Saturday, December 19, 2009

Okay, fine

Everybody's doing a Songs of the Aughts. Following Fronesis' lead, and observing the same rules, here are selections out of my music player at work that were released this decade and made it into my favorites playlist (notes as appropriate):
  • "Clouds" - The Long Winters (Putting The Days to Bed - 2006)
  • "Carousel" - Iron & Wine (The Shepherd's Dog - 2007)
    This whole album is great--it's got a very post-CSNY vibe to it. This song, like the Fleet Foxes entry below, makes me forget what I was doing and start staring out the window when it comes on.
  • "Where I Am" - Westerly (Wild Wild Wind E.P. - 2007)
    Mrs Transient Gadfly found these guys playing at our Farmers Market one Sunday and bought this five song E.P. They've since released two more albums and seem to be touring around the country these days. This is still their best work.
  • "Joe Metro" - Blue Scholars (Bayani - 2007)
    Just your average major-label released rhyme about riding the bus down the Rainier Valley. Words do not describe how awesome this song is.
  • "Overkill (Acoustic)" - Colin Hay (Man @ Work - 2003)
  • "Start a War" - The National (Boxer - 2007)
  • "Your Name" - Kevin Hyatt/Gino Scarpino (Badly Bare Demos - 2008)
    A collaborative effort by two friends of mine. I find this song to be highly compelling, it's a rhythmic acoustic folk song with an organic mellotron and a funky 808 beat.
  • "Knife" - Grizzly Bear (Yellow House - 2006)
  • "Flicks" - Frou Frou (Details - 2002)
  • "Little Round Mirrors" - Harvey Danger (Little By Little - 2005)
    "A shooting star is/a little piece of/cosmic debris desperately wanting to fall to the Earth/It doesn't get too far/(it's not a real star)/it's hardly worth the footnotes in your memoir."
  • "Blue Ridge Mountains" - Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes - 2008)
  • "On a Different Shelf" - Jim Noir (Jim Noir - 2008)
  • "Spacewater" - Dzihan and Kamien (Freaks and Icons - 2000)
    This electronica album has never been my favorite album at any one time, but it's been at the top of the list for ten years now.
  • "People Are Like Suns" - Crowded House (Time on Earth - 2007)
    Is this entire album about the death of Paul Hester, or is that just me?
  • "Greyboy" - Soul Patch (Sooner or Later - 2007)
  • "You Can Have It All" - Yo La Tengo (And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out - 2000)
    Yo La Tengo is a (relatively) new discovery for me. I listen to this album and wonder how they aren't more famous than they are.
  • "Paper Tiger" - Beck (Sea Change - 2002)
    I've never liked Beck all that much, but this is a great, stripped down album.
  • "Such Great Heights" - The Postal Service (Give Up - 2003)
    I'm pretty sure this one's on everybody's list everywhere. There's a band called "Owl Town" that had the number one song on the Billboard charts a couple of weeks ago. I listened to it. It was the Postal Service, except about half as good musically and not even in the same universe lyrically. Man, Ben Gibbard...that guy is a genius.
  • "Carry Me Ohio" - Sun Kil Moon (Ghosts of the Great Highway - 2003)
    Tiny Cities, which is a collection of covers of Modest Mouse songs, is also utterly worth your time.
  • "Slipping Through the Sensors" - Fruit Bats (Mouthfuls - 2003)
  • "A Fond Farewell" - Elliott Smith (From a Basement on the Hill - 2004)
    This album is hard to listen to. It's unfinished and it's pretty raw and Elliott Smith was in a lot of pain. And of course it has moments of transcendence, too.
  • "Heartbeats" - Jose Gonzales (Veneer - 2005)
    That song from that commercial with the colorful bouncing balls. His cover of Massive Attack's "Teardrop" from 2007 would also make this list if I didn't have that one artist rule.
  • "Casimir Pulaski Day" - Sufjan Stevens (Come On Feel the Illinoise - 2005)
    One of the best albums of the decade.
  • "Que Sera" - Wax Taylor (Tales of the Forgotten Melodies - 2005)
    French cinemaphile electronica.
  • "Your Hand In Mine" - Explosions in the Sky (The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place - 2003)
    Apparently Explosions in the Sky does not do the theme from Friday Night Lights. How this is possible I do not know.
  • "Your Girlfriend's Car" - Throw Me The Statue (Moonbeams - 2008)
    I again tout the awesomeness of Throw Me The Statue. They are awesome.
  • "Daily Mutilation" - Jon Auer (Beautiful Escape: Songs of the Posies Revisited - 2008)
    Here is the coolest I have ever been: Mrs. Transient Gadfly and I were at the Posies show that doubled as the release party for this album, and after it was over we went down to the merchandise table to say goodnight to the guy who owns the record label, and he gave me a gig poster that he was having all the artists on the record sign for his collection. I was signing it as Jon Auer walked up. I handed him the pen and the poster and he looked at me as if he should know who I was.
  • "Turn and Run" - Neil Finn (One Nil - 2001)
    Well, obviously.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Causal Loop

And now, with no fanfare or reintroduction, The Odds Are One resumes its original charter of blogging about Odds-Are-One-y things. For at least this one post. Maybe.

I read about a thought experiment with pool tables and time travel in an article in Slate a couple of months ago (several other interesting ideas about the current thinking on time travel in there as well--for instance, they've pretty much dismissed the idea of multiple futures branching off which we here at the Odds Are One had figured out years ago, and they seem to think that time travel requires an entry and an exit portal--kind of like a tunnel--such that people from the future can't come back to tell us about the invention of time travel until somebody invents a time machine for them to come back in. So that explains why we don't see those time travelers from the future wandering around. I guess). The idea behind this experiment seems to me to throw a wrench in our thinking about free will, which is always fun to contemplate.

