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Posts Tagged ‘Rock’
29 Dec

Week 242: “Valediction” by Showroom

showroom

Bandcamp.

As the sun sets on another year, I’m reminded that I have no idea how sunsets work.

Sunsets are one of those everyday phenomena that seem so simple until you try to explain it to a small child. You tell them it’s complicated, fumble over a few science-y sounding words, and then invent something about an angel spilling spaghetti sauce on the clouds.

Well, thanks to the internet, I now have something approaching a proper explanation, in case a small child decides to tug on my shirt one evening and ask me about it.

It’s all about the atmosphere, you see. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere, it bounces off all the air molecules and other tiny particles in the air, and the light is quite scattered by the time it reaches your eye. This happens regardless of the time of day, but when the sun is close to the horizon, it’s got more particles to get through before reaching your eye. Because of the angle at which you’re viewing it, there’s more atmosphere to scatter the light. The only wavelengths that manage to get to you are the yellowy-reddish-orange types. There are other wavelengths, but the atmosphere doesn’t let them through.

So that’s the internet’s explanation. Now where was I going with this? Oh yeah.

The sun is setting on another year. As you look back on 2014, what you see will depend on the atmosphere in your brain. If you’re looking back and only seeing the failures and disappointments, the sunset will be drab and muted. But if you let the memory particles in your brain do their work, you might be treated to a richer, more colourful view.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The voice. Showroom was a Toronto-based band that was as brilliant and short-lived as a sunset. I miss them, and I’m not the only one. One of my favourite things about them was the lead singer’s powerful voice.

2. The guitar. My other favourite thing about them was the guitar. It’s tough to get a “full” sound with just one guitarist, but Showroom did it with a unique, shimmering guitar tone.

3. The title. I knew what a “valedictorian” was, but I didn’t know that “valediction” was the simple act of saying farewell. That’s the second thing the internet has taught me today.

Recommended listening activity:

Waiting for the sun to rise.

08 Sep

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

christopheroriley

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.

01 Sep

Week 225: “Outta My System” by My Morning Jacket (Washed Out remix)

My-Morning-Jacket-Outta-My-System-Remixez-y-Friendz

Amazon.
iTunes.

A mandatory part of growing up is having a mind-blowing conversation with a close friend or two, typically while lying on your back looking at the stars. This conversation is likely to include some or all of the following statements:

“What if the whole universe is just happening inside a single drop of water?”
“Ever wonder why you’re…you?”
“It’s mathematically impossible that there aren’t other life forms out there.”
“I think that God is just, like…everything. But also nothing.”
“What is money, anyway? Everybody should just be able to take what they need.”
“Imagine if that star just blew up right in front of us right now?”
“What does the universe look like from outside the universe?”

This remix, by Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) captures the innocent magic of such conversations perfectly. Try to remember where you were when you had your own youthful philosophical sessions, and imagine yourself there while you listen to this song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The crickets.

2. The vocal samples, filled with deep thoughts that just make you want to let your mouth fall open slightly and say, “whoa.”

3. Rather than re-state the whole song, Washed Out focuses on the first lyrical line, and loops it. I like it when remixes do that; it’s like taking a painting you already like, and magnifying one corner to really notice the details.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining who you would be if your parents had never met.

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.

31 Mar

Week 203: “Something In The Way” by Nirvana

nirvana_nevermind


Amazon.
iTunes.

I don’t really remember much about Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

At the time, I was more into Guns N Roses than Nirvana. I liked that Nirvana’s music was loud, but there weren’t enough face-melting guitar solos for my liking.

So when Cobain died (20 years ago this week) it didn’t affect me as immediately as it affected other music fans. I noticed that it was all over the news. I noticed that people were using the term “voice of a generation” a lot. And of course I noticed that the kids at my school who wore a lot of black were pretty sad. But they were usually pretty sad anyway.

And then, to my surprise, in the months following his death I grew out of face-melting solos, and started to grow into heart-melting emotion instead. I started to listen to Nirvana more closely, and pretty soon I couldn’t get enough of it. I tried not to make it too obvious, because the kids who wore a lot of black were making it clear that if you didn’t like Nirvana before Kurt’s death, you had no right to like them now.

So I hid my love for Nirvana, never bought one of those shirts, never wrote lines from their songs on my binders. And I listened mostly on headphones in my room. Which is okay, I think, because that’s probably how Cobain would have listened to music himself.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It was recorded with Cobain slouched on a sofa in the recording studio, and you can almost hear it. Never before has a singer’s posture come through so clearly.

