Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Electronic’
06 Jan

Week 191: “To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra

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My parents were never keen on spending a whole lot of money on fancy toys. I don’t say this out of bitterness; in fact, some of my most cherished toys were ones that didn’t involve batteries, screens, bells, or whistles.

One of my favourite things to play with in our basement playroom was our set of wooden blocks. I’m not talking about polished, painted blocks from a store. I’m talking about irregular hunks of wood that were left over from my dad’s DIY renovations. All shapes, all sizes. Some were smooth and sanded, others were just waiting to surprise you with a sliver right underneath your fingernail.

But I loved them. I loved seeing how high I could stack them before they would fall. I loved making castles for my He-Man figures. And most of all, I loved making skylines of imaginary cities with them. I would stand all the pieces on end, covering the playroom’s entire floor space, until I had a mini-Manhattan all of my own in the basement.

Then I would knock them all down and start again.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. I like the contrast between the slow-moving verse and the double-time piano in the chorus.

2. The double-bass that comes in at 2:33 gives the track the low end you were waiting for.

3. It’s supremely nostalgic without being overly sentimental. Go here to listen with lyrics.

Recommended listening activity:

Building something.

02 Dec

Week 186: “Unspoken” by A.M. Architect

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The last time I wrote about a song called “Unspoken”, it was Four Tet’s epic, organic, sprawling masterpiece. This one is much shorter, less intense, and somehow more synthetic sounding, despite the obvious presence of live instruments.

Maybe it’s because I was recently watching clips of one of my favourite robot movies of all time, but listening to this track, all I can think of is robots. I can picture a robot wearing a beret playing the soothing organ that opens the song. An older, rusty robot strumming the gentle guitar chords. A shiny, chrome-plated robot DJ cradling a set of headphones and nodding his robot head.

So if (check that; when) I build an all-robot band, this will be the first song we perform.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. It’s glitchy and punchy, and somehow makes me think of robots fighting.

2. The high keys that come in at around 1:12. This is the tiny robot ambulance coming to pick up the injured robots.

3. Having sat on the 1-4 chord progression for the first half of the song, it switches to an ascending sequence of chords just after 2 minutes. Kind of hopeful. Makes me feel like the robots will learn to get along after all.

Recommended listening activity:

Making something low-tech look more high-tech by wrapping it in tinfoil.

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.

04 Mar

Week 147: “Undiscovered Colors” by The Flashbulb

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My favourite thing about the camera I had as a kid was the flashbulb it came with.

The camera was a Kodak pocket instamatic, and it was designed to be compatible with a crazy contraption called a “flip flash”. The flip flash was almost as big as the camera itself; a clunky, wasteful hunk of plastic that allowed you to take just ten washed-out photos before it joined the junk pile. I remember even as a kid wondering how humans could be clever enough to invent strobe lights, but still have trouble coming up with a re-usable flash.

Anyway, knowing that my flip flash would die after ten flashes made me very selective with the photos I took. You didn’t want to waste one on a lousy picture. And then, after taking a photo, you could tell which of the ten bulbs had been used, because it went from being beautifully transparent to a cloudy gray in a split second. Sometimes, a faint sulfur-ish smell would linger after the flash, and I kind of got it into my head that I was mercilessly killing a family of bulbs one by one. It was very dramatic.

Modern cameras have eliminated the need for such bizarre 20th century technology, of course. And besides, today’s point-and-shoot cameras are so good at compensating for a lack of light that flashes are rarely necessary anyway. But I would like to thank Chicago’s Benn Jordan, aka The Flashbulb, for two things: reminding me of my beloved flip flash, and creating the wonderful track “Undiscovered Colors”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The glitchy percussion that starts at 1:38. “Glitch” is an interesting subgenre of electronic, and it’s worth exploring if you like the energy of dubstep but don’t like migraines.

2. When the percussion cuts out at 2:33, we’re left with an interesting cross-rhythm between the piano and violin.

3. The official video is exactly what I would have suggested for a song that seems to combine fast-forward and slow-motion.

Recommended listening activity:

Hand-making a card for someone.

11 Feb

Week 144: “Silver Cruiser” by Royksopp

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Have you ever had one of those strange moments when you realize that you’ve been reading a word wrong your whole life? Then you hear someone say it out loud, and your mind is blown?

