Music Challenge Day 30 – Your Favourite Song From This Time Last Year

And so, my friends, we have come to the last day of the challenge.  I have been saving a very special song for this occasion.  There are several other days on which it would have been an excellent candidate, but I thought I should go out in style.

The National are a marvellous American band that are likely off the radar of most music listeners, but are a huge favourite of those that know their work.  They garnered significant alternative music press acclaim with their 2007 album Boxer, especially the standout single “Fake Empire”.  And, true, Boxer is a wonderful record.  But in my humble opinion, I think The National really raised their game to another level with the 2010 album High Violet.  I loved High Violet so much that I bought the CD, then bought the expanded-edition double-CD when it came out, then bought the double-gatefold vinyl version last month on the way home from buying my new turntable.  If their label releases it on 8-track tape or wax cylinder I’ll probably buy the damn thing again!

It’s really difficult to explain The National’s sound in mere words.  It seems to draw from alternative country, alternative rock, folk, and even chamber music, but that doesn’t do justice to their unique sound.  The music is definitely not love-at-first-listen; songs by The National reveal themselves slowly over several listens, but then bond to your DNA and never let go.  They prefer to play in the shadows with shades of grey, not in broad daylight with primary colours.  At first the songs seem brooding, melancholy, and maybe even droll or depressing.  I’m not a musician, but I would guess this has something to do with the keys they write in and the downbeat rhythms they tend to employ.  The lead singer’s desolate baritone voice surely plays a role as well.

What I adore about The National, and particularly the songs on High Violet, is that they are more than just pretty melodies and engaging rhythms.  It’s like how great food is about more than just flavour – it’s also about texture and presentation.  Or imagine a piece of fine wood furniture – the finely-polished surface and handsome curves merely serve to reveal the gorgeous grain of the wood below.  There are a lot of ingredients at work simultaneously, and the end result is much greater than the sum of its parts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVp7C5vzMgw

My favourite song at this time last year is the second-last song on High Violet.  In fact, “England” is still on a very short list of my favourite songs today.  This song is a master class in slowly building from a quiet introduction to a spectacular climax.  It’s the musical equivalent of throwing a couple of logs on a nearly-extinguished campfire and watching the embers grow into a roaring conflagration.

The words to this song, like many on High Violet, are almost willfully obscure but they seem to paint a portrait of a desolate man who has been abandoned by the love of his life.  There’s a definite sense of longing and resignation that is amplified by the bittersweet melody, the horns, and the slowly-rising rhythm section.  My favourite lines are obfuscated gems like these:

Someone send a runner through the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today
Someone send a runner for the feeling that I lost today

Put an ocean and a river between everybody else, between everything, yourself, and home
Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself, and home

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane
I don’t even think to make corrections

The story is incomplete.  We can’t really tell if his lover left on her own accord, or if he drove her away, or if some other circumstance split them apart.  But the depth of his sorrow and grief is unmistakable.

The greatest triumph of “England” is that it somehow captures the cathartic joy of hitting rock bottom, of knowing that there’s nowhere else to go but up.  It’s not as simple as wallowing in self-pity; it’s more like realizing that the painful moments in life will eventually make the jubilant moments seem even better.  I went through a really tough period at this time last year.  In retrospect it wasn’t one big life-changing event that set me off, it was more a confluence of many seemingly small things, all at once.  “England” was the song that reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who felt lost and abandoned and miserable; it was the light at the end of my tunnel.

Ultimately, I think it’s healthy to keep in touch with both ends of the spectrum of emotions.  It is what makes us feel human.

And with that, dear friends, I bid you adieu (for now).

Music Challenge Day 29 – A Song From Your Childhood

This is a lot easier than yesterday’s challenge.  I still can’t think of a song that makes me feel guilty.

The earliest song that I can remember hearing as a child and really liking was “Our House” by Madness.  To the best of my knowledge, my family didn’t own this song on vinyl or 8-track or cassette.

