"Violet Hill," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:45 am

About the same time I fell in love with “Viva La Vida,” I also came to particularly enjoy “Violet Hill,” which is the track immediately following it (track eight). “Violet Hill” was the first single off the album, and also represents a departure from Coldplay’s past style into the brave new world of Viva La Vida. Again, I will make a quick mention of the lyrics, but say nothing besides “they’re really awesome.”

“Violet Hill” begins with 35 seconds of swirling atmospherics, again Brian Eno‘s ambient/electronic influence. At the 35-second mark, the voice enters, accompanied by a quarter-note-pounding piano in C-sharp minor. The rest of the band comes in a few lines later, with a similar pounding pulse feeling. The fun thing about this song is that based on the general feel of the music and the piano and melody, you might expect it to be a mellow piano ballad; but instead it’s a hard-hitting rock song that (again) I rock out to in the car all the time.

The quarter-note pulse pervades the song, particularly in the “interludes” after the refrain line “If you love me won’t you let me know?,” which consist of eight identical quarter hits–two measures–with nothing in between, just 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! 8! An excellent use of musical space, and a great use of musical energy as well.

The song ends with a quiet coda, the voice accompanied only by a soft, tender piano. (The lyrics to this coda are very good, as well–I love the rhyme of “Violet Hill” with “silent still.”) There is a chord progression detail here which perfectly indicates a musical principle I learned in college, though unfortunately I’m unable to attribute it to its source because I can’t recall its source. The principle is that when writing music, you set up expectations in the listener–based on what happens, the listener expects certain things to happen next. Then, you balance fulfilling those expectations with thwarting the expectations by doing something else. The refrain line mentioned above concludes, in all parts of the song except the coda, with the following progression: C-sharp minor – B major – C-sharp minor (which in the piece is i – VII – i*). Because of the way the rhythm and the melody frame this progression, it sets up the expectation of a deceptive cadence, following the progression C-sharp minor – B major – A major (the VI chord). But the song frustrates this expectation by resolving instead right back up to the C-sharp minor chord. This happens three times (it’s right before the “interludes” mentioned above; the second C-sharp minor chord is the one hammered on eight times). However, in the coda, with only the piano accompanying the voice, the expectation is finally met: the B chord resolves down to the A major, setting up a “tagged” repetition of the last line, ending on the C-sharp minor. I’m sorry if that was a bit technical–I think if you listen to the song, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Again, this song leaves me wanting more, since minus the 35-second introduction it’s really only three minutes long. But oh, what a rocking three minutes.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

* If there are any classically trained musicians who read this blog, they may object that the major flat seven chord doesn’t really exist in a minor key. But if we’re being honest, it’s used in pop music all the time, and it really does function as a VII, not as a V/III. Sometimes you just have to accept the way things really are, and not as they appear in music textbooks. (And sometimes you have to hope that at least one reader–just one!–actually knows what the heck you’re talking about.)


"Viva La Vida," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:04 am

The title track on Viva La Vida, i.e. “Viva La Vida” (track seven), was the next song on the CD to attract my attention. In many ways, it’s a very appropriate title track in that it epitomizes many of the themes of the album. It’s energetic, it deals with revolution and it has many nuances and details that lift it from being a good song to being a great song. The lyrics–the meaning of which is hotly contested on sites like www.songmeanings.net–seem to deal with the deposition of a king: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own….” There are multiple layers of meaning to be found in the song; it seems like it could equally be a description of a historical event (many people think it’s the beheading of Louis XVI), or a whole-song extended metaphor for something else, perhaps losing someone. In either case, the lyrics are very well written and the music is an excellent support for them.

In “Lost!”, as I wrote about, the harmonic base–that is, the instrument primarily responsible for filling out the harmony–was a pipe organ; in “Viva La Vida,” it’s the string section. The song opens with an energetic and syncopated chord progression by the strings, and they play an indispensible role throughout the song. Underneath the strings, the bass drum beats out steady quarter notes, also throughout the song, which drives the rhythm forward even more. Interestingly enough, for all the rhythmic drive, there is no drum beat anywhere to be found–only the steady kick drum. The rhythms of the strings, voice and other instruments here and there are enough to fully carry the song and give it more energy than you would expect.

There are several musical details in the song that took me a while to notice. Listen carefully during the chorus, on beats two and four, and you’ll hear a bell or a chime playing way in the background, in the musical space typically occupied by the snare drum. It’s a nice subtle touch that enhances the song’s revolutionary feel–perhaps evoking bells being rung to celebrate liberation, for instance.

