Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

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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:

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.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

Composers You Should Know Part 4

It’s been a while since the last “Composers You Should Know,” so let’s do another one. Recently Julia Wolfe’s piece Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I had been planning on including Wolfe in this series anyway, because she is a founder of one of the most important contemporary music collectives: Bang on a Can. If you don’t know about this, it came about in the late 80’s in New York to put on contemporary music concerts and remains an important source of new music concerts around the world.

Wolfe has written a large number of pieces for basically every ensemble, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go through three pieces in chronological order. Recordings of these pieces can be found for free at her website if you want to follow along. Wolfe has a very clear minimalist strain, but it could be said that a change happened in 1994 with her piece “Lick.”

Once the piece gets going, it almost feels like John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” with the style of minimalism it uses (as opposed to Reich, which is surprising considering the East coast/West coast divide in minimalism). But the important change is the introduction of pop culture elements, most prominently rock and funk.

The driving bass and drums simulate rock, and the guitar and sax introduce some funk riffs. All of this gets tied up in minimalism, but it isn’t that simple. Large sections of the piece lose all sense of time in a confusing mess. The work was groundbreaking and set the stage for how her style would progress in the following years.

In no way do I presume to speak for her or oversimplify anything, but we get a major change in the years after September 11, 2001. The next piece we will look at is “My Beautiful Scream,” which is a concerto for amplified string quartet. This piece is a direct response to the attacks and simulates a slow-motion scream. It almost completely throws off the driving rhythms in favor of building suspense through sustained dissonance.

It is a chilling and moving experience to listen to. The driving beat is part of her musical syntax, so it isn’t completely absent in this work. Here it feel more like pulses, quavers, and bouts of horror. Before, the technique was used to push the piece forward which made the listener feel light and floating along. Here we get a pulse that struggles, as if trapped, trying to stay above the dense sustained notes engulfing it.

In general, her music had been getting more complicated and dissonant, but after 2003 there is a sense that the tie to “Lick” is all but severed. The evolution happened little-by-little to arrive at darker, more severe, and emotionally rich pieces. That driving rhythm remained, but its purpose changed. Listen to “Cruel Sister,” “Fuel,” and “Thirst,” and then compare to earlier works like “Lick” and “Believing.”

This brings us to present day with “Anthracite Fields,” which is a study of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. It is a work for chorus and chamber ensemble. The choral parts are set to historical texts including lists of names of people who died mining. I’ve only heard the fourth movement in full from the website, but you can find pieces of other movements in the short documentary “The Making of Anthracite Fields.”

The piece is chilling at times and soaring and beautiful at others. There’s certainly some folk and Americana influence as well. I’m pretty excited to hear a recording. The work makes sense in her evolution as a composer and sounds like it is the most diverse and wide-ranging yet.

Overall, one of Julia Wolfe’s lasting achievements is her ability to blend and push the boundaries of rock and classical elements, but her finished products are so much more than that.

Lossless Compression by Example Part 1: Lossy Methods

Since I’m into music, it often comes up there is a growing trend: music is sold digitally and as vinyl. Sometimes I’ll hear people mistakenly call the vinyl trend “retro” or “trendy” or “hip” or whatever. But if you actually ask someone why they prefer records, they’ll probably tell you the sound quality is better.

I thought I’d do a series on lossless compression and try to keep everything to general concepts or example. Let’s start with the terminology. First, media files can be large, and back in the day when computers didn’t have basically infinite space, compression was an important tool for reducing the size of a media file.

Compression is basically an algorithm to take the size of a file and makes it smaller. The most obvious method for doing this is lossy compression. This just means you lose information. The goal of such an algorithm is to only lose information that is “unimportant” and “won’t be noticed.”

A far more surprising method of compression is called lossless. At first it seems paradoxical. How can you make the file size smaller, but not lose any information? Isn’t the file size basically the information? We won’t get to this in this post. Teaser for next time!

Now lets talk about why people don’t like lossy compressed audio files. There is one quick and dirty thing you can do to immediately lose information and reduce the size of an audio file. This is dynamic range (DR) compression.

Think of a soundwave. The amplitude basically determines how loud it is. You can literally compress the wave to have a smaller amplitude without changing any other musical qualities. But this is terrible! One of the most important parts of music is the DR. A moving, soaring climax will not have the same effect if the entire build up to it is the same loudness.

