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“Play That Song” is What is Wrong with Music

29 Apr

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Yes, you read the title correctly. I’m over-generalizing, of course, but Train’s “Play That Song” is representative of what is wrong with music in 2017. It serves as the quintessential example of my gripe with modern musical laziness. Before I begin this tirade, let’s go back in time for some basis.

I am completely aware that music is a product of its time. The 50s, for example, provided the world with Doo-Wop and thus repeated simple chord progressions over and over again to much success. The 60s merseybeat model produced some similar sounding tunes that many bands reproduced. The 70s followed suit with arena rock and disco, the 80s with synth and percussion, the 90s with grunge and boy bands, and so on. That said, in each era, there were bands that utilized the common trope of the time and created new, genre-bending sounds that propelled music of the time to new heights, and these bands for super success. Today, though, the list of these type of bands has dwindled, and the music world is crowded with bands that serve up common music motifs that are, for the most part, potboiler dreck that vomits into the mainstream and corrupts the ears of the populace, that, of course, eats this saccharine garbage up.

Enter “Play That Song” by Train, a band that hit it big with songs like “Drops of Jupiter” (which I love by the way), dropped off the face of the Earth, and have recently made a tremendous comeback. Good for them. I’m happy for Train. I like Train. They are a pop band that pairs simple chord progressions with dulcet melodies and summery lyrics. You need that every once in a while. Train’s 2016 release “Play That Song,” though is a musical humbug, a deceptive ditty that has now reached Gold in sales and has sat at several positions on several music charts. The song is melodically lazy and takes advantage of the easily impacted ear of most listeners

Why do I feel this way; well, listen to the song.


Sound familiar? The song co-credits “Heart and Soul” writers Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. It is spun as a modern take on the old Jazz classic, although the song does not do much differentiation from the melody. “Heart and Soul,” follows the well-known I–vi–IV–V chord progression. It is the classic catchy tune, and Train played on it. So, what’s my issue? It is lazy. Just lazy.

Hey, I have an idea. Let’s re-do an old catchy song into a new catchy song and release it to the masses who will inevitably sap it up because it is abiding by the same classic catchy idea that has been a proven money maker. And, Train has the audacity to title the song “Play That Song,” as if they are just laughing at the listeners, insisting that they put the song on repeat and continue to “Play That Song,” just like people repeatedly play “Heart and Soul” on the piano.

This just represents the least amount of work that can possibly go into a pop song; if it took Train longer than an hour to write the song, that is embarrassing. Train just continues to earn the reputation as a pop sinecure. Perhaps my censure is spawned from jealousy. The band may be genius. They found out how easy it is to make simple music that will make money. That said, this particular song is rubbish. Come on, Train.

On Repeat – Mountain Goats and Bleachers

14 Apr

One of the ineluctable truths of having a music blog for so long is that you end up writing multiple posts about the same artist/band. This is not a negative, as this inevitability depicts the blogger’s music taste. So, it should come to no surprise to avid readers of The Music Court that the two artists whose new tracks are euphoniously blaring on repeat from my small, but surprisingly loud, portable speaker are The Mountain Goats and Bleachers. Both of these bands have found laudatory homes on this blog before, and this post will be no exception to that status.

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The Mountain Goats own Indie Rock. For more than two decades and now 16 studio albums, John Darnielle, the lyrical demigod and two-time author, and his band continue to shape and define quality Indie music, doing it better than any other artist over a longer period of time. It is their success that somewhat shapes their new release, Goths, which will be released on Merge records in May. The album, which features no guitars, pays tribute to bands who did not persist, whose tunes faded away. To promote and preview the album, the band released a track, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” and since its release in late February, I have listened to it more than a few times.

