Archive | December, 2011

Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #1: “The Afterlife” by Paul Simon

31 Dec

We have reached the promised land, and, by the looks of the #1 song on our top 10 songs of 2011 countdown – so has Paul Simon. A hypothetical heaven, though, one scribbled down by the consummate raconteur who knows the meaning of excellent music. “The Afterlife” is a keen, hilarious, zany, unexpected, metempirical, almost practical (I cannot list enough adjectives to describe the song’s utter beauty), take on heaven and dying.

“The Afterlife” appears on So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon’s first studio album in five years. Simon is a musical anomaly. There are not many musicians who have the ability of producing critically acclaimed albums consecutively. He has been releasing such albums since the mid-60s – beginning with his folk duo with Art Garfunkel – and advancing forward with perspicacious solo albums. So Beautiful or So What, which was released in April, is the latest example of Simon’s genius. And I don’t use that term lightly.

I am watching the Twilight Zone currently. Rod Serling, the creator of the show, focused much attention on the unknown and alien aspects of humanity. The ultimate was, and still is, death. Much of man’s existence revolves around his inevitable fate. There is simply no way to avoid death. Yes, this may seem like a sobering and unfortunate reminder – especially on a celebratory day like New Years. But I do think there is some beauty in recognizing and understanding the ineluctable nature of our being. What comes after is a matter of faith and opinion. Some believe heaven. Some believe something else. Some believe nothing.

Paul Simon painted a humorous, bureaucratic picture in his song “The Afterlife” of a heaven where filling out forms and waiting in line is necessary before salvation can be reached. But underneath the humor is a seriousness that is emitted best in the third verse.

Buddha and Moses and all the noses
From narrow to flat
Had to stand in the line
Just to glimpse the divine
What’cha think about that?
Well, it seems like our fate
To suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek
It’s all His design
No one cuts in the line
No one here likes a sneak

We all must wait for the knowledge we seek. I think this verse goes beyond Simon’s take on heaven and the divine. What he mentions in this verse is a fundamental part of humanity. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can be a biblical prophet or Paul Simon or a regular Joe. No one cuts in line. We all are humans on this Earth who must wait and ponder.
And , when Simon’s climbs the ladder and meets the Lord he can only muster up this:
Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Lord, Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Be Bop a Lula

When I first heard this I laughed hysterically. There is something so wonderfully funny and truthful about this lyric. Finally, in Simon’s world, man is given the chance to talk to the creator – the being who has apparently sponsored humanity and has all of the answers one seeks. Yet the only thing the character can muster up is gibberish. A mistaken song lyric. And perhaps that’s all there is. Well at least in the realm of this song.
And how refreshing the song’s melody is as well. It features a fun rhythm backed by Simon’s 12-string acoustic guitar, a neat guitar riff, some hip percussion, a sax, keys, and even an accordion. The rhythm is proficient and quite fitting. It is a pleasure to continue listening to Simon’s effortless voice over create, transforming rhythms. He is a master at what he does and his musical themes will never get old.

 

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Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #2: “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People

30 Dec

“Pumped Up Kicks” joins our countdown in the #2 spot despite being initially released as a single in 2010. The song was later released on the album Torches in 2011 so it is eligible for our countdown. Think of the countdown as the MLB Rookie of the Year award. “Pumped Up Kicks” did not play enough games to destroy its rookie eligibility. It, though, is certainly not a rookie song, but rather a deep glance at school shootings set to a contrasting fluffy melody. The song (and excuse my French) is a classic example of a mindf*ck.

“Pumped up Kicks,” like many great songs, was written in a few hours. Mark Foster, leadman of the group, wrote it soon after the band of three started up in 2009. The band is as follows:

Mark Foster (vocals, keyboards, piano, synthesizers, guitar, programming, percussion), Mark Pontius (drums and extra percussion), and Cubbie Fink (bass and backing vocals)

Foster, at the time, was using his multifarious musical talents writing commercial jingles at Mophonics in Log Angeles. Since he initially believed he was writing a demo he recorded all parts of the song and the song ended up going out just like that. So, pretty much, the song is an extended, very productive, morbid jingle. Another contradiction, yes. The song actually does pick up on some noticeable jingle elements, especially at the end where the song finishes off with a light Noah and the Whale whistle. A real hipster whistle.

