Monday, June 20, 2016

Album Review: Oh Pep! Stadium Cake
Yes, Olivia and Pepita can see you.
Usually, if a music critic gives a review of an album or group you probably haven’t heard of, especially if they only review a few albums a year, it is probably a favorable review. After all, why would they bother reviewing it, then? However, that’s not exactly happening with this review.

I first encountered Oh Pep! through All Songs Considered, first in an episode and then in a NPR Tiny Desk Concert. After getting a taste, I was excited to listen to Oh Pep!’s first full length album, Stadium Cake, which is streaming this week on NPR’s First Listen series through Wednesday (6/22). What drew me to them? Mostly the song writing—interesting lyrics, fresh chord progressions, and highly-structured songs that aren’t the usual verse/chorus or ABABCB.

After listening to the album, I have to say that while I still think the songs are good, I have a beef with the production. It sounds to me like Oh Pep! is doing covers of their own songs. Or, to say it another way, they got in the studio and starting putting stuff in songs because “that’s what you do to songs in the studio, right?” I think this album would have been much better with less heavy-handed production, or maybe just different production.

For example, the bluesy guitar riff in “Seven Babies” messes up with otherwise might be a great song, like a greasy toupee dropped on the Thanksgiving turkey. “Tea Milk and Honey” would have worked so much better with a piano or guitar rather than the electronic instrument at the beginning; it’s definitely a relief when that instrument is replaced with Olivia's acoustic guitar as the song progresses. The group singalongs and layered vocals in "Crazy Feels" and "Wanting" both fall flat, too, along with other added synth sounds.

The album is it’s best when it focuses on the melody, lyric delivery, and acoustic sounds—like the atonal strumming “Bushwick,” the bi-tonal string hook in “Crazy Feels,” the violin riff in “Doctor, Doctor,” and the mandolin at the beginning of “Only Everyone” and "Trouble Now" (though some of the instrument solos could use some more virtuosic flare). Most other sounds get in the way, including the many of the layered vocals.

Despite the production missteps, the songs still come through, especially with “Doctor Doctor,” a poignant and emotional coming-of-age song about deciding whether to have an (unexpected?) baby, and a great example of how repeating the same lyric over and over again can be successful (this happens in other tracks; every lyric here is placed for a reason). Also, “The Race,” a lyrically genius track with melodies that accentuate the words, though this song also suffers from unsatisfactory production (mostly off-putting drum loops and too much change between sections).

I’m usually a bigger fan of the recording than the live set, but I’ll have to say that’s the opposite here. After listening to the album and then going back to the live Tiny Desk, the Tiny Desk set is just better. Just take the first song in the Tiny Desk set “The Race”—in the live version, Olivia communicates the words better, and somehow the accompaniment focuses the words, melody, and structure instead of distracting from it.*
Also, the album track seems to end suddenly, but the live version ends in just the right place. My theory is that the producer didn’t quite understand the radical song structures and so couldn’t quite sonically communicate them, while those structures seem totally natural in the live set. In these songs, just because something is repeated and at the end of a song, it doesn't mean it the "chorus" and should get the biggest instrumentation. Perhaps this production/structure misunderstanding is what happened to the “The Situation,” which sounds like the section and lyrics were loosely stitched together. "Only Everyone" actually has some good structure/instrumentation decisions, though still suffers from overproduction in the end.

So, in summary, I’m still not sure if I’m going to buy the album or just keep going back to the live Tiny Desk set. 

What do you think?

*I also think the tempos were slightly faster in the live set than the recording; or at least, the delivery seemed more immediate.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Program Notes for the Masses

A monument to Rheinberger in Liechtenstein, photo by Anke Jana

This coming Friday, April 29, I'm singing with the Oahu Choral Society as we present a concert of two masses, Bruckner's Mass in E minor and Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat (see the Oahu Choral Society's webpage for more details about the performance). I wrote the program notes for the concert and am posting them here, also, so that even if you can't come to the performance, you can enjoy the notes. Besides a brief listening roadmap, there's a short history lesson about the direction of Catholic church music in the 19th century, which I find fascinating.  

