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Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #6: “MoneyGrabber” By Fitz and the Tantrums

26 Dec

And it works because there are six people in the band!

Michael Fitzpatrick is industrious. He is also quite ambitious. While most people suffer post-break-up torpor, Fitzpatrick responded to a break-up by choosing to release his energy into canorous, Motown-esque, music. Music that fuses bitter lyrics with lively rhythm and melodies. Shortly after a break-up, he began making music, and in 2008, after receiving a call from the same ex-girlfriend that inspired him to make music in the first place, Fitzpatrick acquired an organ that her friend wanted to given away, and started to pump out hit, after hit, after hit. Talk about a muse.

He envisioned the need for horns in his musical compositions so he called on a college friend and saxophonist named James King who joined Fitzpatrick’s musical pursuits. The guitar-less sounds were pretty sweet so he decided to keep the six strings out of it. He then figured he would need a full band and a female vocalist. At King’s suggestion, Fitzpatrick called on soul vocalist Noelle Scaggs. A few more phone calls to other instrumentalists brought the bunch together and after the first rehearsal Fitzpatrick sensed they were ready to play a gig. Wait, what? After one rehearsal. Like I said, Fitzpatrick had a vision and, well, was lucky enough to meet it quickly.

One week after the initial rehearsal, Fitzpatrick booked the band’s first show and, you know what they say, the rest was/is history. It is current history. The band is on our 2011 list.

Lesson learned - Michael Fitzpatrick reacts best to negative love events.

Pickin’ Up The Pieces, the band’s debut release, was released in 2010, but the song featured in our countdown was released as a single in 2011 so it counts. What is perhaps most humorous about the 2010 album is the place of recording. The band couldn’t afford a studio so opted to record the album in Fitzpatrick’s living room – which was not soundproofed. The carefree nature expressed in the melodies was also evident in this situation where the band chose to just go with it.

Fitz and the Tantrum’s musical styling may come off as a direct homage to the sweet Motown soul and gritty Stax soul of the 1960s. The band makes use of the Motown organ, an airy, bubbly, and inviting organ that was popularized by bands like Motown’s Four Tops. But there is something else there. I believe it can best be described as 60’s R&B/soul a la Indie flavoring with drippings of 80s new wave. A tasty harmonious concoction.

“MoneyGrabber” begins with the pre-described organ that supports a percussion introduction and even some echoed ohs. And then BAM! The song explodes with sound. The horns sound off over heavy percussion and Fitzpatrick and Scaggs scream out (with excellent vocal interplay):

Don’t come back anytime, you’ve already run me dry
This is your pay back, money grabber

I think we know where this song is going. The verse features Fitzpatrick singing over a simple keyboard and light percussion. It is very stripped down. There is almost something Talking Heads or just David Byrne about his voice and demeanor. The song then enters the chorus on the tail of rising horns and then we get to experience the diapason again. And if there is any question of what the song is about how do you like the lyric featured in this amazing Sly and the Family Stone-like bridge:

One. Two. Leave
One is for the money
Two is for the greed
And three times that I told you you’re the one
I just don’t need

Just awesome!

Top Ten Songs of 2011 – #7: “Battery Kinzie” by Fleet Foxes

23 Dec

Waiting for Helplessness Blues, the follow-up to Fleet Foxes’ eponymous first release in 2008, was like waiting for a New York Jets superbowl. It just never felt like it would come, despite how long I patiently waited. Robin Pecknold, lead singer, songwriter, and a whole bunch of other things, originally said the album would be released in 2009, but because of touring and other time constraints this was pushed back to 2010 and finally May of 2011. Honestly, I don’t even think that Pecknold and the band thought that there would be such demand for the second album. It probably caught them by surprise. They are pretty awesome though, so, they shouldn’t have expected less. Luckily, unlike a Jets Superbowl appearance in my lifetime, Helplessness Blues was released in May of 2011, an extremely successful body of 12 tracks that was received well by critics and fans alike.

The Foxes are Fleet!

After listening to the album once through I was also satisfied. It was seemingly a mirror image of the first release, but I had no problem with that. Fleet Foxes is a baroque folk band concentrating on mellifluous melodies, harmonious harmonies, and skilled acoustic instrumentation. Pecknold, whose father was in The Fathoms, a local Seattle 60s band, and guitarist Skyler Skjelset idolized artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Brian Wilson, while they grew up and went to high school in a suburb of Seattle. When they began to make music and perform it, critics noticed that they were insanely talented in the songwriting and harmony categories. It was pretty clear from the start that they were going to make it. And, make it they did.

