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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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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iTunes.

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

ruebke

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Bandcamp.
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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.

15 Sep

Week 227: “Passage” by Knowledge Of Bugs

knowledgeofbugs

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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)

christopheroriley

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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)

My-Morning-Jacket-Outta-My-System-Remixez-y-Friendz

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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

boswellsisters

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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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Bandcamp.

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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