07.04.2008

Eyes Open, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:24 am

In the past week on my commute to work, I’ve been listening to the CD Eyes Open by the band Snow Patrol. It’s a CD that Courtney had on our trip, which is where I was introduced to their music. I enjoyed it so much that I got the CD myself upon our return.

There are several reasons why I like the CD. I have to admit, at the outset, that their lyrics aren’t the best. They’re good, for sure, and more intelligent than most, but they lack the depth and particularly the subtlety of really good lyrics (U2 and Coldplay, of course, are the two examples you knew I’d bring up). Snow Patrol’s lyrics tell much more often than they show, which means they just say things straight out instead of implying things, which makes them less interesting. But at any rate, this is a music blog, not a lyrics blog, and the lyrics really aren’t bad at all.

The first reason I like the CD has to do with the singer, Gary Lightbody. Despite having (in my humble opinion) a non-rock-star-like name, I realized these past few listens that I actually like his voice a lot. Those of you who know me know that I’m really, really picky about singers, so to say that I like his voice is saying something. It has that breathy quality that makes it chill and unique, without actually being breathy–it actually has a good core and tone behind it. And his tone, support, etc. are all very good. In short–his voice just sounds really good.

Another reason I like Eyes Open is that it uses chords that are pretty typical–nothing too crazy here–but it has a sound that’s fresh and interesting. I really like the pianistic chord progression of the seventh track, “Make This Go On Forever” (you can listen to a sample on Amazon’s product page), for example. And the eighth track, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” has a very simple progression (Bm – A – G, over and over again) but the melody and the way the progression is played (how it’s voiced, its instrumentation, the musical space involved) are creative enough that it doesn’t get old even though it’s the same progression through the whole song.

One more thing that interests me about the CD is the typical pattern of the guitars. In many of the songs, the electric guitar plays its chord progression in repeated straight eighth notes, with no rhythmic variation. Listen to the Amazon samples for tracks 5, 9 and 10 and notice how the guitar doesn’t play anything outside of repeated notes of the same rhythmic value. While sounding simple, this is actually quite hard to play well; and it’s something that I’ve been trying out in my own guitar playing recently.

And, as a final note, I have to say that I like the CD because I really love the song “Chasing Cars,” which is track 3. It’s a great love song, the lyrics are quite good, and the form of the song is creative and effective: it starts very simple, with soft picking by the electric guitar, and steadily builds through each verse and chorus until the final chorus comes in full strength with the entire band. The lyrics also follow the same pattern: each chorus successively gains a few extra lines (i.e. the first chorus is two lines, the second chorus four, and the last chorus eight). I love it when bands are musically savvy enough to match the form of the lyrics and the music–that’s one of the reasons that Coldplay is so brilliant, especially on their album X&Y. You can listen to “Chasing Cars” for free here, your friendly neighborhood Last.fm.

Eyes Open. It’s a good CD. You should check it out.

Anyone heard anything else from the band? Is it as good as this CD is? Should I listen to it, and then blog about it to share it with y’all?

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06.19.2008

Juno Soundtrack, Various Artists

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:29 am

I saw the movie Juno for the first time a few weekends ago. It was, of course, a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar last year, and it was a very well-hyped movie in my various circles, which led me to high levels of anticipation. As a movie, I felt that it was definitely good but not quite as great as everyone had made it out to be (though, as my roommate Mike pointed out, definitely better than most movies nowadays). The soundtrack, however, was disappointing to me. A quick click through some of the samples on the Amazon page for the soundtrack, particularly the songs written and performed for the movie by Kimya Dawson, reveal the general style of the songs–a sort of stripped-down emo feel. Meaning no offense to those who may have enjoyed the soundtrack, I really dislike that kind of music. The lyrics are often silly or downright stupid, which is not necessarily bad in a light-hearted movie like Juno; but the music is played on often out-of-tune guitars and sung by almost always out-of-tune singers. And the melodies tend to be boring, simplistic, and monotone, which makes all the songs sound the same.

I appreciate the quality of “authentic-ness” that I assume this music tries to portray–just a songwriter strumming and singing, as if in a living room performance. And I know that this is one of the reasons some people enjoy this style. But to me, it seems like a bunch of songwriters who can’t write songs, guitarists who can’t tune their instruments, and singers who can’t sing. And that makes it really hard to listen to for extended periods of time, and even harder to enjoy.

But, apart from the music, the movie was very good.

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06.17.2008

Mixin' It Up With Elton John

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:11 am

Last night my good friend Rae was kind enough to donate to my girlfriend and I some free CDs that she didn’t want. One of the ones I took was Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Now, I’m not a huge Elton John fan (except for a live version of “Candle In The Wind”), but I’ve enjoyed the CD as I’ve listened to it last night on my drive home and today on my commute to and from work. The three songs I recognized from hearing them elsewhere were his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” But the thing that struck me specifically (at least on my first listen-through) was the mix, particularly where his voice fits in. When he’s not singing up high (like the chorus of “Tiny Dancer,” for example), his voice is often partly obscured by the instrumentation because it’s at a similar volume. The Amazon.com page with song previews isn’t particularly helpful in illustrating my point, because most of their short samples come from softer parts of the songs where his voice is prominent. But you can hear a little of what I mean in the samples of “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard.” You can pretty much make out what he’s saying, but the drums and guitars are loud enough that they threaten to overpower his voice.