Imagine a pool table with a little time-traveling tunnel on it. You shoot ball into one end of the tunnel, and it goes back in time one second and comes out the other end. So you see your pool ball roll out of the far end of the tunnel a second before you shoot it into the near end (if I had this setup I'd probably sit there for a while trying to fool the tunnel into making the pool ball roll out without actually rolling it in in the first place. That'd be awesome. Except that it wouldn't work, but whatever). Then you'd realize that if you lined up the two ends of the tunnel, you could make your shot interfere with itself: you could make it so that the ball would come out from the future right as your shot was going towards the entrance to the tunnel, knocking it out of the way so that it didn't enter the that it would never have gone back in time in the first place. You'll have created a physical paradox: if the ball goes in the tunnel, it would knock itself out of the way and never go into the tunnel. But if it doesn't go into the tunnel, then it wouldn't be there to knock itself out of the way, so it would roll into the tunnel. And so on.

Some people spent a lot of time thinking about this and figured out that what would happen is that you would always knock your ball askew such that it went into the tunnel at a different angle than you planned, making it come out of the tunnel in the past at a different angle than you planned, making it glance off its future self at a different angle than you planned, etc. etc. They further noted that this is a sort of simplified model of the Going-Back-In-Time-And-Killing-Your-Own-Grandfather paradox: the implication being that no matter how hard you tried to do it, you would fail. You'd go back in time and try and kill your Grandfather and someone would stop you, or it'd turn out your Grandmother had already conceived, or you'd kill somebody you thought was your Grandfather but it turned out there was a family scandal that you'd never heard about and that guy wasn't really your Grandfather. No matter what you did, the fact would remain that you had already been born, and you therefore couldn't prevent yourself from being born.

In this thought experiment there are clear limits on the exercise of your free will. Do what you like, but you will not kill your biological grandfather before your mother or father is conceived because it didn't happen that way. The same is true of the pool-table experiment: if you've got, say, a five minute tunnel loop set up, and you see a pool ball roll out of the from-the-future end of the tunnel, you now know that in five minutes you (or someone) is going to have to roll the ball into the other end of the tunnel, and no matter what you do in the intervening five minutes, that has to happen (I don't know about you, but that would creep me the hell out. Imagining a psychotic murderer entering the billiard room, killing me (with the lead pipe), and then becoming curious about what the tunnels on the pool table do and rolling a ball in, I'd stand there in a cold sweat looking over my shoulder for five minutes and then roll the ball into the tunnel). Anyway, two questions:
  1. can you construct a similar experiment that demonstrates such limits on the nature of free will that doesn't require time travel (I suspect, but can't yet prove, that you can)?
  2. can free will instead be salvaged by an advanced understanding of cause-and-effect? The Odds are One sides with the Buddhists on this (there's no such thing as cause-and-effect) but lacks a better model to explain pool balls from the future or, really, anything else.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: Side Tracking

Sometimes you're just to busy making music on the side to actually, you know, make music. In February I stopped making an album to make an entirely different album as part of the RPM Challenge. Another recent side-project was a cover of Roxy Music's "2HB" as part of a tribute record being released by Burning Sky Records. It's currently the main track in the player on their MySpace page.

I've lately become more fanatical about trying to get forwards from Taxi listings, and in the last month or so I've tried to be a lot more focused about the material I submit--instead of taking songs that I've already recorded and looking for matches in the listings, I've been targeting specific listings and writing and recording material for them. In some cases, the results have been...strange.

The distant future. The year 2000....

Saturday, July 18, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: Dialog II

The Stoat: I appreciate the lack of any Breakin' 2 references there.
Calvino: I was sorely tempted.
The Stoat: You were going to tell me ideas you'd had so far about how to "market" (for lack of a better word) popular music in the digital marketplace, assuming that you do not have an entrenched power broker (i.e. record label) backing you.
Calvino: Right. I'm mostly going to just throw out some thoughts. They aren't really organized. Maybe they will become so as I toss them out.
The Stoat: Okay, go.
Calvino: Okay. Again, assuming that I am the creative force behind The Calculus Affair...
The Stoat: I have no problem with that.
Calvino: ...what I'm doing here right now is thing number one, obviously. I'm advertising the fact that I'm making an album by blogging about it. Every time I post one of these things, it goes into my Facebook feed and presumably some number of the hundred-odd people I'm friends with sees it, and most of them don't read it, but that doesn't matter--it goes into their head. They know that I have a band.
The Stoat: Brand awareness.
Calvino: Exactly, though as mtg points out, this is pretty much just first- and second- degree of separation. That is, it's only brand awareness for people who know me directly. There again I run into the same problem--some percentage of those people wind up checking out the album, and some percentage of those people are, like, wow this is awesome and tell their friends to check it out. But by then we're down to a small percentage of a small percentage of a percentage, and since we started with only 100-odd people, I'm pretty much down to Sam and Aunt Madeline at that point.
The Stoat: On whom you were already counting.
Calvino: Right.
The Stoat: So, what else?
Calvino: Well, I'm trying to get into the business via the Taxi route--trying to get songs placed in tv and film. I've gotten some things forwarded to publishers, but so far no phone calls (it is, relatively speaking, early yet on that front). And while it's sort of a side-project as far as the main question of releasing an album is concerned, I've gotten some pretty useful feedback from it. A couple of months ago I saw a listing asking for songs with voice and guitar only and thought, "I bet I can get a forward just by following instructions." I wrote a song in an hour or two, recorded it in a couple more hours, mixed it, and submitted it, and sure enough it got forwarded. I was pretty proud of that.
The Stoat: Okay, what else?
Calvino: Well, I've been thinking about the last listing to which I submitted, actually. It was a return (those are the two outcomes of Taxi listings, forward or return); they give you feedback either way, and the screener clearly liked the songs--it was more complementary than most of my forwards--but he was also looking for something different. The Calculus Affair leans into retro-pop and they wanted something...sonically more recent, I guess. Anyway, I thought of the lesson you'd learn as an actor--if you have a specific thing that you do, and you're good at that thing, but nobody is casting for that thing, what you do is start your own theatre company.
The Stoat: So you want to start a record label.
Calvino: No. That would be insane. Record labels are a losing proposition all around these days. I want to start whatever record labels are going to morph into in the near future.
The Stoat: What do you think that is?
Calvino: Well, here is where it gets really disorganized. As we talked about in part 1, you don't need a label--you don't need the financial backing to make a record and you don't need a distributor. What you need is something that sets you, as an artist, apart. What you need is something that enables people to find you. What you need, instead of a label, is a brand. Think of your ten favorite bands. Now tell me the label to which they're signed.
The Stoat: Well, in some cases I can do that. Lots of bands I like are signed to Barsuk Records. Lots of bands I like are signed to SubPop.
Calvino: Yeah, great examples of small labels that do exactly what I'm talking about. Big labels--Sony, Universal, Virgin, Columbia, etc., aren't musical brands because they haven't had to be. Small labels, if they want to survive and thrive, need to conjure to mind music when you hear their name. In the late 80's and early 90's, when you though of SubPop, you thought of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney--the Seattle sound. It was a label but it was also a sound. Same with Barsuk today--if you know the label, you think quirky indie rock when you hear its name.
The Stoat: What I like about it is that idea is that the brand becomes a filter. As you talked about in part one, there's a huge abundance of music. Creating a brand creates a shorthand for finding music you like. And it works for both sides of the partnership--good music builds the brand, and the brand helps the music find an audience.
Calvino: I believe the word you're looking for is "synergy."
The Stoat: Synergy is the greatest thing in the world.
Calvino: Never say that to me again.
The Stoat: Whatever. I'm sold. What form does this musical branding take?
Calvino: ...
The Stoat: ...
Calvino: ...
The Stoat: You seemed about to speak.
Calvino: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, it starts with a website, but after that I really don't know. There are tons of analytics tools out there that would help you, but then you start talking about market research and targeted ads and crap like that, and then you run into my main problem: it's taking all of my spare time just to make an album.
The Stoat: Also, you hate market research. And also, apparently, synergy.
Calvino: Yeah, that's another problem.
The Stoat: So you're hosed.
Calvino: Pretty much.
The Stoat: Okay then. Good talk.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: Dialog