2. Dave Grohl, usually such a beast, is so controlled on the drums.

3. The cello, sighing and moaning in the background.

Recommended listening activity:

Falling asleep on the couch.

30 Dec

Week 190: “Inside Our Glasshouse” by The Art of Amputation

amputation


Soundcloud.

This special New Year’s post is co-written by…you. Just fill in the blanks.

All in all, 2013 was a pretty __________ year. So much happened, and I can’t believe it’s almost over.

Relationship wise, this year was __________ for me. Job wise, I’d say this year was one of the most __________ I’ve ever had. Oh, and remember that party at __________? Man, that was fun.

I hope that I’m finally able to __________ in 2014. I know I say that all the time, but I really mean it. I want to travel to __________, and maybe go back to __________, because the last time I was there, I never got to see everything I wanted to see.

I want to spend more time with __________ this year. And I should finally get in touch with __________. I’m going to let the special people in my life know that they’re special. Especially people like __________, who don’t get the credit they deserve.

I’m going to be a more __________ person in 2014. I’m going to __________ a bit less, and __________ a bit more.

And this time next year, no matter how many of these things I follow through on, I won’t feel guilty if I didn’t make it to all of them. I’ll just try again.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The arena-sized drums that open the track.

2. The mile-high backup vocals at 1.55.

3. The parade-into-the-sunset fadeout at the end. The perfect soundtrack for the end of a __________ year.

Recommended listening activity:

Crossing the finish line with your arms raised.

09 Dec

Week 187: “Calico Skies” by Paul McCartney

paul

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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23 Sep

Week 176: “Illuminine” by Thurston Moore

OLE-953-Thurston-Moore-Demolished-Thoughts

Amazon.
iTunes.

Wandering aimlessly through an art gallery is awesome. Not because it makes you feel cultured or superior, but because you never know what’s around the next corner.

It’s especially true in galleries that feature modern art. One moment you’re walking past a huge sculpture of a chicken, and then you turn the corner and come face to face with a portrait of Winston Churchill made of old soup labels. And sure, lots of it might appear pointless or stupid, but just walk in a different direction and you’re on to something else. And the best part is that you never know when you’ll be completely captivated by something.

This happened to me a few months ago, when I saw a film installation called “Street” by James Nares. It’s an hour of super-slow-motion street scenes. Nothing spectacular; just people going about their daily business. But of course it is spectacular, because it’s like looking at a panoramic photo so huge that it can’t fit on a single screen. Or like reading tiny pieces of text from a hundred different stories at once. Every shot is unpredictable, like turning another corner in an art gallery, which I think is part of the artist’s point: everyday life, although apparently mundane, contains within it a lot of wonderful moments.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought much about the installation until a reader suggested that I take a listen to “Illuminine” by ex-Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, whose music is featured in Nares’ film.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. As in the “Street” instillation, he’s using a 12-string guitar, which always has a way of making things sound dreamier.

2. Moore’s voice has a bit of a sing-speak quality to it, like Leonard Cohen’s.

3. The strings add a nice new dimension. There’s even a brief splash of harp at 1:54.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a busy pedestrian area at rush hour and pretending it’s a parade.

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02 Sep

Week 173: “Rainbo Conversation” by Stereolab

stereolab

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iTunes.

At a fair a couple weeks ago, I saw a display of “hypnotism”, in which a sleazy-looking guy in an Ed Hardy t-shirt made people spontaneously fall asleep thanks to the power of his suggestions, or perhaps the boring nature of his performance. I only watched for a few moments, before the lure of the zipper became too hard to deny, but it got me thinking about hypnotism. And that got me scanning Wikipedia entries for various people throughout history who have practiced it in one form or another.

My scanning was abruptly stopped when I came across the entry for the 18th-century German physician Franz Mesmer, who, according to Wikipedia, was “known for: animal magnetism”. I figured I could learn a thing or two from someone known for his animal magnetism, so I decided to read on.

Mesmer believed that an unseen force existed in all things, living and inanimate. He called it “animal magnetism”, and the uninterrupted flow of this force through the body, he thought, was key to good health. So patients suffering from, say, migraines, would come to Mesmer to have their energy flow put right. This usually involved lots of concentrating and hand-holding, and sometimes (unsurprisingly) magnets.

Pretty kooky, but the thing is…it often worked. He treated people individually, and sometimes in groups, and got some results, too. Famously, he cured the blindness of celebrity musician Maria Theresia von Paradis. Well, partially cured it. And when he stopped treating her, her blindness returned in full.

