An object lesson in how the delicate variations in computer-generated sound can be used for good instead of evil.
I enjoy my share of electronic-based music but I will admit I sometimes get weirded out by the immateriality of it all. Knowing that the sounds are all generated by the inscrutable insides of laptops and rectangular boxes with keyboards on them, if nothing else, makes my job here kind of hinky. It’s one thing to talk about the guitar and its aural character, and then maybe the bass, and the drums; it’s another thing to try to talk merely about sounds, the differences between which sometimes are so subtle that the line separating, even, beats and notes seems all but hallucinatory.
If the specific sounds in “Mystery Colors” are, therefore, difficult to identify and/or distinguish, the collective result is nevertheless an introspective pleasure. Anthony Ferraro, the solo mastermind behind Astronauts, etc., is uncommonly adept at creating warmth and texture from the delicate variations in computer-generated sound—and then, double the achievement, turning this warmth and texture into tuneful pop. In physical-instrument-based rock’n’roll, a rapid procession of notes and rhythms typically creates drive or tension; but listen here to how a tranquil vibe is maintained over and above the brisk arpeggios and fidgety beats. A lot of this has to do with Ferraro’s soothing tenor and the silky melody he’s singing. Note in particular the vocal effect during the chorus (first heard at 1:41), when he layers his vocals in two different registers, which creates a kind of whisper effect that feels cozy and personal. The choral break at 2:11 is another nice touch; human voices cut through artifice like nothing else.
Ferraro is a Berkeley-based musician who was on a classical piano performance track until beset by arthritis. Electronic music saved his career, pretty much. I look forward to seeing where he takes it all. “Mystery Colors” is from his first EP, entitled Supermelodic Pulp, which was released last month. You can listen to it as well as buy it via Bandcamp.
Both winsome and involving, “The Pins” keeps things moving, with a deft series of melodic twists, chord changes, tempo shifts, and (wait for them) wacky guitar effects.
When Sara Radle sings, here, repeatedly, “I’ll do this without you,” she means it. She plays all the instruments on all the songs on her new album, Same Sun Shines, and she likewise engineered and mixed the record herself. She says she did it basically as an incentive to learn Pro Tools, the powerful but challenging digital recording software program. Apparently she picked it up just fine.
And of course software skills may be necessary in 2012 but they are not sufficient. You need a good song, and “The Pins,” both winsome and involving, is very good indeed. Listen to how much Radle keeps things moving here, with a deft series of melodic twists, chord changes, tempo shifts, and, for the heck of it, wacky guitar effects (see the instrumental break, 2:42 onward). A sense of humor remains an underrated tool in the songwriter’s arsenal.
One particular way Radle surreptitiously generates movement is through a sort of “sub-sectioning” of the song—there’s not just a verse and a chorus, but both the verse and the chorus have two distinct melodic sections. Each interrelated segment is never much more than 15 seconds long throughout the first half of the song. (The second half of the chorus expands to 30 seconds the last two times we hear it.) This really grabs the ear and gives the sense of continual development. The melodies have a clean Brill-Building-y esprit, and the entire thing feels so effortless that one would never suspect the very real effort that Radle exerted—mastering the software, playing all the parts, mixing it all together; the breeziness of the end result is indeed a noteworthy aural illusion. And can I open the year with another mini-rant about those people who must always complain about nothing being “new” in music any more? What a constricted idea of “new” such folks have. “The Pins” is surely something new, something that could not have existed 10 years ago.
It is one of 10 tracks forthcoming on Same Sun Shines, which will be self-released next month. The Texas-born Radle has been based in Los Angeles since 2005, when she joined Matt Sharp’s band The Rentals for a few years. This is her fifth solo album.
(photo credit: Benjamin Hoste)
Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise.
Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise. Long before the trombones descend (that would be around 1:53), this song has little that might be identifiable as “normal,” little that sounds like a hook, and yet, go figure, it manages to grab the ear quickly and hangs on for dear life. There really is, even after all these years, much more that people might be doing with what is loosely called rock’n’roll than people tend to do.