Calvino: Tell me, Stoat: if I were going to release an album in the brave new world of digital music, how should I do it? What would minimize the chances of it not immediately being swept into the oblivion of all the music being released digitally today?
The Stoat: An interesting and difficult question.
Calvino: Yes. Yes it is. It seems like the internet plus digital distribution would democratize the world of music for the musician. But if that's happening, or happened, I haven't seen it. Obviously, music has the problem of volume--now that anyone can record an album in their basement and get it onto iTunes, everyone does. Anyone can get their record in the store, but the store is huge, so that's no real benefit.
The Stoat: Yes. Clearly a problem.
Calvino: So there's the theory/metaphor/whatever that the cream should rise to the top, that even though the proverbial mine of potentially popular music is much larger, the gems in that mine will still stand out and be discovered. But in following music these last several years, I have discovered something: there is a staggering amount of competence out there. A profoundly huge pile of pretty-goodness. So in order to be a gem amongst that, you basically have to be, well, fucking awesome.
The Stoat: I see...
Calvino: Let's, for instance, take the example of The Calculus Affair. Just for the purposes of ease of reference, let's pretend that I am the musician behind this band.
The Stoat: I have no problem with that.
Calvino: I have, if I am The Calculus Affair, accumulated a fair amount of objective evidence that I am producing pretty good music. As a close listener to music in general I can also tell that lots of people with far less...let's call it ability...than I are doing well by it. So if I were, say, 22 years old and hot and out there touring and building a fan base, I'd probably be doing pretty well myself. But I'm 36 and I have neither the time (nor really the willingness) to tour around promoting myself, so my music just has to stand on its own. And so it comes to this: my music is good, maybe pretty good, but it just isn't fucking awesome.
The Stoat: Sure. And there are some people who might disagree with that last sentiment, and if they ruled the music business, you would be obscenely wealthy. But I acknowledge the point.
Calvino: Now, that shouldn't necessarily be the end of it. There ought to be a space for the pretty good to succeed. Maybe not, you know, a definition of success that includes professional musicianship and fortune, but one that involves selling some records to people who aren't already ones friends. And this is the thing I can't find, or that doesn't exist, in this new democratic world that has a nearly infinite quantity of competent music in it.
The Stoat: Hmm...surely other people are thinking about this problem. What about this fellow? He's talking about the same things you are.
Calvino: Yeah, he's advertising for a seminar he's running. Did you read that article? Reading it was like watching that Simpsons episode where they introduce Poochie into the Itchy & Scratchy Show.
The Stoat: Oh No! Metadialog!

EXECUTIVE: We at the network want a dog with attitude. He's edgy, he's "in your face." You've heard the expression "let's get busy"? Well, this is a dog who gets "biz-zay!" Consistently and thoroughly.

KRUSTY: So he's proactive, huh?

EXECUTIVE: Oh, God, yes. We're talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.

Calvino: There are articles on the subject everywhere, all the time. Here's Trent Reznor on the subject. Another entry in the TuneCore blog. An article in Salon. That's just from this week. As far as I can tell, the advice boils down to, "Have you tried being clever? You should try being clever."
The Stoat: Not to, you know, to mindlessly echo Trent Reznor, but you are kind of clever. Not all the time or anything, but occasionally.
Calvino: Perhaps. But times seem to call for more than clever. They call for innovation. I haven't seen the innovation yet. Or I can't think of it. Or something.
The Stoat: Perhaps it would be helpful to start with what you've thought of so far and go from there?
Calvino: Perhaps. We'll try that in Dialog part II, in order to mitigate the already extreme longness of this post.
The Stoat: Okay. Truncating in

Saturday, June 27, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: There is a lot of Math

Other than from friends, I find out about more good music from the playlists of baristas than probably any other source. It's how I found Sufjan Stevens, The Kings of Convenience, Dzihan and Kamien, Neutral Milk Hotel, and a bunch more things I can't remember right now. After breakfast on the mornings that I get up with the wee child, I take him and the dog on a walk to any one of the roughly 47 coffeeshops within a ten-block radius of my house; on Friday morning that Talking Heads song that goes "Hi! Hi-Hi-Hi-Hi-Hi! Hi-hi!" was playing when I walked into Tougo (which is by far the best of the 47 coffeshops I can walk to). Right after it was this instrumental song I had never heard before, it had sort of a 60's-70's jazz-rock vibe; the lead guitar was really present in the mix, but at the same time had a whole bunch of reverb on it, with the rest of the band unusually quiet. The guitarist was playing this really simple, really catchy melody which tied up at the end of each phrase in a way that I can't describe other than to say it was incredibly satisfying to listen to.

