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.