24 Nov

Week 237: “You Got Me Singing” by Frank Eddie


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Singing is good for you. Study after study tells us so: from reducing the risk of heart disease, to fighting Alzheimer’s, to boosting the immune system…singing is clearly giving laughter a run for its money as the proverbial best medicine.

And yet, most people rarely sing. Or worse, they actively avoid it. They make jokes about what a terrible voice they have. They shy away from any sort of public singing by saying things like, “you don’t want to hear me sing, trust me!” or “I only sing in the shower.”

Okay, fine, singing in front of people is different from singing alone. (Unless you’re an elf.) But there are plenty of ways, beyond the classic shower-singing, that you can add singing to your day. Some suggestions:

  • Try humming. It’s more covert than all-out singing, so you can get away with it in crowded places without people noticing. It’s like tip-toeing with your voice.
  • Karaoke: Find the closest bar that does it. Find three friends. Enjoy.
  • Caraoke: Roll up the windows. Turn up the volume. Enjoy.
  • Sing what you see. Sometimes when I’ve got the house to myself, I narrate what I’m doing by singing it. “I’m going to boil some water, soooo I’m filling up the kettle…” Making coffee is way more exciting when it’s a musical.

And if you’re not so good with lyrics, just imagine that you and two imaginary friends are backup singers on this great track by Frank Eddie.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The plucked guitar. If the laid-back atmosphere reminds you of Lemon Jelly, that’s because Frank Eddie is the anagrammatic alter-ego of Lemon Jelly co-founder Fred Deakin.

2. The percussion is understated. Rather than using a big crash cymbal every few bars, he throws in a triangle instead.

3. The vocals. I’m not sure where Deakin found the sample, but this lady sounds like the type who’ll sing her way up and down the aisles of the grocery store, regardless of how many stares she gets.

Recommended listening activity:

Practising your diva hand movements.

17 Nov

Week 236: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin


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Jazz has come to an interesting point in the life cycle of musical genres.

It’s old enough that universities teach courses in it, but young enough that some of its pioneering legends are still alive.

It’s gone through all the stages that any genre goes through. In the 1920s, it was an underground scene hated by the older generation, accused of being the source of all society’s problems. By the 1950s it was a mainstream phenomenon filled with huge-selling artists. By the 1980s it had jumped the shark, bloated with hyphenated sub-genres, hopelessly out-cooled by the emergence of hip-hop. By the 1990s many people saw it as an out-of-date style of music only enjoyed by people over 50.

And now, a century after its birth, jazz is settling into a comfortable stage in its evolution. It no longer has to prove anything, it doesn’t have to try to be cool. 21st-century jazz artists are as happy covering the classics as they are melding the genre seamlessly with other styles.

GoGo Penguin has everything that a 21st-century jazz group should have. Musicianship. A wacky name. Cool videos. Sleek album cover design. Critical acclaim. A sound that is different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to avoid alienating people on their first listen.

This song, especially, manages to sound new while echoing the hundred years of history behind it.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The slow, simple beginning reminds me of Ahmad Jamal.

2 .The fast, fluttering right hand of the pianist reminds me of Oscar Peterson.

3. The range of emotion they get out of three instruments reminds me of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Recommended listening activity:

Researching your family tree.

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10 Nov

Week 235: “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger


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I’ve got nothing against parties, nightclubs, pub crawls, or any event that involves a lot of people staying up until the sun rises. But as great as those things are, there is something equally and oppositely great about an evening spent alone at home. Especially when you plan it well in advance.

You know exactly which movie you’re going to download. You know exactly what kind of food you’re going to have delivered. You know exactly what type of drink you’re going to enjoy while you soak in the bath. You know that you’ll probably be asleep embarrassingly early, but you don’t care.

But most importantly, you know that within minutes of getting home, you will be in your pyjamas while everyone else worries about what they’re going to wear when they go out tonight.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The nice crunchy moment at 0:56, followed by a big high note in the sopranos a few seconds later. This is the sound of you stretching as you walk through the front door.

2. The way the voices keep echoing each other, like they do on the words “O bleib bei uns” starting at 1:52. This is the sound of your socks being thrown in slow-motion towards the laundry hamper.

3. The way Rheinberger keeps throwing cadences that don’t quite resolve, like the one at 2:56. This is the sound your eyes make as they almost close for the night, only to pop lazily back open to try and get through the movie you’re watching.

Recommended listening activity:

Politely declining an invitation to a night out.

03 Nov

Week 234: “River Man” by Nick Drake


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For someone who’s interested in music, I feel like I’ve overlooked Nick Drake. I was vaguely aware of his existence, thanks to the “Garden State” soundtrack, but vague awareness was about as far as it went. People would rave about his music, and I would put it on my mental to-do list, along with that restaurant I should try, and that TV show I should watch. Just never got around to it. Mental to-do lists have a way of being overlooked.