My college math professor Shahriar Shahriari once remarked as an aside during class, "there is a lot of math in the world. People don't realize how much math there is." He meant that most people's awareness of math essentially encompasses arithmetic, algebra, plane geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, which is the rough equivalent of someone's awareness of literature being comprised entirely of Greek tragedy, some medieval Islamic texts, and 17th century British novels that some people argue were actually written by Russians. Similarly, it frequently boggles my mind how much good music there is that I'm totally unaware of. It makes me both happy, for all the good music there is, and sad, because how on earth could one listen to it all, or ever compete for attention with all the rest of it?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: So Apparently Michael Jackson is Dead, Then

Like everybody in the universe who is my age, Thriller was one of the first cassettes I ever owned. I remarked not too long ago that I thought we were due for a major resurgence of interest in that album, and that's pretty much guaranteed to happen now.

I for one will be glad that Thriller will be cool again. Michael Jackson was batshit insane, but that's one great record.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

13 Songs With The Calculus Affair: Roster

The album lineup changes from day to day, but as it stands is this (in alphabetical order, album order not in any way yet determined):
  • Aleksandr (You Forgot to be in Time)
  • Archer, The
  • Bicycle Down The Hill
  • Bone and Matter
  • Crying Again
  • Dukes of the Stratosphere
  • Every Day
  • Freight Train
  • Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars For Bounty, The
  • Men of Luggage
  • Poor Young Man
  • Prince of Tyre
  • Threnody
Some songs that have been on the list, but are currently off it:
  • The Bridge--a fine song, but has been on two other albums and I really don't have anything else I want to get out of it. I've also drawn a mental line that this album should only involve songs written after If You Lived Here....
  • My High School Mind--it just isn't working for me right now.
  • Pipe Dream--The only reason it isn't on this album is because I thought it was going to be the seed of the next album. That's increasingly seeming like a bad reason to leave it off, but so far I haven't added it.
This post is not long on content. I'll get more specific about songs and construction next time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

13* Songs With The Calculus Affair

If you are a just-slightly-fanatical follower of the band The Long Winters (which I am) you will know that their next record is currently mired in creative limbo as John Roderick attempts to, well, write the songs. It's "Chinese Democracy-ed", if you will. This slog through the creative mire is being documented by a videographer on YouTube in an ongoing work titled "13 Songs with John Roderick."

If you are follower of The Calculus Affair, you may be dimly aware that I promised the release of an album in "Spring of '09." Yesterday I officially missed that deadline, so now this record too resides (if far less notably) in the annals of AWOL rock and roll. Now, in fairness to me, during the "Spring of '09" I also "became" a "parent." This tends to put a strain on ones free time. On the other hand, I probably worked more on the album (during nap times**) in the last month and a half than I had in the previous six, so there was progress. There was also, I dunno, something like regress as I listened to what I'd done and thought, "Hmm...not quite."

I would like, when he is older and can read, for my son to continue speaking to me. So while he is occupying a lot of my brain and I have many revelations about parenting and such, I'm not going to publish any of them for the sake of our future relationship. Ergo, The Odds Are One will now commence documenting the only other thing which I can think of to write about, which is the ongoing progress, or lack thereof, on the record tentatively titled The Fellows are Opening for Jon and Ken***. Stay tuned.

*actual number of songs subject to change.
**the child's, not mine.
***mtg does not like this album title. She thinks it does not stick in the mind, so to speak. I've lately been flirting with Everyone Will Dance instead. Thoughts?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Album Release Wednesday

We are pleased to announce the formal release of Control Of Electromagnetic Radiation, the 2009 RPM Challenge album by The Calculus Affair. You can download a .zip file containing mp3's and cover art via Kammalu by clicking or pointing your browser to If you're more of a preview song/download song kind of person, the album is available on alonetone as a playlist. Click here to check it out.

I had lots of grand ideas about making this album better than it was on February 28th, but actually doing that would have taken a lot more time than I have, and in the end what I've posted this evening isn't materially different from what I recorded in February of 2009. There is more to do, and I'll come back to these songs someday. But not today. In the meantime, The Calculus Affair hopes you download and enjoy, and thanks you for listening.

Monday, April 06, 2009

In Other Musical News...

The Calculus Affair is today's featured artist on NPR's Second Stage podcast.

There's a little checkmark to recommend the article, and if enough people click it, it shows up on the front page of I'm just saying, that'd be cool.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"The Mother Of All Funk Chords" -- Kutiman (Thru You)

From Thru You

Really only a couple of things to say about this. It's not that you haven't seen or heard this kind of thing before. The wow factor comes not from total originality so much as just simply doing it better than anyone has done it before. Second, the lo-fi-ness of YouTube in an HD era is a clever echo of the DJ's of the 90's mixing records in a CD era.

I hereby announce that we are formally Post-Web 2.0; you will now aggregate or you will be aggregated.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Tangled Up in Blue" -- Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks)

Dylan...boy, I dunno. I really don't, actually. It isn't that that I don't like Dylan--"Buckets of Rain," from the same album is another song on my completely imaginary all-time top-20 songs list--I just don't get him. I think he's somehow untimely. So let me now be the nth person to take up the question, "What is it about Dylan?" (where n is a very large number).

The song is an interesting story, told idiosyncratically, atemporally. Onion satire notwithstanding, the man could construct a rhyme. It's 1975, so the accompanying 12 string guitar sounds good (the 80's 12 string sound's bad). There's an entire other point to be made about his voice, though I don't know if I have an opinion about whether he's a good or bad singer. The only thing I've got to add is that he's unapologetic about the way he sings, and he sells it.

