Posts Tagged ‘ambient’
06 Oct

Week 230: “Within It, Along” by Tess Said So

I Did That Tomorrow (front)


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.

22 Sep

Week 228: “Saendscho” by Islands Of Light



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.

30 Jun

Week 216: “Grace” by Keith Kenniff



If you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably heard Keith Kenniff’s music, even if you’ve never heard his name.

Remember a few months ago when Facebook turned 10, and provided all its users with “A Look Back” at their time using the platform? And you reminisced about how you had spent 10 years looking at photos of other people’s babies? Well, Keith Kenniff provided the soundtrack for that video.

In fact, he has provided music for several high-powered tech companies, and it’s easy to hear why. His music has a distinctly 21st-century atmosphere without sounding too alien or experimental. It’s the soundtrack for the very near future; the startup noise for a computer that doesn’t exist yet; equal parts Apple and Philip Glass.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The piano is recorded so closely that you can hear the movement of the dampers fluttering like wings.

2. The sudden shift to a major key at 1:50.

3. The slow settling back to the original key beginning at 3:14.

Recommended listening activity:

Learning to code.

21 Apr

Week 206: “Mono No Aware” by Hammock



I have to admit, I was a bit confused by the title of this song at first. Was the band making a statement about how people who have mono are so tired that they don’t know what’s happening around them? Was it a warning that unless you listen to their music in stereo, you won’t get it?

As it turns out, I was reading the title in the wrong language. It’s not English, but Japanese. After a brief moment of feeling like a total idiot, I looked up the meaning of the phrase, and found it pretty interesting.

It’s a term coined in the 1700s, during Japan’s Edo period. Roughly translated, it means “a sensitivity to ephemera”. In other words, if you understand that everything is impermanent, that all experiences, all feelings, all things are temporary, you will appreciate their beauty more fully.

I like that. And now that I know the title’s real meaning, I can appreciate the song’s beauty a bit better, too.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The main piano loop, played in reverse, has no reverb, as compared to the distant echoing noises that layer themselves on top of the piano as the song progresses.

2. The video, which features images of impermanent things, particularly handprints left on windows.

3. The cello, added when Hammock remastered the song in 2013.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a whirlpool form as water drains from the sink.

10 Mar

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



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




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



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



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



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



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


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



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


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.

23 Jan

Week 89: “La Femme D’Argent” by Air


The pre-millennial brand of trip-hop popularized in the 90s by groups like Portishead and Sneaker Pimps was perfected, in my mind at least, by the French duo Air on their 1998 debut “Moon Safari”. By that point, nobody was calling it trip-hop anymore; the terms chillout, downtempo, and ambient were becoming more popular.

Whatever you call it, “Moon Safari” was an amazingly chilled album, and it starts with the all-kinds-of-chill song that I’d like to present to you today.

Incidentally, why is it that so many electronic acts are duos? Groove Armada, Justice, Lemon Jelly, Basement Jaxx, Boards of Canada, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Crystal Castles, The Postal Service…the list goes on. I’d like to imagine that there’s some sort of Electronica Association, a kind of governing body that won’t let you apply if you’ve got more than two members in your band, and will provide you with a free collaborator if you’re a solo act.

But I digress.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The bassline. They don’t come much yummier than this. Makes you want to raise one eyebrow, stick out your bottom lip, and nod your head approvingly.

2. The breakdown. Instruments back out at 3:50…a piano enters at 4:02…rain falls gently in the background…the bass goes up high at 4:26…then a tambourine comes in at 4:50, tricking you into thinking the song is about to go double-time…but don’t worry, you don’t need to get up and dance. You can continue your couch slouch/head-nodding, as it all falls back into place by 5:38.

3. The synth solo at 6:03. It keeps tailing off at the end of phrases, like a model airplane that’s just run out of batteries.

Recommended listening activity:

Chillin’. (To the max, if at all possible.)

