Posts Tagged ‘samples’
26 Jan

Week 246: “This Means Something” by Hiatus



Sometimes I really wish that North America had adopted the siesta tradition.

While many Mediterranean cultures shut business down for an hour or two in the afternoon, in North America we have a tendency to equate sleeping with laziness, relaxation with procrastination. And the working world seems to have a restraining order against sleep; there’s no bigger sin as an employee than “sleeping on the job”.

Even when we do allow ourselves a bit of daytime sleep, we use clever language to make ourselves feel like we’re not being lazy; a “siesta” is far too luxurious for us, but a “power nap”…hey, that sounds like it takes some work ethic. Might even be good for the economy.

Meanwhile, there are all kinds of biological benefits to an afternoon nap. It can make you less cranky, more productive, it might even improve your memory. (Although it should be noted that a suspicious amount of pro-siesta research comes from scientists working in countries where the siesta is a tradition.)

The music of Britain’s Hiatus has all the ingredients of premium nap music: he makes brief, floating instrumentals, filled with hypnotic samples, easy-going but with just a hint of energy. In short, it’s highly recommended for the next time you need to take a hiatus from the busy-ness of life.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The piano sample, from the musical “Rent”, is a never-resolving cadence that will lull you to sleep.

2. The drum sample, from a funk track by The Meters, is a frenetic, syncopated loop that will ensure you don’t fall into a deep sleep.

3. The sampled dialogue (from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) floats into the song like those half-formed dreams that only naps can provide.

Recommended listening activity:

Scheduling a “meeting” for tomorrow after lunch.

20 Jan

Week 193: “Song 2″ by DJ Krush



Have you ever found yourself staring at a particular word over and over again, re-reading it so many times in your head that it stops making sense? It starts to look wrong. It starts to sound strange. Is it even a word?

From what I understand, this type of intense focus on something simple is part of the idea behind incorporating a chant into the process of meditation. Known as ‘mantras’, these chants can be words, short phrases, or even nonsensical syllables; it doesn’t really matter what the sound is, as long as it is repeated a specific number of times.

The most common number for repetition of a mantra seems to be 108. This number may sound random, but it has plenty of significance. Tibetan Buddhist rosaries have 108 beads. Ayurveda counts 108 pressure points on the body.  Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter. In Japan, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times to welcome the new year. 108 shows up all over the place.

Music, of course, is often associated with meditation. I find sample-based music to be particularly meditative. The word ‘mantra’ itself can be translated as ‘instrument of thought’, and to me a sample is like a musical mantra: a short phrase, plucked from its original context, repeated and repeated over a new beat.

Of all the great sample artists, few produce music as meditative as Japan’s legendary DJ Krush.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s very simple, with only three main components – the thumb piano, the flutes, and the drum beat. This makes me think of the number 108 again. Its three digits can be thought of as representing the universe; 1 representing existence, 0 representing nothingness, and 8 representing infinity.

2. From 4.09 to 4.23, the drums drop out, and the strictly-kept time of the song is suspended, leaving the flutes to soar for a few moments.

3. Just for fun, I decided to count how many bars long this song is. Counting the stop-time section noted above as one bar, the song comes in at exactly…you guessed it…108 bars.

Recommended listening activity:

Breathing deeply.

07 Oct

Week 178: “A Maze” by Freddie Joachim



Every once in a while, a song will enter your brain via your ear, set up camp, and stay there for a while. Usually, this is an annoying experience, an experience that leaves you feeling infected, as if the song is a flu that you can’t shake. The worst is when the offending piece of music is something you never liked in the first place, like “Love Shack” or “Mambo #5”.

“A Maze” by Freddie Joachim was playing on repeat inside my brain for pretty much the entire month of August, but not in an annoying way. It would start playing as I poured my morning coffee, and I’d be happy to know it was still there. I’d stir the sugar in time with its laid-back beat, open the front door and skillfully pick up the paper with my foot, do a little dance while brushing my teeth. It made my mornings feel way cooler than they normally are. Like I was the Golden Boy from those early-90s Golden Grahams commercials.