Is the point here that I, who was 2 in 1975 and thus have no experience of the cultural context in which this song was released (and, you know, never will) and, unable to hear this song in context, will never actually understand what made it a popular song? I might be able to appreciate it/like it/love it/form some totally new association with it because my girlfriend put it on a cd of narrative songs that I listened to on a drive across the country/whatever, but I'll never get it. Similarly, I didn't grow up in the 60's and I didn't get Dylan in context, so I'll never get Dylan.

Is there an even larger point about context that I am missing? Possibly, but it will take me in another direction, so I'll leave off here for now.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"Flagpole Sitta" -- Harvey Danger (Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?)

A short programming note: for those of of you figuratively champing at the bit for the release of Control Of Electromagnetic Radiation (the brand new E.P. from The Calculus Affair! Woo!), there will be a brief delay for some editorial work before I release it to the world (Also, I didn't want to step on today's release of U2's No Line On The Horizon). It's not that it turned out badly--I can't really tell at the moment because I'm incredibly sick of it, but I think it turned out pretty well. But I also think it could be better. So, yeah.

How to become an overnight rock sensation: step one, cut a hole in a box. No, step one, form an über-crunch power-pop band. Step two, write songs that set a twee-intellectual sensibility against hyper-fuzzed up guitar and bass instrumentation. Step three, have one of those songs be incredibly catchy (okay, and what's up with the actual video being pulled from YouTube? Must we go through this again?). Step four, have a DJ on the local alternative radio station start playing your song. Step five, MTV.

"Flagpole Sitta" seems to be one of those occasions where the world somehow shifted and a perfect Harvey Danger-sized hole opened up in popular culture, and Harvey Danger was there to fill it. There's a lot to say about why that hole didn't stay open, but maybe it's as simple as: their second single flopped, they recorded a follow-up album that was (and remains) frickin' awesome, but record-label machinations and the cluster-fuck that is the music business insured that it was a failure before it was released. That's all probably outside the purview of this blog, though.

There are a bunch of things this song does well. It rocks like punk, it has a bubble-gum pop chorus, but the lyrics are "I'm not sick but I'm not well/And I'm so hot/'cuz I'm in hell." That's it. It's simple and the 2/4 march beat gives it a lively bounce. And then it's just cool. Cool like you can't even quite define how cool it is. Cool like it's smarter than you and it's mocking you a little bit but you don't realize it. It's sort of like the Kicking and Screaming of pop songs.

It's this last attribute--it has distilled what I've referred to above as Harvey Danger's twee-intellectualism to it's purest form, where it just kind of nibbles at you ("I wanna publish 'zines/and rage against machines" is about as spelled-out as it gets)--that might be what put it over the top. Compare it to the single from King James Version, Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Some days, today for instance, Sad Sweetheart is my favorite H.D. song of all time (I mean, the video stars Ione Skye. COME on). On the other hand, maybe it's just too smart for its audience. And it's not that "Flagpole Sitta" wasn't also, it's just that it was clever enough to sneak it by them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Advance Single Action

"Pipe Dream" from the forthcoming Calculus Affair E.P., Control of Electromagnetic Radiation:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Viva la Vida" -- Coldplay (Viva La Vida)

Were I a Coldplay fan, this song might make me a little worried. It's hyper-glossy and produced, the edges rounded off, and the lyrics verge on unpleasantly reminding me of Sting when he gets pathologically Sting-y (you know, when he starts singing about churches and his his soul and the epic sweep of something or other).

There are some things to like about it. First off, Chris Martin and his Chris Martin-y voice, which combines the high tenor wail that's been popular for the last ten years (was Jeff Buckley the first one on that field, or just the first person I noticed?) with a little bit of British thickness. The repeated, "that was when I ruled the world," in the lyrics is definitely catchy, and hyper-produced though it is, the bouncy orchestral motif definitely keeps everything moving.

That's not why I'm writing about this song, though. It's the fact that Joe Satriani is suing Coldplay, claiming they stole the melody from his song, If I Could Fly (let it get to about 0:50 and you'll hear the section in question). Musically there are a several things of note here. The two songs are in virtually the same tempo; while not in same key, the chord progressions are almost the same (both are four chord riffs, the first chords differ but essentially one is a jazz-substitution of the other); finally, and probably of most interest to Satriani, the melody that Chris Martin sings indeed sounds perilously similar to the main guitar solo that Satriani plays.

Fronesis, bringing this to my attention, put it this way
I don't make music, so it's hard for me to calculate odds of:

A. Intentional purposive stealing.
B. Accidental 'influence'.
C. Completely independent works that coincidentally sound the same.

I'll say straight off that musically speaking, there's pretty much no such thing as C. Nobody making music lives or composes in a vacuum, and if you're creating popular music, you're actively trying to emulate a particular sound--you're only going to be successful if you're creative within certain, limited, parameters. One of the things that became obvious to me very quickly was that the path to success in popular music is to sound exactly like everyone else who's already popular, except slightly different.

I'll also say that it's not that I think that A. never happens, I think it happens a lot. Whether or not it's okay depends probably on a lot of things. While in writing the line between quoting and plagarism is pretty bright and well-defined, the same isn't true for music. Musical quoting is more in the same family as putting an unattributed quote from Shakespeare in your novel: nobody accuses you of plagarising because it's so screamingly obvious that you did.

More importantly, though, in music everybody is stealing from everybody else all the time. Much of the time they're freely admitting it--musicians call it "having influences." As long as you don't run afoul of the law (which, as we've seen before, has rules about what belongs to you when you write a song that are both sweeping and narrow, specific and arbitrary, and...well, I just hope that I myself never have to navigate them), the rules seem to be simple: only steal from the famous, change it a little bit, and announce to everyone who will listen exactly from whom you're stealing.

