There are always good things happening in music. Not just legacy throwback traditional rock and roll, or folk/blues derivatives, but new inventions – innovations and composites borne of ideas culled from different ages and times (whether they know it or not).
I’m writing this now but it’s been coming for a long time. I began to think about these issues at the outset of the practice of digital manipulation of sound and its introduction to the public, i.e. the distribution of digital music and dissemination of the knowledge of how to properly record and alter it with computers and/or readily available sampling and reproduction devices (nasty things are happening as well – dynamic range compression and the loudness war – but that’s a result of corporate interference and a discussion for another time. For the purposes of this piece I’ll keep the conversation limited to the performance side of the studio, whether entirely human or machine enhanced).
The people who jumped on this bandwagon began with limited tools and I think that the backlash from the traditionalists is in part due to the rough nature of that practice.
There are many different approaches to digital and new music, many of them grating to the ears of people used to a certain path from instrument to ear, however, as always with art/music – with the evolution of approach, the desire to invent new ways or reshape old ways is inevitable and it will both grate on and add to the existing whether it’s accepted or not. Invention will always be assessed against tradition. And for the purpose of this discussion, keep in mind these thoughts are mine – these ideas are based on my experience and I hear these pieces through these ears. My examples are old by many standards, I catalogue things almost unconsciously and the pieces I’ll quote here are from as many as ten or even fifteen years ago – irrelevant in the minds of today’s innovators. Aside from that, they would balk at my opinion, label it irrelevant or simply – old (anything over twenty five years of age, likely; and having passed twice that mark I understand the indictment).
And of course the true traditionalists may have already tuned out.
I listen for new talent and hear it infrequently when exposed to mainstream, however, if you deviate from the corporate machine’s feed – it’s there. I hear it on my son’s iPhone when he’s watching a snowboarding video (at the last incidental listen I heard a shadow of The Clash and Lou Reed), and it’s a cyclic thing – kids are listening to CCR etal on the soundtrack to ‘Call of Duty’ on the X-Box, untold others broadcast from who knows where – it’s all going into the time mixer, and occasionally the universe throws a great talent at it, or even a genius. The result of it will be something that will ‘prick up your ears’ – a work that is new and rhythmically, sonically and/or lyrically superior, but at the same time familiar in a way, and you will hear it incidentally on internet radio, or occasionally (but not often enough anymore) on CBC.
Incidentally – I’m going to get this out now; nobody is saying this yet, but they will – give it twenty years; Winehouse was a comet – her best work can stand beside any of Billie Holiday’s. Any day of the week.
And here’s a good place for this – I’m not going to get into auto-tune except to say that I believe it’s shit. If you can sing, you can sing. If not, (and if the point of the piece is singing) learn to.
For an example I go back to the sound of the acoustic guitar that opens Tom Petty’s Something Big off of Hard Promises. This is an iconic statement – a simple strum of a six-string guitar, but slowly. And just as important as the tone of the strings is the sound of the pick striking them on the way by – on freaking loud gain at the mixing board, and as far up in the mix as you can get. This simple statement is unmistakable – it is insistent. If this was sampled and replayed somewhere intentionally as a piece of rhythm track, or unintentionally copied in someone’s mind and recalled later on a recording on which they’re not aware of the homage, either way, it is there in essence and intention – that insistence of the initial statement comes back in. It’s unmistakable. And I hear these things all the time – ideas transposed from past to future.
Here are some notes I’ve made (again some of this music is now so old that anyone with a shred of dignity should be embarrassed to bring it up – but I’ve found that concern to fade with age): Let’s get this over with; Rap – Beasty Boys The In Sound from Way Out. 1996 – this was miraculous. A compilation of pieces from earlier releases (all the way back to the early eighties) both stripped of vocals and written as instrumental. Incredible musicians, although the rap thing has little to no appeal for me (there are as many genres of this product as there are other genres. I hear it, but I seldom ‘hear’ it. Maybe because it’s too far away from me).
Also – keep this in mind – I am willing to be educated. Suggestions for listening are always welcome.
- Moby ‘Flower’ – great tune – from the soundtrack of Riding Giants, has a bit of MC900ft. Jesus in it. Moby gets little mention here, but there are so many quality pieces from his mind (his latest – Innocence from 2013 is a refined piece of work).
- This goes back; listen to Buried at Sea from MC900tJesus’s One Step Ahead of the Spider (early 90’s?). This tune sustained me one late night, driving into Idaho. Everyone in the car is asleep, I’m beginning to fade, the night is closing in, the hills are crowding the corners and there is a forest fire somewhere nearby – smoke is thick and the thought that we may be turned back creeps in occasionally. I put the ear-buds in and start the music – MC900ft Jesus ‘Buried at Sea’ comes up and instantly my brain awakens and projects this robot-like slightly sinister groove onto my vision. Pure pleasure mixed with the murky dark, smoke-screened ditches rushing by out of obscured infinity. I am suddenly watching a sci-fi movie unfold on the road ahead of me, through my 3D brain and out the back window. Unbelievable.
- ‘Porcupine Tree’ (their entire catalogue) for balls (continuously), and Radiohead for what they can do to a speaker if nothing else (they go back 20 years now) – great consideration of melody – and a dark sarcastic wit. Some well composed, well conceived, well delivered. All perfect as a place in time.
- Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks comes to mind – a great boppy sound – more on that later.
- The Dandy Warhols spring a too-sweet pop groove into a tasty deep funk in ‘Plan A’.