In other words, this song is the soundtrack for the beginning of a kick-ass day, and you probably won’t mind if it gets stuck in your head.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The drum sample is big without being overbearing.

2. The “B” section, which happens for the first time about 40 seconds in, is so perfect that I can’t even think of a suitable metaphor.

3. There’s lots of percussive elements; vibraphone, glockenspiel, even the organ sounds percussive. But it’s not headache-inducing. It’s pleasantly percussive, like a tap dance recital performed by teddy bears. Hmm. Maybe I should give up on descriptions for today.

Recommended listening activity:

Sliding around the kitchen in your socks.

10 Jun

Week 161: “Natural Green” by Blazo



You’ve been inside too long. Go outside.


Go take a walk.

Bring this song with you.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening laid-back jazz sample turns into a full-out groove. The musical equivalent of a long winter turning into a sudden spring.

2. After the drums come in, you can still hear the brushes of the original jazz drums in the background.

3. It’s shorter than you want it to be, begging you to put it on repeat all morning.

Recommended listening activity:

Practising the ancient art of dance-walking.

01 Apr

Week 151: “Underground Vibes” by DJ Cam



Sleeping is one of my favourite things to do.

I’m not trying to imply that I’m lazy, but nothing beats a really good sleep. Especially when it’s punctuated by a really good/bizarre/realistic dream.

One of the coolest dreams I ever had was…well, like all cool dreams, it’s almost impossible to explain. But basically, it involved commuter trains that transformed into rollercoasters whenever I wanted them to. They functioned in slow-motion, and I could control everything about them; direction, speed, even when I wanted to feel weightless. I only had the dream once, but for years I tried to fall asleep while thinking about rollercoasters, just to try to trick my brain into doing it again.

But that’s the crazy thing about your brain: even though it creates your dreams, you can’t tell it to replay one. And when it does replay one, it’s probably a dream you didn’t particularly want to experience again, like the one where you’re trying to recite tongue twisters while naked and dizzy in front of every ex you’ve ever had.

Anyway. This all comes to mind because I’ve recently been listening to DJ Cam. He was France’s main contribution to the trip-hop craze of the mid-90s, and his jazzy samples really set him apart from the sea of Portishead clones that the era gave us.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening sample. It’s eerie and inviting, the opening bars to the dreaminess that’s about to come.

2. The vibraphone. So clean and clear compared to the gritty sampled drums.

3. The quote at 3:17. A great and paradoxical quote to include in a song built out of samples. The speaker is Eric Dolphy, and although he’s talking about music, he might as well be talking about dreams.

Recommended listening activity:


04 Feb

Week 143: “A Touch of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff



1987 was a big year for hip hop.

Looking at a list of hip hop releases from that year, it becomes obvious that this was a genre struggling with the fact that it was breaking into the mainstream, but not sure whether doing so would harm its authenticity as an artform.

Rap was heading into a lot of directions all at once; Public Enemy pushed the political side, NWA was building the foundations of 90s gangsta rap, and the Beastie Boys were…well, white. A comment in the liner notes of Kool Moe Dee’s 1987 album “How Ya Like Me Now” hints at how apprehensive many experienced rappers were of hip hop’s sudden appeal: “The Beastie Boys: We rappers have worked very hard to get rap to the level it’s at. Don’t mess it up.”

One of my favourite hip hop songs of 1987 is “A Touch Of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff. When I first heard it, I hadn’t even considered the fact that you could make a hip hop song without someone rapping, and it really made me listen to the way he blended samples to make something new. It was the beginning of my love affair with sample-based music, and the soundtrack to many a solo dance session in my room.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. His choice of samples. Jeff earned his nickname by sampling outside of the standard roll of funk breaks that DJs were sampling in the 80s. The jazzy, spacey vibe he accomplishes sets him apart, and makes his songs interesting enough to stand alone as instrumentals.

