Back in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, the odds were stacked in your favor if you were searching for traces of real people playing actual instruments. With the post-grunge, alternative craze you were likely to be hearing Jimmy Eat World, Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, Alien Ant Farm, and a host of other archetypical bands. Even in rap and hip hop, people were sticking to sampling real instruments (Eminem’s “My Name Is” has samples of real drum / guitar / bass backing, even into the mid 90’s Tribe Called Quest was sticking to jazz and motown samples, B.I.G. and Tupac were using legit tracks, etc etc).
Gone are those days. Yet, in a world gone completely nuts over everything being computer generated, hyper compressed and filled with a barrage of fat synth leads and pads, there has been a recent trend of minimalism. It conforms to but one rule: a single real instrument being played over a sequenced beat.
Case in point was 2007’s Crank That (Soulja Boy Tell’em)
This track single-handedly changed what was accepted in terms of production effort. The producers on this track made a hit with virtually no music present – just a single steel drum over simple drums and orchestral hits. There are legitimately three or four things going on – drums, steel drum line, orchestral hits, vocals. That’s it, that’s all. And it doesn’t change for the whole song. But it’s deadly in how catchy it is.
This concept has been (consciously?) noted by execs and used for good and for evil.
A relatively catchy, silly, well produced recent release: Thrift Shop by Mackelmore has a single alto sax line that repeats ad infinitum:
And finally, a total piece of shit – so bad it practically demands the listener to laugh (either out of wonder, horror, or just general uncomfortableness) every time. I present Michelle Obama by Lil’ Debbie feat. Riff Raf with a stupid fucking french horn line over a shitty skeleton of a beat.
Honorary mention to Yolanda Be Cool’s hit remix of We No Speak Americano for it’s digitally manipulated aggravating sax line!
Andrew Bird’s career arc is epitome of what any musician dreams of accomplishing. Though he began as a virtually unknown classically trained violinist / folk musician, he has built not only a remarkable worldwide fanbase, but created a unique image and an unbelievably characteristic sound through persistence and perseverance. On the past few LP’s, we’ve heard walls of sonic beauty created by violin lines over violin loops over violin loops over guitar over bass and drums, complimented by other bell instruments and virtuoso whistling. Not to mention the eloquence and subtlety of Bird’s voice, ranging from singing virtuoso passages full of wordplay to mumbling incoherent phrases to repeatedly humming just a few notes.
With Hands of Glory, Bird has returned to his midwestern roots. Where recently his bluesy, folksy violin background has been relatively contained, serving more as his influence (starting with 2003’s Weather Systems), Hands of Glory marks their full re-emergence. In fact, this album bears the most resemblance to The Swimming Hour and all of his older, pre-2003 Bowl of Fire releases. It is stripped down, down home-y, and artfully simple, sidestepping the scientific lingo on recent releases (calcium mines and measuring brains) and almost constant wordplay (“Anonimal”, for example). With this collection of country covers and album reworks, the listener is presented with lines such as “take your apples from the earth” and “if I needed you, would you come to me?”. Complicated riffs in 7/8 have been substituted with genuine sentiment over simple grooves – a testament to Bird’s musicality, versatility, as well as his ability to make heartfelt, stripped down music in 2012. The album feels like it was recorded in your living room; there are no barriers between artist and listener. That’s probably because it was recorded in a barn, around a single microphone.
In an today’s age of the explicit, Andrew Bird has managed to release an introspective, nuanced, minimalist, and beautiful album. And there’s no saying where he’ll go next. And that is a good thing.
You can go and stream the entire album for free here.
This is a fall album if I’ve ever heard one… seems like the perfect soundtrack for walking through fields of fallen leaves and apple picking all while drinking a hot cup of cider. Or trying to find a job. That too.
We took a break over the past few months. We’ll be back soon. In the meantime, check out my favorite song of the summer–Lil Wayne’s “Dear Summer.” It’s from a few years back, but it’s still dope as hell. Stay tuned!
Wow, it’s been a while. I got back from 5 weeks singing opera in Italy last week, with a layover in London. On my flight home from London, I sat next to a philosophy professor from UMass Boston. We spent quite a few of our 9 hours on the plane (lots of delays) trading music, and she showed me a bunch of really wonderful singer-songwriters.
The first one who really peaked my interest was a girl named Vienna Teng. I seem to have a predilection for female singer-songwriters. Her voice is beautiful, without the cutesy-ness of Regina Spektor (and all her sound-alikes). Her songs make me want to take a bubble bath with scented candles and let the sound wash over me. At the same time, they make me want to drive with all the windows down on Martha’s Vineyard at the end of summer when the leaves are starting to not be so green anymore.
My plane buddy recommended Teng’s album Inland Territory. It’s a perfectly crafted album about so many things that form a totally coherent whole. There’s “Grandmother Song,” a song from her judgmental grandmother’s point of view sung without any instruments behind her, “No Gringo,” a song about if the racism issues in Arizona were the other way around, and white Americans were the targeted group, and countless other excellent tracks (actually only 12).
My favorite of the moment is called Antebellum. I hope you like it. If you do, support her and get one of her many albums on Amazon, or iTunes, or from her website. She has to pay for grad school somehow. Her grandmother will be very happy.
Vienna Teng – Antebellum
A long while back in middle school, as I was discovering my first taste of independent music in the heyday of Drive-Thru records, I listened briefly to a group on their roster called Steel Train. For eighth grade me, they were nothing that really stood out compared to the other Drive-Thru bands that had captured my attention, and I went back to listening to The Early November and The Starting Line (nothing wrong with that!).
A few years later Lucas tried to tell me how good they were by sending me their cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” I became a little more interested and checked out “Better Love,” a song that details the lead singer, Jack Antonoff’s, high school relationship with…Scarlett Johansson. Yep. That would be a tough one to get over. Anyway, their music for some reason still didn’t hook me and thought that I would never really enjoy the band that much.
Cut to last week when I saw the cover of their new independently released self-titled album. I loved the album art immediately, and the image of the punk girl particularly struck me because I’ve been reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series recently.
Their most recent Self-Titled album plays out like a retrospective study on the last half decade of indie rock, which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing! There are Animal Collective-like whoops and hollers, chiming guitars that evoke Vampire Weekend, and a general epic feel that echos the recent Springsteen obsession of punk bands like the Gaslight Anthem
The standout track for me, however, is the pop abandon of “You Are Dangerous.” Piano and palm muted guitars periodically rise and fall over a stop-and-start rhythm section, which gradually builds to a catchy-as-hell post chorus guitar riff that makes me want to dance around forever. Add in some obligatory vocal “oohs” and you’ve got a great mid-summer jam.
With specific online purchases of the album the band is also giving away an alternate version with every track covered by a different female artist! This is a pretty sweet idea, and is made only better by the fact that Lexington native Amanda Palmer lays down her own version of Steel Train’s “Behavior.” Awesome!
Kinda last minute, seeing as it starts in like 3 hours, but looks like it will be a cool show! Magic Man, jamesDUNK, Michael Parallax tonight at 346 Putnam ave, Cambridge. 8:00 on tha dot. and it’s free! Check it out! byob, son. free shows in the summmmmmmmmer