As for this particular case, I think it's pretty well impossible to sum things up better than this guy has:

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Somewhere Only We Know" - Keane (Hopes and Fears)

This is the kind of song that I hear and think, "what happened to the days of the great melodies?" I latched onto it after hearing it a couple of times in the satellite radio playlist of our brunch place (I don't listen to top 40, so the only time I hear popular music is when it's playing in the background). And I latched onto it immediately--it's a beautiful melody, with lyrics that actually seem to be talking about the melody itself: "Oh simple thing, where have you gone?" (Mmmm...delicious self reflection). For the longest time, from hearing it at a distance, I thought it was a Coldplay song, and that in fact hindered me from figuring out who and what it actually was. I might therefore conclude that this band sounds kind of generically fin-de-siecle alterna-rocky. And I would probably be correct, but 1) they're doing it with just a piano and drums and some overdubs (and, you know, a lead singer with the voice of an angel), and 2) gauging the sound of the current era and emulating it (if indeed that's what they're doing) is a demonstrably rare and difficult-to-master skill.

Still, man, that's a great melody. And I think the days of the great simple melodies were never here, it's just that the songs that have them tend to stick around.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Bittersweet Symphony" - The Verve (Urban Hymns)

The write-up for this song is going to turn out very different than I thought it would. If you know the story already, nothing about this is going to be surprising to you, but it was surprising to me.

This was a huge breakout hit for the Verve. It took them from the territory of modestly successful British indie band into the realms of worldwide stardom. It appears on a variety of critical hit lists. All of this because (in my opinion) at the opening strains, it is simply the most awesome thing you have ever heard. It's just totally epic. Nothing else has to happen to make this song a hit, and nothing else does. There's nothing special about the lyrics (nothing wrong with them either, they just are what they are), there's no chorus or bridge--this song is basically just one long verse. The beats are even kind of a misstep--they kind of trip rather than flow. This song is a one-trick pony. But holy hell, it's a good trick.

There's a 1965 song by the Rolling Stones called The Last Time. In 1966 their original manager, Andrew Oldham, recorded an album with his orchestra called Rolling Stones Songbook which included an orchestral version of "The Last Time". It is from this orchestral version that Richard Ashcroft, lead singer of The Verve, sampled the strings for "Bittersweet Symphony" (though it's not a true sample per se, as the concertmaster violin line doesn't exist in the original). At the time of the song's release, The Verve negotiated a 50/50 split of composer rights with ABKCO, the holder of the Rolling Stones' song rights, for the use of the sample in the song. When the song became an enormous hit, ABKCO sued The Verve, arguing (presumably in a more legalese-y fashion) that they had used "too much" of the sample. The case settled with 100% of the composer rights going to ABKCO and The Rolling Stones. One hundred percent. According to copyright law, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote "Bittersweet Symphony."

I'll gladly listen to arguments that Andrew Oldham wrote 50% of "Bittersweet Symphony" (I think that's my opinion on the matter, actually). I will also gladly listen to arguments that The Rolling Stones have better lawyers than The Verve. But the notion that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote "Bittersweet Symphony"...well, the law is just complete crap sometimes. A bunch of clever lawyers took a song and awarded its composers' rights and all of the royalties to two people (and, more importantly, the company that administers their catalog) who didn't write the lyrics, who didn't write the chord progression, and who didn't write the melody.

Lesson: one, single, perfect compositional trick can bring you everything. And also, you know, take it away.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - Tears For Fears (Songs from the Big Chair)

We continue in the quasi-theme of huge 80's hits that weren't written to be singles with this epic ditty. First of all, I don't remember this video at all. Second, Curt Smith is the lead singer on this song? Really? Curt, oh Curt, can we talk about your hair? Can we? CAN WE??? Third, is the reason that I don't remember this video due to the fact that I've blocked it out because of the dancing black dudes at the gas station? Should I be offended by that? I have no idea. I'm not even going to get into how much of a freak the drummer is.

This song was born when Roland Orzabal came into the studio with a two-chord progression that he had in his head--the producer thought it was cool, and told him he should write a song around it. It was the last track of the album that they recorded, they were burned out on recording, and essentially just put their first ideas to tape and went with it. They had already decided that "Shout" and "Head Over Heels" were the big singles off of the album (which, in fairness, they were--just not as big as this song). Lesson: well, what is the lesson? 99.9% of the time stuff you dash off without really putting effort into it or thinking about it sounds exactly that way--like tossed off crap. Somewhere there is some magic in just "letting go" of something, for some definition of "letting go," which nobody actually knows. Finding that magic: hard.

Actually, I do have a larger lesson here. It's somewhat long, and in two parts. Bear with me for a bit. I have read that Roland Orzabal was off-the-hook OCD about the way his music sounded. For instance, he apparently spent six weeks getting the drum track for "Badman's Song" (The Seeds of Love) just right. Now, I love "Badman's Song"--it's probably on my all-time top 20 something-or-other list--and, no mistake, the drums on this track are incredible. But I'm about 94.6% sure that in the alternate universe where they only spent a couple of days on that drum track, I like the song just as much (the other 5.4% of me thinks that I'm wrong about everything and I'm wasting my time doing this analysis and recording music in general, and should just stick to my day job). I would venture to say, in fact, that the only people who listen to that song and hear the six weeks of effort are 1) Roland Orzabal, and 2) the drummer that he tortured for 6 weeks (possibly also 3) the recording engineer, 4) the producer, 5) Curt Smith). I'm a huge (HUGE) believer in the idea that the only person you can ever satisfy is yourself, and so you should do what's necessary until you're satisfied with your efforts. I'm also a huge believer in the idea that if it takes you six weeks to record one track for one song on one album, you need to re-evaluate your criteria for satisfaction.

That was the first part. The second part is related to a recent experience I had doing a song for this forthcoming tribute album. I recorded it and spent a week or so mixing it, and then sent it off to the guy who owns the record label. He said: great song, the mix is a little fuzzy ("woolen" was the word he used), we can probably fix that in mastering, but maybe take another crack at it? So I went back to it, and I worked on the mix off and on for the next two weeks. I was never quite happy with it, and the average listener wouldn't have noticed a lick of difference between my first mix and my second, and it's as likely as not I made it worse. I sent it back to the label anyway, label said great job, let's get it mastered. A couple of days later the engineer sent me a copy of the mastered version and it sounded like a different song. It was all bright and shiny and sounded like something on the radio. Lesson: while your piece of art could always be better, sometimes you reach the limits of where you can take it and have to let it go or hand it off to somebody who knows more than you.