This is such a controversial compression technique that many people switch to vinyl purely for DR reasons. There is a whole, searchable online database of albums to find out the DR and whether it is consider good, acceptable, or bad. Go search for your favorite albums. It is kind of fun to find out how much has been squashed out even in lossless CD format vs vinyl! (e.g. System of a Down’s Toxity is DR 11 [acceptable] on vinyl and DR 6 [truly bad] on lossless CD).

The other most common lossy compression technique for audio is a bit more involved, but it actually changes the music, so it is worth thinking about. Let’s actually make a rough algorithm for doing this (there currently exist much better and subtler forms of the following, but it amounts to the same thing).

This is a bit of a silly example, but I went to http://www.wavsource.com to get a raw wav file to work with. I grabbed one of the first ones, an audio sample from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here is the data visualization of the sound waves and the actual clip:

daisy

Daisy

One thing we can do is the Fast Fourier Transform. This will take these sound waves and get rid of the time component. Normally you’ll want to make a “moving window,” so you keep track of some time. For example, we can see that from 0.5 sec to 1.5 sec is one “packet.” We should probably transform that first, then move to the next.

The FFT leaves us just with the frequencies that occur and how loud they are. I did this with python’s scypy.fftpack:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import scipy.fftpack as sfft
import numpy as np
from scipy.io import wavfile

fs, data = wavfile.read('daisy.wav')
b=[(ele/2**8.)*2-1 for ele in data]
c = sfft.fft(b)
d = len(c)/2
plt.plot(abs(c[:(d-1)]),'r')
plt.show()

compressed = []
for ele in c:
	if abs(ele) > 50:
		compressed.append(ele)
	else:
		compressed.append(0)

compressed = np.asarray(compressed)
plt.plot(abs(compressed[:(d-1)]),'r')
plt.show()

e = sfft.ifft(compressed)

daisyfreq

Ignore the scales which were changed just to make everything more visible but not normalized. The most crude thing we could do is set a cutoff and just remove all frequencies that we assume will be inaudible anyway:

daisyfreqcompressed

If we do this too much, we are going to destroy how natural the sound is. As I’ve explained before, all sounds occurring naturally have tons of subtle overtones. You often can’t explicitly hear these, so they will occur below the cutoff threshold. This will bring us towards a “pure” tone which will sound more synthetic or computer generated. This is probably why no one actually compresses this way. This example was just to give an idea of one way it could be done (to finish it off you can now just inverse FFT and write to wav).

A slightly better compression technique would be to take short time intervals and multiply the peak frequency by a bump function. This will shrink all the extraneous frequencies without completely removing the robustness of the sound. This is how some lossy compression is actually done. There are other more fun things with wavelets which would take several posts to describe and the goal is to get to lossless compression.

I hope that helps to see what lossy compression is, and that it can cause some serious harm when done without care. With care, you will still lose enough sound quality that many music aficionados avoid mp3 and digital downloads completely in favor of vinyl.

Next time we’ll tackle the seemingly paradoxical concept of lossless compression.

Composers You Should Know Part 2

Obviously this series could go on every week for the next year, so I’ll have to determine how far to take this. Recall that I’m trying to expose people to important living and working composers they may never have heard of. I’m not so sure about today’s choice, because in my circles he is a name people know.

Aaron Jay Kernis is someone you must familiarize yourself with if you haven’t heard of him. He studied under John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory and with several other people at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music. He has won more prizes, awards, and commissions than anyone I know of.

Let’s not focus on that stuff and instead get to the music. Stylistically he is often said to be neo-Romantic or post-Romantic with some minimalist influences. I’m not sure I agree, or could even explain what that is supposed to mean exactly.

The key thing I love so much about his music is how unfamiliar and original the chord progressions and melodies are without losing musicality. You could always create something new by using some random process to make the note choices for you, but that is the furthest thing from what is happening here.

Despite being engaging and interesting from the originality standpoint, the music still can be moving or heartrendingly beautiful. This is remarkable, because so much of music composition is setting up expectations and using familiar ideas to elicit certain responses in people. Kernis has the ability to do this after throwing away the conventions.