“Battery Kinzie” is not the favorite off the new album for most people. That would be the album’s title track “Helplessness Blues,” a passionate track that takes on a Mumford & Sons feel with rising crescendo (something that Mumford and Sons – Fleet Foxes British Folk counterpart – does in every one of their songs). It’s a wonderful piece and I do enjoy listening to it, but, it is not the best song on the album. That spot is reserved for “Battery Kinzie,” a song that tells the story of a man trying to get his love back and failing (the man appears as a motif in this semi-concept album and he does get back with the girl at the end of the album which is good if you like happy endings.)

So why is this song better? First off, I absolutely love that it hits you right away. Within the first 25 seconds of the song, the listener gets this pounding rhythm, an effortlessly strummed acoustic guitar, and Fleet Foxes’ trademark blend of sweet, sweet harmony. Pecknold belts out:

I woke up one morning
All my fingers rotting
I woke up a dying man, without a chance

The song rises like a man getting out of bed with a sharp sun puncturing and reflecting off the glass. But it does take a bit of a dark turn that strays away from the happy melody. This dark turn remains for the rest of depressing song. The instrumentation serves as a bit of a contradiction to the lyric. But, when looking into this some more, I actually feel that it’s apt. The music is constant and pretty static. It is wonderfully crafted, but it does not change much. There remains the pounding percussion, same three chords, and similar harmony. I think the song represents a moment in time so well because of this constancy. And that is at least lyrically what the song was supposed to convey.

My favorite portion is the chorus. The harmony is delightful. Do not wander through the dawn. The line is held out with delicate harmony. The song works so well and perhaps this is because it is a tight, short piece with no true opportunity for failure. I think, while it does seem like a bridge song, “Battery Kinzie” highlights the true strength of Fleet Foxes. Percussion, acoustics, and harmony.

Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #8: “High Hawk Season” by The Mountain Goats

22 Dec

John Darnielle wrote the most prescient and topical song of the year. He totally predicted Occupy Wall Street. Those are two weighty comments. Don’t worry, I’ll explain this odd coincidence. I will also profile the number eight song on our countdown, “High Hawk Season,” which appears on The Mountain Goats’ like 400th album (13th studio album) All Eternals Deck which was released in late March.

I do seem to favor the work of John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats on this blog. I will not deny my bias. But can you blame me? Darnielle seems to release an album every month and every single album demonstrates musical maturity, lyrical precision, passion, and pure awesomeness. “High Hawk Season,” my favorite song on the new album, exemplifies all of these outlined attributes. Darnielle, as I’ve said many times before, is one of the greatest artists in the last 20 years. And while crowning a singer/songwriter with a cult-like following may seem baseless, well, why don’t you listen to his music.

These are what Mountain Goats look like when domesticated.

The Mountain Goats are John Darnielle, Peter Hughes (bass), and Jon Wurster (drums). Throughout the 90s, Darnielle released a lot of low-fi recordings and his music grew from there. Darnielle is consummate lyricist and this is his most noticeable strength. He also plays a mean acoustic guitar and has a distinctive nasally croon.

All Eternals Deck, was the Mountain Goats’ follow-up to one of their best albums (in my opinion) The Life of the World to Come, which featured twelve tracks, each one inspired by (and titled after) a single verse of the Christian bible. All Eternals Deck is a solid effort as a whole. It’s title refers to a set of fictional tarot cards (keep this in mind). But “High Hawk Season” elevates beyond its supporting tracks.

Now I say this prediction stuff in jest…mostly. The coincidence is pretty odd and humorous. “High Hawk Season,” as you will see by the lyrics, is a plea for a youth uprising. Darnielle beckons his listener to “rise if your sleeping” and “stay awake” because the “heat’s about to break.” As you know, the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t begin until September. The album with the title referring to tarot cards was released in March. Okay, you say, so what. He didn’t mention New York, right? Actually, he did. This is the last verse of the song (in case you missed it):

Who will rise and who will sing?
Who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?
Surge forward from Van Cortlandt Park like frightened sheep
Spirit throngs that hoist us high, three thousand warriors deep
Spray our dreams on any surface where the paint will stick
Try to time the rhythm, listen for the click

Van Cortlandt Park is a park in the Bronx. He was off by 16 miles. That’s not too shabby. Take a look at that powerful lyric as well. Darnielle talks of a “throng” of “warriors” standing their ground and “spray(ing)” dreams on surfaces that will stick. Now if I was going to over-analyze this like a good English major, I would say that the spraying of the dreams and paint represents the signs and words and ideas (because a painting truly is at first an idea like all things), and the sticky surface would be the media that lapped up the coverage like a thirsty dog. The lyric is humorously on target. And, yes, you can say he was inspired by the Middle Eastern civilian rebellions, but, come on, he mentions New York.

