Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ah, Music

It's pretty rare for me to listen to music and not wish I was in some way involved in it; writing it, playing it, giving someone a line that is put into the lyrics and, in rare occasions, dating the singer (Feist!).

I've long since given up any idea of doing much more than actually owning an instrument. I'm so out of practice with the guitar that when the rare urge strikes me to play, I'll pick it up for a short period, realize I'd have to practice daily for months to get back to where I was when I played often, and then I put it down in frustration. Obviously not the way to go if I want to get any better, but really the guitar itself does very little for me as a solo instrument. If I could sing, I might be more inclined to play. If you've ever passed me in the car or taken a road trip with me, you know I love to sing, but I'm terrible at it. Really, really terrible. That's not the guitar's fault but he must be punished for my shortcomings anyway.

I can only name a few songs where the guitar itself has actually stood out and made me take note (that wasn't a pun, I swear), and often it's only a
few, short seconds. Even more rare is a full, guitar only instrumental that can keep my attention. But when it happens, it's glorious. I'm looking at you, "Elevator Beat" by Nancy Wilson.

I on occasion ponder the idea of picking up the cello. Not so much for the instrument itself - though I'm fond of it - but for the ridiculous mental image I for some reason have of me playing it. I see myself at my 6' tall window, shades drawn back and window open to the outside world, my form dimly lit by the moonlight as I play, shirtless and weeping. None of those things except playing by the window would actually happen, but my brain is pretty convinced that is how it would all go down. I might be wearing some sort of hat while it all happens too.

Most music is made up of small, pleasant moments to me. I've had to curb the way I suggest music to friends because I always want to say, "you should listen to this song because at 3:15 there is a bridge where the vocals crack for just a moment right when the violin in the background increases tempo and..." That doesn't work for most people, I've found, though one or two friends appreciate and share similar fondness-es.

There are countless songs that I am of the opinion that none should live without, and it's the whole song that I love, but there are always tiny fragments that really make it for me. They tend to have certain portions that I could happily replay over and over. It could be literally 3 seconds of a specific compilation of sounds, or one word sung in a pleasing way, or of course a specific phrase or lyric that resonates in me. A few of my favorite examples:

Gomez - "Tijuana Lady"

I'm not really all that big a fan of Gomez. At least, there's far more that they've done that I dislike more than I like. A lot of it has to do with their multiple singers. I'm not fond of any of them except Ben Ottewell. But they don't have to have a flawless history to make an amazing song.
Ben has a voice that I only know how to describe as "dusty". When I first heard them, his vocals made me conjure an image of a tall fellow with dark hair and, for some reason, a duster. Turns out he's just a normal looking guy with glasses. Who'd have thought?

The appeal for me in this track is mostly in the chorus. Ben sings dustily and is unexpectedly joined by a female singer that I've never really taken the time to identify. A friend once described her voice as "warbly" which I suppose works as well as any other adjective. Perhaps "husky". So often duets of this nature end up, in my opinion, with one singer dominating and certainly this is often the desired result but just as often it isn't. Or at least, feels like it shouldn't be. These two manage to intertwine in such a way that many times you're not sure which one of them you're focusing on. The voices become homogeneous yet somehow still very independent.

The guitar is picked lightly during the chorus and only really stands out when the singers rest and the ever descending notes feel almost like steps towards the next vocals. Steps you can't help but ascend.

Mogwai - "Small Children in the Background

A much-loved all instrumental track. It starts quietly, the silence covered with a slight layer of static. Gentle hints of cymbals while the drums pickup softly; at least, softly as any drums can. Crisp, long notes from the guitar hang all over the air, lazily picked at first but more defined with purpose as the song progresses. The crash of the cymbal intensifies along with the guitar until there is just a thick fog of music that rises up, the drums punctuating through the mist so that you cannot miss them. They aggressively attack you and suddenly cease where you expected them to march on, and right when you think it's about to all come down to silence, it explodes. It overwhelms you for a mere 20 seconds and then it unexpectedly drops. The static still permeates the silence but you can tell the quiet is starting to overcome. Deep bass rolls through your chest and the guitar - more talk than action now - sinks back into lethargy as everything starts to spread out and fade until only static is left, which cuts abruptly, leaving you with nothing but silence and goosebumps.

Sigur Rós - "Njósnavélin"

One of their only tracks I can spell without looking at the album. I have about 10 versions of this song and I have been for years unable to decide which one I feel is the defining one. It's a rare situation where the studio version is actually in the running for that honor, which goes as "Untitled Track 4" on the album ( ).
This one I partially love because of the song itself, and partially because it was burned into me when I watched Vanilla Sky.
There's nothing that isn't amazing about this song. The slow lead-in, ethereal guitar hauntingly humming in the background, the deep yet soothing drums echoing, the sharp, strong strings picking up the softness and making way for the vocals (which, I'll warn you ahead of time, are gibberish). I struggled often to put meaning to the words before I learned that this whole album is in Volensak / Hopelandic which is Sigur Ros-ian for "made-up". That's right, all the lyrics are in a made-up language. I suppose that means that you get to apply your own meaning to the songs. And I like that.
But before I knew all of this, I landed on believing the lyrics were, "You sigh alone - you sigh alone; not for long," which was both incredibly sad and incredibly uplifting all at once.