Anyway, this song. Nice beat that shuffles and drives at the same time (they stole it from a Simple Minds song, according to Wikipedia). On the verse the two-chord structure leaves a space for the singer, like they're taking turns: synth plays two chords, singer sings "welcome to your life," synth plays two chords again, singer sings, "there's no turning back," and so on. You don't really get anything concrete out of the lyrics other than, "everybody wants to rule the world." I never thought of that as a universal sentiment myself, but it's catchy. Also on Wikipedia I read this:
Originally the song was called "Everybody Wants to Go to War"
I might be wrong, but I don't think that a song with everything exactly the same except that the they sing "Everybody wants to go to war" instead of "Everybody wants to rule the world," is a hit song. Is that true? It just seems like it changes everything about it. This should tell us something, but I'm not quite sure what it is.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Don't Dream It's Over" - Crowded House (Crowded House)

Wow. Look at this video. Whereas images of, say, A-ha or Duran Duran are forever frozen in the mid-80's in my mind, I've closely followed Neil Finn for his entire career, so seeing him again in his mid-20's heavily made up like an 80's vaguely Euro pop-star is kind of...just...wrong. I like the smashing tableware, but what's with the tempura-on-a-stick floating across the screen? What the hell is that thing?

So first: it's a huge, timeless, international hit song. It's more than 20 years since it was released, and just walking around in every day life you're likely to hear it playing over the PA in a grocery store, or on some Classics-of-the-80's-90's-and-70's radio station that's tuned in at your hair salon. mtg once asked me rhetorically, "What do you think you have done in your life more times than Neil Finn has performed this song?" Beyond, "get up in the morning," not a whole lot.

I imagine (with only minimal evidence to back me up) that Neil didn't write this song thinking it would be a single. I've always assumed that the follow-up release, "Something So Strong" was originally meant to be the single from the fact that their producer Mitchell Froom is listed in the liner notes as having co-written it. It wasn't even the first single released off the album ("Mean to Me," which didn't make much of a dent anywhere, holds that honor). I don't know what the lesson from that is other than, write and record a lot of songs because you never know.

I forget all the time that the original Crowded House was a power trio, though that's probably because of the prominent overdubbing they always did--here a second guitar (it might actually be the same guitar again with a different effects array) starting in the second verse, and the organ in the last third. A lot of detail in the jangly, chorused, and now totally iconic guitar riff--Neil gets multiple different sounds out of the same chord by hitting the low strings on the downstroke and really ripping the treble notes with upstrokes. Really prominent bass. Thick layered chorus of voices on the Hey Now's from which Neil's distinct wail just sort of emerges. No real bridge, just the organ, and only a very brief turnaround where the chords are any different from the verse. The only thing it (the turnaround) does is sort of "surface" from the organ part into the last verse, but it does that one thing perfectly.

This song sounded totally current in the context of 1986--I remember mentally lumping it in with the aforementioned Duran Duran's and A-ha's of the musical world that I knew then. Part of it was the lyrics--"my possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof." They were just kind of inscrutably Euro-cool (though Neil is, of course, a Kiwi--a subtlety lost on me when I was 12). The verses are full of little evocative pockets--"in the paper today, tales of warring and waste, but you turn right over to the t.v. page." That one line manages to paint an entire picture of a relationship that, at 12, I had never experienced, but could nevertheless instantly understand. Then there is the chorus, a chorus that anyone can understand. Plus, as an added bonus, every time somebody says, "hey now..." you think of this song. Lesson: your verse lyrics can be complicated or make no apparent sense if you have a simple, accessible chorus. This is a lesson that I note that EVERYONE in indie rock has learned.

The guitars--that 80's Les Paul sound--is the only element of this song that's really of an era in any way, and while it sometimes sounds a little bit dated and cheesy to me, I never feel that way for long. This song is just so damn good.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Exit" - U2 (The Joshua Tree)

There are about three hundred million points, strictly musically speaking, to be made about U2. One of the main ones of interest to me is that it seems, on the surface, like they pretty much crap hit songs. I've seen (and heard) direct and anecdotal evidence, however, that they actually work very hard to make it sound like that way--recording full demo versions of songs they're working on, listening to them, taking them apart, figuring out what's working and not working, and putting together a new demo. Rinse, lather, repeat. Lesson 1: there can be an enormous amount of effort put into something that sounds effortless. Sub-lesson: making something sound both effortless and, you know, good is almost always hard.

There are, of course, really two U2's. There's the studio version and the live version. As discussed long ago in this very forum, the latter is literally a communal religious experience, and while I suppose there are ways listening to an album can be transcendent in its own way...well, anyway, that's outside the scope of this discussion. The point being that there are songs that are great recordings and don't translate as well live ("Beautiful Day" being an example, so I'm told) and vice versa (most of the rest of their canon I gather, Bono being Rock Jesus and all).

Here's what U2 is all about, in my opinion: space. Compared to almost all other popular music, there's comparatively few parts making up the song--bass, drums, lead guitar, vocal, maybe one harmony. Very few overdubs (our current example has only a little bit of low, rumbling synth in the middle/end, which I defy you to claim that you would have noticed if I hadn't pointed it out). So, on to the construction of "Exit": First verse: the bass and Bono singing breathy, right up into the mic. Second verse: the same thing, with Bono opening up and singing louder. Some drum hits and guitar filigrees (The Edge is all about the filigree, don't you think?). This is a four minute song (I'm talking about the album version now). This band has three instruments total. For the first minute and a half, only one of them is continuously playing. Then they song kicks in for 45 seconds, and then everything but the bass is gone for another 45 seconds, and the rest of the song repeats that basic pattern again. To make a hack-jazz comparison, it's all about the notes that aren't played.

I think space in music is both literal and figurative. The literal is constructed (at least) of both gaps in the sonic spectrum and with reverb (I read in an article about mixing that you can think of sound two-dimensionally with the stereo pan moving a sound left-right and a reverb pan moving it forward-backward. Things with lots of reverb sound farther away). The figurative is whatever it is that lets the listener into the song--metaphorically speaking there's room for him or her to get into the song. That works strongly here--when the song really starts to rock, you've already been sucked in to the atmosphere and it's that much more potent.