- Zero 7 – Waiting Line. What can you say about this? An indictment of greed and dissatisfaction in the guise of a perfect lullaby. Beautiful on all levels.
- FC Kahuna – Hayling – From the category of Chill, a moniker I am loathe to even consider, but I really like this – lighter work and mostly air, but you can hear the pedigree.
- London Grammar – this is brand new (late 2013) – listen to Hey Now – electric, sampled, perfectly mixed, emotional, intense and scathing. What kind of youth possesses this kind of insight? Great track, great vocal, great album.
- Jack White’s Blunderbus (haven’t heard the latest yet – it’s due for release soon) is an amazing piece of work – and he uses a lot of gimmickry. He’s been touted as a guitarist, but I think his strength is in composition and studio work. He is undoubtedly a genius.
These are introductions to sounds – there are so many more waiting.
And I have to whisper this as I can’t let anyone who knows me hear it, but Phillip Phillip’s delivery of Bob Seeger’s We’ve got Tonight is fine enough to draw the infection out of my memory of that bit of fluff and allow the wound to heal. It is an astonishing rendering, it is a perfect interpretation and it is the salvation of that composition. Pop music sometimes wrings the last drop out of a used up piece. It’s happened before.
Also – there is a DJ at the restaurant we visit regularly who composes pieces in the background on the fly while we eat and converse, and at times I find myself thinking, “wow, that was really well done”, at the introduction, mix or highlight of a beat or even some obscure auditory sensation. And that’s what it is in the end – auditory sensation. In this case it includes the sounds of scratching as he mixes in real-time, recorded sounds from vinyl played on top of each other, and computer generated sound mashed in. Sometimes it’s really cool. But it’s not traditionally what anyone of my contemporaries would consider composition.
Are these musical instruments? That’s not for me to judge – I hear some sound that appeals and talent that is engaged in producing that sound. Good enough – no one is going to adopt this as a symphony instrument, but it exists in a place where rhythm supersedes melody as important – dance floors. EDM is a thing. It will not go away, and some of it is very cool.
Back to Foster the Peoples’ Pumped up Kicks – a brilliant composition – simple, thin, layered and perfectly executed, in fact I want to isolate this song and take it apart as an example for benefit of this discussion. Critique and analysis for this tune is available all over the internet, and before I look at that, I want to document my own impressions because this song really moved me as a brilliant piece of work; First of all – it exhibits one great hallmark of rock and roll – it laughs in the face of convention – sensitivity, and It passes these tests; quality, talent and innovation. The first time I heard this I thought, ‘wow, who powered this thing?’ Nice ideas all the way through. Then I caught the lyrics and the intent; Caustic jubilation – happy upbeat presentation of premise, something that would be accompanied by a cheer-leading team, and contrast/dichotomy – reminiscent of the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, with thrashing cheerleaders. The verse vocal is like a phone call from beneath the sheets. A secret communication of fuck-you intent that spins a tale of dad’s violence reborn in a new generation and used to violate some precious sanctity. Cigarettes, quick-pull trigger, class differences and accusations – pumped up kicks. Slightly off key chorus – like a disinterested high school choir – it’s an indictment built of black deeds, a sociopathic bookmark of composition, a ride up the bell curve of grade school mass murders, driven by a boppy groove whistled in the style of the Andy Griffith Show theme song – a 1950’s perfect neighborhood – where the cops are there to tie your shoes – impossible reality. And the incidental focus goes from the 50’s cop to the twenty-first century handgun in an instant. Claps occur on the off-beat of the chorus and are doubled up at the four beat – a staple sound of 60’s ‘Herman’s Hermits’ knock-offs. This song is not an accident – somebody in that studio was tuned in. And it’s a sociological marker – a bookmark in history. Really well done.
There will never be another sound to equal John Bonham’s triplet – the driving force behind No Quarter and hundreds of others, David Bowie’s guitar riff that drives Rebel Rebel, Keith Richards chopped up opening to Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, or Cream from 1967 and Strange Brew. Hank Williams or Merle Haggards vocals for that matter. Examples are littered through the past, and these are inventions that not only define an age, but lend themselves well to posterity by the power of the talent and the will of the invention itself. And remember this – they are second generation or greater – derived from blues, or something. Quality endures, and as far as rock and roll is concerned, when youth rebel against the status quo re-invention occurs. And as is often the case with rock and roll, when mainstream tries too hard and begins to spew machined pieces of corporate sponsorship instead of innovation (hello radio), rock and roll will disappear, hide away and stew in secret places, waiting. So – these notes are about what seems to be hiding out there. Quality shows up no matter what the money driven, façade-machine wants you to hear. It shows up, easily recognizable as quality before the mire of mediocrity.
Case in point – thanks to Martin Scorsese for this one – music from Wolf of Wall Street. The band is 7Horse – The tune – Meth Lab Zoso Sticker – from 2011*. Cool – embarrassingly pure sex – but that’s rock and roll. I hear five distinct influences – three in the bridge alone, and two mentioned already in this article (aside from those noted below). I’d recommend you listen (loud) without the video (although it’s quirky and cool as hell as well).
There are millions of incidental music streams. Listen everywhere.
*”The song is the second single off of the duo’s 2011 album Let The 7Horse Run. (The band’s influences include Son House, the Who, and Merle Haggard.) According to Leavitt, the song was initially written via iPhone, with Calio sending Leavitt the guitar riff in a voice memo, with the words “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” attached to it. Leavitt took it from there, writing the rest of the lyrics.’