2. The sample at 0:51. It comes out of nowhere and totally changes the direction of the song.

3. You can tell it’s mixed live. This is one guy with two turntables. Sometimes the cuts are just a bit off the beat, something that wouldn’t happen nowadays, as everything would be done to a click track and edited with computer software. But the fact that he’s not metronome-perfect reminds you that it’s a human manipulating various records on the fly. That’s real DJ-ing.

Recommended listening activity:

Developing a secret handshake with a friend.

19 Nov

Week 132: “Two Hearts In 3/4 Time” by The Avalanches


We’re three-quarters of the way through Southern Hemisphere Month, so it’s only fitting that we take a listen to a song in ¾, a crazy, schizophrenic blast of sample-based beauty by Melbourne’s Avalanches.

I discovered this band in 2000. I got home late from a night at the bar, dazed and sleepy, and I thought that a little MTV and a nice tall glass of water would be a nice nightcap. I sat on the couch, took a swig of water, and turned on the TV right as the video for the Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist” began to play.

If you’ve never heard that song, it’s a weird one. And the video is weirder. I spent the next four minutes staring dumbly at the screen, a trickle of water dripping from my lip, with one eyelid twitching. It was one of the weirdest videos I had ever seen, and the music had me hooked. The next morning, I bought the album.

Thankfully, not all the songs were as crazy as “Frontier Psychiatrist”. But it was (still is) a brilliant piece of work. While most of it is dancey and frenetic, it slows down just enough for this fun little number.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The constant vinyl crackle. This is an album of samples, the way DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…” was, and with all the crackle and hiss you can almost smell the stacks of forgotten records that went into making it.

2. The vocal sample. It’s from “Yu-Ma” by Marlena Shaw, and when it’s taken out of context like this, it seems almost ridiculously happy to the point of being borderline creepy. Kind of makes me want to start skipping.

3. The e-piano sample. Not sure where this came from, but it’s great. A bit aimless, like it might have been improvised.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting on a chair that’s high enough to allow you to swing your feet.

15 Oct

Week 127: “Changeling” by DJ Shadow


When the unmanned Voyager space probe was flung into space in 1977, with the hopes that it would one day be found by intelligent (and, we assume, surprised) aliens, it contained a golden record that included 90 minutes of music from around the world, carefully compiled to give a complete sampling of what music was like on planet earth.

By now, Voyager has probably left the solar system, and that golden record is still sitting patiently inside, just waiting to be discovered. It’s an incredible thing for us to have done, if you think about it…one of the most hopeful yet desperate, admirable yet futile things the human race has ever attempted.

However, if we ever decide to do it again, I’d like to suggest that we save ourselves the trouble of compiling another golden record, and just include a copy of DJ Shadow’s 1996 masterpiece, “Endtroducing…” If you have never listened to it, start to finish, you really should. It’s like boarding a time machine that malfunctions, sending you simultaneously into the past and the future.

But if you haven’t got 63 minutes to spare, then at least spend the next seven listening to “Changeling”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The 7/4 time signature. Different enough to stand out, but still head-nod friendly.

2. The sample at 1:38. It comes from this song, and it’s unexpectedly bright and cheery.

3. It starts to break down at about 4:37. The drums get clippy, then drop out altogether, giving way to ethereal guitars and atmospheric noises. It’s like the song is disintegrating, slowly coming apart and floating away. Entropy.

Recommended listening activity:

Closing your eyes and imagining that you’re slowly leaving the solar system.

23 Jul

Week 115: “Midnight Feast” by Mr. Scruff



About ten years ago, I was mindlessly sprawled in front of the television eating something unhealthy and scratching various body parts when a commercial for the 2002 Lincoln Navigator came on. I immediately sat upright. I maxed the volume. I stared dumbly at the screen while a forgotten fragment of potato chip hung precariously from my lower lip.