So why is this contradictory song written by a jingle writer from Los Angeles so insanely good. Take a listen. Is it because of its lyric, its insatiable catchiness, its muffled vocal? I think the song’s popularity and goodness comes from a mixture of all of these elements, and, its absolute cleverness (or as Foster proclaimed – a “f*ck you to hispters).

The song is about a boy who finds his father’s gun and has thoughts of going on a murderous rampage (probably at school). Unfortunately, such a comment is not absurd, but rather a stark reality in our world today. Columbine-like rampages do not happen often, but they happen, and it is downright frightening to think that such a thing could/does occur. The lyrics strongest point is the chorus where Foster and the band sing:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You better run, better run, outrun my gun.

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You better run, better run, faster than my bullet.

They sing this lyric over and over again, implanting it in the listener’s head. This does two things. First, it hopefully helps achieve the main message that Foster wanted people to take from the song. The song, in his eyes, is an attempt to quell such events by encouraging families and friends to provide love, support, and friendship to children who may seem isolated or violent.
The song is also witty and clever. You see, the first few times I found myself listening to the song I couldn’t quite make out the chorus. Then, one day as I was driving and listening, I found myself singing “you better run, run, run, outrun my gun” and I stopped. What did I just say? The song is a giant f*ck you to hipsters because it is a true hipster song (whatever the hell that is). It is adorned with vocal effects, strung-out keys, constant rhythm, an excellent bass, and that whistle finale. And it is utterly catchy and infectious. So you dance to the song and sing the lyric and then feel terrible for singing it.
In a way this also adds to the song’s overall effect. If Foster wanted to make people even more aware to the potential dangers of lovelessness and youthful alienation, then he did a pretty good job with this song.

Three Trapped Tigers

29 Dec


What is behind a strange occurrence? Like the logistics required? Does someone really watch you 24/7 just to make sure things happen perfectly, or is it something deeper and more sinister? Maybe all existence was set in motion from the get go just to witness these peculiar happenings. But what if they are simply what they are? Chaos exists to explain that it’s only freak chance which is responsible, to calm our worrisome minds anyway. The idea does cure my worries, but it definitely doesn’t help with my intrigue.

Let me all give you a semi-relevant example. A year or so ago, my friends and I found the band, of which I have written a review for you today. We watched the first music video I posted and it honestly unnerved me. Yes, I was under magic spells, and being unnerved is not the same as being scared. Besides, that is the job of some music videos, and this one even pertained to me in a creepy way (It really didn’t, I just thought it did at the time). Whatever, that is not the important part. I went home afterwards and began reading Digg (2 years ago is ancient, I know). What caught my eye silently horrified me. An article entitled “3 Tigers escape from zoo” honestly freaked me out (read: magic). Instant conspiracy theories clouded my mind and forced me to link my life to the music video even more so.

I really didn’t freak out, but I still couldn’t believe it. Everything about it was so precise. The timing, the number, the animal; It felt as if some part of the universe made these tigers escape just to mess with me. I ended up telling my friends as it made for a good story and wrote it down as I do with all strange occurrences. No I am not completely crazy, simply because I remembered the story on my own accord, but come on. Don’t tell me something like that has never happened to you.

*********

So with that in Mind, I bring you Three Trapped Tigers, a 3-piece from London (3 UK acts in a row, make a wish). They are a noisy instrumental math-rock band that features many strange synths and ridiculous beats. Before their first LP, they would release singles and EP’s, named simply with numbers. Here is “6”, and the music video is the one which I mentioned above. Take less than 5-minutes to watch it on your own before continuing on.

The song starts out with probably the moodiest progression of notes I have ever heard. I can’t begin listening to “6” without feeling a sort of sadness in me. At first, my magic induced self couldn’t place it, but now I know. It is nostalgia for cold cloudy days spent with friends, when strange ideas would come up simultaneously irking you and making you laugh.