Masses are music set to fixed Latin lyrics, normally performed at weekly religious services. In Europe, the desire for new music for the frequent services led to an almost insatiable demand for more masses, especially in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many prominent composers registered their own submissions to the form, especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and Austria. Even Bach, though a Lutheran, wrote his own mass. In a compositional arms race, some of these masses became so complicated and required such large ensembles that only a very small number of church choirs were equipped with the means to perform them, relegating these compositions almost entirely to the concert hall.

Both Anton Bruckner (1824–96) and Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901) made their livings as Roman Catholic church musicians, Bruckner in Austria and Rheinberger in largely Catholic Bavaria. They are two of only a few great Romantic musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century who wrote music for church services, as many churches looked to the old masters for their weekly services while other contemporary composers sought fame in the concert hall or opera house. Bruckner and Rheinberger each composed at least a dozen masses of varying sizes and types; those on the program tonight are two of their most highly regarded. Both of these masses are written for double choir, meaning that two full choirs are singing antiphonally.

Behind the resurgence of older church music during Bruckner and Rheinberger’s time was Cecilianism, a popular musical reform movement in the Catholic Church that frowned on contemporary compositional practices such as word painting (having the music mimic the words), musical complexity that overshadowed the words, and heavy chromaticism. As you will hear tonight, Rheinberger and Bruckner were not fans of Cecilianism and sometimes went out of their way to raise the ire of its proponents.

Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat, op. 109, subtitled “Cantus Missae” (1878), was written shortly after Rheinberger was appointed the director of the court chapel for Ludwig II of Bavaria (of Neuschwanstein fame). What to listen for: 

  • The interplay of the choirs as they trade musical ideas
    The fugal section at the end of the Gloria
  • The drama in the Credo as Rheinberger paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music
  • The danceable Benedictus, perhaps inspired by the popular Viennese waltz 
  • The Agnus Dei, which starts slow and plaintive but soon transitions to a florid, rejoicing finale
Bruckner’s Mass in E minor (1866, revised 1882) for double choir and winds is probably the grandest of his masses. Written while Bruckner was employed as the organist at Linz Cathedral, the music was inspired by renaissance polyphony, but has more in common with contemporaneous Romantic music. What to listen for:
  • The layered a cappella opening section of the Kyrie, first from the women and then from the men, which returns later in the movement.
  • The fugal “Amen” section at the end of the Gloria
  • Again, drama in the Credo as Bruckner paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music, with a return of the movement’s uptempo opening theme at the end
  • The tightly contrapuntal a cappella opening of the Sanctus
  • The interplay between the men and women in the Benedictus, as they pass melodic ideas back and forth
  • The quiet, restrained Agnus Dei which caps the mass

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Music of Waitress

Today, Waitress: The Musical opened for previews on Broadway. It’s been a long journey for the musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, the first musical with an all-female creative team. You can read more about its path to Broadway in this New York Times spot this last week. The article also profiles Sara Bareilles, the composer of Waitress’s music, who made the leap to musical from popular music. Bareilles is certainly not the first to make this leap (see my post about Sting and his Broadway musical The Last Ship, which failed after a few months, as many musicals do). Nor will she be the last. Musicals based on movies have also been a big trend, though very few of them seem to do well in the long run; a notable exception was Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper’s Tony award-winning musical.

So like Kinky Boots, here we have another musical based on a movie by popular songwriter that’s a newbie to Broadway. How’s Waitress’s music? While a cast album hasn’t come out yet, like Sting with The Last Ship, Bareilles released versions of the songs of Waitress,
with herself singing them, before the musical came out, so we have a taste of the final product.