This reaction had nothing to do with the urge to purchase an SUV, and everything to do with the song that accompanied the ad. It was “Get A Move On” by Mr. Scruff.

Introducing me to Mr. Scruff’s music is easily the most useful thing luxury vehicles have ever done for me. He’s produced a lot of quality stuff over the years, most of it simultaneously upbeat and offbeat, with that typical British sense of humour that makes music fun. The highly danceable “Get A Move On” is followed directly on the album by this great sleepy track, and the two couldn’t be more different from an energy point of view.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion sounds like crickets cruising the strip in a convertible.

2. The piano sounds like a ballerina coming home late and stumbling into bed. (Actually, it’s a brilliant use of a sample from this song.)

3. The shifts from minor to major (at 1:10, for example) give it a particularly drowsy feel, as if the song is unsuccessfully fighting off a nap.

Recommended listening activity:

Unsuccessfully fighting off a nap.

18 Jun

Week 110: “Funk For Joy” by The Extremities


One of the best things about the mp3 age is the phenomenon of iPod serendipity. This is when your iPod, happily shuffling its way through your library, suddenly seems to sense what’s happening around you and pulls out the perfect song.

You’re calling your accountant and “Taxman” by The Beatles comes on…you’re frying up some breakfast and it plays “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MG’s…you’re emptying the garbage just as “My Heart Will Go On” starts to play…

But sometimes, iPod serendipity isn’t that specific; sometimes the song that plays just seems to match the general mood of the moment rather than the particular event. It happened to me once with “Funk For Joy” by The Extremities.

I was leaving work on the last day before a summer vacation; it was a perfect, breezy, sunny day, and as I walked past a park I saw a group of kids chasing madly after bubbles that their mother was blowing. They were going nuts, in the way that only five-year-olds can go nuts. Their happy giggles sounded like part of the song, and two of them were jumping in perfect time with the beat of the song. It was as if they were dancing to the music that only I could hear.

At that moment, I realized two things: first, it was going to be a good summer, and second, I needed to stop staring at them, because their mother was getting uncomfortable.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening piano. It kind of makes me think of a ringing church bell. Because the interval is a fifth, you can’t tell at first whether the song is going to be major or minor. But then that soothing sax comes in and the joy-funk begins.

2. The piano flourish at 0.48. It’s pure piano happiness, and it’s mirrored by an organ flourish at 1.41.

3. The out-of-nowhere bridge section at 1:48. It would have already been a great song, but then they throw in this great moment, featuring a great vocal sample from a funky little ‘70s gem called “You And The Music” by Donald Byrd. It’s moments like this that separate groups like The Extremities from less thoughtful sample artists.

Recommended listening activity:

Breakdancing with your fingers.

04 Jun

Week 108: “Teardrop” by Massive Attack


I discovered this song while on a YouTube tangent recently. It was a long and bizarre tangent that somehow ended with me watching a French magician performing a card trick on the Penn & Teller reality show “Fool Us”. The trick was cool, but I was more fascinated by the song that accompanied it.

Upon finding out whose song it was, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it before, since Massive Attack was pretty popular in the late 90s, when I was into similar bands. Somehow I’d never heard it. Once the 90s were over, the song continued to gain popularity as the opening theme to the TV show “House”, and was covered by a wide array of artists, from Brad Mehldau to Simple Minds. Oh, and these guys.

But my favourite fact about this song is that Andrew Vowles, the primary songwriter for Massive Attack, originally wanted Madonna to record the vocals. Madonna loved the track and was up for it, but the other two members of the band wanted Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Being a democratic bunch, Massive Attack turned down a willing Madonna and went with Fraser.

Right or wrong, you’ve got to admit: it takes serious guts to say no to Madonna.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. I love the combination of deep kick/rim snare. It was a staple of mid-90s trip hop, giving a simultaneously driving and chilled sound.