The drums include someone hitting a piece of metal with another piece of metal. The entire song features beats which seem out of place, yet sound completely right. Even the drums have this strange almost mechanical feeling to them.

Exactly 1 minute in, the song changes tone. It begins a low drive and then proceeds to inspire hope in listeners, sort of like waking up in the morning.  The drummer makes his skill very noticeable, something which only progresses as the song becomes louder and happier.

A little after 2 minutes the song remembers the intro, and what could only be a fight scene ensues. The vocals are amazing, some of my favorite. No lyrics, but rather their voices are easily identifiable instruments and this makes the piece easy on the ears while retaining cool mystery.

The song fluctuates up and down until the end in spectacular fashion, bringing back the opening notes in perfect harmony. If you were watching the video, you also might be asking yourself “WTF?”

“Kids, don’t do drugs” can be a summary, but there is definitely something deeper in this. The strange Japanese costumes and weird looping fight scenes. The beginning with the arrows and the smoke box. Was the pear jealous of the octopus’s love? Was the smoke box his revenge? Or was it all just a simple tragedy?

I honestly feel that if the video was simply by itself or even with words, it would be nowhere near as strong. The music tells the story better than any sort of narration would, and overall this makes it a bizarre experience.

***

Now before you move on to the next weird trippy music video, listen to this beautiful jazzy piano piece named “5”.

***

Okay, good. Hopefully that cleared your mind. The band has recently, (2011), come out with a new album, entitled “Route One, or Die”. They stopped using numbers as titles, I guess in preparation for mainstream-ness. One particular song popped out at me, and it too has a bizarre music video, possible even more so than the first one.

I don’t want to talk about this song just yet. “Cramm” is probably one of the most intentionally trippy things I have ever seen. The director of the music video definitely sat down with the band and had a brainstorming session for purely trippy ideas. I can’t even fathom how this video is viewed from a magical standpoint (I will find out probably later tonight :D).

Musically, it is a refined version of the first song. Played out like a story, the music video was definitely created around the sound. A soulful tale between good and evil, with a harsh fight scene and an epic vocal climax, as any good story should be. All I know is that I envy that king man and his magic rainbow powers.

So this has been a short preview of Three Trapped Tigers. If you were on the island of Gran Canaria of the Canary Islands March of 2010, you may have actually seen them escape. They make great music and tell good stories.

&)

-oko

P.S. Back to strange occurrences, my favorite idea is that we do it to ourselves. We subconsciously set ourselves up to be vulnerable and then get shocked when our surroundings play out accordingly. After all, what is a strange occurrence but what we define it? Power Rangers.

Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #3: “The Rip Tide” by Beirut

29 Dec

The Holy Beirut Trinity

When Beirut – the band not the capital of Lebanon – released their third studio album The Rip Tide the reviews were generally favorable, but a little critical of a “change” in sound. If you are not familiar with Beirut let me fill you in on what type of music they play. The band, which is truly the brainchild of Santa Fe native Zachary Condon, blends indie folk with Balkan influences. The result is this effortless combination of accordion, horns, tender vocals.

Beirut’s first two albums are strong European blends. Eastern European to be exact. The melodies are smothered with these musical sentimentalities and it is not surprising to get lost in Condon’s attachment to non-American world music. This is one of the reasons why Condon and the band has garnered a huge fan base. We all look for different sounds and musical experiences. Condon’s tender, European croon (because I can’t describe it any other way), combined with the monumental accordion of Perrin Cloutier, percussion by Nick Petree, skillful bass of Paul Collins, and brass work by Ben Lanz, Kelly Pratt, and Condon himself, form a beautiful Eastern music symphony that is a pleasure to listen to.

The Rip Tide, though, demonstrates a bit of a change from these elements that have initially made this band quite well known. This transformation has lessened the bands appeal for some. For me, Condon finally comes home.