He died without official recognition from the scientific community. But following his death, many others have built upon his research, not because they believe in a Star Wars-ish force that connects us all and can be channeled to cure headaches…but because his results might be a testament to the power of suggestion, mind over matter, or whatever you’d like to call it when a brain convinces itself that a cure is happening.

I have no real way to segue from this to Stereolab, other than that I find this song to be mesmerizing, and yes, that word is named after my new favourite eighteenth-century researcher into animal magnetism.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s hard not to love a good triangle.

2. It’s hard not to be wonderfully surprised by the sudden harmony blast at 3:48.

3. It’s hard not to get hypnotized by 5/4 time.

Recommended listening activity:

Staring at a rotating lawn sprinkler until it starts to spin the wrong way.

29 Jul

Week 168: “Blank” by Failure

failure

Amazon.
iTunes.

Failure was a rock band from California that rose to almost-fame in the 1990s. I was a young lad rising to almost-adulthood in the 1990s, subconsciously desperate for music that had more to offer than giant guitars and wanky solos. Failure reached my ears at the perfect time, bridging the gap between my Nirvana years and my Radiohead years.

Beginning in 1990, Failure was made up of two close friends, Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards. They worked hard, played show after show, and gradually started making some headway. By 1997 they had released three progressively better albums, toured in support of some major acts, and were playing Lollapalooza. They even got some radio play with “Stuck On You”, a strangely catchy song about…strangely catchy songs.

But then, almost out of poetic duty to their name, Failure collapsed. Watching Ken Andrews’ own documentary about his beloved band is difficult, as it clearly shows that this was a band on the way up, ultimately derailed by drug problems.

But even though addiction destroyed the band, it was probably also the fuel for their final album: the sprawling, epic, other-worldly rock landscape that is “Fantastic Planet”. I’ve heard people describe it as Radiohead’s “OK Computer” filtered through Nirvana’s “In Utero”, which is both an accurate and inadequate way of putting it.

And if you don’t have time for the album’s full 70-minute journey, this song is a good introduction.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression never resolves. I always thought this was a way more effective way of communicating angst in a song than yelling.

2. The instrumentation is different from most 90s rock. Big guitars are replaced by a lot of great noise. Strange sounds, unexpected instruments, and that wonderful, semi-enthusiastic “ba-ba-bada-da” line at 4:23.

3. The song shows signs that it’s going for the big finish, but in the end, the drums are the only thing that escalate to hugeness. Then they disappear in one final cymbal crash. I love that because 17-year-old me was disappointed that the song didn’t finish with a bang, but older and wiser recognizes that it’s okay. In fact it’s almost better, because the song serves as a nice soundtrack for the trajectory of the band that recorded it.

Recommended listening activity:

Admitting defeat and moving on.

29 Apr

Week 155: “The Police and the Private” by Metric

Live_it_Out_-_Cover

Amazon.
iTunes.

Not only is Metric one of my favourite Canadian bands, but they might be the most Canadian band in the world. Metric is everything Canadians like to think of themselves as being: multicultural, hard-working, intellectual, under-appreciated.  And of course, there’s the name. Metric.

The metric system of measurement has been used by almost every country in the world since France invented it in the early 1800s. Every country, that is, except for the United States and the United Kingdom, who have stubbornly held on to the imperial system like a child who refuses to throw out his ratty, smelly teddy bear. Officially, both countries have accepted the metric system, but in day-to-day life almost everything is imperial.

Because of Canada’s combined French/British background, and its BFF status with the United States, we have adopted a typically Canadian position on the imperial vs. metric debate. And that is, of course, firmly on the fence.

Ask a Canadian how tall they are and they will tell you in feet and inches. But look at their driver’s license and their height will be listed metrically. Ask them how far it is to their cottage and they’ll tell you in kilometres, but ask them how big their cottage is and they’ll tell you in square feet. They buy milk by the litre, but beer by the pint.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh yeah. Metric (the band) has been fully embraced in Canada, and like the metric system itself, they’ve begun to pick up some recognition all over the world. They may not have reached the level of US success that most Canadian bands covet for some reason, but maybe that’s for the best. And maybe, given their name, that’s what they wanted.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The synth. Just a hint of UK new-wave influence.

2. The accordion that pokes its head out at 1:41. Just a hint of French folk influence.

3. Emily Haines’ voice. I love its strength and its raspiness. Haines, by the way, was born just months after the metric system was officially adopted in Canada.

Recommended listening activity:

Pairing any type of food with maple syrup.