He is a magnificent orchestrator. He often produces wonderful and strange textures that are in constant flux and propel the music forward. The piece I’d recommend to hear all of these aspects is the second movement of the Second Symphony. It is moving, beautiful, and utilizes the orchestral textures while simultaneously being ominous and unfamiliar.

With how good his orchestral works are, I still think that his chamber works are where he excels the most. His second string quartet made him the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer. That piece is magnificent, but my favorite work of his of all time is still the first string quartet.

The first string quartet is usually listed under Musica Celestis if you want to find it. I think the Lark Quartet might have the only recording. I used to listen to this piece on repeat when I was in high school. It was without question one of the definitive pieces that made me want to be a composer. I’ve listened to it probably hundreds of times.

The first movement is aptly named “Flowing,” because the main first theme is a soaring, flowing melody. The piece is extremely dense and chaotic at parts. As I said before, it will feel very unfamiliar in terms of melodic lines, chord progressions, and even form, but it is more in an originality way rather than alienating. It still sounds natural.

The second movement “Adagio” is the movement I listen to the most. It starts slow and beautiful with long sustained, open chords. This is one of those deeply moving pieces. In the middle, the climax is shocking in its power.

He starts a low ascending pattern that climbs up higher and higher, getting faster and faster, to an intensity that is almost unbearable. Then the opening, chilling chord progression comes back while the intensity in the first violin lingers just a tad too long. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I found the effect so amazing that when I was younger I often tried to imitate it myself when I wrote pieces.

It only works if the performer is ready to fully put themselves out there. If you don’t go for it one hundred percent, then it will sound awkward because of how exposed it all it. Luckily, the Lark Quartet pull it off perfectly, and they will leave you with chills at the end of it.

One of the remarkable things about the string quartets is how large they can sound. He writes in a way that maximizes the medium’s potential. At times it is hard to tell whether it is a full string orchestra or just a quartet (there is a string orchestra version of the Adagio I just wrote about, but I think it isn’t as good, because the exposedness of that section needs to be one on a part to feel that way).

Anyway, I could go on like this all day about his music. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely check out some of his works, especially the first string quartet.

Music 2011

It’s that time of the year again. Here is my favorite music list from 2011. I’m embarrassed by the top 2 since they are the top 2 on lots and lots of lists out there. It seems rather uninspired for me to not find something else. I’ve divided the list into three sections. The top 10, then the pretty good but not great set (in order of how much I like them), followed by the bottom part which I found to be sub-par.

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
2. James Blake – James Blake
3. Chris Merrit – Songs from Brokeland
4. Bjork – Biophilia
5. Incubus – If Not Now, When?
6. O’Death – Outside
7. Matt Nathanson – Modern Love
8. Moonface – Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
9. Loney Dear – Hall Music
10. Wilco – The Whole Love

The Chris Merrit album is a placeholder. About half way through this year I was so fed up with how boring and unoriginal all the music that was coming out was that I decided to go hunting for someone I wasn’t familiar with. I ran into Chris Merrit somehow. I spent the next 2 months slowly going through everything he had ever put out. I’m not sure I found a single song I didn’t like. I listened to no new music during this time period. My favorite album if you decide to check him out is Pixie and the Bear. Please check it out. You won’t regret it. My description of him is “Ben Folds … but good.” The album listed did come out this year, but it is only a demo so I’d wait until the full mastered album comes out next year.

I’ve written about everyone on this list with the exception of O’Death and Incubus, so I’ll try to keep this short. I’ve hated Bon Iver for the past two years. He put out my favorite album of 2008, but everything since then has been blah for me and I was about to give up hope. Instead he puts out this self-titled album that really is deserving of the number one spot.

Incubus is well-known from the early to mid 2000 time period for their singles “Drive,” “Pardon Me,” “Dig,” and “Oil and Water”. They were known as a mildly experimental, but mostly mainstream alternative rock band. I’m no expert on their history, but it seems they broke up around 2008 with no intention of recording anything together ever again. Good thing they did, because this is by far their most mature effort. It is incredibly subtle and restrained. The songs have a lot of emotion and energy behind them and they didn’t just let it out in a burst of rock. It is carefully constructed and beautiful at times. I’m honestly surprised this isn’t on any of the lists I’ve looked at.

