Posts Tagged ‘Folk’
14 Apr

Week 205: “Au Cinema” by Lianne La Havas


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If you’re skipping work and you can’t decide what to do with yourself, I would highly recommend going to the movies in the middle of the day.

It doesn’t matter what movie you see, as long as it’s a weekday matinee. The theatre will be mostly empty, you’ll have your choice of seats, you can take your shoes off, put your feet up…it’s like a private slumber party on a Wednesday afternoon. Plus, there’s the surprise of leaving the theatre in full daylight. It feels like you’ve had a night out, but you’ve still got the whole afternoon to yourself.

And then you can go back to work on Thursday and tell everyone about the weird stomach bug that kept you home all day. But it’s okay, you watched a movie and slept it off.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The light guitar at the opening is like rain on a windshield.

2. As the song builds towards the chorus at 1:50, (“no pause, no rewind…”) you get the impression that the chorus is going to be huge. But when the chorus arrives, it’s a gentle, tumbling melody that wouldn’t hurt a fly.

3. La Havas’ voice ranges from a breathy Feist-like whisper to a soaring Janelle Monae-like croon.

Recommended listening activity:

Not checking your email.

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03 Mar

Week 199: “Advanced Falconry” by Mutual Benefit


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I’m not really the type to get excited when the Renaissance Faire comes to town, and I will probably never invest in an outfit made of chainmail.

But falconry? Falconry is cool.

Several years ago, I went to a falconry show in the medieval town of Provins, an hour or so outside Paris. To watch the show, you sit in an open auditorium, surrounded by the castle walls on all sides. You are told that during the show you are not to take any photos, not to speak…in fact, you really should not move at all once they bring out the birds.

This isn’t an empty warning, like you get at the start of a roller coaster. If you make any sudden movements during the falconry show, you may leave with 50% of the eyeballs you arrived with.

As you sit, one of the trainers enters with a bird the size of a toddler, which promptly flies off and sits on a distant turret. The trainer then walks behind you, and dangles a delicious morsel of meat just behind your ear. On the faraway turret, the bird turns. You can tell he’s seen the yummy snack. He shuffles his talons, spreads his wings, and takes off in a graceful trajectory…straight towards you. His eyes lock on their target, with a death stare that could probably melt metal.

It is at this moment that you try to calculate whether it’s possible to stay perfectly still while peeing your pants. Would the eagle notice? Is its sense of smell as acute as its sight?

But before you can answer these questions, the eagle puts on the brakes, stretches out its talons, and flutters its wings, which graze the top of your head while it grabs the piece of meat just behind you.

Never before has peeing your pants been so worth it.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The pattern in the guitar reminds me of the opening of “Sweet Unrest” by Apparat.

2. The strings, especially around the 4-minute mark, are sweeping and graceful. Eagle-ish, almost.

3. The voices that end the song sound like a relieved sigh.

Recommended listening activity:

Adding feathers to an item of clothing.

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17 Feb

Week 197: “All The While” by Barzin


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Available February 24th from Monotreme Records.

With some songs, it’s the melody that gets lodged in your brain. It’s a guitar lick, a little line on the piano, or the catch “na-na-na” of a chorus.

But the part of “All The While” by Barzin that has been running laps in my mind for weeks isn’t a melody, but a lyric – “All the while you wait for your heart to wake up.” Something about that simple sentence really grabbed me, and got me thinking.

This is what it got me thinking: Longing is overrated.

I realize that a large percentage of modern music was written by people whose main motivation was longing for something; longing for the person you let walk away…longing for the childhood you can’t get back…the future you’re worried you won’t be able to live up to…

…but after a certain point, longing stops being romantic. There’s nothing exciting about unrequited love. So you sat there and watched her walk away. How is that romantic? You can’t wait around for things to happen. You have to jump in. Nothing is more romantic than risk.

And that’s what I take from that sentence: All the while you wait for your heart to wake up. I have no idea if Barzin meant it this way, but I hear him saying that if you spend all your time longing for something, your heart might never wake up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar, delicate and finger-picked.

2. The strings that join in at the first chorus. Nothing fancy, just filling out the sound.

3. The backup vocals on that key phrase in the chorus. So quiet you can barely hear them.

Recommended listening activity:

Replacing your list of things that could have been with a list of things that are.

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09 Dec

Week 187: “Calico Skies” by Paul McCartney


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In August of 1991, Hurricane Bob was born out of an area of low pressure near the Bahamas.

Despite the innocuous, almost friendly-sounding name, Bob was a big one. Within a few days, the storm had ripped up the east coast of the United States, killing 15 people and causing $1.5 billion in damage. At the time, it was the second costliest hurricane in American history. More than 2 million people were left without power.