It’s also interesting to listen to the higher strings–in the range from middle C to an octave higher (if you know where that is). They undergo several variations and are arranged very nicely. Immediately following the first verse (“…streets I used to own”), they play two alternating notes about two and a half octaves above middle C, A-flat G A-flat G, which form the basic motive for that group of strings. During the first half of the second verse (“I used to roll the dice….”), they play a cool countermelody that is the only musical element besides the syncopated rhythm and the voice. During the second half of the second verse (“One minute I held the key….”), they invert the two alternating notes and instead of alternating down, alternate up: A-flat B-flat A-flat B-flat, before returning to the countermelody for the last two lines. The chorus uses them mainly in whole notes to fill out the harmony. In the third verse (“It was a wicked and wild wind….”), they alternate down again, but in the middle range: A-flat G A-flat G, in a syncopated rhythm of their own, more energetic than the rhythm of the A-flat B-flat idea. And in the second half of that verse (“Revolutionaries wait….”), they return to whole notes, their rhythmic space taken up by a honky-tonkish piano (also kept in the background). This is a sign of good arranging: they don’t play the same thing each time but actually develop a musical motive. Really good stuff.

I have to make mention of the ending: the song fades out on a weird-sounding choir singing the chords of the original string progression (without the syncopation). This is my least-favorite part of the song; I feel like they could have at least layered Chris Martin’s voice rather than using synth voices. But it’s not bad enough to ruin the rest of the song, and if this is the only thing wrong with it, it’s a song that’s a heck of a lot better than most.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.


Shortly after falling in love with “Lost!”, “Death And All His Friends,” the final track on Viva La Vida, caught my ear (so to speak). It’s really two songs, “Death And All His Friends” and “The Escapist”; the latter is a reprise of sorts of the electronic-music stylings of the first song (“Life In Technicolor”) with some added lyrics, bringing the CD full circle. I always enjoy pieces that are cyclical in that way, because it provides a very satisfying sense of internal coherency. For those interested, my favorite example (and one of the very best) is in Morten Lauridsen’s art music work Mid-Winter Songs, where the very striking theme from the first movement returns in the middle of the fifth and final movement. I wrote a paper on this piece in college, and I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to writing about it here. In the meantime, suffice it to say that I appreciate Coldplay’s decision to bring the end of their CD back to the beginning. But my main focus will be on the first song.

“Death And All His Friends” is itself almost two songs, or at least a song in two very distinct parts. The first part is very simple, just soft piano, voice and a sparse electric guitar, telling a very brief story of a relationship that was entered into too quickly but reassuring that it’s all gonna be alright. I have to mention that I love the sound of the piano here: it has a very dark and mellow (as opposed to a bright) tone, which is not only the way I like all pianos to sound but very appropriate to the song’s character.

Suddenly at the 1:18 mark, the song changes: it immediately falls into a faster tempo, a (slightly) brighter piano and guitar take over, and the energy begins to build very quickly. It has the feeling of excitement swelling up and about to burst. And at 1:48 the burst comes. You can imagine the musicians headbanging and rocking out like nothing else on the hammered chords–this is another part of the CD that I can’t help moving to even when I’m driving. (I’ve always had a very physical, visceral response to music, but as far as popular music goes this CD takes the cake, and even the cookies and punch too.) It then “settles,” while still being very energetic, into a standard 4/4 groove, before hammering the same chord progression again. But this time, the progression adds an extra beat to accommodate two sudden solo guitar notes, and transitions seamlessly to an atypical but rocking 7/4 rhythm, with the solo guitar soaring over it all. It’s a climax so huge as to be almost transcendent. After one time through the 7/4 phrase, the whole band together sings twice, almost as a chant: “No I don’t want to battle from beginning to end / I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge / I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends….” The instruments proceed with a quickly-paced denouement and drop out individually, and the song fades out into silence and then back in with the electronics of “The Escapist.” This is another part of the album where it leaves the listener wanting more–I feel like four repetitions of the chant wouldn’t be out of place at all–but again, it’s made me listen to this song, like, three thousand times. One of the greatest climaxes of any album I’ve heard.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.


"Lost!", Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:44 am

The first song on Viva La Vida that I fell in love with–only the second time I listened to the CD, in fact–was “Lost!”, track number three.

