Archive

Posts Tagged ‘2011’
16 Jun

Week 214: “Hello My Old Heart” by The Oh Hellos

ohhello

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Bandcamp.

I really like the name of this band. It’s the perfect expression of the small but happy surprises that make life fun.

You’re leaving your house in the morning and (oh, hello!) a neighbourhood cat has decided to greet you by weaving its way around your ankles. You put on a pair of pants you haven’t worn in a while and (oh, hello!) there’s a crumpled $5 bill in the pocket. You make a quick trip to the grocery store and (oh, hello!) the item you were going to buy anyway is on sale for super cheap.

It’s those tiny detours from expectation that can brighten your day.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The “ba-dum bah” vocals at the beginning.

2. The way the guitar counts itself in at 1:18.

3. After three soft-spoken, thoughtful minutes, it suddenly (oh, hello!) turns into a toe-tapping, hand-clapping joy-fest at 3:24.

Recommended listening activity:

Being pleasantly surprised.

27 Jan

Week 194: “Deep Cold” by Carl Bray

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Soundcloud.

A few days from now, groundhogs across North America will cheerfully emerge to let us humans know how many more weeks of winter we can expect.

Actually, considering what this winter has been like so far, the groundhogs will probably just jump out, do this, and head right back to their cozy ground holes. That’s definitely how I’ve felt more than a few days this winter.

In previous posts, I’ve already suggested various ways to enjoy winter, and even how to deny its very existence. So today, I’ll assume that your strategy is hibernation, and recommend the following books to keep you company while you’re safely wrapped up in bed:

  • In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Because it’s hilarious, fascinating, and it’s about Australia, which is probably hotter than wherever you are right now.
  • Never Saw It Coming by Linwood Barclay. Because he writes awesome thrillers, and this one opens with someone dying when their car falls through the ice on a lake. So no matter how bad this winter has been for you, it probably hasn’t been that bad.
  • Frost in May by Antonia White. Because it’s a crazy (and only semi-fictional) look into a young girl’s life at a school run by nuns. And we should probably accept the fact that we might actually have to deal with frost this May.
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey. Because laughter helps keep you warm.
  • Tintin In Tibet by Herge. Because it’s the best winter-themed book of all time.

And of course, no matter what you choose to read, Carl Bray’s “Deep Cold” can be your soundtrack.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The drippy opening chords remind me of melting ice.

2. The right-hand craziness at 3 minutes reminds me of rolling down a snowy hill.

3. The way the bassist starts bowing instead of plucking at 4:04 reminds me of letting out a nice big yawn from the warm safety of a heavy duvet cover.

Recommended listening activity:

Making an elaborate book-holding device out of pillows so that you can keep your arms under the covers.

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16 Dec

Week 188: “Blow Up” by Floex

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Bandcamp.

Like a lot of people, I found out about Floex because his music was featured in the fascinatingly addictive game, “Machinarium”. If you like puzzles, the movie “Wall-E”, and spending a lot of time on your iPad, I can highly recommend it as your next time-consuming game.

If not, you should at least take a listen to Floex (aka Tomas Dvorak). I haven’t been able to find out whether he is related to this Dvorak, but he’s certainly got the talent of his namesake. His dreamy soundscapes are like a de-caffeinated Jaga Jazzist, and this song in particular shows off his ability to create a soothing, effortless atmosphere.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The quiet piano, recorded close enough to capture the dampers on the strings, and fingernails on the keys.

2. The clarinet. Played by Floex himself, and so softly that the reed barely produces a sound.

3. The synth noises that begin to build during the song’s final minute. The only image I can conjure up is a slow-motion picnic in outer space. So let’s go with that.

Recommended listening activity:

Slowly adding drops of food colouring to a glass of water with an eye-dropper.

28 Oct

Week 181: “Skipping Rocks” by Oddisee

oddissee

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Bandcamp.
iTunes.

Do you remember the first time you learned it was possible to skip rocks?

I bet you probably do. The first time someone shows you how to skip rocks, it’s like a kind of magic. You’re having a lazy day at the cottage, at camp, at the beach, or wherever, and somebody whips a stone across the surface of the water.

Your jaw drops. They might as well have levitated the rock using their minds.