One of those people was Paul McCartney, who was staying on Long Island at the time. During the extended blackout, McCartney entertained himself by picking up an acoustic guitar and writing several simple, lovely songs, one of which was this one.

So while Hurricane Bob was certainly bad news for the eastern seaboard, grateful McCartney fans might just consider giving Bob a songwriting credit for this little gem.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. When he recorded it years after the hurricane, McCartney decided to keep it simple, and avoided the temptation to over-orchestrate.

2. Like most of his best songs, the melody sits near the top of his vocal range, forcing him to strain just slightly to hit the higher notes.

3. It starts as a love song, but adopts an anti-war sentiment in the last verse.

Recommended listening activity:

Anything, as long as it’s done by candlelight.

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14 Oct

Week 179: “Old Welsh Song” by Joan Baez


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Wales, as a country, seems to fly under most people’s radar. I can’t help but think of it as the quiet kid in the corner of the class who everyone forgets is there.

Within the United Kingdom, Wales is overshadowed by its neighbours. England tends to get all the glory. Ireland is known around the world as the land of Guinness and leprechauns, and Scotland as the place where Braveheart beat up English people while wearing a skirt. But Wales gets overlooked, a forgotten corner of the British Isles.

It’s a fascinating county. Looking at a map, you’d think that the person in charge of typing in the place names got bored and decided to mash his hands on the keyboard, unleashing strings of unintelligible consonants. Abercynffig. Tan-y-mynydd. Mwynbwll. And this place, which I won’t bother trying to type.

The more I read about Wales, the sorrier I feel for it. Its wonderfully perplexing language is in decline; of the 3 million or so people who live in Wales, fewer than 20% speak the native tongue. Its national holiday, St. David’s Day, gets nowhere near the publicity of St. Patrick’s Day. Even its actors don’t bring the country the fame it deserves. Timothy Dalton took the role of James Bond for two movies before being replaced by Pierce Brosnan, who was seen as “more British” by American audiences…despite being Irish. And I bet you didn’t know Catherine Zeta-Jones is Welsh, did you?

All this brings me to Joan Baez’s 1968 album “Baptism”. The album sets poems to music, and features words by Blake, Joyce, Whitman, Cummings, and many others. With such an all-star roster of poets on the record, I was excited to see that “Old Welsh Song” was given opening track status on the album. “Way to go, Wales!” I thought.

Then I discovered that the poem is by an Englishman.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Baez’ voice, with its distinct, fluttery vibrato.

2. The line about “the house that my father’s hands made” is a nice echo of the title of the Welsh national anthem, “Land of our Fathers”.

3. It’s such a short song. If it were the last song on the album, people would refer to it as a “footnote”. But being track number 1, it feels more like a title page. And Wales deserves to be on a title page.

Recommended listening activity:

Betting on the underdog.

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.

27 May

Week 159: “Mexico” by The Staves


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People don’t really listen to whole albums anymore.

I’m not trying to sound snooty, because my own listening habits have changed as much as the next person’s. It’s just that technology today makes music consumption less like a three-course sit-down meal, and more like a cocktail party where you make your way from platter to platter eating tiny triangular sandwiches.

When CD technology made it possible for bands to create 70 minutes of uninterrupted music, many artists put together their albums as a logical progression of music. In one way, the digitization of music has brought it back to the days of the 45rpm record, when bands were known for their singles. Only now, the 45rpm record is the viral video or the 99-cent download.

I used to buy an album and really get to know it, to the point where I would know the name, lyrics, and even the length of each track. I would know the transitions so well that hearing the end of one song would trigger the beginning of the next song in my head. That doesn’t happen as much anymore.

But it did with the album “Dead & Born & Grown” by The Staves. And if you have a hammock and 43 minutes to spare, you won’t regret giving the whole thing a listen.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The super quiet guitar. Not sure if it’s just really far back in the mix, or if the guitar strings hadn’t been replaced in a while, but it adds to the song’s delicate feel.

2. The harmonies. If they ever collaborated with The Good Lovelies, the harmonies would be so rich that all the birds in the immediate area would instantly land on their arms.

3. The bridge at 2:55. The Staves are clever songwriters, and in many of their songs they throw in a quick little something for the listener’s ear to feast on before getting back to the chorus again. Sometimes it’s a whistle solo, sometimes it’s an acapella breakdown. In this song it’s just a little ooh and aah, but it’s enough to add a third dimension.

Recommended listening activity:

Starting a cover-to-cover re-reading of your favourite book.

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13 May

Week 157: “To Hear Still More” by Brian Harnetty and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy


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The next time you’re feeling stressed out, go to the library. Hang out there for a while, and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.