The first thing that stands out about this track is the beat, a very strong one with powerful bass and tom hits and handclaps for a snare–a beat more reminiscent of electronic music, perhaps, than rock. I forgot to mention in my post yesterday that I rock out in my car to this CD probably more than any other CD I’ve ever listened to, and this track’s beat is one of the reasons for that.

The second thing that stands out is the use of Coldplay’s signature pipe organ sound; it forms the harmonic base of the song, playing the progression Em – C – Bm – D. The cool thing about that progression, though, is that the Bm and D chords have a G added to them, so they actually become something like a Bm add6 and a D add4:

The added note is a nice detail that gives extra character to a good progression. I like the light “cluster” aspect it gives the D major chord; it seems reminiscent of something Eric Whitacre might do.

I also really like the melody in the song, particularly in the verses. It’s just really catchy, and very singable, and all the lyrics are excellent as well. The melody in the chorus is a good counterpart to the melody of the verses: it’s more expansive and leaves more space, and also switches up the harmonic rhythm with the quicker chord changes on the words “tried to cross.”

Every element on this CD seems pitch-perfect (no musical pun intended), especially in terms of proportion and balance. The form of this song, for example, is perfectly timed and balanced; it doesn’t feel like the chorus is too short, or it goes on too long at the end compared to the length of the rest of the song. The only thing I might even consider complaining about is that the song seems too short because it’s so good–give me another verse, or two, or three, I want to hear more! But that becomes typical of much of this album. Restraint, rather than excess, is the guiding principle. And, of course, that leaves listeners like you and me eager to hear it again and again.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of iLike.com: click on the play button under the heading “Song Clip.” You can watch a video of Coldplay performing the song live on that page, as well; be forewarned that the video will start playing on its own once the site loads.


Viva La Vida, Coldplay: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:07 am

First of all, I must apologize to you, my loyal readers, for not posting for an entire week–I hope I haven’t lost any of you in that time. It’s been a busy week at work and at home, and I’ve had little (or no) time to blog. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise!

In the past few weeks, with only a very few brief interludes, I’ve only been listening to one CD in my car:

Viva La Vida, Coldplay

And the more I listen to it, the more I love it. I wrote in my first post about the CD that it hadn’t eclipsed Coldplay’s album X&Y as my favorite, but that it was still a great album. Now, a month later, I must confess it still hasn’t risen to that level; but it has definitely risen above many, many other albums to become one of my all-time favorites. Like I said, I’ve been listening to it almost continuously in my car for a whole month, and it keeps getting better and better.

Listen to the CD; it’s the sound of a really good band becoming a great band. The more I listen to it, the more I discover and the better it gets. I’ve uncovered multiple layers of nuances in each song, in the lyrics and in the music. I could go on and on. But instead of doing that, I’ve decided to do a week’s worth of posts about the album, focusing on individual songs in the order I fell in love with them. So sit back with a glass of your favorite wine, relax, and enjoy a week of Viva La Vida!


"Thy Mercy," Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:03 pm

Sandra McCracken wrote the song “Thy Mercy” (or “Thy Mercy My God”) as part of a movement to revive old hymn texts and set them to new music for the church. The lyrics were written by John Stocker in 1776, and the music was written by Sandra McCracken in 2001.

I want to focus primarily on the form of the song in this post. To my knowledge, the song has been recorded three times: once by Caedmon’s Call on their album In The Company Of Angels in 2001; once by the Indelible Grace project on their album Pilgrim Days: Indelible Grace II, also in 2001; and once by Sandra herself on her terrific album The Builder And The Architect in 2005.

The song is strophic, that is, it consists of four verses with the same music for each and no chorus. Simple enough, right? The question of form that prompted this post, though, has to do with a musical interlude and its placement. In a song with four verses of the same music and no chorus, an interlude seems a wise choice to break up the form and lend some variety. The interesting thing is that these three recorded versions do three different things with the interlude.

The Indelible Grace version places the interlude between verses two and three, so the form goes like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4

You can listen to the IG version (sung by Sandra) here; “Thy Mercy” is the first track on the CD, so it should start playing when you load the page. The clip is (I think) two minutes long, so you can hear the first two verses, the interlude, verse three, and part of verse four.

The Caedmon’s Call version, which is sung by my favorite songwriter Derek Webb, places the interlude between verses three and four, so the form looks like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4

iLike.com, which I’ve grown to appreciate more and more on this blog, has a video here where you can listen to the whole song (the video is just a still shot of the title and the band’s name).

