Amber Run: Pop Done Right

Let me tell you about a band you probably haven’t heard of. Amber Run is an indie pop/rock band from Nottingham. I accidentally discovered them a little over a year ago on some random Google Play station (yes, I might have said, “OK Google, play good music” just to see what would happen).

Amber Run’s debut album 5AM has probably been one of my most listened to albums since I discovered it. Their latest release, For a Moment, I was Lost, came out last month. It is a bit of a departure from from the first. I won’t be reviewing these albums. This post is more an examination of what they’re doing right.

Most pop songs follow a standard pattern. There is an introduction followed by a sparse instrumentation first verse, a chorus, a heavier instrumentation second verse, a bigger repeat of the chorus, a bridge that changes things up, a climax/guitar solo, end on the chorus.

A lot of popular songs on the radio often do a poor job at this. I think this attention to detail on building up instrumentation and texture is a lost art. It has to be interesting and subtle. Sudden instrument or pattern changes can feel unnatural and jarring. The song will lose its flow. This means a lot of modern pop bands skip this.

Certainly on 5AM, Amber Run nail this. It’s somewhat hard to describe in words. All these little transitions between all the segments I listed above are done with incredible finesse. I think of it like watching a flower bloom in time lapse. It goes from a closed, tight sound and opens up in one smooth motion. All of a sudden we have a much bigger and completely different thing. But it makes perfect sense how we got there.

Let’s break one of their songs down from that album:

It begins with a bass pluck on the beat every beat and the guitar has a sparse chord pattern. The drums play a very simple and straightforward rock pattern. There’s some light electronic sound enhancements. As we end the first verse, we get this “bloom” into something new. The drum pattern gets slightly more complicated with a harder snare on 2 and 4. The sound fills out with full guitar chords. The bass does basically the same thing, but it shouldn’t be all that different at this point.

We then get the next bloom with a more dance rhythm in the drums. The band fades down in a sort of fake out to the bridge transition. Here the feel is completely different but in a natural way. The chord progression is the same, but the pattern is a simplified version from the opening. We only have high hat in the drums.

But then it blooms again into this vastly different thing. This thing keeps building by adding texture through vocal harmony. This doesn’t exactly follow the pattern I wrote above, but what I’d strongly suggest is listening to the beginning and end without the middle. The song progresses so much that it’s kind of hard to believe it could change that much, but in the context of the song everything flowed as if it couldn’t have progressed in a different way.

And pretty much every Amber Run song on this album plays out this way. These little bloom transitions bring you to completely unexpected places without it being sudden or jarring. This leads to some truly stunning moments.

The other thing I really like about Amber Run is how they develop their smooth melodies with complicated harmonization. Melodic development is one of those concepts taught in music composition school almost immediately, but you rarely hear it in pop music. Often bands just repeat their melodies once they have them.

Amber Run establish their melodies, but then when they repeat they sometimes get embellished with extra notes (the most common type of development). But sometimes they use more complicated development by inserting pieces of the melody in a different part of the scale and extending the melodic line by a measure or two (a technique called fragmentation). If done properly, this adds tension and direction to a song unlike many pop songs that feel very static.

I could go on about many other things they do well, but I think that’s enough. Here’s a song off their new album. Listen for those brilliant blooms into new ideas and how the melody embellishes and adds intensity and direction. The song starts so subtle and ends at such an intense place. It’s quite remarkable:

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On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

Ben Gibbard

I’m about to speak blasphemy. So close your eyes and don’t read if you live in Seattle and are a fan of indie music. This got a vote, so I’ll post about it. I’ll return to NCG next time. My outline is to discuss why Death Cab used to be a good band, what went wrong, and why their latest album is pretty horrible.

In the days of old Death Cab did some very good things. First, musically it was interesting. They are a “pop” band, and I think that is a fair label. Now I’m talking “pop” as a style and not as something that is “popular.” This means that it has pretty standard song format, something along the lines of ABABCA. The chords flowed it in a traditional sense. Any band that does only those two things I would consider bad, though.