2. The harpsichord. If you can name another song written in the past 100 years that features the harpsichord, place your open palm on the screen and accept my high-five from across the internet.

3. The vocal melody. The opening line of each phrase is slightly unusual, throwing in an unexpected major 6th on “Love, love is a verb”.  The rest of the melody contains just enough major and minor moments to keep the song content, but slightly on edge.

Recommended listening activity:

Bobbing your head while driving way slower than the speed limit.

14 May

Week 105: “Wishery” by Pogo

Name your own price here.

Pogo, aka Nick Bertke, makes music that burrows into your ear, opens the part of your brain labeled “nostalgia”, and throws a belated birthday party for your inner child.

Much like Kutiman, Bertke is a master remixer. But rather than using YouTube for source material, he cuts and pastes from (often but not always) old Disney movies, creating songs that are at once completely original but strangely familiar. Many of the music and accompanying videos found on his website are worth your time, but this one, made of bits and pieces from Disney’s 1937 classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, is easily my favourite.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Despite being composed of split-second sound clips, it doesn’t sound choppy or disconnected.

2. It’s the only song I know of that uses a turtle biting a stair as percussion.

3. It emphasizes the simultaneous creepiness and beauty of that iconic 1930s style of singing. There’s something about the way she sings “I’m wishing…” at 2.21 that makes me a bit scared that if I look at Snow White the wrong way I might end up at the bottom of a well myself.

Recommended listening activity:

Staring into the night sky and inventing your own constellations.

16 Jan

Week 88: “My Favorite Color” by Kutiman

I’ve already rambled on about sample-based music and remix culture in previous posts, so I won’t bore you with it again, but I would like to take a moment to introduce you to Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman.

Kutiman is the 21st-century extension of the DJs who, in the early days of hip-hop, would dig through crates of old funk and soul records to find the perfect break, the perfect beat, upon which to build their music. A graduate of the jazz program at Rimon Music College in Israel, Kutiman rose to internet fame in 2009, when he spent two months sifting through hundreds of YouTube videos people had posted of themselves playing instruments, found snippets that caught his ear, and pasted them together to create a series of songs called ThruYOU. The results are as incredible to watch as they are to listen to.

He’s posted several other songs using the same method in the years since, and they’re all worth a listen, but this one, to me, stands out.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The singer. Sounds like a combination of Billie Holiday and Bajka.

2. The light drums that come in at 1:23, giving the song its groove.

3. The fact that none of the people in the video had any idea that the clip they were uploading would become part of something like this. It’s this kind of unintentional collaboration that makes the internet a beautiful thing.

Recommended listening activity:

Using clippings from old magazines to make a birthday card for someone.

05 Dec

Week 82: “How Do” by Sneaker Pimps


If you spent a significant portion of the 90s smoking things and listening to trip-hop, there’s a good chance you remember the name Sneaker Pimps. If you don’t recognize the name, or if you smoked so many things that you’ve forgotten, allow me to re-introduce you.

Formed in England just as fellow Brits Portishead were gaining popularity, Sneaker Pimps released their debut, “Becoming X”, in 1994. They made it into the clubs with the driving single “Spin Spin Sugar”, and onto radio with the eerie “6 Underground”.  (Which, as a side note, took its main samples from the music in the movie Goldfinger when the girl is discovered dead, covered in gold paint. Take a listen just after the 1-minute mark in this video.)

Having ridden the wave of British trip-hop to success, they decided to dump their mousy lead vocalist, Kelli Drayton, after touring their first album. She left, and their success left with her. Although they released two more albums without her, they never matched the success of “Becoming X”.

