14 Apr

Week 205: “Au Cinema” by Lianne La Havas

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If you’re skipping work and you can’t decide what to do with yourself, I would highly recommend going to the movies in the middle of the day.

It doesn’t matter what movie you see, as long as it’s a weekday matinee. The theatre will be mostly empty, you’ll have your choice of seats, you can take your shoes off, put your feet up…it’s like a private slumber party on a Wednesday afternoon. Plus, there’s the surprise of leaving the theatre in full daylight. It feels like you’ve had a night out, but you’ve still got the whole afternoon to yourself.

And then you can go back to work on Thursday and tell everyone about the weird stomach bug that kept you home all day. But it’s okay, you watched a movie and slept it off.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The light guitar at the opening is like rain on a windshield.

2. As the song builds towards the chorus at 1:50, (“no pause, no rewind…”) you get the impression that the chorus is going to be huge. But when the chorus arrives, it’s a gentle, tumbling melody that wouldn’t hurt a fly.

3. La Havas’ voice ranges from a breathy Feist-like whisper to a soaring Janelle Monae-like croon.

Recommended listening activity:

Not checking your email.


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07 Apr

Week 204: “Sarah’s Song” by David Downing

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According to a friend of mine who has spent most of his time around classical musicians, different instruments in the orchestra attract different personality types.

Violinists tend to be temperamental. Bassoon players are quirky and intellectual. Percussionists are good dads. Trombone players are sweet but depressed. Oboists are suicidally uptight. Trumpet players are egotistical. Tuba players are egotistical too, but also chubby.

And then there are the cellists. These are the charmers. The sexy ones. Real stylish.

Like most stereotypes, these characterizations probably aren’t entirely accurate, but if there’s any truth to the cellist personality, then David Downing must be pretty popular with the ladies, because he’s quite the cellist.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. David Downing does with the cello what Bobby McFerrin does with his voice, using all the sounds and textures and tones the cello has to offer, creating an orchestra out of one instrument.

2. The delay at 1:58. If U2 had a cellist, it would sound like this.

3. The whole song has a very suave feel to it. I don’t know who Sarah is, but she’s probably the envy of all her friends.

Recommended listening activity:

Ordering food at a French restaurant…in perfect French.

31 Mar

Week 203: “Something In The Way” by Nirvana

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I don’t really remember much about Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

At the time, I was more into Guns N Roses than Nirvana. I liked that Nirvana’s music was loud, but there weren’t enough face-melting guitar solos for my liking.

So when Cobain died (20 years ago this week) it didn’t affect me as immediately as it affected other music fans. I noticed that it was all over the news. I noticed that people were using the term “voice of a generation” a lot. And of course I noticed that the kids at my school who wore a lot of black were pretty sad. But they were usually pretty sad anyway.

And then, to my surprise, in the months following his death I grew out of face-melting solos, and started to grow into heart-melting emotion instead. I started to listen to Nirvana more closely, and pretty soon I couldn’t get enough of it. I tried not to make it too obvious, because the kids who wore a lot of black were making it clear that if you didn’t like Nirvana before Kurt’s death, you had no right to like them now.

So I hid my love for Nirvana, never bought one of those shirts, never wrote lines from their songs on my binders. And I listened mostly on headphones in my room. Which is okay, I think, because that’s probably how Cobain would have listened to music himself.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It was recorded with Cobain slouched on a sofa in the recording studio, and you can almost hear it. Never before has a singer’s posture come through so clearly.

2. Dave Grohl, usually such a beast, is so controlled on the drums.

3. The cello, sighing and moaning in the background.

Recommended listening activity:

Falling asleep on the couch.

24 Mar

Week 202: “Haiku” by Stefano Guzzetti

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Mister Guzzetti:
Italian pianist
And sound designer.

When he was a kid
He saw Kraftwerk on TV
And his mind was blown.

His own work reflects
A blend of electronic
And classical styles.

This song may be short
But like a haiku it proves
Beauty can be brief.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Arpeggiation.

2. Lots of space between the notes.

3. The sustain pedal.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a tree branch
That waves ‘hello’ with the breeze
And waving right back.

17 Mar

Week 201: “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers

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The first time I heard this song was in this classic scene from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.