But I don’t feel bad about it, because being overlooked is one of the themes of Nick Drake’s life.

His music barely registered in the public consciousness during his life. His three records didn’t sell, and he didn’t gain any kind of popularity until a generation after he died. He hated performing live, and as a result, no video footage exists of any of his concerts. Or interviews. Or studio sessions. In fact, there is no known video footage of his adult life at all.

Apart from his music, the only available insights into his life come from the recollections of family and friends in various documentaries about him. And even in those documentaries, one gets the impression that none of the people interviewed really knew him that well. In the aptly-titled “A Stranger Among Us”, his sister comments that Drake “very much compartmentalized his life…one group of friends never got to know another group of friends.” Another person recalls that he was difficult to get to know because “he wasn’t really there. He was the most spectral person I ever met.”

It’s as if he floated unseen between the different people in his life, but never anchored himself to any of them. As if he only existed in audio format, a ghost who managed to sneak into the recording studio and leave us with a few lovely songs before disappearing again.

He died 40 years ago this month. So if, like me, you’ve been overlooking Nick Drake, now might be the perfect time for you to get acquainted with one of the most ethereal figures in modern music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression is wonderful. That first chord change is especially yummy.

2. The string arrangement is gorgeous. It’s the work of Harry Robertson, another forgotten composer, who spent most of his career writing music and scripts for movies.

3. Like Drake’s own life, the song fades out abruptly and unceremoniously. He leaves us with the enigmatic line, “Oh, how they come and go…”

Recommended listening activity:

Finding forgotten items in the pockets of clothing you haven’t worn in a while.

27 Oct

Week 233: “Only Growing Old” by Kate Davis

kate davis

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I grew about ten inches between my 12th and 15th birthdays. Not exactly a freakish amount of growth, but enough to guarantee that adults were constantly saying things like, “hey, did you grow again?” or “I remember when you were only this tall,” or “quit growing, would ya!”

These comments were often accompanied by a hearty laugh and the kind of man-to-man shoulder-punch preferred by hockey coaches and uncles who have had too much to drink.

I knew that these people meant well, but I never really knew how to respond to such remarks. Was I supposed to thank them for noticing? Apologize for growing? I was so gangly and awkward already that it seemed unfair to shine the spotlight on me for something that was so obviously out of my control anyway.

Years later, I now find myself on the other side of these conversations. With no warning, it starts happening; the toddlers in your life are tiny one day, and towering over you the next. It’s shocking, and it reminds you just how quickly time passes. When I see a kid who surprises me with their rapid growth, I am so genuinely surprised that I find myself tempted to laugh heartily and throw a quick, jocular shoulder punch.

But I don’t. I bite my lip. I complement them on their shirt. I ask what they’re up to these days. I remind myself that as much as I might want to defend myself against the passing of time, teasing some poor kid who’s at the mercy of a growth spurt isn’t the right approach.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Kate Davis is a fantastic songwriter. This song takes the topic of aging and somehow manages to treat it with optimism, pessimism, and indifference all at once.

2. Her voice is as comfortable being delicate as it is being big.

3. There’s a children’s choir that hangs out in the background for most of the song, and then joins her for the last lines.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting rid of anything in your bathroom that has “anti-aging” written on the packaging.

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20 Oct

Week 232: “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon (as covered by The Honey Ants)


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Because Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a staple of my family’s long road trips, I have heard the original “You Can Call Me Al” many, many times. And, with all due respect to the undisputed songwriting prowess of Paul Simon, this version is better.

Actually, let me rephrase that: this version brings out everything that was good about the song already. The original “You Can Call Me Al” has the quirky and introspective lyrics that are a trademark of Paul Simon’s career. The problem was that it was released in 1986, and so it is stamped with everything that was silly about music in the 80s. Dated synthesizers. Bland-sounding horns. Echoing drum kits. Chevy Chase. Quirky and introspective comes off as campy and fluffy.

Pretty much the only thing it had going for it was the world’s greatest 5-second bass solo.

Okay, I’m being too hard on it. It’s a classic tune from one of the 80s’ best albums. But you’ve got to hand it to The Honey Ants; this is a lovely version of Simon’s song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The synths are replaced by a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. And even better, they don’t try to imitate the famous synth line from the original.

2. Without all the extra instrumentation, the lyrics have more room to breathe. To be honest, I never realized that the lyrics included the word “bonedigger” until I heard this version.

3. The harmonies, not present in the original, are reminiscent of the Simon & Garfunkel days.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-kindling a connection with a childhood friend.