I think there are at least three creative obstacles that a songwriter who is from the popular music world needs to overcome to succeed on Broadway:
  1. Making different songs match different voices, instead of being all the songwriter's own voice,
  2. Writing songs that fit an emotion and plot narrative arch, and
  3. Taking the pop musical style and merging it with a theater musical style.
Did Bareilles overcome them? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Different voices for different characters

Bareilles does a great job of writing characters, especially those apart from the main ones. For example, in “When He Sees Me,” the music has very persistent pounding for the worrying, OCD part of the character; stutteringly-like phrase extensions for nervousness; and a quick transiting to a romantic latin rhythm section for the warmth of wanted love. Also, in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the music conveys the quickness, pushiness, and fun of this character, again with clever lyrics. I think Bareilles has some experience at writing song that are fiction, so this probably wasn’t a big leap for her, but she did well.

2. Emotion and plot arc

I think Bareilles does a good job encapsulating emotions and narrative arc into songs. For example, “Door Number Three” and “Opening Up” both have some clever lyric writing that sets up emotional and plot points at the same time (I especially like the “heartbeat” section of “Opening Up” that has her voice imitated a heart, while simultaneous hinting at other plot points). However, I’m a bit disappointed that there aren’t more thematic music returns, which can be a great way to infuse emotion, especially late in a musical.

3. Channeling pop into theater

I’m not sure that the music on this album really lends itself to visually-stunning set pieces that are important in musicals. With few exceptions (such as “Opening Up”), most are confessional songs; these are normal for singer-songwriter pop songs, but a musical requires more production, on-stage song sharing, and drama to succeed. Even the duet “Bad Idea,” while uptempo and exciting, with handclaps and a dash of humor, seems more a confessional than an emotional decision-making plot point or a production number. “You Matter to Me” could carry a dramatic emotional bump in context, but as a song, it doesn’t show as much variety and inspiration as the other songs on the album/musical; I really want the overlapping melodies at the end to redeem the song, but they aren’t as complicated as I would like for a such a long set up, and so don’t quite overcome the humdrum. “Everything Changes” might be a great set piece song, especially the chorus where the song projects the plot out into our own lives, but it still ends up being a confessional that peters out instead of a final plot exclamation. Of course, often songs that reveal too much of the plot are left off these type of advanced albums, so maybe there will be something more; also, the article mentioned that the music is still being tweaked, so perhaps there will be some improvement in the final product.


I think at as album, with many strong, varied songs and clever lyrics, is a strong as other Bareilles albums, though perhaps without a “hit” song strong enough to make a big splash. But it is hard to see how the songs will translate to a stage where Bareilles isn’t singing from behind her piano. We’ll have to see.

Have you seen Waitress live? What did you think?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Do born-digital sound recordings have a future?

I spent the weekend at the Music Library Association annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Many of the sessions I attended dealt with the problems of preserving born-digital materials, or materials that are created only in digital form. Preservation of these born-digital materials in a world where files and formats become unreadable and obsolete every 10–20 years is something that many people don’t think about and librarians are still trying to get a handle on.

One of the biggest issues/problems for music libraries is the preservation of commercial audio recordings that only appear in digital and not physical format; this digital-only distribution is increasingly the case. Physical format collection and preservation is the bread-and-butter of libraries because of a concept called "first sale," which is the legal idea that once some person or organization has purchased a legally-copied and sold physical object, they can do almost anything they want with it (I’ve blogged a bit about first sale before). However, digital-only copies often come not as purchases, but controlled by legally-complex licenses which do not allow resale or storage and specifically exclude institutions such as libraries from purchasing or even downloading an inaccessible copy (a so-called "dark archive") for preservation. Further, the large corporate sections of the music industry have a track record of not caring about the preservation of their own sound recording archives, often throwing master recordings away when they are no longer profitable to keep them. In other words, if things continue the way they are, these recordings will almost certainly be inaccessible in the not-too-distance future.