And Sandra’s version on The Builder And The Architect, the most musically original of the three, also places the interlude between verses three and four. It develops a vocal idea that was presented in the introduction to the song, and thus is the most musically coherent of the three versions of the interlude. Our good friend Last.fm pulls through for us again, and offers the full track here for your listening pleasure.

If you glance back for a moment at the form charts I listed above, you’ll notice that the IG version is symmetrical, whereas the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions are asymmetrical since the interlude separates three verses from one at the end. Which form is better from a musical standpoint? One could of course argue that both are good in their own ways, and one is not “better” than the other; but I maintain that one is, and for the following reason.

The IG version is not particularly inventive musically, and the “riff” played between the verses is, to be frank, pretty boring. So the general feel of the song becomes static: not much is happening, and we return to the same riff every time between the verses. Thus we have the sequence: riff in the intro, verse one, the riff, verse two, and then an interlude that’s slightly different; then verse three, and then the same riff again. The riff between verses three and four kills any hope we might have had for an overarching dynamic form for the song, because instead of moving on to new or different material to drive the momentum of the song forward, we instead return to the exact same pretty boring riff we’ve heard before, with no variation whatsoever. And therefore the song almost stops dead at this point in terms of form.

Contrast the other two versions–we’ll focus on Sandra’s. To begin with, the instrumentation and style of this arrangement is much more original than the IG version, so we’re more interested from the start. We hear three verses with the same music, although the third verse has a different texture (variations in volume and instrumentation). Then comes the interlude, which is not the same thing we’ve been hearing in between the verses but is a developed and extended version of it–a good balance of repetition and contrast. That propels the momentum of the song forward. Then there is one last verse, returning to the music of the verses, and then the song ends. This form is much more effective because it doesn’t remain static but changes, evolves, through the course of the song, and reflects (in a way) the dramatic topography of the lyrics.

One of the most helpful things I learned in college was that form–in any art but particularly in music–is the balance of repetition and contrast: we need enough repetition to create a coherent song with things we recognize as the song progresses, but enough contrast to create an interesting song that does in fact progress instead of repeating the same material too much. The IG version doesn’t seem to understand this principle; but the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions do.


"Just As I Am" Is A Hit!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:50 pm

I traveled to Redlands this past weekend to play in the River Of Worship service with my friend Jeff Mercer and his Jeff Mercer Band. I wrote in my last post that he and the band are working on a recording, which we hope to have finished by the end of the year, and I had told him a short time ago of my arrangement of “Just As I Am” (written about on this blog here). It will likely be on the recording, now, and he agreed to add it to the set for Saturday night as well, so the band (led by me on guitar and vocals) played it for the first time in the service. It was very cool to hear it done with a full band; being a song with little structural variation (it doesn’t have the advantage of, say, a bridge or a chorus to break up the repetition of the verses), it was a great help to have the band to add variation in other ways: different rhythms, more or fewer instruments playing on different verses, differences in dynamics.

Of course, as a worship song, the point is not for people to like it or to get praise for myself; but it went over very well. I was hoping that Jeff wouldn’t bring attention to the fact that I had done the arrangement, but he did, and I got a number of compliments afterwards on it. One friend in particular (who may or may not be named Nate) told me he really, really liked it; at a later point in our conversation, I told him as I often do, “I like you a lot,” and he responded, “I like you a lot too–and I like you even more after tonight!”


The Jeff Mercer Band

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:00 pm

Jeff Mercer, my good friend from Redlands (although he actually lives in Beaumont now), leads a monthly worship service at his church, The River CRC, called River Of Worship. While I was living in Redlands I got the chance to go with him and some members of his ROW team out to Harvest, Greg Laurie’s megachurch in Riverside, to lead worship for their singles group. Thanks to a terrific sound tech (his name was Shea although I’m not sure of the spelling), we got a recording of our playing for the night, which actually turned out very well for a live recording. Jeff cleaned it up using GarageBand (insert shameless plug for Apple products here) and it turned out even better. You can hear the recording at the ROW Myspace page: http://www.myspace.com/riverofworshipmusic. Jeff plays the piano and sings; the acoustic guitar is me. My favorite tracks are “He Is Exalted” and “That’s Why We Praise Him.”

