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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09.12.2009

“Four Chord Song”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:22 am

Thanks to my friend Jessica (@jesserface) for this one: A video by Australian musical comedy trio Axis of Awesome where the keyboardist quips, “We’ve never had a hit because we’ve never written a four chord song.” They then proceed to show how every pop song ever written uses the same four chords: I – V – vi – IV (in the video A, E, F-sharp minor and D). The list of songs included below the video is from the YouTube page, so I take no responsibility for any grammatical or punctuational or capitalizational errors (and just to be sure, I encased it all in quotation marks).

Funny? Yes. True? Yes. Sad? You decide.

“Songs Included are :
You’re beautiful by James Blunt,
Forever young by the Alphaville (covered by Youth Group),
I’m yours by Jason Mraz,
Amazing by Alex Lloyd,
Wherever you go by the Calling,
Can you feel the love tonight by Elton John,
She will be loved by Maroon 5,
Pictures of you by the Last Goodnight,
Cigarettes will kill you by Ben Lee,
With or without you by U2,
Fall at your feet by Crowded House,
Am I not pretty enough? by Kasey Chambers,
Let it be by The Beatles,
Under the bridge by RHCP,
Horses by Darryl Braithwaite,
Down under by Men at Work,
Waltzing Matilda,
Old Australia’s funniest Homevideos intro,
Taylor by Jack Johnson,
2 become 1 by the Spice Girls,
Take on me by A-ha,
When I come around by Green Day,
Save tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry,
Africa by Toto,
If I Were A Boy by Beyonce,
Self Esteem by the Offspring,
Apologize by One Republic,
U + Ur Hand by P!nk,
Pokerface by Lady Gaga,
Barbie Girl by Aqua,
Kids by MGMT,
Scar by Missy Higgins,
Thats all it takes to be a star by Axis Of Awesome.”

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09.09.2009

“Happy Birthday”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:19 am

My wife and I attended a holiday/birthday party on Labor Day, and we sang “Happy Birthday” to the lady who was turning a year older partway through the festivities. (Instead of a birthday cake, Irish cupcakes were served, which are cupcakes made from Guinness with Baileys frosting. They were delicious.) Being a musician, I’m often asked to lead the group in singing everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) birthday song, but in this case, someone else, who is not a musician, did the honors. It’s hard, especially for non-musicians, to start singing something a cappella, because you don’t know exactly where you’re starting pitch-wise so you don’t know whether the range of the song will eventually take you too high or too low to sing comfortably. And, of course, it always takes a while for a non-musical group that’s singing to agree on a pitch. There were probably 15-20 people at the party at that time. I decided to listen intentionally to the group’s singing to see how long it took for them to fall into something close to a unison agreement. Unsurprisingly, it took two whole phrases: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to–” and then by the second “you,” they were pretty close to singing the same notes.

It was an interesting experiment. Try it the next time you’re at a birthday celebration–and let me know what you hear!

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08.29.2009

Another entry in the recently reshuffled iPod playlist category….

I wrote a year ago about how my friend Rae hooked me up with some free CDs she didn’t want. Two of them happened to be the Greatest Hits of Billy Idol and the Greatest Hits: 1974-1978 of The Steve Miller Band. (What it says about the band that they have a Greatest Hits album with 14 tracks that spans all of 5 years, I’m not sure.) I put both those albums into my playlist, and I’ve heard multiple songs from both of them over the last week or so at work.

I’m not too impressed with either album. It’s definitely the 70s-80s rock sound that I would expect, not knowing much about either artist, and to be honest it bores me. Sure, there’s a lot of energy. But the style is quite outdated (insert your favorite cliche about 80s music here), and there’s nothing in the music that transcends the style–nothing that’s designed to last beyond the style itself. Especially in the Billy Idol tracks. They’re all constructed the same way, with the same instruments playing the same types of musical lines in every song. There are very few interesting details. The one exception is the live version of “Rebel Yell,” featuring some rocking acoustic guitar from Steve Stevens. He plays some unique accompaniment patterns, does some “superstrumming,” plays rhythms on muted strings, etc. That is worth listening to. But none of the other songs have the same redeeming quality (or any redeeming quality, to my mind).