18 Mar

Week 149: “Sandrevan Lullaby/Lifestyles” by Rodriguez

Amazon.
iTunes.

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.

18 Feb

Week 145: “Red” by Treble Charger

treblecharger-maybeitsme2

Amazon.
iTunes.


This is a 1990s alt-rock anthem that doesn’t get enough credit. Which is fitting, because the band that created it, Treble Charger, was one of those bands that seemed to teeter on the edge of a breakthrough without ever breaking through.

It’s almost like they couldn’t decide what type of band they wanted to be: the sensitive indie type, or the three-chord rawk type. This split personality might have been a result of their two-vocalist situation. Bill Priddle was the introspective one with the twangy voice who would have been right at home in a band like Iron & Wine, while Greig Nori was more oriented towards pop-punk, and would end up producing for (and living vicariously through the enormous success of) Sum 41.

To my ears, everything this band did after Nori started working with Sum 41 sounds…like it’s trying to imitate Sum 41. Having said that, their earlier recordings (including the first recorded version of “Red”) sound under-produced and sloppy. 1997’s “Maybe It’s Me” hits the sweet spot, as the band’s two principal songwriters trade tracks, each one perfecting their own style.

Ultimately though, Treble Charger may have proved too indie for commercial tastes, and too commercial for indie tastes. But at least they left behind a great album in “Maybe It’s Me”, and a great song in “Red”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. No song features a better description of a colour than “cigarette white”. Try finding that shade in your local paint store.

2. The good ol’ patented 1990s quiet-loud-quiet formula. Each quiet verse gives you just enough time to bust out your lighter before barreling back into the slow-mosh chorus.

3. The repeated mini-guitar solo at the end of each chorus. Catchier than the vocals.

Recommended listening activity:

Briefly considering growing out your hair.

17 Dec

Week 136: “Let It Be” by The Beatles

Amazon.
iTunes.

I’m sure all the Beatles fans out there would agree that it’s about time I added a track by the Fab Four to this list. I’m equally sure that there would be some disagreement about which of their songs I should choose.

Let It Be was the Beatles’ last album. Or second last. It was recorded before Abbey Road, but released afterwards, and the debate among fans as to which is THE LAST ALBUM is enough to make you want to tell them all to take the Beatles’ advice and just let it be.

Given the deteriorating relationships between the band members during recording, the arguments, the pouting, and George Harrison’s I-quit-wait-no-I-don’t state of mind during the sessions, I think that Let It Be deserves to be recognized as the Beatles’ official final album. The title track especially acts as a great epilogue to the band’s career.

It’s a beautiful song about endings. The perfect song for grieving something that has come to an end, but being relieved about it at the same time.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. A hint of tension. At 1:07, you can hear an annoyed whisper saying what sounds like, “Stop it, John.” Is this someone chastising Lennon for doing something silly in the studio? Over the years, John’s humour was an asset to the group, but in the strained recording sessions for this album, we might assume that his joking around was about as welcome as Yoko.

2. An uncorrected mistake. The piano part is gorgeous, and the choir that accompanies it is heavenly. But it’s not perfect. At 2:59 you can hear Paul flub the chord, and I love that they didn’t overdub a correction.

3. A nice, but restrained, build-up. The final chorus swells a bit, but there’s no extended, Hey-Judian ending. No Day-In-The-Life style eternal chord. It’s just done.

Recommended listening activity:

Going to your favourite restaurant, but ordering something you’ve never tried.

24 Sep

Week 124: “Only In Dreams” by Weezer

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iTunes.

There are a lot of Weezer fans who hate Weezer.

Recent research (ie. an afternoon of me Googling “Weezer”) suggests that a significant percentage of people who classify themselves as fans of the band don’t actually like anything they’ve produced in the last ten years.  From what I’ve read on forums and fan sites, the basic trajectory for the average Weezer fan seems to go like this:

Nerdy white male, awkward in middle school. Life was changed by Weezer’s first album. Bought guitar with sole purpose of learning riff from “Say It Ain’t So”. Bought thick-rimmed glasses and new sweater.

Second album released. Didn’t like it on first listen, but soon realized it was a masterpiece. Briefly dated Japanese girl. Listened to “Across the Sea” incessantly after break-up with said Japanese girl.  Eventually got over it.

Went to college. Lost thick-rimmed glasses. Gave sweater to Salvation Army. Waited years for third album. When it finally came, didn’t like it at first. Gave it a chance, based on delayed appreciation experience with previous album. Still didn’t like it.