The song itself is also memorable. It features barbershop quartet/monk-like background singers that provide this religiously lachrymose backdrop. Darnielle sings the verse in a very observational tone, as if he is simply explaining what is going on. The call-and-response chorus is a treat. I feel as if I can imagine Darnielle singing this in some tenebrous dystopia where, I don’t know, “the heat’s about it break.” The song remains entertaining but somewhat complacent until after the two minute mark where a light shines on Darnielle and he belts out the chorus like a call to action.

“Rise if your sleeping, stay awake. We are young supernovas and the heat’s about to break.”

Top 10 Songs of 2011 – #9: “Breaking Down” by Florence and the Machine

21 Dec

Get ready for the show...

I’d say we got off to a pretty summery start to our top 10 countdown yesterday. If that doesn’t strike a memory chord for you, read the first of our top 10 songs of 2011 countdown here. Let’s not waste any more time with pleasantries and dive into #9.
#9: “Breaking Down” by Florence and the Machine
While I did mention that “Shake it Out” just missed our top 10 countdown, I said nothing about songs by Florence and the Machine (FTM) missing the countdown altogether. There are 11 more tracks to FTM’s Ceremonials, their second full-length LP that was released to positive reviews in late October. And one of those tracks happens to be a work of composed passion, a four-minute horripilating piece about loneliness and depression that takes on the heavy form of a climaxing soliloquy in a Shakespearean work. Okay, that may be a bit of an over-exaggeration, but the song moves away from traditional FTM and into mature, epic proportions.

Most people know of Florence and the Machine because of their rapid 2009 rise to the top of the charts. Florence Welch, lead singer of the band of her creation, is quite a renaissance vocalist. This is partly why I mentioned Shakespeare before. Her mother is a Harvard-educated Professor of Renaissance Studies and Academic Dean of Arts at Queen Mary, University of London. She did acquire an appreciate for art…and a rangy, bluesy, soul-seeking croon that can tackle ballads and fast-paced rock hits. Welch experienced a meteoric rise to popularity, understandably, and has suffered from depression – a genetic disposition – which acts as a muse for this particular piece. She has also become quite a fashion icon for female performers known for long, flowing gowns and untraditional dress. She describes it as, “Lady of Shalott meets Ophelia … mixed with scary gothic bat lady.” Hence the Shakespeare reference and, for that matter, Tennyson!

Lungs, FTM’s first release, was a gigantic success. Ceremonials, their follow-up, will most likely develop into more of a success as the band supports the album with a tour and the album matures on iPod playlists. While “Breaking Down” was not released as a single – and I understand why a piece that may not be accessible to all would not be a single – it is definitely the most interesting on the album. It is also the number nine song of the year. Perhaps if I had a little more time with it, it may have shot up our charts as well. But for now it’s number nine and here it is.

Now, before I begin the analysis, let me just say that I understand that Florence and the Machine do experiment with an Indie/Baroque pop flavoring, so the play on classical instrumentation and complete-song crescendo should not be surprising. But I do believe that this song represents something far beyond a sprinkle of seasoning. This is a true baroque/art masterpiece and I’m glad that Florence is bringing musical art back into the mainstream. Well, the semi-mainstream I guess. I also want to give a credit to the sort-of unknown soldier in FTM – Isabella Summers – who along with playing keyboards, provides invaluable programming support.

The drums carry a moderate beat that immediately backs up a keyboard’s twangy echo playing a spacey riff and a whole bunch of mood-setting strings. Florence’s vocal control is extraordinary in every sense of that word. It is abnormally succesful. She is able to evoke emotion and passion while remaining composed. She has proven to us time and time again that she can belt it, but she waits. She builds the scene. She sets the stage, in other words. She personifies her depression (at least that’s what I take the foreboding, creeping presence as) and describes how it nears her and touches her.