Most of the time in popular music, the lead vocal is mixed to a high enough volume that it stands out noticeably from the instruments since it’s the main musical (and of course lyrical) idea. There are exceptions even in mainstream rock, most notably U2 (Achtung Baby, for example) or Coldplay (like their new single, available now as a single on iTunes, “Viva La Vida”). But U2 and Coldplay do it for musical reasons: 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. But the instruments on the Elton John album are clearly providing a background for the voice–they’re not nearly as interesting or original, musically, as the instruments of U2 or Coldplay. I don’t mean that in a negative way; the players of those instruments are not necessarily worse musicians (although, most likely, they are), they’re just called on to fulfill a different role. Thus, while the mix for U2 or Coldplay is an artistic decision, it seems the mix for Elton John is just a poor one.

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06.06.2008

Those Dang Tenors

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:31 am

I made myself a mix CD of some of the random stuff I’ve purchased on iTunes so I could listen to it in the car as well as on my computer and iPod. I always like to sing along to music when I’m in the car, and so I looked forward to the opportunity to sing along with these songs for the first time. These are the first few tracks:

1. “How Far We’ve Come” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

2. “I’ll Believe You When” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

3. “All Your Reasons” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

4. “These Hard Times” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

5. “If I Fall” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

6. “Can’t Let You Go” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

7. “Africa” from The Essential Toto (Toto)

8. “Ten Thousand Angels” featuring Derek Webb (single) (Caedmon’s Call)

9. “Bad Day” from Daniel Powter (Daniel Powter)

10. “Harder To Breathe” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

11. “She Will Be Loved” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

12. “Tangled” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

All this to say, when I put the CD in the car and tried to sing along, I found that every single song had at least parts that were too high for me. (I’m a baritone / bass I.) I’ve noticed the same thing in Christian worship music (especially the Passion group–Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Matt Redman, etc.): namely, that there are just way too many tenors. It seems like almost every male lead singer for popular rock bands is a tenor. Where are the baritones and basses? Has anyone else ever noticed this fact?

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05.30.2008

"Stay Or Leave," Dave Matthews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

While on my journey into the heart of America, my fellow Team American Courtney introduced us all to a heck of a lot of Dave Matthews Band music. Most of the time I enjoy his music quite a bit, though I still think that as a songwriter he doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of U2 or Coldplay or Derek Webb. On the trip, I secretly borrowed Some Devil, Dave’s solo album, from Courtney and put it on my computer to listen to at a later time; and I’ve only recently started listening to some of the songs. (For the record, as an artist I don’t support stealing music. I consider things like this to be akin to borrowing a CD for a while; after I’ve finished listening to the music, I’ll delete it from my computer. And in case you doubt me, I have done this multiple times before.)

I’ll post about a few of the songs separately, but the first one I want to write about (which I listened to a few nights ago on my iPod) is “Stay Or Leave,” which is track 8. The song was notable in my mind for three reasons. The first was the immediate association the chorus of the song created with Coldplay, particularly the style of Parachutes. I’m not sure what it is; probably the vocal leaps up to falsetto notes have something to do with it, à la the choruses of “Shiver,” “Yellow,” and “We Never Change.” The leap (at least the one on the phrase “stay or leave”) is up to the third scale degree over the IV chord, so it forms a major seventh interval with the root of the chord, and for some reason that just sounds like Coldplay.

The second thing that interested me about the song was its use of percussive vocalization for background effect. Not background vocals, just percussive vocal sounds. Something like “Shakacha cha-cha ooh ah” is the main one, in the interlude following the first chorus and during the second chorus; after the second chorus it’s something like “[rest] choo choo choo koo koo” in steady eighth notes (in 6/8); also in the beginning there’s some sort of sampled percussion that could be a voice saying “ks ks ks.” It’s interesting because pop music seldom utilizes the voice for anything other than pitched singing (speaking and rapping excluded, of course), apart from beatboxing, which isn’t quite what Dave is doing. Mad props for creativity here.

The third interesting thing is a subtle meter shift. The song starts out with a chill rhythm guitar progression in 6/8, and remains in 6/8 until the 2:43 mark, where it changes to a laidback, swung 4/4 with the “exchange rate” of a dotted quarter in the 6/8 equaling a quarter note in 4/4. It’s so subtle that most listeners might not even notice the change. After a new section in 4/4, he actually returns to a previous section of the song (the bridge), but plays it in the 4/4 instead of 6/8. And it still works because the change is so smooth. I have to confess that I’m often impressed by the musicianship of Dave’s songs, although most of the time it’s the other band members’ contributions rather than his playing or singing or the songwriting itself. But hats off for this song–great ideas, terrifically executed.

(The listening sample for “Stay Or Leave” on Amazon.com’s page for Some Devil comes from the first chorus and a little after, so you can hear the leap and some of the vocal percussion. You can hear the full track here on Last.fm. The timer counts down rather than up, so the meter change occurs at -1:19.)

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