13 Oct

Week 231: “Home Again” by Michael Kiwanuka


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Official site.

One of the weirdest things about growing up is that at some point, in conversations about visiting home, you stop calling the place you’re visiting “my house.” Suddenly, it’s “my parents’ house”.

Suddenly, you realize how dated the décor in their house is. You notice that the way they organize the kitchen doesn’t make sense. And how is it possible that they still don’t have a flat-screen TV?

Like most growing-up-type things, this change happens imperceptibly, and it’s only really obvious after it’s happened. But you can’t let it get to you. After all, one day someone else (who may or may not be born yet) will feel the same way about your house.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The only percussion in the first verse is the tapping of his foot.

2. The shaker that comes in at 1:09 sounds like a tiny train.

3. Something about Michael Kiwanuka’s voice gives you the impression that he’s not singing “to” anyone; he would sing the same way whether he was in a sold-out stadium or the basement of his parents’ house.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-discovering your childhood house’s best hide-and-seek spots.

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06 Oct

Week 230: “Within It, Along” by Tess Said So

I Did That Tomorrow (front)

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My house is the last one on the street, and all down the west side of the house is a row of trees. My knowledge of trees is somewhere between patchy and laughable, but I think these trees might be honey locusts.

In addition to having a pretty cool name, the honey locust’s leaves turn a vibrant yellow in the fall, and last weekend, whenever the sun shone through them, the whole house was bathed in an amazing golden glow. But the honey locust’s yellow fall colour is as fleeting as it is pretty, and within a couple of days the leaves had all been blown off by the wind.

Nature seems to do that all the time; giving us these brief blasts of awesomeness, and then moving on to something else while you scramble to find your camera.

This lovely song, by Australian duo Tess Said So and scheduled for release this week, reminds me of the delicate and temporary beauty that nature seems to specialize in.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s simple. I’m trying to think of another duo that pairs a pianist and a percussionist. I can’t. If Jack and Meg White ran away to join the symphony, their music might end up sounding like this.

2. It’s subtle. I’ve never heard a song this soothing that uses this many types of percussion.

3. It’s sparse. There’s a lot of space between notes, forcing your ear to focus on the echo and decay of each sound.

Recommended listening activity:

Dropping leaves from a balcony.

29 Sep

Week 229: “Sleepy Lagoon” by Harry James


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I’m a bit of a sucker for plaques.

I might be late for a meeting, or running to catch a bus, or caught outside in an electrical storm. But if I see a plaque on the side of a house, I’ll read it. I can’t help myself, and it’s getting worse with age.

Seriously, if someone wanted to abduct me, it would be pretty simple: hide up a tree with a big net, put a plaque at the base of said tree, and wait. I might forget to read my emails, but if you put something in tiny letters on an oval-shaped piece of metal, I’ll read it.

I don’t know of many songs that have their own plaque, but “Sleepy Lagoon” is one of them. So hey, the next time you find yourself on the coast of West Sussex near the town of Sesley on the south coast of England, keep your eyes peeled for this one:

(image: wikimedia commons)

You might just see me there.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening 10 seconds. The official sponsor of flashbacks and dream sequences.

2. The vibrato in the clarinets. The official vibrato of the 1940s.

3. The trumpet solo. The official solo of sauntering with a martini in your hand.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining what the plaque outside your house might say a hundred years from now.

22 Sep

Week 228: “Saendscho” by Islands Of Light


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I’ve been in a few bands over the years, and I can tell you that trying to come up with a band name is not easy. Most band-name brainstorms end with hurt feelings, crumpled pieces of paper, and dictionaries hurled over the shoulder in frustration.

Cool band names are not a problem for Dino Spiluttini, however. Not only is his given name pretty cool, but consider some of the bands he’s been involved in over the years:

  • Liger
  • Duran Durandom
  • Swan Fangs
  • Yeah Pretty Boy
  • Beatismurder

The name of his current incarnation, Islands Of Light, is perfect nomenclature for the music on his new album, Ruebke, scheduled for release this Friday on the Japanese label Home Normal. It’s a floating, humming soundscape of deceptive simplicity, and the Islands Of Light moniker brings to mind the surreal view from a plane window at night, when glowing polka-dots spread out beneath you like…well, like islands of light.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The title. I have no idea what “Saendscho” means, so don’t ask. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s the name of the flip-flops they sell at Ikea.

2. There’s no discernible verse or chorus, just a succession of chords. Like a piano stretching its legs before a long walk.

3. Every time the left hand starts to hint at some lower notes, the chords retreat back up high, giving the song a feeling of weightlessness.

Recommended listening activity:

Writing your name in glue and then covering it with sparkles.