Kept buying Weezer releases until 2005. Gave up on band. Still thinks first two albums are genius. Occasionally sings “El Scorcho” at karaoke.

Of course, there are “unconditional” fans who love all Weezer’s music, but the wealth of fan-created websites bemoaning the band’s downfall is pretty overwhelming.  You can read about all the different times the band has jumped the shark, peruse the ten meanest things Pitchfork has said about Weezer, or even contemplate the simple question, what the hell happened to Weezer? At one point, there was even a tongue-in-cheek fundraising campaign with the goal of paying the band to break up.

Whether or not you read any of the above, and regardless of your feelings about the band, I’d like to invite you to listen to my favourite Weezer song, “Only In Dreams”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s unlike anything else Weezer ever did. This is an 8-minute song from a band that rarely strays past three and a half.

2. It’s got nerdy lyrics. Any band can write a song pining for a girl. Only Weezer would describe her as being “in the air…in between molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide”.

3. It’s got an incredible ending. Two guitars play off each other starting at about 5:40 and bring the song to its soaring, spine-tingling climax.

Recommended listening activity:

Setting up a drum kit in your garage.

03 Sep

Week 121: “We’re Going To Be Friends” by The White Stripes

Amazon.
iTunes.

The playground at my elementary school was enormous. Two horseshoe-shaped hills, connected by bridges, encircled massive play structures, one of which was four stories high. There was a giant pyramid made of tires. There were tire swings on chains that were perfect for vomit-inducing orbits. There was a huge orange slide that was lightning fast.

Years after I had graduated, home for the summer and exploring childhood haunts, I discovered that the playground was gone. In its place were some trees, some sad-looking safety swings, and a dog looking for somewhere to pee. There were no children anywhere. I was horrified by the scene, and my mind went through all the standard “things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be” complaints usually reserved for old men sitting on porches with their pants hiked way up.

But just recently I went back a second time and tried to be as objective as possible when comparing the new playground to my memories. On this visit, the new playground was full of kids, playing and laughing and having as much fun as I’d ever had on the same spot. They hid behind the trees, played tag on the grass, and had even figured out a way to get the safety swings to induce vomiting.

Was my childhood playground really that good? I’m not sure it was four stories after all…it may have only been three. The tire pyramid had a permanent smell of urine to it that I might have been blocking from my memory. And sure, the orange slide was lightning fast, but only until your skin touched it, at which point you came to an instant, squeaky, and painful stop.

I’ve decided to stop complaining about how things aren’t the way they used to be. They never are. Deal with it. And I’m sure that one day the playground will be changed again, at which point the kids I saw on my return visit will be grown up and lamenting the loss of the incredible forest of wonders that they grew up with.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The tapping foot. Perfectly paced for walking.

2. The imperfect guitar playing. He mis-plucks the strings, and he speeds up. But not being a great guitarist is part of what makes Jack White a great guitarist.

3. The way the last line of each verse is repeated. It makes the statement “I can tell that we are going to be friends” sound less sure of itself, as if repeating it will make it happen.

Recommended listening activity:

Sharpening pencils.

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09 Jul

Week 113: “Sit Still” by Christopher Stopa


Soundcloud.
iTunes.

The first few months of 2012 were pretty strange for Christopher Stopa.

A baker with a passion for music, Stopa had been in a band which, a decade earlier, had played some shows, released some songs, and enjoyed what was at the time a burgeoning music scene in Toronto. Years passed, and the recordings from those early days sat collecting dust.

You can imagine his surprise when he read a story on the internet about a “lost Radiohead recording”, and clicked the link, only to hear one of his own songs played back to him. Somehow, one of those early demos had been leaked, with the completely fabricated backstory that Radiohead had some previously unreleased material from the mid-90s that had only just been uncovered.

The truth came out, CNN got in touch, and Stopa’s saga became one of the stranger overnight success stories in independent music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The brushes on the drums. I love it when drummers play with brushes. It sounds like someone shuffling around in their slippers.

2. Stopa’s voice. It’s no wonder he was mistaken for Thom Yorke; the falsetto in the first chorus, and his delicate, slightly mumbled delivery is worthy of the comparison.

3. He lets it rip in the final chorus. Listen to it two or three times and the temptation to raise a triumphant rock n’ roll hand at 2:49 will become difficult to resist.

Recommended listening activity:

Making a new tea towel out of an old t-shirt.

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23 Apr

Week 102: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel

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iTunes.