Zach Condon

The Rip Tide was recorded in a six-month reclusive session in a cabin near the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. If you want to close yourself off from the modern world for a while Bethel, NY, right off of 17, a long stretch of highway that I frequented going back and forth to Binghamton for school, is a good place to do it. The result? An American album with European influences as opposed to the other way around. And, in my opinion, the best songs on this album are stronger than any Condon has written in the past.

There are some absolute gems on the album. “Santa Fe” is a jaunty ode to his hometown. “East Harlem” is a true indie/pop song, also somewhat fast-paced with the trademark accordion and horns. But the title track “The Rip Tide” is the clear best song on this album. Why? It provides the best example of the blend of Balkan Folk and American Western.

The initial piano lays down a melody that will persist through the song’s 4:23 second existence. Layered on top of it is some rising percussion and the light striking of something that sounds like hollow metal (another element that remains throughout the song). This flows into horns that remind me of, well, Santa Fe. And here is what is so magical. These horns are multi-faceted. They both take on elements of Eastern European folk and old-school American westerns (similar to the album Rome which combined Italian composition with spaghetti westerns).

The song is carried by this creative melody and Zach Condon’s distinctive drawn-out voice that is supported by some back-up vocals in this piece. The horns are simply magical and they totally carry the song, though. That is my point of focus. And at the very end when a lone trumpet can be heard holding onto its last breath over the piano that began the song the listener is shocked to find a somewhat religious aspect to the song – a heavenly togetherness.

The lyric is short and repeated twice. It targets loneliness. I will leave you with it to ponder as you listen to the song over and over and over again.

And this is the house where I feel alone Feel alone now
And this is the house where I Could be unknown Be alone now
So the waves and I found the rolling tide So the waves and I found the rip tide

 

Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #4: “Someone Like You” by Adele

28 Dec

I’d say Adele Adkins (better known by her first name) is pretty well known at this point of her young career. While she is only 23 (one year older than me), she is far richer in talent and capital. Her two albums 19 and 21,both based on her age at the time of production inception, have become modern musical staples, and her familiar bluesy contralto is tender and powerful. She was labeled as the number-one predicted breakthrough act in 2008 by the Brit Awards, and they were correct in their assumption. Since then, she has added even more awards to her burgeoning closet.

I mean, 21 spent a total of thirteen weeks at number one on the Billboard 200, the longest an album has held the top position since 1998. It also spent 11 consecutive weeks at number one in the UK, surpassing Madonna as the longest ever by a female solo artist on the UK albums chart. The album has also broken the record for the most UK digital downloads. Pretty much what I’m trying to say is that her overflowing talent has leaked into the mainstream and the broad listening population has ate it up like my friends and I gormandized at an all-you-can-eat sushi joint last night.

“Someone Like You” is the most simple song on our countdown. It is also the most successful. Like I have said many times, complexity does not always lead to success. This is especially true when you want to crack into the mainstream. You want to “dumb down” songs. I’m not implying here that the whole of the mainstream listening population is slow, but rather I am attempting to convey that it is significantly easier to get into a song with less elements. I’d argue though, that despite its musical simplicity, “Someone Like You” is actually a complex, emotional piece and Adele’s passionate voice shines.

What’s so simple about this song is also what’s so complex. The song is piano and Adele. It was actually co-written and co-produced by Dan Wilson of Semisonic fame (remember “Closing Time”). There is some vocal layering but that’s it for effects. The black and white video echoes the candor of the piece. In “Someone Like You” Adele sings of a lost love and lyrically envisions this ex happy in the future with a wife that is not her and children that are not hers. The relationship with this ex lasted 18 months and Adele thought it would end in marriage – which it clearly did not. Worst of all, the ex got engaged not long after. She is clearly bothered by these thoughts and her vexation shows through her vocal performance, which can best be described as sincere with hints of consternation, preoccupation, fearfulness, and sadness. She is able to tug on these emotions effortlessly.

The song has been modestly successful thus far. It just has been certified platinum in the UK and 3x platinum in the US (3 million copies sold). I’ll admit that there is one thing I dislike about the song. It is played CONSTANTLY. Other than that, it totally deserves its number four spot.

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