Of course it’s easy enough simply to be odd. I hear plenty of odd, day to day. To my particular kind of musical preference, oddness, however potentially enticing, is never enough by itself; as a matter of fact, oddness is a special kind of attractive characteristic in that it is inherently not attractive at all. Once committing to being odd, a song has to double back on actual goodness to be worth one’s time as a listener, it seems to me. Andrew Miller, the low-profile mastermind behind Firs of Prey, doubles back and then some. The minimalist soundscape he creates sets the stage—a deep, unadorned tribal drumbeat combining with a wordless vocal melody, layered in wacky harmony is not your everyday intro. New elements are eventually woven in: the aforementioned trombones, delightfully off the beat; a layer of lower-register vocal harmonies; a pulsing, bubbling keyboard down below; and a suddenly appearing electric guitar, speaking with splendid clarity in this otherwise guitar-free zone.
Firs of Prey, based in Portland, has released one EP to date, 2009’s Keep the Lions Asleep. “He is known for doing things like being tall, speaking really loud and hugging people too hard,” Miller says, of himself, on the sparsely informative Firs of Prey site. “He hopes to one day live in a Lighthouse.” Miller is also in the band Datura Blues, which has a marginally better web presence than his solo project. “What You Say” is a song from a compilation album with the fetching title of Well, I Don’t See Why Not Vol. 3, featuring independent musicians from the Northwest. It is indeed the third in a series, all of which have been offered up by Ms. Valerie Park Distro, a self-described “small distributor of independently-created things,” based in Olympia. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead, and thanks to MVPD for permission to host the MP3 here.
A buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics.
Washed Out is a mild-mannered-looking young fellow with the mild-mannered name of Ernest Greene who managed, via a handful of laptop-generated songs posted on MySpace in 2009, to give birth—inadvertently, of course—to an entire genre. Or maybe it was a sub-genre, or maybe it wasn’t really a genre at all as much as an ironically named, accidentally grouped cadre of bands who didn’t realize they entailed a movement until a blogger with nothing better to do pointed it out one day. And even though 2009 is ancient history now, in internet years, the semi-ironic, semi-concocted genre of chillwave continues to exist not merely as a point-of-reference label but, in a meta kind of way, as a symbol of both the artificiality of rampant sub-genre-ization and of the acceptance of the artificiality. Or something like that.
Anyway, okay: “Amor Fati,” Latin for “love of fate,” or, more to the point, “love of one’s own fate”; the phrase is Nietzsche’s, but hey, if the history of chillwave is too elusive for effective summary here, then forget about Nietzsche. I’ll stick to the song itself, which is a buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics. Greene has said he doesn’t want his lyrics to be fully audible, that he’s after a mood, and wants the songs to take on life in a listener’s head. Objective achieved, but elusively: said mood is simultaneously hopeful and wistful, cool and warm, introspective and expansive, ’80s and ’10s. With hand claps.
I should note that after a couple of bedroom-constructed EPs, Greene was signed by Sub Pop. His debut full-length, Within and Without, released in mid-July, features a well-textured, fuller-fledged sound that might run counter to chillwave’s distinctly lo-fi origins, but to me illustrates a point always worth remembering: some who employ lo-fi techniques do so only of necessity, not out of philosophical conviction. Greene sounds like someone who deserves an actual studio. “Amor Fati” is the third track on the new album. MP3 via Sub Pop.
A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics.
A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics. There’s something Phil Spectory in the air—here an ambiguous echo of the classic Spector beat, there a reverb-enhanced ambiance that knowingly evokes the famous wall of sound. But Grant Olsen—Gold Leaves is his baby, pretty much a solo project—is not merely in retro mode. The song usurps Spectorian elements for its own idiosyncratic purposes. Listen for example to how “The Ornament” strips itself down to its drumbeat in and around the two-minute mark. Spector-produced songs are filled with dramatic drumbeats but nothing like this. The drums here, further, introduce an off-kilter section of the song that seems neither bridge nor verse and which culminates in a dramatic pause before rejoining our regularly scheduled programming.
