Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Folk’
20 Oct

Week 232: “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon (as covered by The Honey Ants)

honeyants

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Soundcloud.

Because Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a staple of my family’s long road trips, I have heard the original “You Can Call Me Al” many, many times. And, with all due respect to the undisputed songwriting prowess of Paul Simon, this version is better.

Actually, let me rephrase that: this version brings out everything that was good about the song already. The original “You Can Call Me Al” has the quirky and introspective lyrics that are a trademark of Paul Simon’s career. The problem was that it was released in 1986, and so it is stamped with everything that was silly about music in the 80s. Dated synthesizers. Bland-sounding horns. Echoing drum kits. Chevy Chase. Quirky and introspective comes off as campy and fluffy.

Pretty much the only thing it had going for it was the world’s greatest 5-second bass solo.

Okay, I’m being too hard on it. It’s a classic tune from one of the 80s’ best albums. But you’ve got to hand it to The Honey Ants; this is a lovely version of Simon’s song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The synths are replaced by a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. And even better, they don’t try to imitate the famous synth line from the original.

2. Without all the extra instrumentation, the lyrics have more room to breathe. To be honest, I never realized that the lyrics included the word “bonedigger” until I heard this version.

3. The harmonies, not present in the original, are reminiscent of the Simon & Garfunkel days.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-kindling a connection with a childhood friend.

13 Oct

Week 231: “Home Again” by Michael Kiwanuka

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Official site.
iTunes.

One of the weirdest things about growing up is that at some point, in conversations about visiting home, you stop calling the place you’re visiting “my house.” Suddenly, it’s “my parents’ house”.

Suddenly, you realize how dated the décor in their house is. You notice that the way they organize the kitchen doesn’t make sense. And how is it possible that they still don’t have a flat-screen TV?

Like most growing-up-type things, this change happens imperceptibly, and it’s only really obvious after it’s happened. But you can’t let it get to you. After all, one day someone else (who may or may not be born yet) will feel the same way about your house.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The only percussion in the first verse is the tapping of his foot.

2. The shaker that comes in at 1:09 sounds like a tiny train.

3. Something about Michael Kiwanuka’s voice gives you the impression that he’s not singing “to” anyone; he would sing the same way whether he was in a sold-out stadium or the basement of his parents’ house.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-discovering your childhood house’s best hide-and-seek spots.

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08 Sep

Week 226: “Waltz #1” by Elliott Smith (as covered by Christopher O’Riley)

christopheroriley

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Amazon.
iTunes.

I’m usually a bit wary of tribute albums. Tribute albums are the musical equivalent of mandatory staff meetings at work: there are too many of them, and they rarely offer any new information.

My wariness level is even higher if the tribute album in question is paying homage to a recently-dead artist. It’s very tempting to write it off as opportunism. Aren’t you supposed to eulogize someone in your own words? With your own songs? Do we need new versions of classics anyway?

But I don’t get those pessimistic feelings with “Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute”. Pianist Christopher O’Riley doesn’t try to do too much, or add excessive orchestration. His versions of Smith’s songs are simple piano renditions, subtly different but still recognizable. I probably wouldn’t listen to the album all day, but his version of Waltz #1 is perfect.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. O’Riley layers the piano parts in the same way that Smith used to layer his vocals.

2. The notes repeatedly glide up the scale in a way that reminds me of (don’t ask me why) empty ski lifts going up a hill.

3. The chord changes at 2:36 are unexpected and wonderful.

Recommended listening activity:

Framing your favourite photo of you and your best friend.

11 Aug

Week 222: “Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band

betabandthreeeps

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Amazon.
iTunes.

I recently read that 1999 was the worst year in the history of music.

It’s not just with the benefit of hindsight that people are saying this. Even at the time, people were proclaiming it to be a forgettable year. And I have to admit, when you look at a list of the top-selling albums of 1999, you get the feeling you’re also looking at a list of albums most commonly found in boxes on the street outside people’s  houses in 2003.

The proliferation of musical mediocrity from that year probably has to do with sheer numbers. These were the last days of an era when people were willing to pay $20 for a CD that had one good song on it. The Internet hadn’t yet become the giant musical quality-control machine that it is today, so record labels could still afford to over-charge and under-deliver. The result was the watered-down quality bemoaned in the articles linked above.

But of course, there were some great albums released in 1999. (Including the album that produced the song featured in this blog’s very first week.)

“The Three EPs” is one of my favourites.  Along with DJ Shadow’s “Entroducing”, I listened to it constantly in 1999, and it’s the perfect end-of-century album. Recorded in 1997 and 1998, and finally released in the US in 1999, this album pulls together influences from previous decades in a way that makes it seem to float above other music of the time. It’s definitely…90s-ish, but it’s connected to that sound by a very thin thread, and it has aged much better than, say, Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The combination of samples and live instruments on this album that nobody (except maybe Beck) has ever done so seamlessly.

2. The slide guitar makes me think of a yawning cat.

3. There’s a really nice laid-back feeling to the whole thing, from the vocals to the bass line to the not-quite-in-tune horns that bring the song to its peak.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking past an empty storefront that used to be a Blockbuster Video.

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.

26 May

Week 211: “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him

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Amazon.
iTunes.

Remember when you were a kid, and you’d been at some kind of family event that went so late you had to be carried back out to the car, in a state of semi-sleep?

More specifically, do you remember the way your mother’s voice sounded as she carried you to the car?

It didn’t sound the way it normally did. As she said goodbye to everyone and apologized for her child’s inability to stay awake, her voice sounded strange, because one of your ears was pressed against her chest. It made her voice sound kind of muffled, deeper than usual. You could literally feel her voice as soft vibrations, even if you couldn’t fully make out the words.

Listening to this song (especially through headphones) is the closest you’re likely to get to that unique and fantastically relaxing experience.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords are gorgeous. Really reminds me of this sleep-related song by Sarah Slean.

2. There isn’t really a tempo; it slows down and speeds up as it needs to.

3. The cathedral-level of reverb on the voices. Insomnia doesn’t stand a chance.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting comfy. Like this, if possible.

14 Apr

Week 205: “Au Cinema” by Lianne La Havas

Lianne-La-Havas-iylbe

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Amazon.
iTunes.

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

mutual-benefit-love-crushing-diamond

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Bandcamp.

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

Mono-82-Barzin-cover-art

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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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Amazon.
iTunes.

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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