Viva La Vida, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:04 am

Here it is, Mark: The long-awaited Viva La Vida review!

But before I dive in, two quick backgrounds. First, the background of the album: It is the fourth album of the rocking British band Coldplay, following the immensely popular X&Y of 2005. The album’s title, “Viva La Vida,” roughly translated means “Long live life.” The album’s cover art is a painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled Liberty Leading The People, which depicts a woman personifying Liberty and commemorating both the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution (also French) of 1830. The album’s producer is Brian Eno, who is known in the capacity of a solo artist as “the father of ambient music” and in the capacity of a producer as such of U2′s album The Joshua Tree.

Second, my background with Coldplay: I consider Coldplay one of my favorite bands, and often cite them as an influence on my own music. I quite enjoy their first album, Parachutes–most of the songs are good but the really good songs are really good. Their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, is better all around and I very much enjoy it. And the album that precedes Viva La Vida, X&Y, I consider to be my single favorite album of all time. I am not so presumptious as to consider it the best album of all time, as my experience is not so wide as to make that declaration; but it is alone atop all the others I have heard. There’s not a song on it that I dislike or even feel indifferent about. It is excellent in every way and I simply love it.

With these prerequisite backgrounds now dispensed of, we move on to the TLB review.

I listened to the album one time through (thus the title, “First Impressions”) on Wednesday night; I wanted to share my first thoughts with you, my faithful readers, and I plan to elaborate in future posts as I listen to it more.

Listening to Viva La Vida was a paradoxical experience for me. Part of me felt like I loved it, while part of me felt that I didn’t understand it musically. It was simultaneously a completely fresh and original sound, while also suggesting many comparisons in my mind. The album progressed at a leisurely pace, but when it was done it seemed no time at all had passed.

The thing that stood out to me the most, above all else, was the album’s energy, its exuberant exhilaration (if I may make such a bold alliteration). X&Y was dark, chill, mellow, while it seems Viva La Vida is almost bursting with excitement. It reminded me vaguely of Derek Webb’s first two solo albums, She Must And Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down–although in that case the moods of the CDs were reversed.

Viva La Vida finds one of the world’s greatest bands contemplating its mortality. With a title meaning “Long live life,” song titles like “Cemetaries of London,” “Viva La Vida” and “Death And All His Friends,” and the lyrics of songs like “42,” the whole album points to the coming to grips with death. It reminded me also of another great album that had a similar theme: Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes To Midnight. But the contrast is perhaps more interesting than the comparison. In Linkin Park’s case, the album is much more restrained, sober-minded and contemplative than their previous releases (and, in my opinion, is their best). With Viva La Vida, however, Coldplay responds to the contemplation of death with a celebration of life.

Such, in my opinion, are the philosophical underpinnings of the music–but on to the music itself.

The music itself is also rather paradoxical. As I just remarked to my roommate Mike, it’s a sound unlike anything I’ve heard. In many ways it includes more elements of electronic music than their previous work: many of the beats are more reminiscent of electronic music than rock music, and many of the synth and atmospherics effects are as well. “Life In Technicolor,” the instrumental overture to the CD, could very easily have come from a CD in Mike’s electronic collection. And yet in other ways it’s more acoustic than X&Y and sounds more like a live band jamming onstage than a carefully produced album from the studio. I must confess I’ve never seen Coldplay live–although to do so would be an experience only to be topped by seeing U2. But I imagine live performances of X&Y as a classic rock music performance, the band members rocking out because the music is just awesome; my imagination of a Viva La Vida performance is of the band members smiling, laughing and bouncing off the walls, not to be showy but just because the music is so much freakin’ fun to play. The album also includes some Latin, African and Asian elements, apparently culled from playing world tours while writing the songs. The combination of styles is exquisite, intriguing and totally original in my experience.