This song is a cover of “Willow’s Song” from the creepy 1973 film The Wicker Man. I have to say that I think I prefer this version to the original; it’s more dreamy and ethereal, and has fewer naked women banging frantically on doors. The Sneaker Pimps’ version was never released as a single, but it was always one of my favourites from that first album. It must have been one of the lead singer’s favourites as well, because she covered it once again on her own solo effort ten years later.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening sample. It’s a clip from The Wicker Man, and it’s neat that there’s so little dialogue. The listener is left instead to ponder the crickets, the cheering in the background, and the mystery of who the “sergeant” might be.

2. The percussion. Beginning with the simple “thump” on each downbeat, it builds to include some nice soft brushes at about 1:20.

3. Kelli Drayton. The vocal line in this song is perfectly suited to her tiny, almost Alvin-and-the-Chimpmunk-ish voice. And I love that she just hums the line at 2:42, as if the words aren’t even important. Or maybe she just forgot them. It was the 90s, after all.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking to the corner store to pick up a midnight snack.

24 Oct

Week 76: “Ghostwriter” by RJD2


Some songs are hard to love. They take multiple listens and an open mind before they finally begin to grow on you, getting gradually better with each listen.

This is not one of those songs.

For me, this song was an insta-love. It was 2004, and I was wasting time in the record store (remember those?) at one of those “listening posts” that were so handy in the pre-YouTube era. I was giving a first listen to the album Deadringer by RJD2, which had been highly recommended by a friend. For no good reason, I skipped to track six. Within five seconds, I was intrigued. Within thirty seconds, my head was nodding approvingly. By two minutes, I didn’t know whether to discard the headphones and run to the cashier, or continue to demonstrate my erratic dance moves to the increasingly uneasy co-shoppers who were quietly edging away from me.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s got spooky sampled vocals. Listen for them starting at 0:46. They’re similar to the type of samples Moby used to use, but more haunting.

2. It’s got big funky horns. Clear some space around you before you get to 1:30. Those horns have been known to cause some serious cases of spontaneous running-man.

3. It’s got some serious groove. Try walking with this in your headphones. You will be unable to stop your feet from walking in time with the beat. Add those horns, and before you know it, you’ll be walking with some serious attitude, like you just gave that annoying co-worker a piece of your mind.

Recommended listening activity:


14 Feb

Week 40: “Vittoria” by The Happiness Project

Buy it here.

The Happiness Project was a brilliant experiment in the music of everyday life, created by Broken Social Scene-ster Charles Spearin in 2009.

The idea was that when people speak, their tones of voice create unintentional melodies, and these melodies vary depending on the topic of conversation. Spearin’s project was to interview various people in his neighbourhood, the topic of discussion being happiness. He then scoured the audio for snippets of conversational melody, and built songs around them, each one named after the featured interviewee.

The album was released precisely two years ago today, on Valentine’s Day 2009. Considering that it had the indie music triple-threat of great concept, lo-fi recording quality, and a link to Broken Social Scene, I was surprised the album didn’t win all the indie awards out there. But I guess that’s why I’m not on the Polaris judging panel. But don’t feel bad for Spearin. The Happiness Project ended up winning something way more mainstream than most indie bands could ever dream of: Best Contemporary Jazz at the 2010 Juno awards.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The dialogue at the beginning. Although she struggles for a few seconds to remember the words “Valentine’s Day”, Vittoria accurately summarized a typical elementary school day on February 14th: “You don’t do, like, work…you only do, like, art.” Perfect. Makes you want to grab a paper bag, a doily, red construction paper, and some scissors.

2. The horn line that makes a great melody out of Vittoria’s stream of likes and ums.

3. The mental image the song gives, of an 8-year-old girl leading a big band. Hilarious. Joyful. Cute. Whichever adjective you choose, if Spearin’s goal was to spread the happiness, he succeeded.

Recommended listening activity:

Licking cinnamon heart residue off your fingers.

31 Jan

Week 38: “What Would You Do With A Million?” by Giant Jnr.

Buy it here.