Feist - "Intuition"

Her live show at the Ryman won me over on this one. I'm usually pretty against crowd participation as far as them singing along is concerned; I go to listen to the band, not the crowd. Yet my evil looks under a furrowed brow never seem to deter them. This time, the crowds involvement made it better.

She sings:
"And it's impossible to tell how important someone was
and what you might have missed out on
and how you might have changed it all
and how you might have changed it all for him...
and how you might have changed it all
and how you might have changed it all for him..."

The last part of the final verse...the guitar fades and she follows up with, "Did I? Did I?" and the question just hangs in the air, expecting an answer that never comes. The only response is the slight echo as it is swallowed by the large room. She repeats herself and again it hangs uncomfortably, still unanswered against all odds though accompanied by a single plucked string of the guitar. A third time she asks; again no response. Once more, desperately...and nothing. Powerful and demanding this time, she shouts her question out and the crowd answers her with the same, "Did I? Did I?"
Clearly no one has the answer she's looking for and she closes with, "Did I miss out on you?"

Radiohead and PJ Harvey - "The Mess We're In"

Well, I guess it's Thom Yorke with PJ Harvey. There's a section around 2:45 in where Thom starts singing, "what was it you wanted?", repeated by PJ as soon as he finishes. This happens once more with the start of line two, "I just want to say..." but their roles are then reversed mid-sentence as PJ quickly finishes this line, "...don't ever change" before Thom does. The rest of the bridge follows this order with PJ speaking first followed by Thom singing same lines (with small differences between them as shown in parenthesis):

What were you wanting / (what was it you wanted)?
I just want to say....
...don't ever change / (don't ever change now baby)

and thank you-

I don't think we will meet again
and you must leave now / (and you must sleep now)

before the sun rises - over the skyscrapers / (above skyscrapers)
and the city landscape comes into view.
sweat on my skin...oh...

Thom starts to fall behind ever so slowly as the lyrics continue until PJ is often overlapping him with her line while he is still finishing up the previous one. It sounds like it'd be messy when reading about it, but they manage to compliment rather than clash. The bridge completes with a final lyric that they both say together; "this mess we're in..." Chilling and powerful.

Ani Difranco - "Soft Shoulder"

One of my favorites from her. Every part of it. However it's a fine example of a song that has small parts that I could happily rewind over and over.

A few great lyrics;
"And I danced to one of your old tunes- with my true love on our wedding day" Great lines, plus the way she emphasizes "day" is very pleasing.

And the last line:
"We had barely said hello...and it was say 'goodbye' "

There is a unusual guitar moment here; the guitar mostly rides backseat during this whole trip but tries to be a backseat driver, taking the wheel for a second around 3:49. Two sharp notes arise and then there is some sliding done with dangerous timing, each following note held until the absolute last second before breathlessly jumping to the next.

Queens of the Stoneage - "Go With the Flow"

Nothing really special about this band to me except but they have some fun songs. But they did manage to get at least two lines right when they came up with:
"I want something good to die for... make it beautiful to live"
I'd happily trade all of their other work for this ideal.

Since there's a thousand songs I could point out that have amazing pieces to them, I better stop before this gets out of control. I even left out a few of my prime examples, so you're welcome for the reprieve. Your job, anyone out there, is to share some similar songs if you have them and note what makes them standout. A vocal inflection? A guitar riff? Etc. I like to see what drives the emotions of others in this way.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Oh Holy Crap!

In a brief follow-up to a previous post where I describe my manly moment during an unexpected, small fall during rock climbing, I would like to point out that another such incident has occurred and I took it much better than the first occurrence. Given, this time I knew I was going to be descending, but I was not prepared for the rate at which it happened.

At the top of the 30ft wall, it was time to head back down and I pushed away from the wall as usual when suddenly I began rocketing towards the ground at a speed which I can only describe as terminal velocity. It took me slightly off guard as I had been about to land on the wall for a second push and I was aiming for a particularly good spot to do so when suddenly said spot shot up and out of view. Rather than a small hitch in the rope this time, the person belaying was simply trying out a slightly more elevated position for the rope to try and avoid any start/stop, jerky motions that tend to happen when lowering someone. He was successful.

Rather than the high-pitched, scream of terror I assumed would happen in such an event, I let out an ever so slightly less embarrassing cry of "oh holy crap!" or something along those lines, but I DID manage to do it in my regular voice, if at a much higher volume than normal.

Some of us found this whole event pretty entertaining.

When I successfully landed unharmed, I had to admit that the sheer speed of the descent was pretty thrilling. Rappelling at a rapid clip is one of my favorite parts of climbing, after all. And I'd not mind doing it again but I think the actual thrill came from the fact that for a few short seconds I thought I was actually falling and - upon landing - the joy of still being alive was pretty exceptional. I don't think it could be replicated by warning me that I'm going to be let down fast and it would always have to come as a surprise, with the obvious downside that the potential for a girly-scream would still be lurking just below the surface; ever-present.