Right after a song of Billy Idol’s and a song of The Steve Miller Band’s the other day, the song “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s album Exile On Mainstream started to play. It made me smile, because I love that song and it was a breath of fresh air after the other two. But then I started to wonder why–what was it that made “All Your Reasons” better than “White Wedding” and “Take The Money And Run”?

First of all, “All Your Reasons” is more intelligent than the other songs because while it has a distinctive pop/rock style, it transcends it because it’s a parody of the style. (The song starts out, quite humorously, with a couple of singers singing, with much feeling, “Ba da da da ba ba ba ba da” etc.) Maybe the parody won’t last for decades, but at least it’s a sentient style, so to speak–it’s aware of the style it’s operating in. Secondly, even though “All Your Reasons” is a simple song, there’s more detail in it than in five of Billy Idol’s songs combined–more subtle nuances in the instruments’ parts themselves, on a small scale. And thirdly, there’s more detail on a larger scale: there are great variations in texture (how many instruments are playing and what they’re playing), from the acoustic guitar and voices in the intro, to the full guitar-bass-drums chorus, to a driving bridge, to a chorus with only high guitar (punctuated by small drum fills, otherwise known as “details”).

Perhaps Matchbox Twenty’s music won’t last too far beyond its own style, either. But, while we’re still in a time where their style is relevant (and even if we’re not), it’s better music, and more worth listening to, than Billy Idol or The Steve Miller Band.

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08.21.2009

“Icicle,” Under The Pink, Tori Amos

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:58 pm

I mentioned the other day that I’d been introduced to Tori Amos’ album Under The Pink by an old friend of mine, and that I’d recently put it into a playlist on my iPod. My friend had attended a church I was a member of a long time ago, and she thought I would find it interesting that Amos makes use of a hymn in one of her songs on that album. She couldn’t find it on the record she was playing at the time, but I found it when I got the CD and listened to it on my own.

In the piano intro to the song “Icicle,” Amos writes a deconstruction of the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” (careful, a crappy MIDI piano version of the hymn will start playing if you visit the site). After some meandering chords that change modalities (switching from major to minor, mainly by switching from F to F-sharp), the hymn begins at the 53-second mark. Although she adds an extra beat here and there, it’s a faithful rendering of the hymn through one verse. But the last chord of the verse is swapped for a flat-VI (an A-flat major chord replaces the expected C major), and she launches into her deconstruction through another verse. She first simply adds the flat seventh, turning C major chords into C dominant sevens, but then really throws it off by switching between major and minor tonalities (by switching from E to E-flat and then from D to D-flat) and collapsing into a dissonant mess. After hanging out on the final cluster chord for a while, the accompaniment to the song proper begins, an A-flat 5 arpeggio.

The subject matter of the song concerns Amos’ exchanging of her parents’ religion for her own ideas, and thus the gradual decline of the hymn into chaos is a brilliant musical mirroring of what she’s about to sing. You can listen to the whole song here, courtesy of Last.fm. Be forewarned that the song contains some sexually suggestive material; but you can listen to the intro and then stop the song when she starts singing if you’d like to avoid it.

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08.18.2009

Listening On the iPod

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:32 pm

Usually, I can’t listen to music while I do something else, because I’m always listening to the music and analyzing it, whether I want to or not. In college I was never able to listen to music while I was studying because the music would be too distracting. Even when I’m eating out at a restaurant, some back corner of my mind is always listening and analyzing. I like to call this one of the “occupational hazards” of being a composer.

All this to say, I don’t have much occasion to make use of my iPod. However, occasionally at work I’m given some mindless tasks, like data entry for reports or conversion of a bunch of files from one format to another; and so I keep my iPod at work for such situations. It’s not large enough to sync with my entire iTunes library (it’s a 4GB iPod nano), so I have to pick and choose what I put on there. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve recently put into my shuffled mindless-work playlist:

And here are a few albums I’ve taken out: