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Posts Tagged ‘pop’
08 Dec

Week 239: “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso

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Most songs about dancing fall into one of two categories:

  • Instructional. These are songs whose sole purpose is to tell you how to do a certain dance. The hokey-pokey is probably the grandfather of instructional dance songs, but many have followed. These songs are great for people who lack confidence on the dance floor, but as songs they often fail miserably. The occasional instructional dance song can be a classic, but generally they range from mildly annoying to genuinely obnoxious to gouge-your-eyes-out awful.
  • Motivational. These are the tunes whose only goal is get you moving. No particular dance style is specified, although participants are usually urged to throw their hands up in the air, and wave them like they just don’t care. These songs are great if you just want to burn off some energy to a solid party jam. They’re plenty of fun, if a little bit mindless.

As you can tell by the lyrics and the video, “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso is a song about dancing, but it doesn’t fall into either of the above categories. It’s more introspective than instructional; more emotional than motivational. I like to think of it as a song that sees dancing as relationships in miniature. The excitement of scanning the crowd for the next partner, the electricity of initial contact, the boredom of familiarity…even despair at the possibility of not finding the right person. “The sentiment’s the same, but the pair of feet change.”

Now don’t get me wrong here. I love a good mindless dance song as much as anyone. But I’m glad that Sylvan Esso made a song as exciting to the brain as it is to the feet.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. In the opening twenty seconds, it’s hard to tell where the downbeat is.

2. At 1:17, there’s a tiny woodpecker in your speakers.

3. The words “my baby does the hanky-panky” have never sounded as mournful and meaningful as they do at 3:03.

Recommended listening activity:

Arranging your spice rack so that the labels face each other.

27 Oct

Week 233: “Only Growing Old” by Kate Davis

kate davis

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Soundcloud.

I grew about ten inches between my 12th and 15th birthdays. Not exactly a freakish amount of growth, but enough to guarantee that adults were constantly saying things like, “hey, did you grow again?” or “I remember when you were only this tall,” or “quit growing, would ya!”

These comments were often accompanied by a hearty laugh and the kind of man-to-man shoulder-punch preferred by hockey coaches and uncles who have had too much to drink.

I knew that these people meant well, but I never really knew how to respond to such remarks. Was I supposed to thank them for noticing? Apologize for growing? I was so gangly and awkward already that it seemed unfair to shine the spotlight on me for something that was so obviously out of my control anyway.

Years later, I now find myself on the other side of these conversations. With no warning, it starts happening; the toddlers in your life are tiny one day, and towering over you the next. It’s shocking, and it reminds you just how quickly time passes. When I see a kid who surprises me with their rapid growth, I am so genuinely surprised that I find myself tempted to laugh heartily and throw a quick, jocular shoulder punch.

But I don’t. I bite my lip. I complement them on their shirt. I ask what they’re up to these days. I remind myself that as much as I might want to defend myself against the passing of time, teasing some poor kid who’s at the mercy of a growth spurt isn’t the right approach.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Kate Davis is a fantastic songwriter. This song takes the topic of aging and somehow manages to treat it with optimism, pessimism, and indifference all at once.

2. Her voice is as comfortable being delicate as it is being big.

3. There’s a children’s choir that hangs out in the background for most of the song, and then joins her for the last lines.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting rid of anything in your bathroom that has “anti-aging” written on the packaging.

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20 Oct

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

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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

michael-kiwanuka-album

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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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25 Aug

Week 224: “Gee But I’d Like To Make You Happy” by The Boswell Sisters

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Amazon.
iTunes.

Being a professional entertainer is probably tough in any era, but can you imagine trying to carve out an existence as an entertainer in the 1930s? The world is in the grip of the worst economic depression of all time, and your job is to put on a great big smile and try to bring some joy to an audience who can barely afford the price of admission.

To my ears, American music of the 1930s is pretty similar to the music of the much-more-prosperous 1920s. If anything, it’s even happier. More euphorically upbeat, as if the country’s soaring unemployment rate and bread lines weren’t happening. Not sure if it’s denial or optimism, but I like it.

The Boswell Sisters are a wonderful example of the between-the-wars sound in America, and this song in particular never fails to make me smile. Sure, the lyrics are silly, but there’s just something so gosh-darned wholesome about it all. How could anyone resist a song with the word “gee” in the title?

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way they imitate a horn section at the opening.

2. The way they throw in triplets at 2:08.

3. The harmonies are delicious. What is it about three-sister musical acts?

Recommended listening activity:

Looking dapper.

18 Aug

Week 223: “Blue Nightingale” by Madeline Tasquin

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Bandcamp.

For a bird that weighs about as much as a handful of paperclips, the nightingale has had a pretty profound impact on the arts world. Thanks to its much-admired birdsong, the nightingale has inspired many great minds. Some highlights of the nightingale’s impressive CV:

  • Poems by Milton, Coleridge and Keats
  • An opera by Stravinsky
  • A symphony by Beethoven
  • A mention in a key love scene in “Romeo & Juliet”
  • An appearance on the Croatian 1 kuna coin
  • A story by Hans Christian Anderson
  • A starring role in a classic British WWII song.

Madeline Tasquin has a talent for fairy tale pop that reminds me of Sarah Slean, and with this song she provides the nightingale with a lovely 21st-century addition to its portfolio.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way she repeats the words “it doesn’t feel so easy” as the chords behind her shift from major to minor.

2. The way it goes Parisian at 2:30. You can almost see Amelie heading out to buy her morning baguette during the accordion solo.