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the mixing of the voice. I wrote in a post about Elton John that Coldplay sometimes mixes the voice at a similar volume level to that of the instruments, so that it doesn’t stand out as it often does in popular music. I wrote that “they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums,” and that is very much in evidence on this record. I even mentioned the song “Viva La Vida” in the post, as it was available as a single on iTunes at the time, but that mixing style certainly pervades the album, with a few notable exceptions (such as “Violet Hill”). In a subsequent listen I’d like to listen with the lyrics in front of me, as they were often obscured by the other instruments.

The instrumentation of the album is also noteworthy. It is most certainly a rock album, with guitars, bass and drums holding sway. Coldplay’s signature piano and pipe organ also make appearances, although much less than in X&Y. But the band makes use of a more colorful instrumental palette overall (to mix my artistic metaphors). The electronics and synths used are simultaneously similar to ones used previously and different, often more evocative of electronic and ambient music (likely Eno’s influence). And while strings have been used on each of the band’s previous albums, they are featured here in a hitherto unseen prominence. The Latin-flavored flourishes in “Yes” are particularly interesting (as are, in the same song, the luxuriously long electric guitar bends).

Some of the songs’ rhythms are notable as well for their adventuresomeness (is that a word?). The instrumental interludes in “Yes” throw in an extra beat or take one away here and there, just to throw you off. And the final track “Death And All His Friends,” after the first piano/vocal section and a more conventional 4/4 groove, settles into a rocking (but very atypical) 7/4 for the song’s climax.

I know this post is already waxing very loquacious (perhaps too much so), so I will endeavor to bring it to a close. Overall, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Viva La Vida, but I look forward to uncovering further layers and nuances in subsequent listenings. True to the album art, the sound is revolutionary, certainly for Coldplay and (considering Coldplay’s influence) possibly for others as well. It is a blend of styles that have worked for them in the past, while
also being a departure and an attempt at something vastly different. The album’s energy is abundant and infectious, and had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head even as I sat in my desk chair listening to my computer speakers. At this point, after one listen, it hasn’t dethroned X&Y; but it’s a pretty darn good record.


Wheel, Jona Lyons

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:58 am

About two weeks ago, my good friend, former college roommate and current co-worker Doug sold me a CD by his good friend Jona Lyons. Lyons is an independent singer-songwriter from Fullerton who self-recorded and self-released this album, entitled Wheel, just recently. So, since I had an early listen, I thought I’d share it with all of you. Six songs from the album are on his Myspace page (linked above), so apart from my general comments I’ll focus on those songs so you can hear what I’m writing about.

First off, I have to say that recording and releasing an album on one’s own is a laudable feat and I applaud him for it–especially an album with a full band and 13 songs. So hats off to Lyons for succeeding in this.

Unfortunately, my first impression of the CD was not a particularly enjoyable one. The main problem the CD suffers from is a lack of quality production–understandable, certainly, considered it was recorded and produced in his house without the aid of a studio or engineer; but still disheartening. There are three primary things that particularly troubled me. First, the mixing is a little subpar: the voice doesn’t always stand out the way it should, the bass is too boomy, and the other instruments aren’t always mixed so that they come through clearly. (Similar to my complaints about Elton John’s CD that I wrote about here.) Second, there is little reverb used, and often the voice sounds somewhat flat and dry, where reverb would have filled out the sound a bit more. Third, and most troubling, is the fact that the crash cymbals seem to exceed the capacity of either the recording mikes or the sound board, and during big, loud parts of some songs (notably “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up”), the sound of the cymbals actually cuts in and out a little. Added to a slightly unclear mix of the electric guitars, this creates a patchy and messy sound which almost ruins otherwise good songs. I also have to say that I am not the biggest fan of Lyons’ voice: he’s not always fully in control of it, nor always fully on key. But hey, he can sing a heck of a lot higher than I can, and those readers who know me know how picky I am about voices.

On my first listen through the CD, I found it hard to overcome these shortfalls. However, as I listened through it again and listened more closely to the songs themselves, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. “Wow, these songs are actually really cool!” The lyrics are not always as deep or well-written as I’d like them to be, but they’re good, and the music (while reminiscent of others) is pretty original and well done.

