Posts Tagged ‘ambient’
10 Mar

Week 200: “Beyond This Moment” by Patrick O’Hearn


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I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to think of something special to write about to celebrate this blog’s 200th week. It had to be something big. Something fancy. Something worthy of nearly four years of music hunting.

After many hours, several false-starts, and much agonizing, the best I could come up with was the following list:

Things I could have done with the time I spent trying to come up with something to write about for this week’s post:
  • Learned to juggle.
  • Made several batches of stew, to be frozen and saved for days when there’s no time to cook.
  • Searched for the missing cat from those posters that are all over my neighbourhood.
  • Called my mother.
  • Designed a line of t-shirts celebrating sports teams that made it to the finals, only to lose. Working name for company: “No Cigar Apparel”.
  • Re-arranged my books alphabetically by opening word.
  • Watched all those Philip Seymour Hoffman movies I never saw.
  • Researched ways to make my house more energy efficient.
  • Prepared 12 months’ worth of birthday cards for family and friends, pre-addressed and stamped.
  • Volunteered for something.
  • Downloaded the first season of “The Cosby Show” for the guy who works the night shift at the corner store.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that there are lots of things worth doing. Many of them are more important or rewarding than celebrating multiples of ten.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some stew to make.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The acoustic guitar. All by itself at first, almost lost among the other instruments by the end.

2. The big plinky piano. Makes the whole thing very dreamy.

3. The upright bass. Helps keep the dreamy part grounded in reality.

Recommended listening activity:

All of the above.

16 Dec

Week 188: “Blow Up” by Floex



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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.

16 Sep

Week 175: “Four Feathers Few” by Orla Wren

Record label.

On Orla Wren’s Soundcloud page, he is listed as being “nomadic”. I’m not sure if that means he’s a perpetual couch surfer, a permanent camper, or if he follows the migrating buffalo for food, but his music certainly evokes a wandering, meandering, carefree feeling.

It makes me think of Canadian nomad/blogger Jeremy Goodwin. In 2009, Goodwin sold most of his belongings, moved into his van, and roamed the country, documenting his experiences. His blog is an interesting look into the idea of being homeless by choice, and the stigma associated with the word “homeless”. According to his most recent updates he’s still at it, though he now splits his time between Vancouver (where he does occasional social work) and Halifax (where he’s at school, studying…wait for it… architecture). And if the idea of a nomad designing houses isn’t awesome enough for you, Goodwin has also applied for the Mars One project.

If you’re not familiar, the Mars One project is a Dutch not-for-profit foundation that hopes to beat NASA in the race for a manned mission to Mars. Although they lack the resources of NASA, their advantage is that they don’t have to worry about bringing people back; the trip is one-way. So in other words, in applying to take part, Jeremy Goodwin is taking nomadism to the next level.

I wish him luck. But I do so from the comfort of my own home. While I have the utmost respect for the freedom that nomads like Goodwin and Orla Wren have decided to pursue, I don’t think it’s for me. Although it might not hurt if I purged a few belongings myself; the more I count my possessions, the heavier they look.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The video, as you’ve probably already realized, is gorgeous. Created by Joey Bania, the video, with its suspended figures, gives the paradoxical effect of moving and staying still all at once.

2. The piano, right up front in the mix.

3. The cello, way back in the mix. Somehow, the spatial separation between the song’s two main instruments gives a wide-open feeling that almost makes me want to get on the road with no plan. Almost.

Recommended listening activity:

Spinning a globe and stopping it with your index finger.

19 Aug

Week 171: “Keep” by Nils Frahm


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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


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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.

24 Jun

Week 163: “Strings of Complacency” by Twigs & Yarn


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I walked past a yard sale the other day. Actually, it was more than a yard sale; it was one of those “street sales”, where a whole group of neighbours pick a Saturday, and agree that on that day they will simultaneously empty their basements onto their front lawns.

It’s a bizarre event when you think about it. Normally, if you were to put all your junk out on the front yard, people would cross the street to avoid you. But if you arrange everything in neat rows with price tags on them, you’ve gone from local crazy person to enterprising community builder.

I always liked yard sales, because it gives you the chance to snoop through someone’s belongings without breaking into their house. It’s like a giant, 3D scrapbook of that family’s life over the past 20 years. All the temporary hobbies their kids had, all the failed do-it-yourself projects, all the where-do-we-put-this gifts that accumulate over the years…they’re all right there on the lawn, eager to become part of someone else’s life.

My reason for rambling about yard sales is that listening to the Austin, Texas duo Twigs & Yarn is a bit like swimming in a pool filled with the leftovers of a thousand yard sales. Every dreamy song, while simple, is filled with ambient noise: found sounds, static, bells, music boxes…it’s got a layer of audio-dust that really seems to say “yard sale”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The glockenspiel. Beginning at about 0:40, it’s a nice companion for the guitar.

2. The bass. Just after the 1-minute mark, it fades in and out with a repeating line that for some reason makes me think of a really big dog yawning.

3. The background noise. It’s not overwhelming by any means, but there’s a lot in there. A bit of singing, a bit of piano, some vinyl pops. Something new for every listen.