And that’s another intriguing thing about this song. Even as it nods to a simpler sort of pop, it will not itself be pinned down to either a verse or a chorus that obviously sticks in the head. The verse seems to be divided into three sections, and the lovely turn of melody we hear in the opening lines (0:07-0:20) is never quite returned to—the next two times the song revisits that place, the main melody has been shifted up. I think what happens in a song like this is that you keep unconsciously waiting for that great early moment to return and when it never quite does you are instead led through a journey that seems at once familiar and unsettling. Olsen’s voice—a droopy tenor that’s one part Robin Pecknold, one part Ron Sexsmith—guides us through the song’s lyrical and melodic quirks most endearingly.
Olsen has previously been known to the indie world as half of the duo Arthur & Yu, which released its one album, to date, back in 2007. “The Ornament” is the title track to his debut as Gold Leaves, which will arrive on Hardly Art Records in August. MP3 via Hardly Art. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
“You Go On (& On)” has a comforting, familiar sound—think Tweedy in his Golden Smog phase; can the name in fact be a complete coincidence?—and if you don’t listen carefully you wouldn’t notice that the multi-instrumentalist doing business as Golden Bloom is up to anything curious.
Shawn Fogel didn’t get the memo about verse-chorus-verse. How it’s supposed to go is this: sing the verse, repeat it with some new words, sing the chorus, go back to the verse, perhaps with some new words, and so forth. Maybe throw an extra section in about two-thirds of the way through and call it a bridge. That’s it, there’s your song, no need to fiddle with a proven formula.
Except maybe why not. “You Go On (& On)” has a comforting, familiar sound—think Tweedy in his Golden Smog phase; can the name in fact be a complete coincidence?—and if you don’t listen carefully you wouldn’t notice that the multi-instrumentalist doing business as Golden Bloom is up to anything curious. But check it out: after the intro, we get a verse (0:18), then we get something with a bridge-like feel and perhaps the song’s best hook (the “Look away from all that’s surrounding you” part, at 0:34), then we get something that feels like the bridge’s bridge, if there could be such a thing (0:50); and then we cycle through these same three melodically distinct sections—all with different lyrics this time—before we arrive at something that at least partially resembles a chorus (1:54), if for no other reason than that it delivers us the titular phrase at its conclusion.
And, actually, don’t overlook the introduction either: its stringed melody is a separate theme, independent of the four aforementioned melodic sections (verse, two maybe-bridges, chorus), and when it returns as a guitar solo at 2:06, you may then more fully appreciate its ELO-meets-George Harrison demeanor.
So this turns out to be pretty complicated and yet Fogel’s easy-going, ’70s-like sense of melody and unforced vocal style offer affable misdirection. Nicely played. “You Go On (& On)” will appear on Golden Bloom’s forthcoming EP March to the Drums, due in August. Fogel has one previous full-length Golden Bloom album, released in 2009.
A concise, chuggy piece of electro-glam (or some such thing), “Good Karma” is one of those songs with a moment—a precise juncture at which the ear surrenders to the music, and everything is okay with the world.
A concise, chuggy piece of electro-glam (or some such thing), “Good Karma” is one of those songs with a moment—a precise juncture at which the ear surrenders to the music, and everything is okay with the world. An effective moment, repeated each time it comes up (typically in a chorus but not always), extends its blessing both forward and backward, granting a kind of giddy grace to an entire song.
The (now that I think about it) appropriately titled “Good Karma” has its moment beginning at around 1:01, in the second half of the chorus, when Scott French, N’T’s mastermind, sings, “Don’t freak out,” with the “out” stretched to three syllables, describing a descending line equivalent to sol-fa-mi in the familiar do-re-mi scale. This is a basic and eminently satisfying progression, but any effort I attempted (and now edited out) to explain why became quickly labored and complicated. Music is much simpler than words. Listen and smile.
French drums and writes songs for the Philadelphia band the Swimmers; as N’T—apparently we are to say “N apostrophe T”—he has issued an album called The Color Code, which he wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered, etc., by himself. It was self-released last month. You can download the album via his bandcamp page, for whatever price you’d like to pay. Thanks to Scott for letting me host this one.