O’Death could be considered “alternative country”. It is a really fun, creative, and often dark side to folk/Americana style music. Maybe you could call it a darker sounding Mumford and Sons. They liberally use banjo and other instruments that got them the name “country” but it never sounds like country at all. They sound more like a rock band with folk influence. I highly recommend it. To me it is the most successful attempt at such a fusion I’ve come across (much better than M&S).

Now onto the list of artist I found pretty good and enjoyable, but there were too many faults to call any of them honorable mentions like I usually do.

Grand Hallway, Florence + the Machine, Fleet Foxes, Death Cab for Cutie, Dodos, Bright Eyes, Elbow, Decemberists, Son Lux, and Wye Oak

Some of my favorite songs came off of these albums, but some of my least favorite songs came from here as well. Grand Hallway is a fantastic band from Seattle and if you ever get to see them live I recommend it. They pack tons of musicians on stage including violins, piano, bass, guitar, vocalists, slide guitar, drummers, and more. They have a great powerhouse sound that only comes across properly live. The only other thing I’d like to say is that Florence + the Machine is Adele done right. See my midway rankings for my complaints about Adele. If you want to know what I was talking about then listen to F+tM to see someone who fixes all those mistakes.

Now on to the bottom. These albums fell short in a major way.

Iron & Wine, Adele, Radiohead, The Antlers, Cold War Kids, Coldplay

Iron and Wine, Radiohead, and The Antlers have all been at the very, very top of my lists in the past. It was sad to have such disappointment in them. The Radiohead album is pretty horrible in my mind. They take all the things I love about them and remove all of those aspects to leave you with a shell of boring. I’ve liked Coldplay in the past, but this was worse than radio pop nonsense earning it the lowest ranking spot. The Cold War Kids also have put out some fantastic things in the past, but this was like an attempt to mimic the Kings of Leon style and the fresh originality of their old stuff got snuffed out.

Lastly, I got the Kate Bush album, but couldn’t fit it anywhere because it was weird enough and I haven’t listened to it enough to conclude whether or not it is nonsense or amazing. She reminds me of Tierney Sutton on this album who I used to love listening to, so there is a bit of nostalgia stuck in there muddling things.

As a concluding remark, this year turned out OK. I definitely listened to stuff not from this year more than any year in the past as I got bored with the current stuff. The finds from the past that I ended up loving involve things as diverse as Iceburn, Arvo Part, and My Bloody Valentine.

Please comment with things you’d think I’d like that I missed (aren’t on the list). I’ve already been informed I should check out the M83 album and the Destroyer album.

Music 2011 Halfway

It’s already time for a halfway through the year music ranking. This hasn’t been a great year so far. On the other hand, I’ve had way more things I’ve been looking forward to than in recent years. Lots of my favorite artists have been releasing things constantly, and several more are still on my list of things to get. I also have spent a lot of time with things I’ve missed in the past. Lightspeed Champion came out with something last year that I missed which was really, really great. I also have been listening to Iceburn from the mid 90’s which is a great band. I’ve been listening to Arvo Part which might be the best composer of our time. I’ve also been listening to Nik Bartch’s Ronin which is an amazing band combining Jazz and sort of Philp Glass style minimalism. Overall, I’ve been listening to and fascinated with lots of things from the past and not sticking with a lot of stuff from this year. I’ll list this year’s stuff in order of how much I like it with a brief description of it.

Excellent:

1) James Blake: James Blake – At first I didn’t know whether this album was made by horrible musicians or so good of ones that my puny brain couldn’t comprehend the complexity. It turns out that after many, many listens the album revealed itself to be an incredibly complex and beautifully subtle work of art. Unlike everyone else on this list, James Blake is actually a composer rather than songwriter. This probably confuses people. I even saw people commenting on youtube that he needs a new drummer. No. The drumming is amazing. It is just polyrhythm more complicated than standard 2 against 3 and often long hemiolas. The average listener will probably be discouraged with this album.

2) The Dodos: No Color – This is a really great album. It is exciting, moving, and technically impressive album. I’m continually amazed at how good of musicians these guys are. They write creative songs that involve what sounds almost like a modernized bach fugue or something. They have fascinating arrangements of acoustic vs electric sounds. The excitment never lets down on this album. The melodies are beautiful. The lyrics are often moving. I can’t get enough of it.