Libraries are the perfect place to de-stress. Especially big libraries. They’ve got all the grandeur, reverence, and peacefulness of a church. They’ve got the comfort and warmth of a living room. Everybody’s welcome, especially these days, when the internet has eliminated many people’s need to visit.

A few weeks ago I spent a couple of blissful hours in my city’s biggest library. I found a quiet corner by a window, way up on the fifth floor, and just sat doing nothing for a couple of hours. That’s the other great thing about libraries; they’re all about books, but you don’t have to go there to read. You don’t really have to do anything. It’s not like a store where the staff will start to look at you funny if you don’t buy anything.

For a while I just sat there, enjoying the almost overwhelming silence. It’s a bizarre feeling to be surrounded by stacks upon stacks of words, but not hear anyone speaking. After a while I put in my headphones and listened to some music. This song came on, and it immediately struck me as the perfect library anthem.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Parts of it sound like a music box in slow-motion.

2. Parts of it sound like a sleeping accordion.

3. There’s no real melody, tempo, or structure. Just a couple minutes of peace.

Recommended listening activity:

Picking books at random, and reading their first and last sentences.

18 Mar

Week 149: “Sandrevan Lullaby/Lifestyles” by Rodriguez

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The story of Sixto Rodriguez is the most incredible, unlikely, and moving rock & roll fairy tale of all time. You’ve probably already heard it, but in case you don’t, here’s the bullet point version:

  • Working-class guy from Detroit writes some songs in the early 70s.
  • Gets signed to a label, releases two records.
  • They sell terribly. Record label folds in 1975. Career over.
  • Years pass. His two records become incredibly popular in South Africa.
  • He has no idea, because someone else is collecting his royalties.
  • His songs become anthems for the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and 90s.
  • He becomes a legend in South Africa, literally more popular than Elvis. He has no idea.
  • They assume he’s dead; rumours circulate he killed himself years earlier.
  • After the fall of apartheid, a few devoted fans aim to search him out.
  • They find him, still working manual labour in Detroit.
  • He goes to South Africa and plays in front of thousands of delirious fans who thought he had been dead for decades.

To hear this story told more eloquently than can be done in bullet points, I highly recommend the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”, which finally earned Rodriguez a bit of recognition in his homeland.

The best part is that it’s not just a nice story; Rodriguez is a really good songwriter. His political protest folk ballads are as good as any that were popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Perhaps better.

This song, a two-in-one type of song that showcases both the instrumental and vocal sides of Rodriguez, is probably my favourite, and serves as a good introduction for those who aren’t familiar with his music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar. They use this little lick several times in the movie. Pure plinky sunshiney goodness.

2. The string section. It really helps the song blossom in the chorus. The ascending scale at 3:31 really reminds me of the “oh no, not me” part at 0:46 of “The Man Who Sold The World”.

3. Rodriguez himself. He’s incredibly Zen for a guy who writes protest songs, and I feel like it comes across in his voice. Unsurprisingly, his recent fame hasn’t changed him. He lives in the same Detroit apartment he’s always lived in. Money from his recent tours goes mostly to his daughters. And although he was cheated out of years of royalties, he never instigated any lawsuits. When asked on CNN if he felt hatred towards those who had gotten rich off him, he said, “hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on people you don’t like.”

Recommended listening activity:

Letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it float away.

07 Jan

Week 139: “Trouble” by Cat Stevens

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By the end of 1967, Cat Stevens was doing pretty well for himself. His first album, Matthew and Son, was doing well, and the title track had risen to #2 in the UK. He had toured with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, and was set to release a new album, optimistically entitled New Masters.

But luck has a funny way of turning around. The new album didn’t chart, and in a strange bout of desperation, he sold the rights to one of its songs to soul diva P.P. Arnold for £30. The song was “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, and it became the biggest hit of her career.

And then, before you could say, “at least you’ve still got your health”, Stevens contracted Tuberculosis. Upon his admittance to hospital, he was near death, and suffered a collapsed lung. Thankfully, he survived. But the experience changed him. His music veered away from pop and towards folk. His lyrics became more thoughtful and personal. During his months of recovery he wrote some of his best songs, including this one, a quiet anthem to survival.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The simple instrumentation in the first verse makes him seem very alone, as if he’s playing guitar to himself on the edge of his hospital bed.

2. The piano that peeks out at 1:42 is like a little ray of hope.

3. It ends abruptly, with the line, “I don’t want no fight and I haven’t got a lot of time.” It’s like he’s decided that enough is enough, it’s time to get on with his life, so he’s up and out of the hospital just like that. Which is kind of what happened. Within two years of his near-death experience, Stevens had released two platinum-selling albums, and was well on his way to becoming one of the most beloved folkies of all time.

Recommended listening activity:

Ripping off a band-aid.