15 Sep

Week 227: “Passage” by Knowledge Of Bugs

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Like many people, I spent a lot of time killing bugs as a kid.

The methods varied: there was the magnifying glass, the one-leg-at-a-time, and in moments of laziness, the standard shoe-stomp.

But then, in my early teens, I saw a French documentary called “Microcosmos”. It was a fascinating look into the lives of insects. No narration, no talking-head bug experts, just 80 minutes of up-close footage of various insects going about their business. Ants building stuff. Ladybugs being pelted by enormous raindrops. Dung beetles…doing what they do. (Side note – I saw this movie on a date, which in retrospect was a poor choice. It turns out that watching dung beetles pushing around giant balls of crap is not the way into a girl’s heart.)

By the end of the movie, I was wracked with guilt. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the tiny lives I had ruined over the years. Within minutes of leaving the theatre, I promised myself that I would never harm another insect as long as I lived. I would respect the microscopic world that exists just beneath our feet. All bugs would from henceforth be my friends.

Except centipedes. I will always kill centipedes.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The metronomic clicking, like a marching ant.

2. The echoing slides of the guitar, like a spider spinning a web.

3. The persistent beat, like a dung beetle bravely carrying out his unfortunate lot in life.

Recommended listening activity:

Cheering for the little guy.

08 Sep

Week 226: “Waltz #1” by Elliott Smith, as covered by Christopher O’Riley

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I’m usually a bit wary of tribute albums. Tribute albums are the musical equivalent of mandatory staff meetings at work: there are too many of them, and they rarely offer any new information.

My wariness level is even higher if the tribute album in question is paying homage to a recently-dead artist. It’s very tempting to write it off as opportunism. Aren’t you supposed to eulogize someone in your own words? With your own songs? Do we need new versions of classics anyway?

But I don’t get those pessimistic feelings with “Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute”. Pianist Christopher O’Riley doesn’t try to do too much, or add excessive orchestration. His versions of Smith’s songs are simple piano renditions, subtly different but still recognizable. I probably wouldn’t listen to the album all day, but his version of Waltz #1 is perfect.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. O’Riley layers the piano parts in the same way that Smith used to layer his vocals.

2. The notes repeatedly glide up the scale in a way that reminds me of (don’t ask me why) empty ski lifts going up a hill.

3. The chord changes at 2:36 are unexpected and wonderful.

Recommended listening activity:

Framing your favourite photo of you and your best friend.

01 Sep

Week 225: “Outta My System” by My Morning Jacket (Washed Out remix)

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A mandatory part of growing up is having a mind-blowing conversation with a close friend or two, typically while lying on your back looking at the stars. This conversation is likely to include some or all of the following statements:

“What if the whole universe is just happening inside a single drop of water?”
“Ever wonder why you’re…you?”
“It’s mathematically impossible that there aren’t other life forms out there.”
“I think that God is just, like…everything. But also nothing.”
“What is money, anyway? Everybody should just be able to take what they need.”
“Imagine if that star just blew up right in front of us right now?”
“What does the universe look like from outside the universe?”

This remix, by Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) captures the innocent magic of such conversations perfectly. Try to remember where you were when you had your own youthful philosophical sessions, and imagine yourself there while you listen to this song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The crickets.

2. The vocal samples, filled with deep thoughts that just make you want to let your mouth fall open slightly and say, “whoa.”

3. Rather than re-state the whole song, Washed Out focuses on the first lyrical line, and loops it. I like it when remixes do that; it’s like taking a painting you already like, and magnifying one corner to really notice the details.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining who you would be if your parents had never met.

25 Aug

Week 224: “Gee But I’d Like To Make You Happy” by The Boswell Sisters

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Being a professional entertainer is probably tough in any era, but can you imagine trying to carve out an existence as an entertainer in the 1930s? The world is in the grip of the worst economic depression of all time, and your job is to put on a great big smile and try to bring some joy to an audience who can barely afford the price of admission.