3. The way it ends with a quiet echoing wail in the background. I’m not sure what instrument it is, but it sounds like either a Theremin or an ambulance.

Recommended listening activity:

Birdwatching.

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28 Apr

Week 207: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams

Pharrell_Williams_-_Happy

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Amazon.
iTunes.

Since last summer, this song has been everywhere. Movies. Commercials. The grocery store. I’m pretty sure I even heard it in a funeral home once.

And yet, I’m still not sick of it. Somehow, it’s still able to deliver on its promise of genuine, uncomplicated happiness.

I think Pharrell has managed to strike the delicate balance between all the ingredients of a song about happiness. For the visual types out there, I will try to explain what I mean with the following homemade (and hastily made) Venn diagram:

Through scientific research, I found that Pharrell Williams has balanced all the ingredients of a good happy song. I also found that drawing circles is harder than I thought.

Through scientific research, I found that Pharrell Williams has balanced all the ingredients of a good happy song. I also found that drawing circles is harder than I thought.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Everything’s understated. The drums aren’t huge. Pharrell never belts out the vocals. And the bass and keyboards are just poking their heads in, like someone who’s tip-toeing in late for a meeting.

2. The backup vocals. Especially when they start to cascade at 1:50.

3. The 24-hour video. A great concept, nicely executed, and not obsessed with its own coolness.

Recommended listening activity:

Whatever makes you happy.

03 Feb

Week 195: “You Go To My Head” by Billie Holiday

lady day

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Amazon.
iTunes.

Billie Holiday’s 1952 recording of this song is the one that’s usually included on her “best-of” compilations, but this recording, made in 1938 when Holiday was just 22, is the version I like best.

The later version is great, but in a very different way. Listening to the two versions side by side, you get a sense of what 14 years’ worth of hard living can do to a singer’s voice. Not that her voice sounds bad in the 1952 recording – it’s full of the colour and character and soul that Holiday was always known for. But it does sound weighed down. Troubled, maybe.

Nobody could have guessed it at the time, but when Holiday made this recording in 1938, she was already halfway through her life. Plenty of people have wondered where her career might have led if she had lived a bit longer, and maybe that’s why I like the earlier recording. It sounds like it’s full of possibility and promise.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Holiday’s unmistakable voice. Not just its tonal quality, but the way she enunciates. At 1.19, the word “temperature” comes out as if she’s not just singing it, but stirring it with an olive-tipped toothpick.

2. The lyrics, by Coots & Gillespie, do a nice job of comparing the effects of love with the effects of drink. Not exactly deep, but fun and clever. (Side note: Coots & Gillespie are the same songwriting team that gave us “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”.)

3. The more I read about Holiday’s difficult life, the more I hear this not as a love song, but as a tragic biography of the singer herself, blessed with incredible talent, but haunted by her past and cursed by a relationship with alcohol that would eventually kill her. I’m certain that this heart of mine/Hasn’t a ghost of a chance/In this crazy romance.

Recommended listening activity:

Drinking water out of a wine glass.

25 Nov

Week 185: “Look Into My Eyes” by Janelle Monae

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In an era when so many artists rely on shock value to turn heads, it’s almost more shocking when someone like Janelle Monae comes along and turns heads without relying on hypersexuality.

If you’re unfamiliar with this genre-defying, era-blending, snazzy-dressing, alter-ego-having, vocally gifted, business-savvy genius…well then, I’m happy to introduce you.

She’s an artist who seems to exist in the past and the future all at once. Her ability to create immediately catchy pop gems makes her perfect for the mp3 age. Meanwhile, her ability to create high-concept albums connected by a continuous story arc places her more in the context of The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie.

On this particular song, she builds a wonderful loungy atmosphere worthy of a James Bond theme song from the late 60s.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression keeps you guessing. It’s not crazy enough to alienate your ears, but different enough to be interesting.

2. The triangle. It doesn’t show up too often, just every few bars to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust.

3. I love the way the backup vocals echo her on lines like “love is fantasy” at 1:00. My dream in life is to have a group of backup singers follow me around all day to emphasize important things I say.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting fitted for a tuxedo.

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15 Jul

Week 166: “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields (as covered by Patricia O’Callaghan)

patricia

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Amazon.
iTunes.

The best-known version of this song is probably Peter Gabriel’s version, which was made so popular by its inclusion on the show “Scrubs” that many people assume it was Gabriel who wrote it. In fact, it’s from The Magnetic Fields’ sprawling, ridiculous, and possibly genius triple album “69 Love Songs”.

Not to be grumpy, but I don’t really like either version. I find Peter Gabriel’s take a bit cheesy, an overdone reaction to the deadpan tone of the original.

Thank goodness for Canadian opera/jazz singer Patricia O’Callaghan. For me, her version hits the “Goldilocks point” between the too-sweet and too-sour flavours of the other two. Simple, playful, and just sweet enough, it’s everything a relationship should be.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Clever and honest. Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merrit originally conceived “69 Love Songs” as a musical revue, a tongue-in-cheek look at the love song itself. So if “the book” he’s talking about is meant to symbolize every love song, romantic comedy, and grocery-store paperback that modern society has produced, then I agree; some of it is just really dumb.

2. The double bass. It’s a great companion to O’Callaghan’s voice, and the way the two of them interact makes me imagine a carefree couple strolling hand-in-hand.

3. The melody. The prettiest are (fittingly for a love song) the held notes on “I” and “you”.

Recommended listening activity:

Doing something ordinary with someone who is extraordinary.