My two favorite songs on the CD are both on Lyons’ Myspace page: “Shining Knight” and “Six Years Ago.” Both have good imagery and insights in the lyrics and poignant, primarily acoustic music, and I’ve listened to them a whole bunch of times since I got the CD and I definitely haven’t grown tired of them yet. “Maybe Then You’d Love Me” (also on the Myspace page) is also simple, acoustic and enjoyable. “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up,” despite their technical faults, are energetic and rockin’, as is “Honey” (another of my favorites). The second half of the CD, which contains the rest of the Myspace songs (“Every Daughter Is Defiled,” “Fullerton Boy” and “Wheel”), is not as enjoyable to me as the first half, with a few notable exceptions. “Saturday” is an ironically fun song–akin perhaps in some ways to my song “Coastin’”–and I like the Coldplay-esque progressions of “Something’s Not Right.” I’m not very fond of the song “Wonderful”; but in some way or another I enjoy each of the songs on the CD.

Lyons’ friend Jon Neal, whom I have met and jammed with before, produced the CD but is also listed in the credits as the performer of the “piano/organ/tympani/orchestra” as well, and his contributions to the CD make it stand out. He hasn’t had any formal musical training, to my understanding, but is very talented and very musical. His keyboard solo in the middle of “Shining Knight,” starting at the 3:10 mark, is the highlight of the whole CD for me; and his solo in “Six Years Ago” (at 1:58) is very reminiscent of Coldplay (in a very good way).

There is also a random moment in which Eric Whitacre makes a surprise appearance–at 1:39 in “Maybe Then You’d Love Me,” the front and background vocals suddenly break into a very Whitacre-like progression, complete with a diatonic cluster chord (a cluster using only notes from the major scale of the song). Very random, but very awesome.

Lyons classifies himself on the Myspace page as “Acoustic / Folk Rock,” and I think it’s a worthy appellation. Parts of his CD remind me of my own music; others of Coldplay, as I’ve mentioned; others of the Beatles; and others (quite a few) of the indie acoustic rock sound of groups like The Shins.

Would I recommend this CD to you? Yes (especially if you like what you hear on Myspace). Would I add Lyons to my list of favorite singer-songwriters? No. Would I go to another show of his (I’ve been to one before, prior to hearing the CD)? Yes. Would I sing along to the songs I now know? You bet.


"Just As I Am," arranged by AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:40 am

While you’re waiting for those CD reviews, you might find this interesting.

Several years ago, while I was still attending CSUF, I set the words of the old hymn “Just As I Am” to new music for guitar, in a contemporary worship style. It was pretty cool, and I was proud of it at the time. This is what it sounded like (the recording is new, not from that time, and unfortunately it’s rather soft):

Powered by Podbean.com

Not bad. However, I recently revisited the song, and made some changes to the melody and rhythm. Here is the new version:

Powered by Podbean.com

The main problem with the old version, as you may have noticed, is its almost complete lack of rhythmic variation. The same rhythm is repeated five times in a row, and then imitated closely. The last phrase, in addition, is too slow–there’s not enough happening during the phrase to carry it along, and so the momentum stops. I fixed these problems in the new version by varying the rhythm slightly, enough that it sounds coherent and remains similar but is different enough not to be boring, and by speeding up the rhythm of the last phrase to double-time.

The other problem with the old version is its lack of melodic variation. It’s not too exciting, but it’s decent, through the second line; but the third line (“And that Thou bidst me come to Thee”) is too similar to the opening lines and hangs out too much on the central note A-flat, moving just below and then just above it before returning. In the new version, I added some more flair to the second line by going up to an E-flat instead of a D-flat, and rewrote the third line to give it more motion and a wider range.

I’ve posted the full recording of the new version on my website, www.ajharbison.com. It’s not a perfect recording, but it’s pretty decent, and the melodic changes in the last verse are fun and worth a listen (in my humble opinion). You can go straight to the “Just As I Am” page by clicking here.


