise, giving it a “fragile” sound. As the song continues, atmospherics and high strings are added to fill out the sound even though it’s still just guitar and voice; eventually the bass and electric guitar enter, but they do so subtly and without changing the simple sound of the song. The lyrics again deal with the theme of death, as the opening words seem to describe a battle’s aftermath and Chris Martin sings “I don’t wanna die on my own here tonight,” and it ends with an oriental-like pentatonic figure in the electric guitar.
The sixth track on Prospekt’s March is “Lost+,” one of the four versions of the song that the band has recorded. All of them have a unique symbol after “Lost” to designate which version it is. The first to be released, “Lost?”, is a piano-solo acoustic version; “Lost!” was the track on Viva La Vida; “Lost@” is a live version recorded in Chicago; and “Lost+” is the Prospekt’s March track, designated “+” because it features an extended solo section with a rap by Jay-Z about success and its consequences. Other than the rap, which is pretty well-written and well-performed, the song is essentially the same as the Viva La Vida track: the same progression, cool sampled percussion and sweet lyrics. The rap occurs over an extended verse chord progression, and a choir enters subtly in the background to fill out the sound; at the line “success is like suicide,” the guitar solo from the original song begins. When the rap is finished, the song ends the same way the original did. You can read my thoughts on the original song, and how I first fell in love with it, here.
The second coolest song on Prospekt’s March (at least in my opinion) is “Rainy Day,” track four. It begins with a weird piano sample for a few moments before beginning the song proper. The verse is backed by electronics, a lead electric guitar and an electric guitar with delay (the effect that makes each chord repeat multiple times even though the guitarist only plays it once).
But the reason the song is one of the coolest on the album, as with “Glass of Water,” is the chorus. The chorus of “Rainy Day” is accompanied entirely by strings. No guitar, no drums, no bass. All strings. And to my surprise when I first heard it, it sounds terrific and it works. The basses provide a driving rhythm which ensures that the song doesn’t lose energy or momentum from losing the other instruments and the drums. And the arrangement of the strings is very well done: the basses have the rhythm, there’s an independently moving cello line in the low mid range, and the violins and violas have held notes in the mid and high ranges. The other thing that makes the strings so cool is the sick high cello riff in the middle of the chorus (listen for it, starting with a flattened third, right after the words “slow down”). The range of the line (high for a cello) gives it a great deal of tension on the instrument, which, along with the flattened third, makes it jump out of the texture and bring attention to how rocking it is.
The chord progression in the chorus is VII – IV – I; the song is in E-flat, which means the chord progression is D-flat – A-flat – E-flat. This is a relatively common progression in pop music, and I’ve heard it zillions of times. But I think that “Rainy Day” is the most musically satisfying use of the VII – IV – I progression I’ve ever heard. And the accompaniment is all strings. Brilliant.
The third track on Prospekt’s March, my personal favorite, is “Glass of Water.” The lyrics deal with living a full, satisfying life, continuing the themes of life, death and living well. The opening texture of the song through the first two verses is pretty sparse: thin electric guitars, chill drums and thin bass. But the rock-awesome chorus is what sets this song apart even from Coldplay’s standardly excellent modus operandi. It’s in 7/4 time (reminiscent of the rocking chorus of “Death And All His Friends” from Viva La Vida), with full, beefy electric guitars and bass, high electronics, and lots of cymbals. There’s a high sparkly sound effect in the middle of the chorus (on the word “cling”) which is subtle but adds to the huge feeling of the chorus. At the end of the chorus, the music goes back to straight 4/4 time for one measure, then keeps the listener thrown off with a syncopated bar of 4/4. You can hear the straight 4/4 by listening for the snare drum on beats two and four, right before the lyrics “going nowhere fast” (which happen over the syncopation).
The piano interlude after the second chorus confused me for the longest time, because I couldn’t figure out whether the piano arpeggios were triplets (three notes to one beat) or sixteenth notes (four notes to one beat), no matter how hard I listened. But finally, I figured it out, and the reason it’s so difficult to hear is that it alternates between triplets (three notes going up then three notes going down) and sixteenth notes (four notes going up then four notes going down). You have to listen closely, but I’m almost positive that’s what’s happening. In a song called “Glass of Water,” it creates a cool blurred rippling effect that’s very clever and leads into the final chorus, which is instrumental without vocals. My only disappointment in this song is that there isn’t a cooler guitar solo over the instrumental chorus; the song as it is features an electric guitar simply repeating a high F-sharp and A (the third and fifth of the tonic chord D major).
The end of the song consists of a solo piano, voice and quiet electronics, bringing to a close the coolest song on the album and bringing the energy level back down before launching into the second coolest song on the album….
In an interesting twist for a mainstream pop music album, the second track of Prospekt’s March is a piano solo. Clocking in at 47 seconds, “Postcards From Far Away” was written by frontman Chris Martin between recording sessions for Viva La Vida. While the piano style isn’t foreign to modern pop piano playing–alternating notes in the right hand, and a simple “oom-pah” accompaniment in the left hand–the chord progressions are reminiscent of the early Romantic period, and the whole piece sounds almost Schubert-esque. It ends, after a long drawn-out Gsus chord, on a G major chord–or rather just a B-natural, suggesting G major, after a piece in B-flat major (in which G would usually be minor); it creates a Picardy third-type effect. Another unique song on a unique album that continues to portend even better things to come.