Monday, July 31, 2017

Album Review: HAIM, Something to Tell You

When I listened to HAIM’s 2013 first album Days Are Gone for the first time, I was enjoying myself too much to examine what the music was actually doing. 3.5 years later, Days Are Gone still sounds as fresh as it did when I first heard it—it still is in my album rotation and I keep hearing new things when I listen to it. I didn’t really understand the backlash against the album—for instance when Jim DeRogatis from Sound Opinions said that the album had "too many hooks,” to which I responded “Complaining that an album has too many hooks is like complaining that a novel has too many well-written sentences.” 

Now, HAIM has a brand new album, Something to Tell You, with plenty of new well-written musical sentences, along with some stellar and varied production. Many reviews have been placing this new album squarely in the past, the basic premise being: the music itself doesn't have much new to say, but it is good music. I think that is not quite right—Tom Breiham, in his Stereogum review, put it better, suggesting that "HAIM’s music doesn’t even belong to a genre" because it draws from so many influences and it constructs from these blocks meticulously and seamlessly. And what is new music, but reconfiguring things from the past? But like many music other reviewers, Breihan did not offer up many specific musical elements that were borrowed (though he did point out some little production gems). It's the comparative trap that so many music critics fall back to—using a band name comparison as a shorthand without explaining the connection, as if bands weren't multi-faceted.

Instead of taking time to point out the borrowings (which I'm sure are not easy to explain, anyway, and is why critics are avoiding doing it), I want to highlights a few great moments in the album that to me seem innovative:
  • After maybe the twelfth time I listened to “I Want Back,” I was trying to figure out why the song didn’t get boring since there is so much repetition of the short chorus phrase. Besides a lot of the accompanying parts shifting around the melody, I finally noticed that in the 2nd half of the song, the bass line hardly ever comes back to tonic. Besides keeping us wanting more repetition to get back to tonic, it also musically underlines that this person the song is addressing has not, in fact, come back yet. When the final move to tonic happens, it’s with a very thin acoustic strum with some sped-up melody lines (perhaps the melody backwards?) that are just kind of thrown out. The video for this track is pretty good too—catchy, difficult to film, and understated:
  • In “Little of Your Love,” there’s a great guitar line that is hinted at, but really only fully realized during the fade-out—leaving us feeling like they are conveying the message: “hey, this song is just as rocking as a we wanted it to be” and leading us to want more.
  • In “Ready for You,” probably the catchiest song on the album, there are kind of two choruses (which forgives a somewhat uninspired 1st chorus that turns out to be a pre-chorus). In the “2nd” chorus, the vocal harmony parts are so well written, first staying high and then filling out the middle part for the title phrase “I wasn’t ready for you.” At the end of the bridge, there is a weird chromatic descending vocal part leading to a pretty trippy breakdown of the “2nd” chorus. Throughout the song, there is an amazing amount of space in the beat (especially in the verse) that allows for lots of playing—maybe this is what can happen when drummers write songs.
  • “Right Now” starts out with what seems like a spare 4-beat, but when the harmony voices come in, you aren’t quite so sure—maybe the bass drum is hitting on beat 3, instead? Or maybe the song is in 3 instead of 4? The whole song keeps the listener guessing where the bottom of the beat is. According to an NPR interview, this song was actually designed to have all three HAIM sisters playing drums, which was their first instrument—the fluidity of the beat certainly lends itself to that. It is not often you hear that a pop song was developed to solve a musical or performance puzzle, instead of to express an emotion or thought.

Finally, a general comment about the album: a close listen reveals a lot of vocal manipulation and sampling—pushing voices high, or low, autotuned, sped up, thrown into low-fi, made to sound like a guitar or extra reverb added for just one note (this alone should place the album squarely in the present). There is so much variation, I can’t help but think that every decision was purposeful. The instrumental decision are similar—several times in the album thick textures will fall away for a dramatic effect, leaving an instrumental texture we haven’t heard before.

I don’t think this album has as many memorable moments or a well-written songs as Days Are Gone (and perhaps too many sudden endings), but Something to Tell You has musical as well as relationship message to convey and is still a great listen all the way through that keeps on giving. I recommend a listen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Parody and copyright, pt. 2: When the copyright owner holds all the chips

Last March, I wrote about my experience posting a parody music video on YouTube. I got some encouragement from my readers to dispute EMI’s copyright claim to the music video, and so I went ahead and submitted my dispute. When I entered the dispute process, YouTube presented me with a list of pre-selected possible arguments for the dispute. I selected the option “this video uses copyrighted material in a manner that does not require approval of the copyright holder. It is fair use under copyright law,” then wrote a very brief explanation that this music video was a parody and protected under Fair Use. Here's a screenshot of my dispute submission:

At the top of the screenshot, you see the tail end of the 20(!) organizations that have a copyright claim on “Dynamite.” Also, note the threatening language of terms and conditions.