A friend of mine spent years thinking that the Sealtest brand of milk was “Seleste”. Then one day I made some comment about how “Sealtest” was a weird name for milk, and she looked at the carton with a confused expression, as if she hadn’t quite understood what I said. Slowly, her eyes widened, and she laughed so hard that her Sealtest almost came out through her nose.

Well anyway, for years I had seen articles written about an electronic band called “Royksopp”…only I had misread it as “Royskopp”, as in “the-kopp-that-belongs-to-Roy”. I didn’t realize my mistake until I decided to Google them to try and find out the meaning of their unusual name. The search returned very few results, and Google gently asked me if I had meant “Royksopp”. I couldn’t believe my brain had been steering me wrong for so many years.

But whatever you call them, the eclectic Norwegian duo is worth listening to. Known mostly for happy dancey tunes, they do occasionally throw in a slow beauty like “Silver Cruiser”, from their 2009 album, Junior.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the name “Royksopp” means, I was able to find an interview the band gave in which they answered the question with this:

“If you want to translate it in English, the one word would be “puff ball”, which is a small fungus which grows on pavements, a quite ugly little thing. If you step on it, it explodes in a small cloud and all the spores will spread around and they will grow other new mushroom. The way they have sex is if people step on them.”

So, yeah. Maybe “the-kopp-that-belongs-to-Roy” isn’t such a bad name after all.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Fake drums & real guitar. The drums are typical of their euro-synth style, while the warm, slightly distorted guitar tone sounds more like something Radiohead would produce.

2. Casual bass & big strings. I love the bass line. It almost sounds like the bass is humming “do-be-do-be-do” as it strolls down the street. The strings, on the other hand, are big and soaring, with plenty of reverb to fill out the song.

3. A quiet ending. As everything else fades away, we’re left with a funny little synth noise that sounds a bit like a robot powering down for the night.

Recommended listening activity:

Throwing made-up words into an email to a friend just to see if they’ll notice.

14 Jan

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

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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.

19 Nov

Week 132: “Two Hearts In 3/4 Time” by The Avalanches

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We’re three-quarters of the way through Southern Hemisphere Month, so it’s only fitting that we take a listen to a song in ¾, a crazy, schizophrenic blast of sample-based beauty by Melbourne’s Avalanches.

I discovered this band in 2000. I got home late from a night at the bar, dazed and sleepy, and I thought that a little MTV and a nice tall glass of water would be a nice nightcap. I sat on the couch, took a swig of water, and turned on the TV right as the video for the Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist” began to play.

If you’ve never heard that song, it’s a weird one. And the video is weirder. I spent the next four minutes staring dumbly at the screen, a trickle of water dripping from my lip, with one eyelid twitching. It was one of the weirdest videos I had ever seen, and the music had me hooked. The next morning, I bought the album.

Thankfully, not all the songs were as crazy as “Frontier Psychiatrist”. But it was (still is) a brilliant piece of work. While most of it is dancey and frenetic, it slows down just enough for this fun little number.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The constant vinyl crackle. This is an album of samples, the way DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…” was, and with all the crackle and hiss you can almost smell the stacks of forgotten records that went into making it.

2. The vocal sample. It’s from “Yu-Ma” by Marlena Shaw, and when it’s taken out of context like this, it seems almost ridiculously happy to the point of being borderline creepy. Kind of makes me want to start skipping.

3. The e-piano sample. Not sure where this came from, but it’s great. A bit aimless, like it might have been improvised.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting on a chair that’s high enough to allow you to swing your feet.

05 Nov

Week 130: “Last Tango In Paradise” by Goldfish

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Up to this point, this blog has been heavily biased in favour of bands from the northern hemisphere.

Considering that only 10% of the world’s population lives south of the equator, a surprising amount of good music has come from the world’s lower half…and yet, by my count, I have only ever featured two artists from that part of the world (a measly 1.5% of my total posts). So if you’re down there and you’re listening, please accept my apologies.

To make up for it, I’d like to declare November 2012 to be “Southern Hemisphere Month” here at BSOTW.  Let’s get right to it with a hypnotic song by South Africa’s electro-jazz duo Goldfish.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The piano. Dreamy and soft, and not really in time.

2. The drums. Pretty straightforward, but tight, to counteract the laziness of the piano.

3. The horns. They’re used very sparingly, and they sound like they’re yawning more than playing.

Recommended listening activity:

Studying an upside-down map of the world.

22 Oct

Week 128: “Sweet Unrest” by Apparat

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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.

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.