I had no idea that it was the same voice that sang Lean On Me. For all I knew, Will Smith wrote it as an excuse to do something funny on his show. But now that I’m 20 years older and (?) wiser, I can hear this song for what it is: a simple, soulful song about wanting to be with someone who’s far away.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. I love the way it starts. Voice, bass, and a hint of acoustic guitar in the background.

2. I love the way the second verse lights up with the big strings and those funkyfunky drums.

3. I love the way everything drops out but the drums and the voice for that classic “I know, I know, I know…” The Fresh Prince may have  kicked the jukebox at that point to stop the record from skipping, but I could listen to it forever.

Recommended listening activity:

Waiting patiently.

10 Mar

Week 200: “Beyond This Moment” by Patrick O’Hearn

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I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to think of something special to write about to celebrate this blog’s 200th week. It had to be something big. Something fancy. Something worthy of nearly four years of music hunting.

After many hours, several false-starts, and much agonizing, the best I could come up with was the following list:

Things I could have done with the time I spent trying to come up with something to write about for this week’s post:
  • Learned to juggle.
  • Made several batches of stew, to be frozen and saved for days when there’s no time to cook.
  • Searched for the missing cat from those posters that are all over my neighbourhood.
  • Called my mother.
  • Designed a line of t-shirts celebrating sports teams that made it to the finals, only to lose. Working name for company: “No Cigar Apparel”.
  • Re-arranged my books alphabetically by opening word.
  • Watched all those Philip Seymour Hoffman movies I never saw.
  • Researched ways to make my house more energy efficient.
  • Prepared 12 months’ worth of birthday cards for family and friends, pre-addressed and stamped.
  • Volunteered for something.
  • Downloaded the first season of “The Cosby Show” for the guy who works the night shift at the corner store.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that there are lots of things worth doing. Many of them are more important or rewarding than celebrating multiples of ten.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some stew to make.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The acoustic guitar. All by itself at first, almost lost among the other instruments by the end.

2. The big plinky piano. Makes the whole thing very dreamy.

3. The upright bass. Helps keep the dreamy part grounded in reality.

Recommended listening activity:

All of the above.

03 Mar

Week 199: “Advanced Falconry” by Mutual Benefit

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Bandcamp.

I’m not really the type to get excited when the Renaissance Faire comes to town, and I will probably never invest in an outfit made of chainmail.

But falconry? Falconry is cool.

Several years ago, I went to a falconry show in the medieval town of Provins, an hour or so outside Paris. To watch the show, you sit in an open auditorium, surrounded by the castle walls on all sides. You are told that during the show you are not to take any photos, not to speak…in fact, you really should not move at all once they bring out the birds.

This isn’t an empty warning, like you get at the start of a roller coaster. If you make any sudden movements during the falconry show, you may leave with 50% of the eyeballs you arrived with.

As you sit, one of the trainers enters with a bird the size of a toddler, which promptly flies off and sits on a distant turret. The trainer then walks behind you, and dangles a delicious morsel of meat just behind your ear. On the faraway turret, the bird turns. You can tell he’s seen the yummy snack. He shuffles his talons, spreads his wings, and takes off in a graceful trajectory…straight towards you. His eyes lock on their target, with a death stare that could probably melt metal.

It is at this moment that you try to calculate whether it’s possible to stay perfectly still while peeing your pants. Would the eagle notice? Is its sense of smell as acute as its sight?

But before you can answer these questions, the eagle puts on the brakes, stretches out its talons, and flutters its wings, which graze the top of your head while it grabs the piece of meat just behind you.

Never before has peeing your pants been so worth it.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The pattern in the guitar reminds me of the opening of “Sweet Unrest” by Apparat.

2. The strings, especially around the 4-minute mark, are sweeping and graceful. Eagle-ish, almost.

3. The voices that end the song sound like a relieved sigh.

Recommended listening activity:

Adding feathers to an item of clothing.


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24 Feb

Week 198: Serenade from “The Snowman” by Erich Korngold

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I made a snowman when I was about 11 years old that I was very proud of. My pride stemmed primarily from the fact that I had built it alone. No help from dad or older brother. This was all me.