26 Dec

Week 85: “Amreik” by Eluvium


I love Boxing Day. I love the idea that you get a day off work to digest food, play with new toys, and unwind after the madness that is Christmas.  In fact, I love Boxing Day so much that I think that any day of intense activity and/or stress should be given its own Boxing Day:

“My birthday was great, but I didn’t really get a chance to relax until my Birthday Boxing Day.”

“I can’t wait to sleep in on my Exam Boxing Day.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be going to work on Super Bowl Boxing Day.”

So whatever you decide to do in that great downtime between Christmas and New Year’s, here’s the perfect soundtrack, by Matthew Cooper, aka Eluvium.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The softness of the horns. Too often, horns are typecast as the loud section of the orchestra, and only used when the composer needs to wake up the audience or announce the arrival of royalty. But here, they carry a melody as delicately as any string section.

2. The horns don’t always move in synch. The time signature is pretty loose. Each instrument lumbers from one chord to the next, as if it’s had just a bit too much turkey.

3. It’s repetitive. But that’s okay. In the wake of the free-for-all that is the Christmas season, four chords and a hint of melody is all you need.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting by the fireplace with the last of the egg nog.

18 Apr

Week 49: “Blow Out” by Radiohead (as covered by L.O. Freq)


Cover songs are tricky.

If you stick to the original, you get criticized for trying to mooch off someone else’s popularity. If you make it really different, fans of the band you’re covering will accuse you of blasphemy.

But doing cover songs is completely natural when you think about it; after all, every band out there started because someone wanted to imitate their musical idols. Today’s pop divas were yesterday’s kids, singing along to Whitney Houston and Madonna. Today’s guitar heroes were yesterday’s awkward teens, secretly playing air-guitar to the solos of Slash, Hendrix, and Zeppelin.

Having said that, when a band puts out a cover song, it’s rare that they hit the magical balance between their own style and the elements that made the original song a memorable one to begin with. British ambient duo L.O. Freq did exactly that with their 2006 cover of Radiohead’s “Blow Out”. In fact, at the risk of being hunted down and killed by rabid Radiohead fans, I might even say that they improved upon the original.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. A new guitar part. Whereas the original uses a few simple chords, L.O. Freq imagines whole new layers of acoustic awesomeness, making the song sound less urgent, and more textured.

2. A female vocalist. Thom Yorke has a wonderful, fragile voice, and he does great things with it. But Reeta Loi’s voice was tailor-made for this song. And she even manages to throw in some Yorkian mumbling for good measure.

3. A dreamy ending. While young, angsty Radiohead chose to go all “90’s rock guitar explosion” at the end of the track, L.O. Freq fades it out on soft synth strings, horns, and vocal “aahs”. As much as I like Radiohead’s version, written in 1993, but I can’t help but think that if they had written it in 2011, it might have come out sounding more like this.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting on that old band t-shirt you haven’t worn in ten years.

p.s. If you know of any other beautiful cover songs, let me know:

21 Mar

Week 45: “Your Love Means Everything (part 2)” by Faultline feat. Chris Martin


Faultline is British producer David Kosten, and one of those musicians who leaves a frustratingly long gap between releases. To be fair, he seems to keep himself busy with lots of collaborations, remixes, and production, but under the Faultline alias, it’s been almost a decade since his last release.

That release was “Your Love Means Everything”, put out in 2002. The first song I heard from that album was the title track, an instrumental version of the song posted here. After a listen, I was just about to say, “gee, that was pretty, but it could use the plaintive vocals of a Grammy Award-winning musical superstar,” when I discovered that the closing track on the album featured exactly that.

Chris Martin could sing the alphabet and it would sound plaintive. Say what you want about him; his voice isn’t that powerful, he doesn’t have a great range, he may have a strange habit of naming his children after fruit and Biblical characters…but he’s got plaintive down to an art. And it’s a perfect complement to Faultline’s ethereal music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The epiano. Full of wobbly tremolo, it sets a great dreamy atmosphere as soon as the song starts.

