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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.

The Top 10 Songs of 2016 – 3, 2, 1 … Happy New Year

31 Dec

#3: “All We Ever Knew” by The Head and The Heart

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Seattle is hotbed of musical talent, The Head and the Heart is just another success story from the Emerald Story. That said, The Head and the Heart do not all originate from Seattle; instead, many of the band’s members are Seattle transplants who found a home performing at a local open mic. The band quickly took off from there, and have come a long way from selling handmade denim sleeves of self-burned copies of its first album at local shows. Now, the band has toured extensively with several Indie outlets like Vampire Weekend, Iron & Wine, and Death Cab for Cutie. The year 2016 saw the release of the band’s third LP Signs of Light and the title track is the #3 song of 2016.

It is no surprise that “All We Ever Knew” found immediate alt/rock chart success. It’s anthemic, featuring strong percussion, jubilant vocal harmonies, diverse keys, and a string-laden bridge. The song features the same melodic structure, but it transforms several times with instrumental and rhythm. It is the upper echelon of alt/rock and representative of a band at the top of its game.

#2: “Genghis Khan” by Miike Snow

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“Genghis Khan” by Swedish Indie Pop trio Miike Snow was officially released as a single in December of 2015, but found its way on the band’s third studio album, iii, which was released in March of this year. Thus, the #2 song of 2016 is the aforementioned “Genghis Khan,” and if not for an impassioned release from Radiohead, the song would be #1

Miike Snow, a three piece made up of a duo of childhood friends who became consummate producers and a strong session vocalist from the U.S., came to prominence in 2009 with the release of “Animal,” a tremendously catchy song that demonstrated the skill of the band.

“Genghis Khan” just indicates the continued musical maturity of the band. The song is almost unspeakably infectious and dance-inducing. A true ear-worm, the song is carried by swinging synth and percussion and a vocal riff that sticks to a listener’s vocal cords; try listening to the song and not at least humming along to the riff. There is a bit of an insatiable quality to the song, a craving to listen to it on repeat. That is the mark of a successful producing. Paired with a video that is a twist on a classic James Bond scene, the song is a marvel.

#1: “Daydreaming” by Radiohead

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I mean this as no disrespect to the other bands on the 2016 list, but Radiohead is in a class of its own. “Daydreaming,” the Music Court’s choice for best song of 2016, was released on the band’s ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, the first release from the band in five years. In a few words A Moon Shaped Pool depicts Radiohead’s malleable adeptness and Thom Yorke’s lyrical sophistication. “Daydreaming” evidences why Radiohead is one of the best bands releasing music today; while most bands find a niche and stick to it intransigently, Radiohead is constantly finding ways to push the boundaries of music.

The song is like modern art. There is so much to it even though one only ostensibly hears an ambient, melancholic piano motif. And when I mention complexity I am not even talking about the behind-the-scenes electronic elements, spooky vocal effects, and bookended pitch-warping. There is pain in the lyric, Yorke’s effortless voice tinged with inherent sadness and eerie airiness. The video, which was directed by renowned film director Paul Thomas Anderson, features Yorke walking through several doors to disconnected areas, seems to suggest the inevitable passing of time, and the somewhat desultory rhythm of the progression of one’s life. At around the four minute mark, the song begins to crescendo, each element becoming crisper and more defined. Yorke’s vocal becomes more strained and fragmented until the song concludes with Yorke, in the video, walking through snow to a cave and then lying by a fire while low-tuned cellos growl and Yorke repeats an incoherent, warped vocal, which is a apt; in the end, does anything make sense?

Top 10 Songs of 2016 – #9 (“Sweet Disaster” by DREAMERS and #8 (“Way Down We Go” by Kaleo)

26 Dec

And the list continues … We are in a bit of a time crunch, so until we reach the crux of the list, I am counting down two songs at a time. Outside of the fact that both the #9 and #8 songs of the year are considered alternative rock, there cannot be more different about DREAMERS and Kaleo – although Iceland, the hometown of Kaleo, is starting to seem more and more like Los Angeles, where DREAMERS is originally from, with all of the creative musicians spawning from the country of fire and ice. That said, I will take them for the way different musicians and we will start with #9.