It was a sight to behold: carrot nose, arms made of freakishly bent tree limbs, three semi-spherical body sections, flecked with bits of grass and dirt from the earth underneath the snow. Okay, it was mostly hideous, but I was 11, so I was pretty pleased with myself.

If I had known that Austrian composer Erich Korngold had written an entire ballet at age 11, I might have been forced to revise my pride level somewhat. His ballet was called “The Snowman”, and upon its opening, he was a child prodigy who seemed destined for greatness.

Korngold is mostly remembered now as a pioneer in film scores. His 1938 soundtrack to The Adventures of Robin Hood won an Academy Award, and he cranked out many more during his time in Hollywood. However, it seems like he got tired of film scores. He stopped writing them in 1946, and returned to composing the romantic style of music he had worked on before leaving Austria.

Unfortunately, by the late 1940s that style was no longer popular, and in the years following his death in 1957, critics tended to greet Korngold’s work with a bit of a shrug, which I think is pretty sad. Rewind to 1910, when composers like Strauss and Mahler were praising the 12-year-old as the next big thing, and his ballet The Snowman was being performed for the Austrian Emperor…it doesn’t seem fair that his career should be looked upon as if it were one of my pathetically deformed snowmen.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The tempo is flexible, which gives the music a sense of motion. You can see how his style was so perfectly suited to the newly emerging medium of film.

2. The way the violin climbs and shivers, beginning at 1:40.

3. The final seconds, with the violin way up high, and the piano way down low, like opposite ends of a snowman.

Recommended listening activity:

Digging through a box of things you made as a kid, and picking out something to put on the fridge.

17 Feb

Week 197: “All The While” by Barzin

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Available February 24th from Monotreme Records.

With some songs, it’s the melody that gets lodged in your brain. It’s a guitar lick, a little line on the piano, or the catch “na-na-na” of a chorus.

But the part of “All The While” by Barzin that has been running laps in my mind for weeks isn’t a melody, but a lyric – “All the while you wait for your heart to wake up.” Something about that simple sentence really grabbed me, and got me thinking.

This is what it got me thinking: Longing is overrated.

I realize that a large percentage of modern music was written by people whose main motivation was longing for something; longing for the person you let walk away…longing for the childhood you can’t get back…the future you’re worried you won’t be able to live up to…

…but after a certain point, longing stops being romantic. There’s nothing exciting about unrequited love. So you sat there and watched her walk away. How is that romantic? You can’t wait around for things to happen. You have to jump in. Nothing is more romantic than risk.

And that’s what I take from that sentence: All the while you wait for your heart to wake up. I have no idea if Barzin meant it this way, but I hear him saying that if you spend all your time longing for something, your heart might never wake up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar, delicate and finger-picked.

2. The strings that join in at the first chorus. Nothing fancy, just filling out the sound.

3. The backup vocals on that key phrase in the chorus. So quiet you can barely hear them.

Recommended listening activity:

Replacing your list of things that could have been with a list of things that are.


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10 Feb

Week 196: “Yeti’s Lament” by Berry Weight

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As the album’s title suggests, the songs on “Music For Imaginary Movies” are very good at evoking mental images. And they’re more than just mental images. They’re the kind of animated mental pictures that float through your head as you drift in and out of a light sleep. The images that cross your mind when you’re on the bus, and you zone out for a while.

But it’s not just the music that is evocative. The song titles themselves are sometimes enough to spark your imagination. Magician’s Assistant…The Way of the Dodo…The Day Nothing Happened. If those were real movies, I’d go see them in a second.

Of all the tracks, however, no imaginary movie is as intriguing as “Yeti’s Lament”. I can picture it now: our abominable furry friend trudges through the snow, pondering the meaning of his existence, lamenting the loss of…whatever a yeti might lose.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening clarinet. Mental image: the yeti looks at an old photograph and lets out a snowy sigh.

2. The turntable scratches at 0:53. Mental image: a panicky mosquito gets trapped in the yeti’s fur.

3. The way the two clarinets harmonize from 2:05 to 2:16. Mental image: the yeti frees the mosquito from his tangled fur, and realizes that he can make a difference in the world, no matter how small.

Recommended listening activity:

Drawing your dreams.