My Plans For The Weekend

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:33 am

My lovely girlfriend is out of town for the weekend, and I remain in town, so the weekend that I would normally spend with her is now up for grabs. Since I’ve hardly done any composing since I moved to Irvine at the beginning of June, I think I may lock myself in my room and work on “Flutey and the Beast” for Jeff (title still a work in progress). And I also plan to blog. Upcoming topics include three CD reviews: Coldplay’s new CD Viva La Vida (a review highly anticipated by my brother), a CD by an independent Fullerton artist and a CD by one of my coworkers. So you can look forward to those and more over the weekend and next week. In the meantime, you can enjoy this post written a short while ago.

This is pretty cool. I discovered this on StumbleUpon: it’s electronic music using only sounds from Windows XP and 98. Pretty well done and fun to listen to. My favorite part is the login sound tuned down… and back into the rhythm. The middle of the song starts to remind me of Megaman music, which, for me, is an awesome plus rather than a diss. If you watch the whole video, it demonstrates which sounds are used and how he split some of them into multiple parts to create the sounds in the song. Interesting.


My Favorite Olympic Commercials

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:32 am

And, bringing my Olympic posts to a close:

My favorite commercial during the Olympics–or rather my favorite series of commercials–has been United Airlines’ “It’s Time To Fly” campaign. I’ve seen four of the five commercials in the series at various times, the most prevalent being the one entitled “Two Worlds,” in which a business man from a black-and-white world rises to a fantastic colorful world in the sky, and when he returns, begins to spread color throughout his world. The earliest one I saw, “Sea Orchestra,” employs a very colorful, illustrative-type style to depict an orchestra of various sea creatures heralding a transoceanic flight. The other two I’ve seen, “Butterfly” and “Moondust,” utilize a very fluid sidewalk-chalkesque animation style that I enjoy very much.

All the commercials, however, are notable for their background music: Rhapsody In Blue by the American composer George Gershwin. Gershwin was a jazz musician in the early twentieth century, but he was also an art music composer, and Rhapsody in Blue represents one of the first pieces considered a “crossover” blending jazz and classical music. It has become one of America’s most performed concert works, is instantly recognizable by its famous themes, and all in all is a really cool piece.

This piece forms the background for each of the five commercials in the United campaign (United has been using the piece in commercials since the 1980s), and is featured very prominently as the commercials contain no dialogue and limited narration. Perhaps the commercial drawing the most attention to its soundtrack is the “Sea Orchestra” spot, in which different groups of sea creatures perform the different groups of instruments in the piece. Perhaps I’m biased because of my affinity for Rhapsody in Blue; but I enjoyed the visual art of each of the commercials as well, and they’ve been the best spots I’ve seen in the three weeks of the Games.

You can see the commercials by following this link to United’s website; click on “Commercials,” then mouse over the small thumbnail picture to expose all the individual commercials. You can also see “behind the scenes” material for each one; the “Music Sketch” PDF file for “Sea Creatures” is pretty interesting.


“Defying Gravity” takes place in Wicked at the very end of Act I. When we saw the play in New York on our road trip, I described the end of the act to my brother as “literally breathtaking”: the song was so exciting, so powerful and so exhilarating that I was literally breathless at its end. (He, of course, was insanely jealous that I was seeing it live and replied: “I totally hate you.”)

All things considered, this is one of my favorite songs, pop music, classical music and musicals all included. The lyrics, of course, are terrific, talking about defying limits and striking out on one’s own. The staging in the show marks the first time Elphaba flies on her broomstick, literally defying gravity. And, of course, the music is superb.

The song on the soundtrack recording begins with dialogue and a few short snippets of singing before getting into the real start of the song: a syncopated chord progression in the piano and winds. It’s in the middle register instead of up high, and in a major rather than a minor key, but in some ways it’s reminiscent of the opening sequence of chords in “No One Mourns The Wicked” (you can listen to the latter here on iLike.com; it’s the second “play” button on the left, next to “No One Mourns The Wicked by Stephen Scwhartz”). Perhaps this is a subtle psychological hint by Schwartz; in the beginning it’s the “wicked” theme, but here in “Defying Gravity” it appears in a “good” form as Elphaba stands against injustice and refuses to compromise. (You can see the first page of the sheet music for “Defying Gravity,” which contains the opening chord progression, here; contrast it with the opening progression of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” here.)