Very Good:

3) Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys – I swore off DCFC after their last album, but as with other bands I swore off for some reason this year I broke my promise. I’m glad I did. This is actually really good. I won’t say it is a return to anything, since it is fairly different from any of their previous albums. There are a few songs that don’t live up to the rest of the album, but throwing those out I absolutely love this album. To me it is what they tried to do their last album, but they did it properly this time.

4) Son Lux: We Are Rising – This is a very good album with many of the same qualities of my number one album by James Blake. It has lots of cool tempo changes and mixed meters and polyrhythms. I think the fact that it was completely written and recorded in a month shows. Possibly if more time had been spent on it this would be my number one album so far. It is still well worth getting.

5) Bright Eyes: The People’s Key – I said that I’d never ever get a Bright Eyes album again after Connor Oberst disappointed me repeatedly the past several albums. The problem is one of my favorite albums of my entire life is a Bright Eyes album (I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning). So I just can’t resist when one comes out. My first Bright Eyes album was Fevers and Mirrors. This reminds me of that a lot. The first thing that happens is just speaking. It is ultra pretentious nonsense that really turned me off of the album at first (just like F&M). Overall I’ve come to really enjoy this album once I got over the horrible speaking aspects. Really it is quite fantastic. It is a return to classic Bright Eyes.

6) Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys! – There absolutely beautiful songs that I adore on this album, but overall it is hard to motivate myself to actually listen to it due to the number of songs I don’t really care for as well.

Good:

7) Adele: 21 – She really excels at power-pop with the gospel twist. They are really fun and enjoyable to listen to. Unfortunately, it seems that when she tries to get “emotional” it really falls flat. Sometimes when someone sings a song or acts in a movie or play it is possible for the person to really do it passionately, but without really feeling it. The end result is this awkward moment. That is how I feel when she doesn’t do her awesome poppy stuff. It is sort of passionate yell-singing that really works well with her great voice for the power pop, but falls flat on the subtler songs.

8. The Decemberists: The King is Dead – It is nice. That’s all about I can say. Not boring. Not exciting. Very forgetable, but at least it isn’t bad. If I want non-distracting background music while typing up some math or something I’ll put this on. I have to say that it is really fun for the most part. This is sort of classic Decemberists harkening back to Castaways and Cutouts or Picaresque.

9) Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues – Yet another one where the songs I like I very much love, but I can’t get over how bored I am by the songs I don’t like. Chop the first half of this album off and you have an absolutely excellent EP. Seriously, I’d rather people release a short album of great stuff rather than fill it out with boring stuff. The Shine/An Argument is certainly the best song this band has ever produced.

Not So Good:

10) Iron and Wine: Kiss Yourself Clean – I really like the direction of Iron and Wine for this album, but overall it just doesn’t do it for me. I’m bored by most of it. Next time keep in this direction, just do it a little more and I’ll be happy. I have to say that Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me is one of my favorite songs of the year. I could listen to it forever.

11) The Antlers: Burst Apart – The Antlers went from my number 1 album a few years ago to one of my least favorite of this year. Just like the previous one, this one is sort of tedious and boring to listen to at first. Unlike the last one after many, many repeated listens in an attempt to get it to reveal itself as a beautiful moving album it just never did. This is a huge disappointment.

12) Wye Oak: Civilian – I was told this would be like Neko Case. It wasn’t. I don’t really like it. There are a few songs I like, but not much.

13) Radiohead: The King of Limbs – Um. I think Radiohead really messed up here. It is very blah. Nothing very interesting. I’ve given a ton of listens hoping to change my mind, but I guess this goes down in history as the only Radiohead album I don’t like.

14) Cold War Kids: Mine Is Yours – I think this is a horrible album. It is just ordinary boring rock. Nothing makes it stand out. These guys used to be amazing back when they were doing original stuff like Hang Me Up To Dry with their awesome dirty loose sound and passionate vocals. They dared to do a guitar solo on that song that consisted of playing tritones over and over. Bring that back please. Admittedly there were a few good songs on here, but not enough to make it worth it.