2. The distant drum. It’s far back in the mix, but it’s there, giving an occasional “bah-boom” that reminds me of a heartbeat.

3. The layered vocals at 1:38. I always thought the best Coldplay songs were the ones where Chris Martin layered his voice, and in a soft song like this, it really stands out.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a baby sleep.

Tags: , ,
07 Feb

Week 39: “Mrs. Lee” by Patrick Lee

Download it for free here.

Over the past ten years, Patrick Lee has released 25 albums. I repeat, this time with letters: TWENTY-FIVE ALBUMS.

During the same time span, Justin Timberlake has managed only two. At her peak of spouse-collecting, Elizabeth Taylor’s most productive decade produced a measly four husbands. During the 60s, when Elvis Presley was on a mission to find every movie camera in the world and stand in front of it, he starred in 27 movies. This is the only example of artistic prolific-ness I could find to compare to Patrick Lee’s incredible output over the last decade. The difference, of course, is that Patrick Lee’s music is worth listening to.

While I haven’t yet managed to make it through all 25 albums, the material I have heard is of consistent quality, and the style, while grounded in the broad “electronic” genre, varies from funk to dance to hip hop to jazz (Lee was a piano major at Colorado University). He makes all his music available for free download, and at the risk of sounding pushy, I must insist that you cancel your dinner plans and listen to some of the most interesting music you’ve never heard of. Other songs of his that nearly made it onto this list include “Ransom For The Anthems”, “Memory Flicks”, and “Warming Days”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The vinyl crackle. It’s amazing how a rich sound like a Rhodes piano can sound even richer with a bit of analog atmosphere behind it.

2. The guitar at 1.17. A perfect complement to the crunchy piano chords, mixed nice and close to offset the big reverb of the Rhodes.

3. The synth explosion at 3.38. It’s like having a jazz club crashed by a bunch of robots who are ready to party. An unexpected but welcome climax to the song.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching butter melt on a fresh-out-of-the-toaster bagel.

25 Oct

Week 24: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods


When he was 21, Chris O’Connor and two friends formed a band called the I-Rails. They had some fun, released a few albums, but never got the big break they were looking for. When his two friends left to go have real lives in 1991, O’Connor put together some more songs on his own, using leftovers from the band’s final months together. He sent the demo out to local radio stations under the name “Primitive Radio Gods”. Nothing happened.

Dejected, O’Connor did what most depressed people do: he became an air traffic controller. Then, a couple of years later, he was cleaning out old boxes when he stumbled upon the demo. Clinging to his conviction that the music was good, he mailed copies to every record label he could think of. One track caught the ear of the right person at the right time, and all of a sudden O’Connor was being distributed by Columbia Records. His success was driven almost entirely by this song, released around the time that Portishead was making “trip-hop” a common term, but written years before, when Nirvana and Guns N Roses were topping the charts.

This song ended up on the soundtrack to the 1996 film “The Cable Guy”, about a lonely, depressed cable repair man…which makes sense when you remember that the song itself was written by a lonely, depressed air traffic controller.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The vocal sample. Years before Moby was doing it, O’Connor had the great idea to mix old blues vocals with trance beats. Probably the catchiest part of the song, the sample features B.B. King’s 1964 song, “How Blue Can You Get?”.

2. The piano. As the track approaches the 3-minute mark, a floaty, sprawling piano solo begins. Paying no attention to the tempo of the song, it just kind of goes wherever it wants. The sound of the instrument is pure early-90s ballad, but somehow it works.

3. The lyrics.  Like all the best songs from the 90s, this one is full of wonderful non-sequiturs and baffling religious references. O’Connor was probably down in the dumps when he wrote the lyrics, and as the title suggests, he probably had a good 90s sense of dark irony as well. And if you’re not sure what it means when he says, “you swim like lions through the crest/and bathe yourself on zebra flesh”…well, if you don’t understand that, I can’t possibly explain it to you.

Recommended listening activity:

Going through your change, trying to find coins from the year you were born.