Special note to any readers under age 25: vinyl and 8-track tapes and cassettes were physical media that used to be quite popular for distributing recordings of music.  Once upon a time, music couldn’t be downloaded; people were actually expected to suffer the indignity of putting on pants, going to the mall, and buying a copy of an album.  It was a very quaint era.  Ask your parents about it some time!

Anyway, back to “Our House”.  I don’t remember exactly where I heard this song, but it must have been a radio single at the time, probably around 1983.  In retrospect, it’s no surprise that this song resonated with me.  The melody is more infectious than influenza, the ska-pop beat is unusual, and the subject matter and accents are charmingly British.  The way the song changes keys from time to time also gives it a really clever sense of circular, perpetual motion.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p4RWBCEFRo

The Allmusic Guide (www.allmusic.com) for Madness Presents The Rise & Fall makes a good argument for how this Madness album tidily fits into a continuum of records like The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society (1968) and Blur’s Parklife (1994).  I completely agree; all of these albums present vignettes of work-a-day British life via upbeat, strongly melodic songs.  I think Kaiser Chiefs might be making the modern day equivalent to these albums.  The Motown disco horns on “Our House” are even more colourful than early 1980’s wallpaper, and the vocal melodies and counter-melodies are sublime.  A lot of musical trends have come and gone in the interim, but this song still sounds like a hit almost three decades later.

Music Challenge Day 28 – A Song That Makes You Feel Guilty

Well, dear readers, we have come to an impasse.  Usually I can sit back for a couple of minutes and think of a good example of a song to write about.  But this challenge is pretty close to impossible for me.  I believe it was the noted scholar Ralph Wiggum who once said “Me fail grammar?  That’s unpossible!”.  And now, on Music Challenge Day 28, I have to admit that “Me Fail Challenge”.  I honestly cannot think of a single song that makes me feel guilty.

I would guess that the intent of the challenge was to conjure up a remembrance of an event where you wronged someone.  Perhaps a relationship break-up for a really superficial reason, or you forgot about someone’s birthday.  I’ve searched the memory banks all day, and came up with nothing.  I try to treat people as well as possible, and truth be known I don’t have an extensive list of people with whom I interact.  So the list of things I feel guilty about is perilously short, and the number of those situations that are linked to music is zero.

All I can do is promise to come up with something better to write about tomorrow.  So, hey, take the rest of the day off!

Music Challenge Day 27 – A Song You Wish You Could Play

Many people have heeded their calling to be musicians, and for this we should all be grateful.  The world would be an immeasurably more depressing place if there was no music.  Music is one of the great triumphs of humanity – it cuts across all racial and social and geographic boundaries.  While the way the notes are organized may vary from continent to continent, and the rhythms may vary from culture to culture, music is still a language that unites everyone.

While many musicians become very technically proficient at their craft, there is a select few that manage to have their own unique musical “voice”.  I was lucky enough to see Eric Clapton in concert around a decade ago; music emanates from his guitar like heat from a fire.  When he plays, it’s like he taps into something from another dimension, it just seems so effortless and pure.  Same thing for Steve Winwood at the Hammond organ.  Mark Knopfler and Keith Richards have very distinct voices when they strap on their electric guitars.  And there may never be another guitarist that will ever sound like Jimi Hendrix; he was so unconventional (backwards-strung guitar and HUGE hands) and he just seemed to be a conduit through which joyful, sexually-charged music freely flowed.

But if I have to choose one song that I wish I could play properly, it would be the guitar on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.  David Gilmour plays two solos on this song, both of which are staggering examples of fluidity and power.  Gilmour’s musical voice is unique.  It’s been said that the notes he doesn’t play are even more important than the ones he plays.  The chords to the verse are pretty basic (B minor, A, G, D/F#, E minor) and the chorus is even simpler (D, A, C, G), so I can plug along okay on rhythm guitar.  But the solos – my god what a glorious noise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wtiNzci1Wc

The first solo is very short, maybe eight bars long over the chorus chords.  It is just about perfect in its brevity.  I read in a magazine a long time ago that Gilmour’s distinctive guitar tone comes from using a ’57 Stratocaster modified with hi-gain EMG pickups.  The tone he gets on the first “Comfortably Numb” solo sounds like musical electricity.