If you like music enough to be reading this, you’re probably familiar with the psychological process of band obsession. These are the stages you go through when you discover with what is to become one of your favourite bands, and it’s exactly what happened to me when I was first becoming familiar with the electronic duo Lemon Jelly. The steps are:

Disbelief: “How have I not heard this band before? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Determination: “I must find everything they have ever made. Do not interrupt me.”
Euphoria: “This is the greatest music ever created. I want it played at my funeral.”
Shock: “I’ve listened to everything they’ve ever done, but I still need more.”

After being mired for a while in the shock of realizing that there was no more Lemon Jelly to be had, I stumbled into the saddest stage of band obsession: desperation. I started doing searches for “sounds like Lemon Jelly”, following unlikely tangents in the hopes that they would turn up something, anything of value.

And then I came across Giant Jnr, a wacky electronic duo (why are they always duos?) whose song titles alone were enough to give me hope. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by an album called Fear of Julie Andrews? A quick read through the track listing revealed tracks entitled “Every Cloud Has a Silver Aeroplane”, “Let’s Buy Some Apples”, and “I Take Things Apart (And Then I Get Bored)”, and I knew this was an album for me.

Despite being faster than your typical beautiful song, the album’s first track, “What Would You Do With A Million”, is a quirky, fun, and lovely piece of music. And I’ll always be grateful to Giant Jnr for tiding me over while Lemon Jelly put together some new material.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Ingenious use of a vocal sample. I like to imagine that the chopped up sample is the voice of someone who has been asked the question posed in the song’s title. The mish-mash of ums, okays, and the occasional thoughtful whistle is what originally hooked me on this song. It’s funny, it’s rhythmic, and it will be in your head for days.

2. At 0.28, a repeating three-note loop begins, and keeps going for most of the song, regardless of chord changes. Describing it that way makes it seem like it might be annoying, but in truth it provides a nice ethereal background for the song.

3. There’s a synthesized harmonica solo at 2.18. I’m pretty sure that the powers-that-be in the music industry outlawed the use of synthesized harmonicas after their overuse in campy 80s music (see Glass Tiger for details). But somehow, Giant Jnr has defied the law. Even more mysteriously, it actually suits the song pretty well.

Recommended listening activity:

Checking your horoscope at the end of the day to see if it was right.

27 Dec

Week 33: “His Majesty King Raam” by Lemon Jelly


And now, a brief story about why I like sample-based music.

Many years ago, I worked in the kitchen at a major pizza chain. Apart from helping to pay for my education, one minimum-wage hour at a time, it also exposed me to lots of music I would not have otherwise heard. This is because management had decided to invest in the latest technological wonder: satellite radio.

You could always tell which assistant manager was on duty based on which satellite radio station we were listening to. Gary, nearing retirement and friendly, preferred “ballads of the 60s”. The younger manager, Mike, was more of a “top 40” man, while Randy, one of the pioneers of the barbed-wire tattoo, seemed to have successfully found the “all-Nickleback-all-the-time” station.

But it was while listening to Gary’s “ballads of the 60s” station that it happened. It was near closing on a fairly slow evening, and I was puttering around in the kitchen, mindlessly re-filling the toppings, throwing pepperoni slices into the air and seeing if I could catch them in my mouth. And then all of a sudden, in mid-pepperoni throw, my brain had a flash of recognition. Why did I know this song?

It was Henry Mancini’s “Two For The Road”, an awful, syrupy smooth slow-jam from 1967. And I knew it because it had been sampled by the British electronic duo Lemon Jelly in their wonderful song “His Majesty King Raam”. And as I stood there grinning, a forgotten piece of pepperoni on my head, I realized why I loved sample-based music, especially by geniuses like Lemon Jelly: they take forgotten garbage from years ago and give it new life. And then one day you hear the original, and you feel a sudden, unsuspected connection to the past.

Sample-based music is the ultimate 21st-century art form; in a world overwhelmed by constantly changing popular culture, musicians like Lemon Jelly use the past to make art in the present.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lullaby-esque beginning. Just makes you want to bury yourself in a sea of fluffy pillows.