To my ears, American music of the 1930s is pretty similar to the music of the much-more-prosperous 1920s. If anything, it’s even happier. More euphorically upbeat, as if the country’s soaring unemployment rate and bread lines weren’t happening. Not sure if it’s denial or optimism, but I like it.

The Boswell Sisters are a wonderful example of the between-the-wars sound in America, and this song in particular never fails to make me smile. Sure, the lyrics are silly, but there’s just something so gosh-darned wholesome about it all. How could anyone resist a song with the word “gee” in the title?

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way they imitate a horn section at the opening.

2. The way they throw in triplets at 2:08.

3. The harmonies are delicious. What is it about three-sister musical acts?

Recommended listening activity:

Looking dapper.

18 Aug

Week 223: “Blue Nightingale” by Madeline Tasquin

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For a bird that weighs about as much as a handful of paperclips, the nightingale has had a pretty profound impact on the arts world. Thanks to its much-admired birdsong, the nightingale has inspired many great minds. Some highlights of the nightingale’s impressive CV:

  • Poems by Milton, Coleridge and Keats
  • An opera by Stravinsky
  • A symphony by Beethoven
  • A mention in a key love scene in “Romeo & Juliet”
  • An appearance on the Croatian 1 kuna coin
  • A story by Hans Christian Anderson
  • A starring role in a classic British WWII song.

Madeline Tasquin has a talent for fairy tale pop that reminds me of Sarah Slean, and with this song she provides the nightingale with a lovely 21st-century addition to its portfolio.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way she repeats the words “it doesn’t feel so easy” as the chords behind her shift from major to minor.

2. The way it goes Parisian at 2:30. You can almost see Amelie heading out to buy her morning baguette during the accordion solo.

3. The way it ends with a quiet echoing wail in the background. I’m not sure what instrument it is, but it sounds like either a Theremin or an ambulance.

Recommended listening activity:

Birdwatching.


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11 Aug

Week 222: “Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band

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I recently read that 1999 was the worst year in the history of music.

It’s not just with the benefit of hindsight that people are saying this. Even at the time, people were proclaiming it to be a forgettable year. And I have to admit, when you look at a list of the top-selling albums of 1999, you get the feeling you’re also looking at a list of albums most commonly found in boxes on the street outside people’s  houses in 2003.

The proliferation of musical mediocrity from that year probably has to do with sheer numbers. These were the last days of an era when people were willing to pay $20 for a CD that had one good song on it. The Internet hadn’t yet become the giant musical quality-control machine that it is today, so record labels could still afford to over-charge and under-deliver. The result was the watered-down quality bemoaned in the articles linked above.

But of course, there were some great albums released in 1999. (Including the album that produced the song featured in this blog’s very first week.)

“The Three EPs” is one of my favourites.  Along with DJ Shadow’s “Entroducing”, I listened to it constantly in 1999, and it’s the perfect end-of-century album. Recorded in 1997 and 1998, and finally released in the US in 1999, this album pulls together influences from previous decades in a way that makes it seem to float above other music of the time. It’s definitely…90s-ish, but it’s connected to that sound by a very thin thread, and it has aged much better than, say, Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The combination of samples and live instruments on this album that nobody (except maybe Beck) has ever done so seamlessly.

2. The slide guitar makes me think of a yawning cat.

3. There’s a really nice laid-back feeling to the whole thing, from the vocals to the bass line to the not-quite-in-tune horns that bring the song to its peak.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking past an empty storefront that used to be a Blockbuster Video.

04 Aug

Week 221: “Am I Wrong” by Keb Mo

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Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes you don’t need a plate piled high with food, a movie piled high with special effects, or an endless range of coffee options.

I would never pretend to be an expert when it comes to the blues, but of all musical styles, I think the blues benefits most from the “less is more” rule. This song is the perfect example, in terms of its minimal instrumentation, its minimal length…even the name of the performer is an abbreviation: Keb Mo is the shorter (and decidedly cooler) version of his actual name, Kevin Moore.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The sliding, dusty, perfect blues guitar.