This is a rock. Something heavy. Something that’s supposed to make a single splash before sinking to the bottom. But instead, this wizard of the waterfront has turned the rock into some kind of hovercraft. Instead of making a splash, like all the stones you’ve ever thrown, this one leaves a trail of expanding ripples in the water, like a jet leaving its vapors in the sky. Amazing.

Living in the grown-up world, sometimes you’ve got to seek out the things that pull you back to that kind of amazement. Maybe this song will help bring that feeling back.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The stuttering rhythm shared by the bass, piano and drums is the perfect instrumental representation of a stone gliding across a pond.

2. The horns really open things up as the song hits the 1-minute mark.

3. The strings in the background make sure that the horns don’t party too hard.

Recommended listening activity:

Well, obviously.

23 Sep

Week 176: “Illuminine” by Thurston Moore

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Amazon.
iTunes.

Wandering aimlessly through an art gallery is awesome. Not because it makes you feel cultured or superior, but because you never know what’s around the next corner.

It’s especially true in galleries that feature modern art. One moment you’re walking past a huge sculpture of a chicken, and then you turn the corner and come face to face with a portrait of Winston Churchill made of old soup labels. And sure, lots of it might appear pointless or stupid, but just walk in a different direction and you’re on to something else. And the best part is that you never know when you’ll be completely captivated by something.

This happened to me a few months ago, when I saw a film installation called “Street” by James Nares. It’s an hour of super-slow-motion street scenes. Nothing spectacular; just people going about their daily business. But of course it is spectacular, because it’s like looking at a panoramic photo so huge that it can’t fit on a single screen. Or like reading tiny pieces of text from a hundred different stories at once. Every shot is unpredictable, like turning another corner in an art gallery, which I think is part of the artist’s point: everyday life, although apparently mundane, contains within it a lot of wonderful moments.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought much about the installation until a reader suggested that I take a listen to “Illuminine” by ex-Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, whose music is featured in Nares’ film.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. As in the “Street” instillation, he’s using a 12-string guitar, which always has a way of making things sound dreamier.

2. Moore’s voice has a bit of a sing-speak quality to it, like Leonard Cohen’s.

3. The strings add a nice new dimension. There’s even a brief splash of harp at 1:54.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a busy pedestrian area at rush hour and pretending it’s a parade.

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19 Aug

Week 171: “Keep” by Nils Frahm

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Amazon.
iTunes.

If I ever visit Germany, the first city I will visit is Hamburg. And when I get to Hamburg, the first place I will go is an exhibit called Miniatur Wunderland.

Miniatur Wunderland (which Wikipedia helpfully points out is German for “miniature wonderland”) is the world’s largest miniature railway. It’s a tiny world all its own, with dozens of landscapes, hundreds of trains, 200 000 tiny human figurines, and more than 12km of track. If it existed when I was 8 years old, there’s a good chance I would have run away from home to live there.

As well as being home to this tiny train-topia, Germany is home to musician/composer Nils Frahm, who creates soundscapes as intricate and captivating as Miniatur Wunderland’s models. So if (when) I make it to Hamburg to visit the world’s biggest model train set, my personal soundtrack for the occasion will be “Keep” by Nils Frahm.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s got all kinds of similar yet distinct sounds; piano, glockenspiel, xylophone…sometimes I think I can hear the persistent ding of a level crossing.

2. It’s got crazy cross-rhythms. Threes and fours overlap like points on a railway.

3. It doesn’t fade in or out; it just starts, happens, and stops.

Recommended listening activity:

Standing on a bridge overlooking the tracks.

08 Jul

Week 165: “Daydream” by Tycho

Tycho-Dive

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When he’s Tycho, Scott Hansen creates dreamy, textured electronic soundscapes. When he’s Scott Hansen, he’s a photographer and designer whose work provides the perfect visual accompaniment to his music. Or maybe it’s the other way round. I’m not sure whether he was a musician or a designer first, but he’s a great example of an artist who doesn’t hem himself into one medium.

I wish more artists would follow his lead.

I’ll admit, I laughed when Madonna wrote a children’s book. I chuckled at the idea of Keanu Reeves in a rock band. But why should my first reaction to this type of unusual branching out be dismissive? Why should I look down my nose and say, “stick with what you know”?