A recent article in the Music Library Association’s journal Notes gives a great (or, more accurately, horrible) example of the problem. The situation involves a music library approaching a large recording company about purchasing a recording distributed only digitally:
We chose to pursue the purchase of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recording of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, available via iTunes, toward making it part of the University of Washington collection. This recording was issued online and not in any physical format such as a compact disc. In 2011, we contacted the Los Angeles Philharmonic about purchasing this recording and were referred to its distributor, Deutsche Grammophon, who in turn referred us to its parent company, Universal Music Group (UMG). UMG responded by stating that such an institutional license would not be possible. After exchanging several e-mails, UMG changed its answer, and agreed to license the material to the University of Washington Libraries, our institution, under the following conditions: that no more than 25 percent of the album’s content could be licensed, and the license would be valid for no more than two years. Furthermore, a $250 processing fee would be charged in addition to an unspecified licensing fee that would have been “more than” the processing fee. Given that the standard cost of a complete iTunes album is $9.99, we determined UMG’s offer to be unreasonable. Perhaps more importantly, having 1.25 movements of this five-part piece is useless to a library or user. We attempted to further negotiate with UMG, but our efforts were rejected (Judy Tsou and John Vallier, “Ether Today, Gone Tomorrow: 21st Sound Recording Collecting in Crisis,” Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 72, no.3 (March 2016): 465).
Truly, the response of Universal Music Group is ridiculous. 

What are the possible solutions to this problem? The article (which is available via Project MUSE, if you have access to a subscription, or in print form) details a few, most of which are pie-in-the-sky (for example, simply adding to copyright law a legal exception for libraries, which will certainly be opposed by a legislature that seems to be in the pocket of large media corporations). At the moment, the only seemingly doable solution (and not a very comprehensive one at that) is working with willing smaller, independent recording companies to create dark archives of digital files for preservation that will just sit around until the music itself becomes public domain. That may happen in around 90 years, unless copyright terms get extended again, in which case, it will be longer.

Here’s hoping we can find something better!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chris Thile's "Alright"

I don’t have much to say post-Grammys. Awards-wise, it went about as expected (except for Ed Sheeran, which was weird…). I didn’t get to watch it live, but based on chatter afterward, the best performances were from the cast of Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar, who performed pretty much one after the other.

But I want to point out something that happened on Prairie Home Companion about a week before the Grammys. Chris Thile, who with his band the Punch Brothers had been nominated for several Grammys this year (none of which they won), was guest hosting the radio show. He started talking about what amounted to a lullaby for his baby boy and then dived into an amazing one-person cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a song that won two Grammys last Monday. You can listen to the cover on the Prairie Home Companion archives here (you’ll have to jump down to the “Alright; Song for a Young Queen” segment, which is just after intermission).

Some comments:

1) I think this performance shows a lot about Thile and the diversity of music that influences him. I’ve seen him cover the Beatles, the Cars, Radiohead, Of Montreal, and many others, all with his own take, all unironically and incredibly well. But this is even more far afield from bluegrass than those others (though considerably more PG-rated than the original).

2) You can tell from the performance that Thile isn’t just throwing this song off; he is genuinely in love with the music and spent hours learning the words and figuring out the best way to perform it (he did mention later on Twitter than he had flubbed a few of the words). He throws himself into the song. He later tweeted this after the Grammys, which got a lot of reactions:

3) This song is so not Prairie Home Companion. I don’t think the audience even knows how to take it, besides acknowledging the virtuosity that the performance took. Can you imagine them having the real Kendrick Lamar on this show? Yet Thile does it anyway. I think it shows guts, conviction, and firm cosmopolitan musical sensibility.

After you listen to “Alright,” take a listen to the opening number for that Prairie Home Companion show on February 6, 2016, Thile’s cheeky “Omahallelujah,” a great conflation of sports and religion, with Peyton Manning as the center of worship. Gold.