I’m not the type to complain about the state of popular music, or claim that “the music died” a long time ago. However, considering the type of acts that dominate the radio these days, it’s difficult to imagine a band like Simon & Garfunkel topping the charts today the way they did in the latter half of the 1960s.

And yet, they were huge. Political and poetic with tight harmonies and soaring falsettos, Simon & Garfunkel reeled off a string of hit albums that vaulted them to superstardom. Eventually, the pressure of their fame started to eat away at their relationship, and during the recording of this song (and the album of the same name) tension and disagreements were pushing the two apart. By the time this track finished its six-week stay at #1, Simon & Garfunkel had already split.

Knowing that their relationship was under strain and that their partnership was about to end only makes this song more poignant. But despite that knowledge, I can’t help but love this song as an anthem to friendship.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Garfunkel’s voice. Apparently, he didn’t want to sing it, and thought Paul Simon’s voice was better suited. During a reunion tour in 2003, they split the difference by alternating verses, and singing together on the final verse.

2. The big echoing snare drum that begins to creep into the background just after 3 minutes. It’s the first hint of what’s coming…

3. …the huge ending. Truly epic. Any song that ends by getting louder and slower is likely to make you want to raise your fists in triumph and look to the heavens; the high strings at the end of this one might make you throw tears of joy into the mix.

Recommended listening activity:

Giving someone half your cookie.

09 Apr

Week 100: “The Badger” by The Tea Party

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iTunes.

The Tea Party is a Canadian band that gained a healthy following in Canada in the 1990s. They were a bit of a curiosity: in the midst of a decade where simple, three-chord grunge was the secret to mainstream success, The Tea Party was experimenting with strange instruments, odd time signatures, and a sound that brought to mind the phrase, “Zeppelin Goes To India”.

They earned a spot in my cassette collection (yes, cassette collection) with big tunes like “The Bazaar” and “Fire In The Head”, but the song that I’m most compelled to give another listen to 17 years later is this little instrumental beauty.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The title. It’s about time that the under-appreciated badger got a song named after it. I’m not sure which attributes of this animal we’re supposed to be hearing in the song, but I like to imagine the badger waking up with a stretch, brewing himself a cup of coffee, and getting ready for a busy day of whatever it is that badgers do.

2. The Hurdy Gurdy. Aside from having the coolest name in instrument history, it’s one of the wackier looking instruments you will ever see. Part violin, part old-timey movie camera. Listen for it at the beginning; it’s the one that sounds a bit like a mellowed-out set of bagpipes.

3. The guitar. Jeff Martin was (is) a very talented musician. I saw The Tea Party live once, and he seemed to switch instruments every minute or so, and played each one masterfully. But his home is the acoustic guitar, and in this song he makes it do lovely things.

Recommended listening activity:

Digging through your closet to find summer clothes you forgot you owned.

P.S. For those of you who, like me, find significance in multiples of 10, this week marks BSOTW’s 100th post. Yay!

30 Jan

Week 90: “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac

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iTunes.

My first encounter with this song was the version recorded by Smashing Pumpkins in 1994. At the time, my hair was slightly too long and my regard for Billy Corgan’s poetry was slightly too high. I remember hearing this delicate song, a b-side on the Pumpkins’ “Disarm” single, and thinking, “wow, I didn’t know Corgan had this in him”.

As it turns out, he didn’t. I soon discovered that it was not his song at all, but a cover of a classic tune by Fleetwood Mac.

But it’s no surprise that the lyrics appealed to Corgan’s angsty generation-X sensibilities. Stevie Nicks wrote it at a pretty turbulent time in her life: her band, Buckingham Nicks (a two-person forerunner to Fleetwood Mac, with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham) was floundering, had been dumped by its record label, and the two weren’t getting along. Nicks was visiting a friend in Colorado, considering the crossroads at which she found herself, wondering whether she should go back to school, or continue in the music industry. As she looked out over the Rockies, she visualized her life as a landslide of events crashing down all around her…and the lyrics to this song were the end result of that visualization.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The guitar is picked so delicately. It almost sounds like little drops of rain are hitting the strings, especially right at the opening.

2. Stevie Nicks’ voice. Although it’s got some of the same delicate sound as the guitar, it has a nice solidity to it. Just a bit deeper than most women’s voices, with a nice edge of sadness in this song.

3. It manages to be reflective without being indulgent. I still like the Smashing Pumpkins, but Billy Corgan never quite got to this level with his lyrics. Nicks’ lyrics pose the type of simple questions that everyone has asked themselves in difficult times.

Recommended listening activity:

Reading poems you wrote in high school.