Archive

Posts Tagged ‘pop’
20 Oct

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

honeyants

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

michael-kiwanuka-album

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

Tags: , , ,
25 Aug

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

boswellsisters

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

Tags: , ,
28 Apr

Week 207: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams

Pharrell_Williams_-_Happy

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

janelle-monae-the-electric-lady-official-cover-thumb-473xauto-11841

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Amazon.
iTunes.

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.

Tags: , ,
15 Jul

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

patricia

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

20 May

Week 158: “Manhattan” by Rodgers & Hart (as performed by Ella Fitzgerald)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Amazon.
iTunes.

The term “staycation” may not have surfaced until 2003, but the dynamic songwriting duo of Rodgers & Hart captured the idea perfectly with this 1925 gem.

The song tells of the exploits of a young couple who decide against vacationing in a faraway place, but instead “save their fares” and explore their own backyard. They indulge in New York’s simpler (aka cheaper) delights – Mott Street! Delancey! Baloney on Coney Island! – and turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.

Staycations are highly recommended. No passport, no lineups, baggage optional. Admittedly, if you’re seeking adventure in your own backyard, those who live in Manhattan are at a clear advantage over most of us. But I love the song’s message; some of life’s best adventures are free, and right around the corner.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Lorenz Hart’s clever lyrics. My favourites are in the first and last lines. In the first line he rhymes “Niagara” with the first half of the word “aggravate”, and in the last line he gives himself the chance to throw in a New York accent by rhyming “spoil” with “goyl”.

2. While the tempo of other versions are more foxtrot-friendly, this one is ideal strolling speed.

3. The voice and strings are very far forward in the mix, but the drummer is back there somewhere, about 50 feet in the background, waiting for the session to be over so he can go chill in his hammock.

Recommended listening activity:

Pretending your bike is a train, and embarking on a glamorous trip across the continent.

12 Nov

Week 131: “Settle Down” by Kimbra

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Amazon.
iTunes.

Southern Hemisphere Month here at BSOTW continues with New Zealand’s eccentric Kimbra. You may remember her from her contribution to this song, but there’s much more to this fascinating pop songstress than body paint and partial nudity.

In fact, she reminds me of Janelle Monae in a lot of ways: she’s pop enough to be catchy, but different enough to be interesting. Her videos often have a 1920s esthetic, and her musical maturity is incredible, given that she’s barely in her twenties.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. She uses her voice in wonderful ways. At various points in the song, her voice does the job of percussion, bass, strings, and a horn section.

2. She proves that pop doesn’t have to be fluff. While other singers her age contemplate what words rhyme with “baby”, Kimbra deals poetically with relationships, domesticity, and the gap between childhood fantasy and adult reality.

3. She gave it a video that’s as interesting as the song. It’s got creepy dolls, imagery straight out of Mad Men, and kids who can do the Charleston. What more could you want?

Recommended listening activity:

Predicting your future by playing MASH.