Tag Archives: songs

What goes around… comes around

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates. I’m afraid not all of us have eight-week terms, and the last few weeks have been criminally hectic.

Now, a lot of my friends have highlighted my lack of knowledge of recent pop music. It’s true that I don’t listen to what’s in the charts, and I’m sometimes surprised when I tune into the radio and hear something I never imagined would have entered the pop universe – M.I.A., for instance. I had no idea she had become so big. Scanning down a list of the current UK Top 40, I have never knowingly heard a song by The Saturdays, Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift, Akon, Alesha Dixon, James Morrison, Tinchy Stryder, Jason Mraz, Leona Lewis or Lemar. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother others.

What does frustrate me is the terribly low expectations of pop listeners. Why does it require a trailer for a bad stoner comedy to get people listening to M.I.A.? There’s nothing excessively pretentious about her music; it’s hugely entertaining; random sonic effects bounce out of speakers – put simply, there’s no excuse not to go and listen to her songs. I’m incredibly glad that she’s now receiving some mainstream love, but of course there are countless other artists whose music would be perfectly palatable for a pop-loving audience, but who have never received that big break. Music critics often talk of a band writing “great pop songs”, without mentioning that the pop breakthrough has so far eluded the band in question.

Here, then, are some artists who I would sorely love to see gain more exposure in the wider community, because there’s nothing unreasonably difficult about their music, and because they write great pop songs. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of most of these bands. But go and tell your pop-loving friends about them, in the hope that they too will come to appreciate better, more intelligent pop music.

My Morning Jacket – prone to lengthy jams in live shows, their studio albums have got progressively more pop, without really sacrificing on the quality. Often, it’s just straight up rock and roll, with a smattering of reverb, and some alt.country flavourings. It never fails to lift my mood. (Download now: Wordless Chorus, Gideon)

Belle & Sebastian – this Scottish troupe have been around for years, never making any great inroads at mainstream success, despite the fact that they write beautifully charming, witty, unpretentious songs that reference everything from folk, to electronica, to Motown and soul. Once again, it’s truly uplifting, engaging music that doesn’t make a great show of its intelligence. (Download now: Step Into My Office Baby, The Blues Are Still Blue)

Calexico – who doesn’t want to hear mariachi-tinged Americana that takes in elements from dub, folk, krautrock and popular indie rock? Over the course of their career, they’ve made some of my favourite, and most consistently enjoyable, albums, which are packed full of diverse ranging songs that evoke a singular image of the deserts of California and Arizona. (Download now: Writer’s Minor Holiday, Dub Latina)

The Decemberists – like MMJ, they can get quite progressive, but when they write sweet, romantic ditties, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get played on the radio. No one can fail to love “Summersong” on the first listen. (Download now: Summersong, The Perfect Crime #2)

Deerhunter – Their earlier work was aggressively ambient and shoegazy, but their recent album, Microcastle, is a triumph of pop melodies, inflected with tortuously beautiful guitar fuzz. In Bradford Cox, they have one of the most beautiful, troubling and haunting voices in music, but when he harmonises with the rest of the band, the result is sublime. (Download now: Heatherwood, Agoraphobia)

Field Music – I feel like I’ve extolled this Sunderland three-piece’s virtues way too many times. They no longer make music under that name, but their second album in particular is a masterpiece of indie pop, with strange vibes of Genesis and 80s prog rock, but all contained in three minute songs. (Download now: A House Is Not A Home, She Can Do What She Wants)

The National – framed with beautiful orchestral flourishes, this band’s genre-less music is wonderfully evocative, employing tasteful U2-isms and Springsteen-isms with the dark brooding mood of Interpol. (Download now: Fake Empire, Secret Meeting)

The Shins – darlings of the indie world, but why has nobody else heard their musically diverse, exceptionally well-written pop songs? They even had their music sprinkled through the film Garden State. (Download now: Kissing The Lipless, Phantom Limb, Sea Legs)

Spoon – what more can I write? Their music is beautifully sparse and minimalist; no song ever carries on where it’s not necessary; the lyrics are funny and insightful; even their albums are strangely brief. They’re just the complete band. Their music was featured in The O.C., as I discovered when I played an album to some friends. But why didn’t anyone follow it up? (Download now: Don’t You Evah, The Way We Get By, Stay Don’t Go)

There’s simply no reason not to spread the word of the gospel.