Rising strings lead to a chorus of whispery ohs, a part that are both frightening and strangely welcoming. But before we can find ourselves comfortable, it jumps back to the verse that features an even more quiet Florence, as if she is singing in her room, in the dark, by herself, waiting for whatever’s coming to get her.

Towards the end of the song you can sense a climax and the lyrics hint to it. The force penetrates her and for a brief moment Florence belts out the lyric “breaking down” but then falls back to a lull, not a monotone, but a lull.

This is a perfect example of vocal precision, passion, and productivity. The three P’s to a good vocal performance. She has a message, displays it well, and does so with such force and delivery that the listener is left in awe. A vocal masterstroke. I’d love to hear more like this!

Top 10 of 2011 – #10: “Summer Song” by Matt Duncan

20 Dec
And it begins! The top 10 of 2011 begins with, well, number 10. The owner of this home is Matt Duncan and his infectious throwback “Summer Song.” Matt Duncan is a “sporadically ambitious nobody, reluctant bandleader, and eremitic songwriter/producer. From Lexington, Kentucky.”
Hey, don’t look at me, you see the quotes. This is the description that Duncan gives on his website. He has been in bunch of bands in Lexington over the years.  Duncan released an album/EP entitled Beacon in 2010 on the Lexington label Hip Hop. It can be purchased here for $4. He, in August of 2011, released single entitled “Summer Song.” It is free…for now. It can be listened to below and purchased, or rather, acquired here. It is catchy as hell so be warned.
Matt Duncan, while currently an enigmatic figure to me, will soon be well known. I obviously have no control over this but I do have this handy blog format to describe to you why “Summer Song” is an exceptional song that most definitely deserves to be in our top 10 countdown and on most people’s iPods or whatever music listening device. By now I will presume you have listened to the hit. Let’s talk about it, shall we.
With the rising popularity of bands like Fitz and the Tantrums, indie/soul is on the up. I personally love the Motown/soul sound and these retro performers and songs evoke doo-wop, coordinated dance moves, and names like the Four Tops and the Temptations. Music that can/will make you smile. Music that will also latch on and never let go. Seriously, you can mention “My Girl” or “I Can’t Help Myself” and the songs will get stuck in my head. Damn! “Summer Song” evokes a similar feeling. It is a fun-loving, uplifting song equipped with deep harmonies, moving horns, and even an end-of-song funk breakdown.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the band behind Duncan on this song.
Ryan Moore- Euphonium, Trombone, Evan Belt- Trumpet, Andrew English- Lead Guitar, Larry DeVivo- Mastering
I love when the impact of all can be clearly deciphered in a song. The arrangement of this song is masterful. The song begins with rhythmic snapping and some talented baritones providing this insanely catchy bass-like riff similar to the “My Girl” opening bass line. This neatly glides into the first part of the vocal. Matt Duncan’s smooth, Paul Simon-like vocal is balanced out initially by some doo-wop like back-up singers, and then by lively horns. Let me say that the bass in this song is wonderfully done. In a lively song with soul elements, an excellent bass is essential. And that bass was provided by Duncan – so were the rhythm guitar, piano, saxophone, backing vocals, and drums.
I absolutely love the beginning, and the verses, in my opinion, are stronger than the chorus. The verses transport me back to an ideal soulful late 60s scene. The chorus is well done, but the verse progression is magical. The second verse premieres what sounds like a muffled euphonium, but, it can also be the trombone. This washes over Duncan’s vocal like a warm wave or a cool beach breeze.
After the second chorus, the baritone brigade is welcomed back to the recording and it introduces my favorite part of the song. A melodious vocal harmony replaces the baritones- a cappella – jam-packed with snapping, humming and a bit of delayed overlay. Then the drums come back in and Duncan jumps into a falsetto that he holds over a funky, Jackson 5-like guitar riff that remains in the background of a horn version of the chorus and a neat guitar solo. The song ends on a perfect little twist on the lyric “Summer Song” and, just like that, summer ends.
In a way this song is a microcosm of a summer day at the beach. You ride in on the low groan of a car’s engine, are welcomed by the bright sun and sea breeze, play in the steamy orange sand and salty seawater, and then, just like that, it’s gone. But boy, it was one hell of a day – and song.
By the way, Duncan hopes to tour once he finishes his full-length so keep an eye out.
There you have it. “Summer Song” is #10. Tune in tomorrow for #9 as the countdown continues!
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