The chorus of the song, which contains the lyrics about “defying gravity,” is quietly subdued the first two times it occurs. Elphaba sings a high melody over a sparser and simpler instrumental texture, which is very pianistic in its patterns. Two nice details are in evidence here as well. The first is the use of pizzicato violins in the highest register–plucking the strings of the instrument rather than bowing them. This contributes to the excitement and energy of the texture while keeping it light and allowing space (remember, music is all about space) between the rapid notes of the pattern. The second detail, which I didn’t notice until playing through the sheet music one day, is in the rhythm of the bass notes. The bass notes which define the chords don’t change on the downbeat of each measure, as one would expect, but slightly before the downbeat. Listen carefully and notice how the change comes at the very end of the measure, rather than right at the beginning of the next. This syncopation also adds understated tension and energy to the music.

The “unlimited” theme returns in the middle of the song, as Elphaba invites Glinda to come with her; together they would be unlimited. This leads to a bigger chorus, though it still has not reached full strength, with a drum beat and a duet by the two singers.

After this the song builds to an incredible climax, with the full orchestra and a full drum beat. At the end of the song (and the end of Act I), the chorus reenters to declare Elphaba the Wicked Witch, at which point the chord progression from “No One Mourns The Wicked” returns–signifying the crowd’s perception of her. And the act ends with a high held chord in the choir and brass, concluding with a low exclamation mark in true musical style. (I’ve heard this called a “button” ending, though I’m not sure if that’s really a technical term.)

But, ultimately, all I can say is that you should just listen to the song for yourself, and love it. You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the “play” button on the left in the list next to “Defying Gravity by Stephen Schwartz.” (It’s the sixth “play” button not counting the video icons.)

(If you would like links to Amazon’s MP3 downloads for each of the individual songs I’ve written about, they can be found as following. But if you’d like to listen to the soundtrack, I’d recommend buying the whole CD [CD here, MP3 album here]; the songs I’ve posted about are highlights for me, but the entire soundtrack is fabulous.

“What Is This Feeling?”
“As Long As You’re Mine”
“No Good Deed”
“For Good”
“Defying Gravity”)

And thus ends the week of Wicked posts. Thanks for listening!


"For Good," Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:47 am

“For Good” is the penultimate song in Wicked, and (as I mentioned in the introductory post) the obligatory piano ballad; but, despite its obligatoriness, it’s very good. The lyrics are very clever, and even moving–they play on the different meanings of the phrase “for good:” “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good….”

There are three musical things in particular I want to note about the song.

1. It marks the final appearance of the “unlimited” theme in the show. Elphaba finally admits “I’m limited–just look at me–I’m limited,” thus bringing that theme to a final resolution.

2. I like the introduction to the song, because part of the “hook” or riff idea in the piano is dissonant–instead of octaves or harmonious thirds or sixths, the high descending idea is in minor sevenths. (In the recording, it’s the second measure after Elphaba sings “Now it’s up to you….” Sheet music can be found here.) The song marks the point where Elphaba and Glinda finally part, and the dissonance portrays the sadness of their farewell.

3. The song also contains another subtle psychological detail. Throughout the entire show, whenever Elphaba and Glinda have a duet, Glinda sings the higher part and Elphaba the lower. In this song, they each sing their part separately and then sing the chorus in a duet–but Elphaba sings her part in a high register, above Glinda’s. In another reversal, she has taken on the role previously assigned to the “good” witch, confirming what we’ve known all along: that she is not really wicked but has only been perceived, painted and persecuted that way. Yet another example of Schwartz’s mastery of fine points that have a big impact.

This song was sung (as a solo) at the CSUF College of the Arts commencement ceremony last May when I graduated; following the song, the Dean of the college was in tears.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: I made it easy for you this time–click on the only play button in the list (next to “For Good by Stephen Schwartz”).