You’re bringing me down

I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:

  • Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
  • Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
  • Blur – 13
  • Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  • Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
  • Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
  • Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
  • Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
  • LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
  • Low – Drums And Guns
  • M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
  • Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
  • Portishead – Third
  • Pulp – We Love Life
  • Radiohead – OK Computer
  • Radiohead – Kid A
  • The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
  • TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.

This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.

Scary monsters

People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.

Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.

Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.

I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.

Much as I can promise that, in the future, I’ll try not to get an idea for a post solely by riffing off something Michael writes, having read his spot-on tribute to LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, I really couldn’t help but pen something concerning Mr. Murphy, for whom my admiration is fairly unreserved. I could wax lyrical about him for hours, but I won’t. Mainly because I need to catch up on sleep, but also because it would be sycophantic and dull.

Instead, then, I feel it’s worth arguing that, in order to truly appreciate the brilliance of “All My Friends”, one has to place it in the context of the album, Sound of Silver, and take it from there.

First, a little history. Murphy’s eponymous debut, LCD Soundsystem, was a witty, musically enjoyable romp through dance punk, and I don’t think the progression heard on its follow-up was necessarily expected. This first album was perfect at capturing a scene in its infancy, and enlarging it in order to poke holes into it, whilst still showing off a talent for eye-catching hooks, but it certainly wasn’t a wholly engrossing emotional experience; far less the kind of album that reduced me to tears (yes, just as with certain films, there really are albums that have this effect on me). On the contrary, Sound of Silver remains one of the most emotionally mature releases I have come across in recent memory, without compromising on musical interest or invention. If anything, it’s far less derivative than its predecessor, bearing much more of a debt to the experimentation and aesthetics of Bowie and Eno than the somewhat lairy post-punk of Mark E. Smith. The opener,  “Get Innocuous”, immediately clarifies the step up between the two albums: within the first minute, the instantly recognisable beat of a TR-808 gives way to Murphy’s live drumming, before layers of synths, piano and icily detached vocals give a strange emotional charge that, till that moment, is pretty much entirely lacking in his œuvre. It’s a wonderful song that builds and builds, swallowing the listener up in its lyrical themes and sonic artistry.

From thereon in, the album explores a range of genres and subjects without ever letting up, but, for me, the heart of the album lies in the trio of songs that kicks off with “Someone Great”, carries on with “All My Friends”, and culminates in “Us V Them”. It is in this triumvirate that Murphy gets to the bottom of his role as an artist; his reasons for being firmly in the game of making intelligent dance music (but not IDM) at a relatively advanced stage of his life; what spurs him on and makes him want to sing about real things, beyond the humorous but ultimately narrow-minded hipster anecdotes that pepper the debut record.

The first aspect of Murphy’s progression through life depicted in the trio is loss, detailed with poignancy and subtlety in “Someone Great”.

I wake up and the phone is ringing,
Surprised, as it’s early.
And that should be the perfect warning,
That something’s a problem.

Far from dealing in heavy-handed language and imagery, Murphy merely hints at impending tragedy, without ever appealing to melodrama or exploiting our emotions. His observations in the song are concerned with the minutiæ of dealing with loss – “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” he remarks, providing an elision of the quotidian and the exceptional, reminding us that, regardless of the trauma involved, normality continues apace. The repeated suggestion that “We’re safe, for the moment” is heart-wrenching in its subtext: on the one hand he is celebrating the life of someone who has passed on; on the other, he is objectively comprehending and processing the realisation that his days too are numbered, and that in creation, we are inherently poised towards destruction.