2. The simple stomp-clap-stomp-clap percussion that anchors the frenetic guitar.

3. The occasional “uhn!” that he throws in between beats.

Recommended listening activity:

Cutting out the clutter.

28 Jul

Week 220: “Liebst Du Um Schonheit” by Clara Schumann

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Clara Wieck’s father Friedrich decided that she was going to be a musician well before she was old enough to make the decision for herself. He gave her music lessons using methods he had developed himself, and he managed her career down to the smallest detail. He was like Steffi Graf’s dad, 250 years earlier.

When she was eight, she played at a recital in Leipzig, where a teenager named Robert Schumann was blown away by her skill. He decided to quit law school so that he could take music lessons with Friedrich Wieck. He moved in with the family, and became part of the family. Too much a part of the family, as far as Friedrich Wieck was concerned.

13 years later, despite her father’s disapproval, Clara and Robert were married. In the year following their marriage, Clara wrote this piece for her husband. The words are by the poet Ruckert, whose first name, funnily enough, is Friedrich.

Robert Schumann’s life ended too early and too tragically, but Clara’s career spanned 61 years, and she was one of the most celebrated performers of her time. But beyond that, her skills as a composer remain vastly underrated to this day.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening piano lines. They remind me of the wave-like sound of the opening bars of this piece by Debussy.

2. The fact that it’s a duet. Mahler’s setting of the same text is nice, and richly orchestrated. But the simplicity of piano and voice make it seem more honest somehow.

3. The lyrics. Read them here. A simple but profound take on love.

Recommended listening activity:

A picnic for two with take-out fish and chips.

21 Jul

Week 219: “Solace” by Aether

aether

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My brother made up a word when we were kids: “cornery”. The dictionary entry for this word would look something like this:

cor·ner·y [kawr-nuh-ree; IPA kɔrnəri]
adjective, cor·ner·i·er, cor·ner·i·est.

Often used to describe something (usually a place) that has a comforting, somewhat hidden feeling to it. Ex: “The pond surrounded by willow trees at my cottage is very cornery.”

Origin: 
My brother, mid-1980s; adjectival form of “corner”, denoting security and pleasant seclusion.

Synonyms 
- comfortable, idyllic, peaceful, secluded, ethereal, solace-full

I can’t remember exactly when he first coined this term, but it quickly became part of our family’s dialect, and over the years we identified many things and places that deserved to be described as “cornery”. Eventually we stopped using the word; probably once adolescence made us too cool to use such a childish word. But starting today, I’m going to make an effort to re-introduce it to my vocabulary.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The bass is ocean-level deep, and with headphones on, it’ll vibrate your brain.

2. At 0:43, the piano has echoes of the Amelie soundtrack.

3. There’s something about it that’s just…I don’t know…cornery.

Recommended listening activity:

Visiting your favourite cornery location.

14 Jul

Week 218: “The Laziest Gal In Town” by Carsie Blanton

blanton

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Like most of Cole Porter’s songs, there are several versions of this one that deserve a listen.

The original, performed by Marlene Dietrich for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright”, is pretty good, but there’s something about Dietrich’s delivery that I find a bit creepy. (To be fair, creepiness might be what they were going for, given that it was a Hitchcock film.)

I’ve always been a fan of Nina Simone, and her version of this tune is nice too, but with all respect to Nina, her rendition just doesn’t sound lazy enough.

So I’m happy to announce that Carsie Blanton’s recent recording of Porter’s classic gets everything right: it’s lazy, it’s lilting, it’s lovely.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way she takes her time with the lyrics, especially on words like “laaaaaa-ziest”.

2. The way the brushes shuffle along quietly on the drums, like slippers along the kitchen floor on a lazy morning after a long sleep-in.

3. The way the clarinet yawns its way through the solo. The clarinet was a great choice; there’s something about the tonal quality of the clarinet that has always sounded lazy to me.

Recommended listening activity:

Cancelling something to make room for doing nothing.