#9 – “Sweet Disaster” by DREAMERS

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DREAMERS – I don’t suggest you click that link if you are prone to epileptic fits – is a 3-piece eccentric psychedelic pop band who released their first LP in August of this year, and is thus a burgeoning artist on the scene. The album title, This Album Does Not Exist, is a perfect representation of DREAMERS – a band that almost wasn’t whose demeanor is now one of inclusive existentialism. This message is conveyed through a blend of several musical influences – a little Grouplove mixed with Miike Snow mixed with the psychedelic pop of the late 1960s. Add in a little good humor and take out all musical inhibition, and you have DREAMERS.

“Sweet Disaster” begins with a strung-out California-inspired guitar riff that carries over wispy percussion that provides subtle power to the vocal. At the choral crash, the instrumental turns more electronic, depending on astral synth under the pounding percussion. For a song on the early side of three minutes, DREAMERS packs in some noticeable complexity including a power-pop pre-chorus, key-driven bridge, and technically-impressive drumming towards the end. The song is just the beginning for this exciting band, and totally worthy of a spot on our countdown.

#8 – “Way Down We Go” by Kaleo

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Kaleo is the next big thing from Iceland, a country that has brought us Of Monsters and Men, Seabear, and Bjork. Iceland is a hotbed of new music, and this oxymoronic introductory clause is an excellent symbolic representation of the music scene in the country, one that is setting the world ablaze while remaining true to its icy, dark roots. Kaleo does just that.

Kaleo, a 4-piece carried by the powerful vocals of JJ Julius Son, was founded in 2012 and released an eponymous first LP in 2013. By 2014, the band received heavy play from Spotify and it didn’t take long before Atlantic Records came knocking. While 2015 saw the release of the single listed here is the #8 song of the year, “Way Down We Go” was a track off Kaleo’s second LP A/B (released in June of 2016), and it was released as a single in the U.S. in October of 2016, so it is eligible for best song of the year consideration. Here it is on our list at #8.

JJ Julius Son’s voice is so soothing, is it not? It just effortlessly draws the listener in and then blows the listener back with its raw grittiness. The song is clearly carried by this tremendous vocal, but I would be averse not to mention the band’s haunting harmonies, heavy, toe-tapping percussion, and equally impressive guitar. The song finishes with a granular moan, and this reflects the entire piece, one of untested fervor, a song from a band that is willing to take risks and rock.

Top 10 Songs of 2016 – #10: “Ain’t No Man” by The Avett Brothers

24 Dec

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It is apropos that we begin this year’s countdown with a song off The Avett Brothers’ aptly-titled 9th studio album True Sadness. While the clamor labeling 2016 as one of the worst years in recent memory is a bit hyperbolic and overstated, The Avett Brothers’ hometown of North Carolina is no longer classified as a Democracy any longer, so perhaps there is legitimacy to those hoping 2016 let’s the door hit it on its way out in a week. That said, music in 2016 was at least halfway decent, and that means the annual Music Court’s Top 10 Songs countdown is underway. So, in a year of mostly downs, I bring you song number 10.

“Ain’t No Man” is carried by the best bass riff of the year. It is easily the best. The jaunty bass is splashed with clapping percussion and the jocular harmonic jabs of Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, the purveyor of the aforementioned bass riff. The song is the genius of the Avetts, fit with an in-studio genesis from the musically-inclined brothers (oddly enough not the only brothers on the list).  The song stomps with a confident and bold lyric, which I’d say is needed to be listened to on repeat over the next week prior to entering the new year. Here’s the chorus:

There ain’t no man that can save me
There ain’t no man that can enslave me
Ain’t no man or men that can change the shape my soul is in
There ain’t nobody here
Who can cause me pain or raise my fear ’cause I got only love to share
If you’re looking for truth I’m proof you’ll find it there

It is akin to puzzle pieces connecting when a lyric fits a song. The potent, positive message just reflects the song’s joyful instrumental revelry. It is a ditty, topping out at 3:30 soaking wet, and it feels even quicker than that, so, take it from me, the song is best listened to on repeat.