Above is a recent performance by John Darnielle of the track – with guitar although it is not used on the album. Andrew Eldritch is known by some as the Godfather of Goth; he is frontman for Gothic Rock band The Sisters of Mercy. Eldritch himself is a skilled lyricist, often making lyrical references in his pieces. Darnielle plays upon the melancholic (somewhat gothic) reality of time. The song begins set in a venue where we can suppose Eldritch is playing and the goers experience the “faint gust of hope” as they “meet up against” to “remember how it was” back in the day. The song continues with the motif of Eldritch moving back home without “parade” and “no big changes in the roadways.” It is a Darnielle special, a lugubriously realistic portrayal of how little changes, a keen, singular depiction of time transforming little but memories and age, all set to the tune of Darnielle’s creative rhythm.

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Jack Antonoff is quickly cementing himself as the pop/rock king of modern music. The multi-instrumentalist creator of Bleachers, Antonoff cut his teeth with Steel Train and Fun. His second LP, Gone Now, will be released on June 2, coming off the heels of his first LP Strange Desire, which featured the huge hits “I Wanna Get Better” and “Rollercoaster.” His first single off of the new album, “Don’t Take the Money” (which features Lorde) is a quintessential example of Antonoff’s pop talent. The song is an earworm to the extreme, and it should come with a disclaimer: if you press play below you will listen to this song again and again and again.

So, what makes the song and Antonoff so good. It is the perfect, multifaceted blend of 80s music influences and the modern blend of wall-of-sound pop. The song features an immediate hook fit with reverbed synth and drums. It transitions into an echoed pre-chorus that drops to Antonoff’s far-off voice immediately falling into a pounding, blindingly catchy chorus that is almost unfair in its skill. It’s the time of chorus that makes the listener just go “yes, that is exactly what I have been waiting for.” I have blasted this song in my car on multiple occasions because of that chorus. Antonoff is utilizing so many musical influences to transform pop/rock. I, for one, am extremely pleased. The genre is in good hands.

Every Breath You Take Moby Dick

9 Apr

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I have found a new niche with literary music posts. After my last post concerning the relationship between “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay” and The Great Gatsby, I received a challenge in a comment to try linking the American class Moby Dick to a song. Challenge accepted and hopefully met. Let’s delve into the pertinaciousness of Captain Ahab.

I use the word pertinacious for good reason. I am convinced Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, was obsessed with this word. Pertinacious is a relentless tenaciousness towards a particular action. This word does fit like a new pair of sweatpants, as Captain Ahab was the model of pertinacity. If you have not had a chance to explore Moby Dick, the expansive novel tells the story of an obsessive quest to hunt the whale Moby Dick. And, yes, while this premise might not sound overwhelmingly fascinating, there are many literary reasons why the book is considered the greatest American novel. So, I do suggest you pick it up and delve into Melville’s eloquent depiction of whaling and obsession. It is that obsession or pertinacity that guides this post; because, when I think of obsession in music, one song immediately comes to mind.

Ranked 84 on Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time, The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is NOT a love song. Sting, the uber-talented leader of The Police, acknowledges that the song sounds like a love song but is a song about obsession, and considering Moby Dick is perhaps the greatest novel written about relentless pertinacity I might as well link it with perhaps the greatest song written about the same topic. Sting wrote this song in between relationships, a bit of a creative response to the bad press he had been receiving. So, the oft-misinterpreted song about frightening possession was born.

One particular lyric that serves the comparison well is Sting’s proclamation “Oh can’t you see, You belong to me?” In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab cries “I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” In this, Ahab is conveying that he will chase Moby Dick to hell before he gives him up. There is certainly a sense of ownership Ahab feels towards Moby Dick, as possession – or the illusion of possession – is often the basis of obstinate obsession.

Captain Ahab and Sting. One obsessed with a whale and the other with a love interest. What do you think? Is it too much of a stretch? Let me know with a comment below.

Sittin’ On The Dock of Gats”Bay”

30 Mar

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Hey Music Court readers. Sorry I have been a bit terse (more like complete radio silence) over the past several weeks. It often does seem that I lose big chunks of time when I’m busy. That said, I am back with another literary/music mix because as an English teacher I cannot contain myself.