“No Good Deed” is one of the last songs on the Wicked soundtrack. In the story, it takes place when Elphaba fears she has lost her love, Fiyero, and faces the realization that all of the good she has tried to do has only turned out badly.

In addition to having great lyrics that explore the “moral ambiguities” that are the main theme of the show, the very beginning of the song contains another nice detail. After two bars or so of instrumental introduction, Elphaba screams Fiyero’s name. But instead of being an unpitched scream, she actually sings a high note that is a minor second above the tonal center of the song. (A minor second is an interval basically the same as a minor ninth, only the two notes are right next to each other instead of an octave removed.) This creates the effect of a scream, as the note is very high and dissonant, but it is much more controlled and musical than an actual scream. A nice touch.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the second “play” button on the left in the list (next to “No Good Deed by Stephen Schwartz”).


“As Long As You’re Mine” is the obligatory love song from Wicked. As the article “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage musicalschwartz.com, pointed out, the opening chord progression to this song is the same as the opening chord progression of the show in the first song, “No One Mourns The Wicked.” But instead of being a loud, bold brass fanfare, the same progression in this song is a soft, understated piano theme. (Sorry, I wasn’t able to find sheet music for “As Long As You’re Mine” that was viewable online; for the first page of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” which has the chord progression at the beginning, click here.) In the article, Schwartz notes that Elphaba and Fiyero in this scene are in danger and have little time to spend together, and so the song starts in a minor key (the original progression is in minor as well); but it ends in a major key (lame moment of dialogue notwithstanding) to express their happiness at finally being together.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the second “play” button on the left in the list (next to “As Long As You’re Mine by Stephen Schwartz”).


The same college friend Albert who talked about inspiration as aesthetic also told me once, “Music is all about space.” He used as an example one of his favorite bands, Dream Theater, saying, “They’re a group of amazing musicians who have no concept whatsoever of musical space.” The concept of musical space can refer to horizontal space, such as pauses or rests in the music; vertical space, such as the voicing of a chord (which notes of the chord are played in which registers); or a third dimension, for example involving other instruments. Albert’s example of Dream Theater suggested that they lacked a proper understanding of 1) horizontal space, because there were never any breaks in the music and there was sound going on constantly; and 2) spatiality, because instruments would step on each other’s toes and get in each other’s way instead of giving each instrument its own space (musically speaking, not physically, of course).

The song “What Is This Feeling?”, from Stephen Schwartz’s soundtrack for Wicked, is an example of an excellent use of musical space, while also being one of my favorite songs in the show. In the intro and beginning of the song, the instrumental accompaniment is sparse, both in the number of instruments and in the notes that they play. The texture of the music (which Wikipedia defines as the number of musical voices and their relationship to each other) is very light: not many instruments are playing, and they only put in a few chords here and there with lots of empty space in between, which creates a clear, open feeling.

(There is also a great detail in this section, as I mentioned in my opening post about Wicked. Notice that the hi-hat cymbal precedes each chord played by the other instruments: quick note by hi-hat–chord!…space…quick note by hi-hat–chord!, etc. It’s a small, delicate touch, but it punctuates the chords and sets them off very nicely.)

The song also makes good use of form, as the texture consistently thickens as the song progresses. The accompaniment grows denser and becomes more complex, although the general feel remains light. The choir enters to attest their agreement with Galinda’s loathing of Elphaba; then, after they sing a short interlude by themselves, they sing a chorus layered on top of Galinda and Elphaba singing the verse in harmony, which is a very effective use of space in which each part has its own room to work without getting in the way of the others.

Finally, the melody of the song is also worth noting. While the verses are pretty conservative and stepwise in motion, the chorus consists of leaps that are not as conventional in vocal music, but work well and make the song unique. Next to “Defying Gravity,” which shall perhaps be the crowning post of this week, “What Is This Feeling?” is probably my favorite song on the soundtrack.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the third “play” button on the left in the list (next to “What Is This Feeling? by Stephen Schwartz”).


« Previous PageNext Page »