So one thing I’ve learned after reviewing songs here for the past (now) 16 years is that one of my signature sweet spots is when contradictory elements coexist in one piece of music. An easy example of this from the realm of pop music is a song that sounds happy but has sad lyrics.
Another example: songs with slow melodies and fast accompaniments—such as this one, from Shana Cleveland. Note that musical juxtapositions such as this often happen a bit below conscious recognition. For instance, only after sitting down to write this, a process that involves a lot of close listening, did I actively notice what was going on musically beyond a basic “Hey! I like this!” Once I was paying closer attention, however, I found that the song announces itself right from the start, with that leisurely slide guitar motif working against a rapid-fire acoustic guitar, mixed far enough down that the ear picks it up more as rhythm than notes or chords. When Cleveland begins the verse (0:18), her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support. Once you notice it it’s not subtle at all, but because a piece of music by necessity presents itself as a whole—the ear is forced to listen in real time—separate elements are easy to overlook, whether in isolation or in conjunction with other elements. This is in fact precisely what I make an effort to listen for in doing these reviews; my intention all along has been less to say “I like this” (anyone can do that) than to try to tease out as precisely as possible what it is I’m liking about it.
Another enjoyable bit of subtlety in “Face of the Sun” is how the verse and the chorus are differentiated more by choices in accompaniment than in melody or structure—first, the introduction of backing harmonies (0:56); and second, the insertion of a conspicuous chord change in between the two sections of lyrics (1:10-1:13). This is surely as nuanced a way to say “Here’s the chorus” as you are usually likely to hear. Even in its closing moment, the song offers us a subtle gesture: that descending guitar line starting at 3:21, four notes long, strongly implies one last resolving note that it pulls up short of delivering. And yet as that last note is held for a few seconds, the ear manages to hear resolution in that unresolved. This is a very subtle effect, which I may be entirely imagining, but it feels aligned with the song’s sense of playful mystery, so there you are.
Shana Cleveland, based in Seattle, is the lead guitarist and vocalist for the group La Luz (who have been featured here previously, in February 2013). “Face of the Sun” is a track from her recently released second solo album, Night of the Worm Moon. You can listen to a few more songs from the album, and buy it (digital, CD, vinyl, cassette) on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.