There are some songs that contain an untenable eeriness to them, and Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay” is one of them. Otis Redding, whose promising career was tragically cut short because of a plane crash, recorded the song days before the crash. The melancholic but peaceful whistle at the song’s fade was, as the story goes, supposed to be an ad-lib spoken word by Redding, but he forgot it and instead whistled – which perhaps is the most known part of the song now. He never had a chance to correct this extemporaneous ending.

I want to focus, though, on the lyric (of course). In the song, Redding paints an image of littoral beauty, a depiction of matutinal beauty from his houseboat. The song, which features the existential reflection of Redding sitting and watching the sea, makes me think of Jay Gatsby, another character – albeit fictional – who spends time staring at the water with a sense of longing. In a sense, Gatsby is revealed through Redding’s lyric, “Looks like nothing’s gonna change; Everything still remains the same.” Redding clearly does not want his perfect visage to end, and Gatsby, similarly, does not want his perfect image of Daisy Buchanan, his first and only love, to change. That said, life does get in the way, and Redding and Gatsby both meet unfortunate ends because, let’s face it, everything changes. In our memory, though, we will always have the bay.

A Song Will Lift As The Mainsail Shifts – When the Ship Comes In

29 Jan

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I started this blog back in college as a conduit for my musomania. It continues to live, albeit somewhat infrequently on my end – continued thanks to Toria whose posts truly carry the blog, and I anticipate the blog existing in whatever shape and form continually. I hope the content continues to be fresh and original, no matter its frequency, and that you get as much enjoyment reading as I do writing.

That said, in all of my years writing for the blog, I never (at least to my knowledge) comprehensively brought politics or current events (outside of music) onto these pages. This was, and still is, purely intentional; this is a music blog through and through, and I want to keep it that way. That said, I would be averse not to mention the current transformations in the U.S., and the vitriolic reactions on both sides of the coin responding to these changes. I will not use this blog as a platform to lecture on my political beliefs, but I will say I do maintain a shaken temperament as a witness to these changes. Instead, I will do what I always promised to do on this blog, and use music to convey my thoughts.

Bob Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In” appeared on his third studio album, the politically charged The Times They Are A-Changin’, which Dylan released in 1964, buttressing his participation in the civil rights movement of the time. Yes, Dylan’s clear protest song on the album, the eponymous title track, may be more apropros for this post, but the third track on Side 2, “When the Ship Comes In” always held deeper significance for me, although the song was, according to Dylan’s biographer Clinton Heylin and musician Joan Baez, about how a hotel clerk refused Dylan admission to a hotel room because of his unkempt appearance. Dylan, who modeled the song after “Pirate Jenny”from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera (a big inspiration for The Doors as well), wrote about how he envisaged his enemies, “like Goliath” conquered.

For me, though, the song always held some added metaphorical significance, the “foes” representing the forces of jacobin injustice and antiquated policy.  The ship, who are pirates in Brecht’s lyric, are more benevolent conquerers in Dylan’s piece, as the fishes “laugh”, seagulls “smile”, and rocks “proudly stand” when “the ship comes in”. Heck, even the “sun” respects those on the ship, indicating that the most essential forces of nature shine upon this ship – a bit prescient considering our current situation. The ship comes in on a song, and then Dylan finishes the piece with two potent verses, which I will copy below:

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

The ship finds the foes sleeping and in a soporific stupor, and despite the foes’ attempted rapprochement, they are “drownded in the tide” and conquered. That they are sleeping is fascinating, as it was Socrates (through Plato) who evinced that society needs a gadfly to pester it when it falls into a somnific and obstinate state so society will wake up and notice that the times are changing. When I look out to the horizon I can hear the slightest melody as it lingers in the ocean waiting once again for the sands to “roll out a carpet of gold” because the “whole wide world is watchin'” and waiting for the hour that the ship comes in.

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