They took this pop formula and altered it. They weren’t as repetitive as standard pop bands. They altered chords, or didn’t resolve their 9ths or suspensions. There was interesting texture. The instrumentation was nonstandard at times. There was always something that made it worth going back to. Also, the melody was rarely your typical boring melody that you catch onto after one listen. It was just solid, creative, original music making.

Lyrically, I found Death Cab to be quite successful as well. They didn’t moan about the standard boring trivial pop ideas. They had lyrics that required interpretation. Sometimes being quite poetic. Some examples are definitely needed:

Burn it down till the embers smoke on the ground
And start new when your heart is an empty room
With walls of the deepest blue

You may tire of me as our December sun is setting because I’m not who I used to be
No longer easy on the eyes but these wrinkles masterfully disguise
The youthful boy below who turned your way and saw
Something he was not looking for: both a beginning and an end

this is the moment that you know
that you told you loved her but you don’t.
you touch her skin and then you think
that she is beautiful but she don’t mean a thing to me.

They are harsh and poetic, beautiful and about real issues.

On to the new album. First off, it is far far too repetitive. I could barely listen to the album five times. I had the whole thing learned on the second listen. On the first listen some of the structure and melody and lyrics were so cliche and unoriginal that I could actually sing along without having listened to it before. I should be a little more specific.

Bixby Canyon Bridge: To be fair, this is one of the better songs. The lyrics aren’t too straightforward and the song structure is nontraditional. Still, they have this problem with repetition that I’ll get to on the next song.

I Will Possess Your Heart: Possibly the most repetitive song in history? Such a great idea, too. Too bad. Now I’m not against repetition if done properly. I think this was an attempt to recreate Transatlanticism, the problem is that along with the length and repetition of Transatlanticism there was a major overall direction. The repetition didn’t matter because it also kept changing and stayed interesting as it made its journey. This song has no direction. It builds for several minutes, then comes back and never really gets to where it was going. It’s too bad, since that bass line is great and could have been utilized more successfully if used sparingly. I won’t even go there with the lyrics. I’ll just say “I will possess your heart”?!?!

No Sunlight: I made it through this song maybe twice before I decided that if I ever heard the words no and sunlight next to each other I would probably punch whoever said them in the face. Possibly the most uninteresting song lyrically ever produced. Look up the lyrics. You should never see something like:

No sunlight, no sunlight.
No sunlight, no sunlight. (At all)
No sunlight, no sunlight.
No sunlight, no sunlight.
No sunlight, anymore…

That (At all) truly changes things up…gag!

Cath…: Definitely the closest to their old self. Quite interesting chord blocking. Nice shift up in the overall traditional structure. Not too repetitive. Lyrically it is OK: “As the flashbulbs burst she holds a smile. Like someone would hold a crying child.” Thank goodness that word finally creeped in, “like.” We like to call that a simile. Wow. You decided to use a poetic device? It only took a half hour into the album. I’ll listen to this several more times. Yay.

Talking Bird: No comment. See bad comments above.

You Can Do Better Than Me: Lyrically this album has been bad so far, but it is mostly due to the straightforward writing. No room for interpretation and about pretty simple things. Here we hit an all time low. “You can do better than me, but I can’t do better than you.” Why listen to Death Cab when you could just open up the Oxford English Dictionary of cliche and out would pop this song?

Grapevine Fire: 6/8 time. Really changing it up now…

Your New Twin Sized Bed: OED of cliche. “You look so defeated lying there in your new twin size bed.”

Long Division: See negative comments above.

Pity and Fear: The most original song musically on the album. They use almost a Mediterranean scale structure. I think I’ve been overemphasizing lyrics and not the nonoriginality of the songs so far. So far they have been ungodly boring and repetitive. The repetitiveness continues in this, but I think it works just because of the interesting chord structure and nonstandard form of the song. Yay number 2.

The Ice is Getting Thinner: OED of cliche. “There’s little we can say and even less than we can do,
to stop the ice from getting thinner under me and you.”

So overall rating: Somewhere less than 5 out of 10. Come on guys. If we wanted to hear unoriginal songs with unoriginal lyrics we would just turn on the radio.