15 Dec

Week 240: “Blafeldur” by amiina


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Official site.

Picking out a winter coat is a tricky business.

It’s tricky because you can’t test a winter coat in-store the way you can with other items like, just say, shoes. Doing a quick perimeter walk around the store in a potential pair of shoes usually gives you a pretty good idea of whether or not they’ll be comfortable. But with a coat, you can’t exactly ask the manager to put the temperature down to -12 degrees and pelt you with snow just to make sure you’ve made the right choice. There’s a certain leap of faith involved.

But once you’ve found the perfect winter coat, there’s nothing like it. Get it right and you’ll feel like you’re bringing the warmth of your living room with you wherever you go.

This song, by Icelandic group amiina, is the musical equivalent of a winter coat. In fact, it’s one of the coziest, fluffiest, most down-filled songs I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Amiina started out as a string quartet, and it really comes across in the way they use the horns.

2. The way the volume rises and falls gives the impression that the song is breathing.

3. It doesn’t exactly end by fading out…it kind of peters out, as if everyone ran out of breath at the same time.

Recommended listening activity:

Layering up.

08 Dec

Week 239: “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso


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Partisan Records.

Most songs about dancing fall into one of two categories:

  • Instructional. These are songs whose sole purpose is to tell you how to do a certain dance. The hokey-pokey is probably the grandfather of instructional dance songs, but many have followed. These songs are great for people who lack confidence on the dance floor, but as songs they often fail miserably. The occasional instructional dance song can be a classic, but generally they range from mildly annoying to genuinely obnoxious to gouge-your-eyes-out awful.
  • Motivational. These are the tunes whose only goal is get you moving. No particular dance style is specified, although participants are usually urged to throw their hands up in the air, and wave them like they just don’t care. These songs are great if you just want to burn off some energy to a solid party jam. They’re plenty of fun, if a little bit mindless.

As you can tell by the lyrics and the video, “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso is a song about dancing, but it doesn’t fall into either of the above categories. It’s more introspective than instructional; more emotional than motivational. I like to think of it as a song that sees dancing as relationships in miniature. The excitement of scanning the crowd for the next partner, the electricity of initial contact, the boredom of familiarity…even despair at the possibility of not finding the right person. “The sentiment’s the same, but the pair of feet change.”

Now don’t get me wrong here. I love a good mindless dance song as much as anyone. But I’m glad that Sylvan Esso made a song as exciting to the brain as it is to the feet.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. In the opening twenty seconds, it’s hard to tell where the downbeat is.

2. At 1:17, there’s a tiny woodpecker in your speakers.

3. The words “my baby does the hanky-panky” have never sounded as mournful and meaningful as they do at 3:03.

Recommended listening activity:

Arranging your spice rack so that the labels face each other.

01 Dec

Week 238: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus


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Whatever happened to hats?

I mean, people still wear hats. But these days, most hats are worn either to keep the owner’s head warm, or to advertise the owner’s favourite sports team.

It didn’t use to be this way. Hats used to be an essential part of any person’s outfit, and leaving the house without a hat would be as strange as leaving the house without a shirt. Look up old photos of crowd shots, like this one, from the World’s Fair of 1893, and you’ll get an idea of the sea of hats that once formed wherever people gathered. Or how about this photo of fans at a baseball game from the 1950s. People used to dress up to go to the game. Clearly, we used to be a very dapper people.

Even the names of old-timey hats were awesome; the Bowler, the Cartwheel, the Homburg…and my personal favourite, the Pork Pie hat.

It was the Pork Pie hat that saxophone legend Lester Young wore, and it was for Lester Young that Charles Mingus wrote this gorgeous song, after Young’s death in 1959. But when I listen to this track, I can’t help but think of it as an elegy not only for Lester Young, but for the hat itself. I’m not sure when the hat died out, but it probably wasn’t long after 1959.

But hey, fashion is cyclical, right? So maybe in a decade or two we’ll be back to the days of cranial classiness evident in those photos.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The melody that opens and closes the song is played by two saxophones, one panned left and one panned right. It gives an interesting stereo effect.

2. The sax soloist does something cool at 2:43. I’m sure there’s a name for the technique, but I don’t know what it is…it sounds like the saxophonist suddenly gets the shivers.

3. The whole thing has a really lazy, slightly-behind-the-beat feeling. If I was cool enough to own a classy hat, I would tilt it down over my eyes whenever I listened to this song.

Recommended listening activity:

Tipping your hat to someone.

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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