I recommend you go check it out for several reasons. One: Jeff is a great singer and a great pianist, and it’s just fun to listen to him. Two: His band is terrific, particularly the two female singers (Courtney and Teri) and the bass player we had that night (Mike; check out his bass solo on “He Is Exalted”). Three: It’s good worship music. And four: It’s an original style. Jeff leads from piano, whereas most of the songs as originally recorded are led from guitar, and his playing style is unique, creative and effective. Most of the musicians of his band and the singers, although they change from time to time and from gig to gig, have been playing together for a long time, so they know how to play together well; and at the same time Jeff is a great leader who knows what he wants musically, and knows how to get what he wants out of his musicians. All this to say, it’s good, it’s interesting and it’s worth listening to.

Rumor has it he’s planning a studio recording for the Jeff Mercer Band, possibly including some of my original music. I’ll keep you all posted.


Music Sale At Amazon.com: Buy 2 Get 1 Free

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:30 am

I promise I won’t do this too often, but Amazon emailed me about a music sale they’re having that I thought you, my faithful readers, might like to know about.

They’re offering a “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” deal on select music CDs, including artists like Tom Petty, Elton John, Rush, Bon Jovi, Cream, and The Who. There’s at least one U2 CD in there (a really good one, The Unforgettable Fire), and also some comedy CDs (including Jerry Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You For The Last Time). If you click on the fun little graphic below, it will take you straight to the page where you can select your three (or more) from the 150 available. And best of all, I get a commission on anything (music CDs or anything else) you buy on Amazon after clicking through this site! (Click here for more details on my affiliation with Amazon.) The sale lasts until October 2nd.

If you do pick up some CDs from this sale, leave a comment and let me know what you bought!


Interlude: My Recording Technology

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:18 pm

Since I’m recording two clapping pieces this week for your listening pleasure (one in the previous post and one yet to come), and since Albert and Ryan Fleming both asked (here) about how I record, we’ll take a brief respite from the clapping posts and I’ll reveal my “technologies and techniques” of recording.

My “first album” of sorts, Following A Star, was recorded at the end of 2005 using my iBook G4 laptop, which (I think) was new in 2004 and was running Mac OSX 10.4 Tiger at the time. I used the Mac program GarageBand v. 1.1.0 to actually record the album, and lacking any real recording equipment, I used the computer’s built-in mike. For being a built-in mike, it performed very well, and the only real drawback was noticeable but not overwhelming static in the background. (You can listen to that whole album on my website, www.ajharbison.com, under the heading “Popular Music” on the Music page.)

Last year, for Christmas, my mother bought me the instrument I’ve been using for the recent recordings (“Just As I Am” and the clapping recordings). It’s called The Snowball, and it’s made by Blue Microphones. The cool thing about The Snowball is that it’s a professional quality USB mike, so it’s exceptionally clear while needing no intermediate interface–a standard USB cord runs straight from the mike into the computer. I love it. I still use GarageBand, and now that I’ve figured out how to use The Snowball with the program, it’s great. (Before I realized that you had to change the audio input setting within GarageBand, I was still recording with the built-in mike thinking I was using The Snowball. That was a bummer.)

If you’re the audio geek type, you can check out all the product specs on The Snowball’s page. If you’re too lazy to check that out, the basic stats are that it records at a 44.1 kHz and 16-bit rate–typical CD quality–and can operate in either omnidirectional or cardioid polar patterns. In other words, it can do pretty much anything I would ever need it to do, and it does it at a very high level of quality. I’m very happy with it.

The only problem that I’ve come across–and I’ve only discovered it recently–is that it has a slight latency problem with GarageBand; in other words, when I’m recording a second track, there’s a slight delay between what I hear in the first track and what I’m recording on the second track. So if I sync the performance of the second track to the first as I listen to the first, when I play them both back the second track will be slightly behind. I haven’t figured out how to fix this yet, and I’m not sure whether the problem is in the mike, the program, or my computer (it’s getting old now and it’s rather slow). I recorded “Just As I Am” playing guitar and singing at the same time (so it was only one track), and I’m recording the clapping pieces by syncing both parts to GarageBand’s built-in metronome, which has worked thus far (and made me think of this A.W. Tozer quote). But if I want to do any other multi-track recording, I need to figure out how to eliminate the latency.

But in terms of quality, I couldn’t be happier. The guitar and voice, even recorded together, sound terrific, as Albert pointed out–I joked to my girlfriend that “the guitar sounds better than live!” If you have any suggestions about the latency, let me know; if I figure it out, I’ll post about it here. And until then, Albert and Fleming (and any others who are curious): I hope this satisfies your curiosity.


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