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Posts Tagged ‘Trip-Hop’
01 Apr

Week 151: “Underground Vibes” by DJ Cam

Underground+Vibes

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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:

Daydreaming.

15 Oct

Week 127: “Changeling” by DJ Shadow

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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.

04 Jun

Week 108: “Teardrop” by Massive Attack

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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.

05 Dec

Week 82: “How Do” by Sneaker Pimps

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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.

12 Jul

Week 9: “Roads” by Portishead

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Music critics love coming up with names for new genres of music. Sometimes the name reflects the way the music sounds (eg. “grunge”, “industrial”), sometimes it reflects the way bands within the genre dress (eg. “glam”). The easiest way to come up with a name for a genre of music is just to add the prefix “post-” to a genre that already exists, thereby making any band associated with that genre sound new and exciting, even if it’s really just a slight variation on something we’ve already heard a million times. Post-punk. Post-pop. Wouldn’t you love it if the marketers for your local Symphony Orchestra started pushing its product as “post-Classical”?

Anyway, the ideal genre name is both descriptive AND clever. This brings us to the term “trip-hop”. Get it? In the mid-1990s, if a band was down-tempo, used samples and/or hallucinogens, and especially if they were based in the U.K., they were classified as trip-hop. And the masters of this cleverly-named genre were Portishead. But you don’t have to be on any kind of drug to appreciate their chillout classic, “Roads”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. (Duh) The Rhodes piano. Probably why they named the song the way they did. After all, this is a band that named itself after the place it’s from…I guess that in the mid-90s, obvious was cool. Anyway, it’s a simple descending set of chords that make you want to descend your backside into a comfy couch and nod your head approvingly.

2. The voice. Singer Beth Gibbons mastered the fragile, plaintive style that was emulated by other trip-hop acts of the time. (See also: Sneaker Pimps)

3. The string swell near the end. At about the 3.20-mark, the strings, which had been there for a while, but which you might not have noticed, suddenly take off. The bassline comes along for the ride, with a great “doo..ba-doot-dooo…da-ba-doo” line, anchoring the song’s climax.

Recommended listening activity:

Stocking up on munchies.