The second solo is the famous one, the one where Gilmour stretches out a little differently each night and lets it rip.  This time he’s soloing over the verse chord progression.  To hear it live in all its glory is like watching volcanos erupt or a star go supernova.  This is the solo where the disco ball usually makes an appearance, bathing the audience in a thousand shafts of diffracted light.  I would give just about anything to play “Comfortably Numb” with the same feel and voice as David Gilmour.

Epilogue: you have to listen for it a bit more closely, but Richard Wright also had a very distinct voice on Pink Floyd’s records.  His organ and keyboard playing on everything from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Wall, plus the latter-day album The Division Bell, gave the Floyd a much richer sonic palette.  Before he passed away, Wright toured with Gilmour’s band and played his ass off.  Maybe he knew his days were limited, I don’t know.  But if you can track down a copy of Gilmour’s Live at Gdansk album, listen to the organ on “Echoes”.  It is mindblowingly good.

Music Challenge Day 26 – A Song You Can Play on an Instrument

I have no formal music training.  I have virtually no informal music training, either.  I’ve picked up a few things here & there from watching my friends and relatives play.  I have a handful of guitar books that I’m slowly working my way through since I feel strongly compelled to play an instrument.  In fact, if someone was to ask me what I would do if I hit the lottery tomorrow and was set for life, I would consider the question for precisely three nanoseconds and then say “Build myself a kick-ass music studio, learn to play every musical instrument known to humankind, and get busy writing songs”.  Drums, keyboards, guitars, marimbas, rainstick, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, whatever.  Perhaps I’ll expand on this little fantasy in a future blog.  Let’s just say I’ve given it a lot of thought.

For now, my musical knowledge is very limited.  After listening to so much music over the years, I think my ears are very well trained to pick up melodies, including the little nuances and irregularities and surprises that make them so much fun.  But put a sheet of music in front of me and it would be like asking a first grader to read Chaucer.  I can sort of read guitar tablature and chord charts, but take it further than the basic cowboy chords (G, C, A, D, and subtle variations thereof) and things go egg-shaped pretty quickly.  I’m trying to learn, though.  I’d like to take an introductory musical theory course at a community college to at least catch up with all those pesky seven-year-old kids that got coerced into taking piano lessons.  Music in all its variations (melody, rhythm, and especially the dynamics of composition) is so fascinating.

Peter Buck from R.E.M. is one of my favourite guitarists because he does so much with so little.  He gave an interview once where he said that he was endlessly amused by the guys who attended R.E.M. shows and watched his hands to unlock his secrets about playing guitar.  “Sorry guys, it’s just G, C, and D!”  So I can play a passable imitiation of quite a few R.E.M. songs, at least enough of the rhythm guitar to make it recognizable.

The trickiest thing I can play on guitar is probably “Unguided”, from the New Pornographers’ album Challengers.  Barre chords are the bane of my existence (I inherited fingers that could accurately be described as crooked cocktail weiners), but with enough practice and a little ‘liquid courage’ I can fake my way through this song.  The verses are D, C# minor, E, and B minor, then D and A to circle back to D.  It’s a cool little sequence with a neat rhythm and forces you to switch in and out of barre chords, at least the way I play it.  I love the way the C# minor chord just kind of hangs there, waiting to fall but defying gravity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiVVg8Pjcbk

The bridge of “Unguided” has a pretty progression as well, E into F# minor and then C# minor back to D.  It makes you form the E as a barre chord instead of an open chord, which I’m told is an important tool to have in my toolbox.  I like the lyrics and vocal melody a lot, too, especially the alliterative “heatwave humming in the house of cards”.  No idea what the song is really about, but it’s fun to play while sitting around a campfire, watching the first stars of the evening pop out of the cobalt sky.