#9 soon to come …

Musical Dialect – Jock-a-Mo

13 Nov

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In Mark Twain’s renowned bildungsroman Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain begins the novel with a disclaimer that reads:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

Twain’s quest of dialectic accuracy is, as he explains, painstaking, and any biography of the man would suggest that his ear for language was only rivaled by his perfectionist intransigence, a trait that made his texts all the more wonderful. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim, an escaped slave, speaks to Huck, the book’s protagonist, in the “Missouri Negro Dialect,” a rich (and hard to understand) patois that is most similar to Creole.

Tomorrow, my students will learn about dialects and how they shape Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so, because dialects are on my mind (and because I have already mentioned Creole), I figured a post on  “Iko Iko (Jock-A-Mo)” would be germane.

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The story of this revered Mardi Gras piece (that has since been covered by musicians from Dr. John to The Grateful Dead to Aaron Carter – I kid you not) starts with Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters, who unsuccessfully released the song as “Jock-A-Mo” in 1953. The song was popularized more than a decade later when The Dixie Cups released it as “Iko Iko” and scored an international hit; Sugar Boy (James Crawford) sued and got songwriting credits. If you don’t think you know the song, listen. You know it, right.

The song has reached the level of musical ubiquity, as it is the classic New Orleans tune. It also features a chorus that is a completely different language. A chorus that has been sung by many karaoke listeners and mispronounced and misphrased; I do it all the time. Actually, this is the first time I have learned what in the heck is said in the chorus of this song; I have usually just relied on my flawed ear and equally errant pipes. What is the chorus?

Hey now! Hey now!
Iko iko wan dey
Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey
Jock-a-mo fi na ney.

And, of course, because nothing is easy in the world of old dialects, there are several opinions of what this means. Well, every word after the “Hey Now”; we are confident in our translation of those welcoming words. Let’s start with where these words come from.

According to a Mental Floss article in a “2009 article in the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat,” the author showed the song to a “local linguistics professor” in Ghana who concluded that the song’s famous chorus was borne from a West African language. A linguistics professor in the U.S., however, concluded that the lyric is from a “mixture of Yoruba and French Creole.” Creole is a combination of European and African dialects, and Yoruba is spoken in Nigeria. Thus, both linguistics professors were close.

What do the lines mean? We don’t know for sure, but here is one thought from American Blues Scene:

Iko! Iko! is Akout! Akout! (Creole)
“Listen! Listen!”

Iko! Iko! An Day is Akout! Akout! An Deye (Creole)
“Listen! Listen! At the rear”

Jocomo Fee No An Dan Day is Chokma Finha an dan deye (a mixture of half Native American, half Creole)
“It’s very good, at the rear”

Jocomo Fee Nan Nay is Chokma Finha – Ane (a mixture of half Native American, half Creole)
“It’s a very good year!”

And, yet another translation from the U.S. Linguistics Professor.

Iko! Iko! is Enòn, Enòn!
“Code Language!”

Iko! Iko! An Day is Aiku, Aiku nde.
“God is watching.”

Jocomo Fee No is Jacouman Fi na
“Jacouman causes it”

An Dan Day is ida-n-de
“We will be emancipated.”

Jocomo Fee Nan Nay is Jacouman Fi na dé
“Jacouman urges it; we will wait.”

Moral of the story? We may never know for sure what the lyrics mean, but it is fine singing them, so, like Mardi Gras, just enjoy!

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