2. Tongue-in-cheek British humour. From an opening that makes you want to fall asleep, we’re treated to another staple of Lemon Jelly: bizarre and ironic non-sequiturs, this time in the form of some British man describing the positive personality traits of King Raam.

3. The e-piano at 4:30. Slowly, the song begins to fade, and seems like it’s ending. But the e-piano doesn’t fade out. It keeps going, its perfect, buttery tone complemented by the chorus of “ooh-ooh” that follows.

Recommended listening activity:

Looking through old photos of your parents as kids, and realizing that you’re not so different.

25 Oct

Week 24: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods


When he was 21, Chris O’Connor and two friends formed a band called the I-Rails. They had some fun, released a few albums, but never got the big break they were looking for. When his two friends left to go have real lives in 1991, O’Connor put together some more songs on his own, using leftovers from the band’s final months together. He sent the demo out to local radio stations under the name “Primitive Radio Gods”. Nothing happened.

Dejected, O’Connor did what most depressed people do: he became an air traffic controller. Then, a couple of years later, he was cleaning out old boxes when he stumbled upon the demo. Clinging to his conviction that the music was good, he mailed copies to every record label he could think of. One track caught the ear of the right person at the right time, and all of a sudden O’Connor was being distributed by Columbia Records. His success was driven almost entirely by this song, released around the time that Portishead was making “trip-hop” a common term, but written years before, when Nirvana and Guns N Roses were topping the charts.

This song ended up on the soundtrack to the 1996 film “The Cable Guy”, about a lonely, depressed cable repair man…which makes sense when you remember that the song itself was written by a lonely, depressed air traffic controller.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The vocal sample. Years before Moby was doing it, O’Connor had the great idea to mix old blues vocals with trance beats. Probably the catchiest part of the song, the sample features B.B. King’s 1964 song, “How Blue Can You Get?”.

2. The piano. As the track approaches the 3-minute mark, a floaty, sprawling piano solo begins. Paying no attention to the tempo of the song, it just kind of goes wherever it wants. The sound of the instrument is pure early-90s ballad, but somehow it works.

3. The lyrics.  Like all the best songs from the 90s, this one is full of wonderful non-sequiturs and baffling religious references. O’Connor was probably down in the dumps when he wrote the lyrics, and as the title suggests, he probably had a good 90s sense of dark irony as well. And if you’re not sure what it means when he says, “you swim like lions through the crest/and bathe yourself on zebra flesh”…well, if you don’t understand that, I can’t possibly explain it to you.

Recommended listening activity:

Going through your change, trying to find coins from the year you were born.

23 Aug

Week 15: “The Crow…” by DJ Food



As explained in the liner notes of their brilliant 2000 album “Kaleidoscope”, DJ Food is not a person. Rather, it is an ensemble of British turntablists and electronic artists who, in the early 90s, put out a series of jazzy samples for use by DJs…a kind of food for DJs, hence the name.

This song is by a member named Patrick Carpenter. Often listed on their albums by his initials, Carpenter was mistakenly assumed by some fans to be nothing more than a personal computer. On this song, however, he proves to be more than mere circuitry, as he assembles a wide range of samples to create a stunning piece of music. And you’ve gotta love a song with an ellipsis in the title.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. It starts with some quiet bongos, and builds into looped drum madness by the end.

2. The samples. Many turntablists and turntablist groups use samples as accents, or even filler, but in this song, little vocal snipits and other various bits of noise build a spooky yet beautiful atmosphere.

3. The vibraphone. Is there any instrument more likely to put you into a deep, satisfied snooze than the vibraphone? It’s used sparingly in this song, but they throw it in at just the right moments. The end is particularly great, as the vibes sink lower and lower, disappearing and reappearing, until you’re so relaxed all you can manage is a blissed-out grin of satisfaction.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking through your favourite neighbourhood late at night.