I have a theory that the transcendent listening experience happens because of space, for a definition of "space" that I haven't quite filled out. I actually think there's no real meaning conveyed from the song writer and/or performer to the listener, that instead what's happening is that the song creates a space for the listener to insert his or her own life/experiences/humanity/whatever. That is, the listener is doing all the work, he or she just doesn't know it. You like a song before you know what it's about, in fact you've probably constructed your own notion of what it's about, whether you realize it or not. I always feel kind of sad when I find out what songs are actually about--it's like going from the book version of something to seeing someone else's version of it rendered on film. The picture painted by the song writer is always a little smaller than the one in my head.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" -- Daft Punk (Discovery)

Here's a song that, while having absolutely no right to do so, sounds timeless (for a definition of timeless meaning, "could have been recorded any time in the last 30 years." There was no time before that, right?). It would be perfect for the soundtrack of Tron if everyone involved in the production in 1982 had been stoned (as opposed to just the screenwriter and all the people watching it). It also brings up several questions for discussion:

Question 1: Straight-up stealing from other artists: genius, or laziness? Discuss.
Question 2: "Believe" by Cher: is it the single nexus of sound responsible for the nigh-hegemonic, Anteres over-pitch-corrected weirdly post-disco sound found in all top-40 music today? Discuss.

Besides that, what have we got? I find the cheesy synth, casio-keyboard beat concoction of this song to be strangely compelling--it's something I've heard literally a million times before, yet I still can't quite place all the sources. In addition to the hyper pitch correction and other robotic-vocal effects (apparently these guys have gone into interviews and pretended to be robots, in true Tracy Jordan style), there are some neat tricks, both with rhythm (e.g. landing on "never over" at the end of several phrases) and instrumentation (e.g. the portamento keyboard voice, the fingertapping electric guitar voice, both of which I assume are MIDI triggers). 30 seconds of intro with all the dynamics EQ'd out, as if we're listening to tiny, tinny speakers. But the rest of the song doesn't really have a huge dynamic range, and sounds tinny and cheesy by nature, so it doesn't really "pop" when it actually comes in. Is this purposeful/a miscalculation/indicative of the fact that these guys just throw every musical trick they've ever heard at the wall and see what sticks?

What do we learn about stealing?
  • Leave a gap--the clever folks and critical darlings making music right now seem to be taking sounds from the late 70's/early 80's, so what's that--25-ish to 30 years (By that calculation we're due for a major popular resurgence of Michael Jackson's Thriller right about now)? You sound like Stevie Wonder's Inner Visions, you're a genius. You sound like the late 90's, you're a no-talent hack.
  • Steal outright, whole-cloth. Do what it takes to reproduce the sound of the era at which you're aiming. Don't worry about also sounding current--you seem to get that for free.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Between the Bars" - Elliott Smith (either/or)

Between the Bars - quintessential guitar and voice ballad (though there are at least two guitars here, and there's some kind of organ towards the end). Robbed of almost all the techniques and tools one would normally use to build a song, how does one pull off the feat?

Option 1: Battle depression, alcoholism, and heroin addiction; turn to music as the only possible expression of your own humanity, each song you write and record a tiny, tiny scream into the vast void of an unfeeling universe; realize upon attaining commercial success that now that everyone can hear you, no one is actually listening.

Option 2: Fake it.

Technically, he does what he does--layering voices and guitars in such a way that it still sounds like there's only one of each. Both elements super up-front in the recording. You're in the same room with him, right next to him even, and he's whispering his song to you. One perfect, memorable line: "People that you've been before that you don't want around any more." Everything about the construction of the song is easily repeatable by anyone else except for, you know, the actual deeply personal and profoundly heartbreaking expression behind it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Blue Ridge Mountains" - Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes)

(or: surely now I will resume blogging with any kind of frequency at all).

mtg is teaching playwriting this semester, and is considering making her students do a blogging response project, wherein they read plays, blog about what they think made those plays successful, and then read and comment on the blogs of other students who are doing the same. It's an exercise in construction through group de-construction.

Will this work for songs? Who knows? But I'm not blogging about anything else these days, and knowing more about how to successfully construct a good song would be a lot of use to me. The rules will be made up as we go along. So...

Blue Ridge Mountains -- Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut made everybody's year-end top ten list. It would have made mine if I, you know, had one. When this song comes on my machine at work, after thirty seconds I forget what I was doing and start staring wistfully out of the window. It's not just that this song is good, it's transcendent.
  • It sounds epic. Dark, cavernous reverb, like we're in a cathedral. Vocal harmonies to match, it sounds almost like a boys choir in the intro.
  • Interesting, unusual lead instrument. I thought it was a hammer dulcimer at first, but it turns out to be a mandolin doubled with a piano.
  • Starts simple (and in mono--it's not in stereo until about half way through), and builds to a huge crescendo, but without any of the usual rock-and-roll elements. No electric guitars. No driving beats. No bass guitar at all that I can hear. Shakers, pounding on the piano, bass drum, the same lead riff we heard in the quiet parts, those same soaring harmonies all create the drive instead.
  • Unusual structure. No verse/chorus per se, there's a first part and a second part that's repeated, and so is chorus-like. Definitely unlike anything you'd hear on the radio.
  • Lyrically it seems like there's some mysterious family secret being referred to, but otherwise I have no idea what this song is about. And it definitely doesn't matter.
  • Singer with a good and reasonably strong voice with really just a hint of character. Certainly at his edge on this song, he breaks a couple of times on the high parts, but not in a way that sounds unpleasant. He neither carries the song nor impedes it, he just kind of rides it.
This song breaks almost all rules of popular songwriting, I have no idea what genre you'd put it in (alt-folk americana or something?), there's no hook, there's nothing about it that's really hummable. And if I were a record exec, I'd sign the band on the spot after hearing it. What have we learned here in lesson one? If you have a totally original and captivating sound you can break all the rules of songwriting and be successful in spite (or, much more likely, because) of it. And probably some other things, but I don't know what they are yet.