02.23.2010

The first track on Prospekt’s March, “Life In Technicolor II,” is the full version of “Life In Technicolor,” the first track on Viva La Vida. It’s the same song, but minus the opening electronics, extended, and with lyrics, unlike the instrumental first version. It still retains the same compositionally excellent unfolding structure that I wrote about last February: the perfect, gradually additive balance of repetition and contrast. One interesting thing to note is that the dark, bracing lyrics (“Oh baby, it’s a violent world”) contrast over against the happy, carefree style of the music. And it’s also in this song that the lyrical phrase “Now my feet won’t touch the ground” is introduced on this album. Taking Prospekt’s March as an extension of Viva La Vida, the first occurrence of the phrase is found in “Strawberry Swing,” the penultimate track of the first record; and by virtue of its appearance in “Life In Technicolor II” and as the title of the last track of the second, it becomes almost a theme–again one that deals with mortality, in this case picturing death as freedom. That theme, and the fresh, original sound of the music, set the stage for the rest of the album to come.

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02.22.2010

Prospekt’s March, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:37 pm

A looooong, long time ago, one year ago to be precise, I promised that I would write a series of posts on each track of Coldplay‘s EP companion to Viva La Vida, Prospekt’s March. Since then I’ve been distracted by many things and I’ve kept putting it off, but in honor of it being a whole year since I originally said I’d do it, I’ve finally gotten around to it. So prepare yourselves for a series of posts on one of the most original EPs I’ve ever heard. Tune in tomorrow for the first entry!

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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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01.31.2010

Drums’n'Bass

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:07 pm

My lovely wife and I went on a bowling date earlier this week to Strike OC, which is nice if a bit on the pricey side. We went after 9 pm, when there’s a special for unlimited bowling and shoes, drink specials, etc. It was interesting listening to the music that they were playing; I don’t know for sure but it sounded like “dance” remixes of pop and R&B music. I recognized two of the songs, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” (which I only know because my mom’s into Glee) and Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” (which I only know because I listened to a few of her songs after hearing about her for a while). Now, no offense to either of those artists, but these are not exactly the most substantial pop songs to begin with. They’re light, they’re catchy, they are what they are and they’re not meant to be musically complex or weighty. But the remixes we heard at the bowling alley were bare-bones versions of the already skinny pop songs: basically drums, bass, and voice. Anything that was musically interesting in the original song apart from the beat and the bass line–anything interesting in instrumentation or arrangement–was stripped out. I realize that you don’t go to a bowling alley or a club or anywhere they play this kind of music for the listening experience, and my wife suggested that perhaps the reason for the remixes was that in these situations it’s all about “feeling the beat.” But it seems a little strange that this kind of music, which isn’t complex to begin with, is stripped down to something that is little more than what you could create with a sequencing program, a library of loops and 30 seconds of picking and choosing.

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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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10.28.2009

“Farm Machine Music”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:02 am

I received this video in an email from my father-in-law this morning. This is what was in the forwarded message (not including his skeptical comment, “Is this for real?”):

Last seen and heard 2-3 years ago. Good to see and hear it again.
This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the
Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of
Engineering at the University of Iowa .. Amazingly, 97% of
the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation
Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ..Yes, farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment,
calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it
was WELL worth the effort.

It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University
and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that this is fake. The whole look and feel of the video is very computer-animated-ish, and it would be very strange if the xylophonic-type instrument would actually light up as its bars were hit. But the most important tell-tale sign of fakery is the sound quality. There aren’t any microphones visible anywhere in the setup, and obviously if this was an acoustic instrument as the quote claims, there would have to be microphones to pick up the sound. And even if there were microphones that somehow weren’t visible in the video, the sound quality of the audio would not be nearly as neat and polished as it is–there would be a great deal of ambient noise, both from the space in general and from the bleeding of different parts of the “instrument” into each microphone.

And to confirm my suspicions, the trustworthy rumor-busting site Snopes.com has exposed it as false in their article “Farm Machine Music.” It was created originally as a computer animation, but then was picked up by someone and passed off as a real video.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive animation and a fun song. Enjoy!

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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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