Recommended listening activity:

Opening old books and listening for the creaking sound.

03 Jun

Week 160: “Hengilas” by Jonsi


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These are some things I like about Iceland:

  • It is home to roughly 30% of the world’s lava.
  • It is home to zero McDonald’s restaurants.
  • The 1000-kroner bill features one of the most amazing beards in the history of money.
  • Thanks to geothermal energy, the annual cost of heating an Icelandic home is about $20.
  • Everybody there is friendly.
  • Despite having a smaller population than many American neighbourhoods, it produces an incredible number of gifted musicians.

Jonsi is one of them. Aside from being a guitarist and vocalist for the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, he’s spent the last few years building a respectable solo career as well.

Also, he’s blind in one eye.

I couldn’t think of a clever way to include that in my pre-amble, so there it is.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The horns and strings that anchor the song are rich and grand without being that loud. It would be the perfect soundtrack to wide-angle shots of the Icelandic countryside, or maybe Vikings running in slow-motion.

2. Jonsi’s falsetto, beginning at 2:48, is a nice contrast to the horns.

3. The song appears to be over at 3:23, but it’s not. If you’re listening on headphones or in a quiet place, you can hear the horn section take a breath just before they begin playing again.

Recommended listening activity:

Dropping ice cubes into a glass of water and listening to them crack.

10 Sep

Week 122: “Sa Sa Samoa” by Korallreven

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Raise your hand if you have ever asked yourself, “…gee, if Enya owned a nightclub in the basement of a Cathedral in Nairobi, what kind of music would they play?”



Okay, but if you ever do ask yourself that, remember that the answer is “Sa Sa Samoa” by the Swedish ambient duo Korallreven.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The haunting voices. Hard as it is to believe, the singing on this track is not a choir, but one person, layered many times over. Her name is Julianna Barwick, and she specializes in the type of music that probably plays on repeat at the entrance to heaven.

2. The echoing synths. Especially the one at 0:39, which sounds like a robotic angel-cat.

3. The slowly building drums. Like in this song, the percussion builds slowly, so as not to disturb the softness of the song’s opening. But by the time you get to the end, it’s enough to get everyone in Enya’s nightclub dancing.

Recommended listening activity:

Sticking glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling of your bedroom.

23 Jul

Week 115: “Midnight Feast” by Mr. Scruff

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About ten years ago, I was mindlessly sprawled in front of the television eating something unhealthy and scratching various body parts when a commercial for the 2002 Lincoln Navigator came on. I immediately sat upright. I maxed the volume. I stared dumbly at the screen while a forgotten fragment of potato chip hung precariously from my lower lip.

This reaction had nothing to do with the urge to purchase an SUV, and everything to do with the song that accompanied the ad. It was “Get A Move On” by Mr. Scruff.

Introducing me to Mr. Scruff’s music is easily the most useful thing luxury vehicles have ever done for me. He’s produced a lot of quality stuff over the years, most of it simultaneously upbeat and offbeat, with that typical British sense of humour that makes music fun. The highly danceable “Get A Move On” is followed directly on the album by this great sleepy track, and the two couldn’t be more different from an energy point of view.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion sounds like crickets cruising the strip in a convertible.

2. The piano sounds like a ballerina coming home late and stumbling into bed. (Actually, it’s a brilliant use of a sample from this song.)

3. The shifts from minor to major (at 1:10, for example) give it a particularly drowsy feel, as if the song is unsuccessfully fighting off a nap.

Recommended listening activity:

Unsuccessfully fighting off a nap.

04 Jun

Week 108: “Teardrop” by Massive Attack

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I discovered this song while on a YouTube tangent recently. It was a long and bizarre tangent that somehow ended with me watching a French magician performing a card trick on the Penn & Teller reality show “Fool Us”. The trick was cool, but I was more fascinated by the song that accompanied it.

Upon finding out whose song it was, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it before, since Massive Attack was pretty popular in the late 90s, when I was into similar bands. Somehow I’d never heard it. Once the 90s were over, the song continued to gain popularity as the opening theme to the TV show “House”, and was covered by a wide array of artists, from Brad Mehldau to Simple Minds. Oh, and these guys.

But my favourite fact about this song is that Andrew Vowles, the primary songwriter for Massive Attack, originally wanted Madonna to record the vocals. Madonna loved the track and was up for it, but the other two members of the band wanted Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Being a democratic bunch, Massive Attack turned down a willing Madonna and went with Fraser.

Right or wrong, you’ve got to admit: it takes serious guts to say no to Madonna.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. I love the combination of deep kick/rim snare. It was a staple of mid-90s trip hop, giving a simultaneously driving and chilled sound.

2. The harpsichord. If you can name another song written in the past 100 years that features the harpsichord, place your open palm on the screen and accept my high-five from across the internet.

3. The vocal melody. The opening line of each phrase is slightly unusual, throwing in an unexpected major 6th on “Love, love is a verb”.  The rest of the melody contains just enough major and minor moments to keep the song content, but slightly on edge.

Recommended listening activity:

Bobbing your head while driving way slower than the speed limit.