“Stick with what you know” is a way of thinking that flourished in the industrial age, when specialization ruled the world. Schooling was designed to lead students down an ever-narrowing path, with the goal of making them fit into a specific part of society. This isn’t to say that everybody should be a generalist; specialization still has its place, and you can’t know everything.

But I get the feeling that the more artists experiment with different forms, the better they become at their own specialty. Imagine if some of the industrial age’s prominent artists had branched out. What would a line of clothing designed by Debussy be like? How about a lullaby written by Van Gogh? A painting by Dickens?

If the audio-visual ties between Tycho’s music and Scott Hansen’s design are anything to go by, museums around the world would be a bit more fascinating if some of those artists had been encouraged to venture from “what they knew” into something new.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The repeating guitar line gives the impression of a swinging hammock.

2. The deep kick drum gives the impression of a relaxed heartbeat.

3. The high-frequency noise (which reminds me of Boards of Canada) has a hazy, sunset-like feel to it.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-imagining your resumé.

10 Jun

Week 161: “Natural Green” by Blazo

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Bandcamp.

You’ve been inside too long. Go outside.

Go.

Go take a walk.

Bring this song with you.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening laid-back jazz sample turns into a full-out groove. The musical equivalent of a long winter turning into a sudden spring.

2. After the drums come in, you can still hear the brushes of the original jazz drums in the background.

3. It’s shorter than you want it to be, begging you to put it on repeat all morning.

Recommended listening activity:

Practising the ancient art of dance-walking.

14 Jan

Week 140: “Hold On (feat. Sampha)” by SBTRKT

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iTunes.

The formula for musical success in the early 21st Century seems to be something like this:

  • Come up with a cool name
  • Take out the vowels in said name
  • Sit back and accept accolades

The pioneers of the no-vowels approach were classic rock bands like Styx and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they were cheating a bit with their liberal use of the letter ‘y’. Modern electronic acts have perfected the formula with the key addition of writing their name in ALL CAPS. Bands like MGMT and MSTRKRFT have found commercial and critical success with their distaste for vowels…they’ve even led some people to imagine what a few classic albums might have looked like if the trend had started earlier.

But no matter what you think of this strange trend, you’ve got to hand it to London-based DJ and producer SBTRKT; not only has he subtracted the vowels from his name, but in this gorgeous song, he’s also subtracted the extra synth noises and beeps characteristic of dance music, creating a minimalist masterpiece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The thumb piano. For an instrument that’s probably been around as long as the pyramids, not enough songs feature it.

2. The kick drum. Compressed so that everything gets slightly quieter when it hits, it adds an edge to the otherwise soft song.

3. The vocals. The singer is Sampha, and not only does he have two vowels in his name, but his soft voice is a nice counterpoint to the insistent kick drum in SBTRKT’s music. He slurs his words somewhat, which (appropriately) places the emphasis on the vowels.

Recommended listening activity:

RLXNG WTH SM HT CHKLT.

22 Oct

Week 128: “Sweet Unrest” by Apparat

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iTunes.

I went to the watch store the other day.

The battery in my watch had died, and to get it replaced, I went to a clock/watch repair shop near where I live. And I don’t mean the appliance section of a department store. This was an old-school, mom-and-pop, smells-like-a-clock-store type of place. I didn’t even fully realize that such stores still existed. It was a bit of an out-of-century experience to be surrounded by technology that hasn’t changed since the 1800s.

But the thing that struck me most as I walked into the place was the sound: the ticking of dozens and dozens of clocks of every imaginable size and style, each one clicking at its own pace, telling its own time. I couldn’t spot a single one that had the actual time on it. It was weird.

And it made me think of this song. So here it is.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The cross-rhythms. This is a very percussion-heavy song, in that many of the instruments are important for their rhythm as well as the actual note they’re playing. The further you get in the song, the more 3’s against 4’s you start to hear…and the more you start to feel like you’re living in a clock repair shop.

2. The choir. They sound separate from the rest of the song because they don’t seem to be tied to the beat in any way.

3. The organ. As the song ends, the chords are sustained by the stuttering organ, which slowly fades to silence.

Recommended listening activity:

Synchronizing all the clocks in your house.