Posts Tagged ‘Rock’
08 Sep

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


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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)


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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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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


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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


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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


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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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23 Sep

Week 176: “Illuminine” by Thurston Moore


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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


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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


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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


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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.