The twinkling, eery outro of “Someone Great”, with its collision of glockenspiel and detuned synth, provides the perfect segue into the epic contemplation on ageing that is “All My Friends”, which emerges, slowly, patiently, from a Reich-like piano figure; a single chord whose rhythm suggests an unstoppable force that continues beneath everything for the duration of the track – in effect, it represents our uncontrollable journey towards old age, whilst the lyrics take a typically dry, observationally succinct approach to the problems of this passing of time.

We set controls for the heart of the sun:
One of the ways that we show our age.

Again, Murphy never resorts to bludgeoning the message home. Instead, as the song unfurls around a scratchy guitar motif, his lyrics become gradually more impassioned, as he laments the bad decisions that have caused his life to come undone:

It comes apart,
The way it does in bad films.
Except in part,
When the moral kicks in.

Using the imagery of cars, films and journeys, he deftly examines his own failings, eventually repeating the question “Where are your friends tonight?”, before confessing “If I could see all my friends tonight” as the guitar reaches its own emotional peak, and the piano playing becomes more frenzied and rushed. The resolution at the end of the song suggests some closure, but it seems hollow when prefaced by the admissions of failure and wrongdoing.

In the aftermath of this dual rumination on mortality and maturity, Murphy at last takes on the final chapter in the defining passages of life – fame. “Us V Them”, the longest of the three, and also the most musically sparse and minimal, sees a partial return to the dance-punk sound that characterises LCD Soundsystem, dominated by muted guitar scratches and More Cowbell. In a successful attempt to lighten the tone, Murphy himself is heard whispering “Bells” before the requisite cowbell is ushered in. The remainder of the lyrics expands upon the spare accompaniment with an at-times scathing account of the Big Life.

And so all the good people wanna rescue,
All the small people wanna talk to you.
All the clever people wanna tell you,
All the little people wanna dance, it’s true.

In this depiction, everyone’s a villain, and everyone’s trying to get the better of him, leading to the inevitable cry of segregation in “So it’s us, and them, over and over again.” Of the three, this is the least resolved, perhaps a reminder of the fact that Murphy has made it, to an extent, in the world, and this is now the true (if a little exaggerated) format of his life – continual sparring and sniping – about which he can do nothing.

The remainder of the album is, unsurprisingly, superb, incorporating electronic music, punk and, finally, a Lou Reed-style waltz on the touching closer, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. Nothing, however, compares to this emotional heart of the album, which examines the making of James Murphy in an eloquent, touching and interesting manner, without ever resorting to mawkish sentimentality or emotional bluntness. It is to his great credit that, almost two years down the line, this trio of meditations on loss, ageing and fame, continues to inspires me after every listen. In an age of melodramatic emotional statements in music, set against a rival faction of emotionally bereft music, it’s incredibly endearing to find such a genuinely heartfelt set of songs that never patronises, but instead weaves its meaning through measured use of metaphor and allusion. What a wonderful album. What a wonderful artist.

U2 – Get On Your Boots

Neither Michael nor I are very big U2 fans. In fact, we both think they probably should have retired a long time ago; maybe sometime after The Joshua Tree. As it is, they’re still plodding along in stadium/arena/widescreen-rock fashion, obsessing about world poverty and widening social inequality and possibly the plight of the whales.

Now they’re dropping a new album, No Line On The Horizon, preceded by this lead single, Get On Your Boots, which is currently swapping between various YouTube videos having premiered yesterday morning. I’m holding out on judgement until I’ve given it a few more listens, but it really isn’t all that bad. As Pitchfork notes, it does have something of the desert about it, but in less of a delicate, beautified way than the highlights of The Joshua Tree.

Whatever any critic’s judgement on it is, one thing is for certain – it’ll be the most downloaded song on iTunes this year.

Oh, and as a bonus treat, here is Radiohead’s Creep, re-imagined by Microsoft’s latest embarrassment, Songsmith:

Enjoy!