I got a response from YouTube only a few days later in an email: “After reviewing your dispute, Sony ATV Publishing has decided that their copyright claim is still valid.” They are keeping my video up and continuing to monetize it—exactly what they were doing before. I wasn’t given an exact reason, but instead a list of two possible reasons:

    •    The copyright owner might disagree with your dispute.
    •    The reason you gave for disputing the claim may have been insufficient or invalid.

In other words, the publisher itself (notice the official copyright claimant has changed from EMI to Sony ATV—Sony ATV owns EMI publishing, but I'm not sure why the initial claim when through as EMI and then changed during the dispute) made the sole legal judgement about the Fair Use of their own intellectual property. There is no outside or impartial judge making these decisions—the publisher has all the power. So unless the publisher decides that the music used is a completely different composition (and maybe not even then), they have no incentive to grant the appeal. Further, though I needed to give a reason for the dispute, they didn’t even need to give a reason why the dispute was turned down. I think it is very possible Sony ATV didn’t actually watch the video—instead, they probably researched the person who filed a dispute (me) to see if they had a lawyer. The whole process is fishy, but YouTube probably agreed to the process for two reasons: 1) it is two expensive to hire their own lawyers to handle the appeals, and 2) the publishers have the financial power to slap YouTube with a very expensive lawsuit, whether right or wrong, and YouTube would rather be making money on the videos.

Now, there is a process to appeal the dispute decision, but from what I understand, the stakes are higher:

If I appeal, there is no option of keeping the video up—either I win and the video stays up without monetization, or it gets taken down. But for the publisher, the decision is exactly the same the second time around—and since I don’t have a lawyer, there is still no incentive for the publisher to do anything but deny my claim again. As I would prefer to have my video up, making a very small amount of money for Sony ATV, I’m not planning on doing filing a second appeal.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Program Notes: Motets and Cantatas of Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, April 22nd, 2017 at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.
Graphic design by Katherine Fisher; art by Felix Mendelssohn
The definition of “motet” varies widely according to time and place. While the term was originally used in medieval times to describe a piece in which one part sang different words and rhythms than the other three, the genre evolved over centuries, changing form and transitioning from sacred to secular and back to sacred. By the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, motets differed by country (France, Italy, and Germany had their own traditions) and even by Christian denomination within countries. For Bach, the motet was the smaller, less operatic, dying antecedent of the cantata, the genre that occupied a large portion of his output. Like his cantatas, Bach’s motets were self-contained musical sermons featuring both known chorales and biblical quotations, but they were usually written for special occasions outside of regular church services.* Written in this tradition, Jesu, meine Freunde (Jesus, My Joy) alternates between re-harmonized chorale verses and New Testament texts that comment on the preceding chorale texts. Bach sets up an overarching parallel musical structure for the eleven movements in the work, with the form AbCdEfEdCbA (the bold, uppercase letters represent the six chorale verses, which also have parallel harmonizations). F, the center section, is an expansive fugue with its own short chorale postlude.
For Johannes Brahms, calling a work a “motet” mainly set it apart as a Protestant religious
text and was meant to draw a line in listeners’ minds back to Bach’s motets. Zwei Motetten (Two Motets), Opus 29, represents a deliberate attempt to write using Baroque techniques. In the second motet of Opus 29, “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (“Create a pure heart within me, O God”), Brahms gave himself very strict compositional restrictions—for instance, in the first section, the top soprano part is exactly the same as the bottom bass part, only twice as fast, and the third section features two outside parts singing a strict canon but offset by one measure and a whole step—but each is so masterfully conceived that this is hard to hear even when the audience knows. The second and fourth sections are more traditional fugues, with Romantic twists.
Bach’s cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I Will Gladly Carry the Cross) was also a sermon for Sunday service, written for solo baritone and a small ensemble. The text uses sailing imagery to talk about the trials of life and the joy of uniting with Christ in death, probably inspired by the final chorale verse, taken from Johann Franck’s “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude” (1653). Felix Mendelssohn was a key player in the Bach revival of the early nineteenth century, and perhaps Brahms would not have revered Bach so much without Mendelssohn’s promotional efforts. Like Brahms later, Mendelssohn copied aspects of Bach’s music in his compositions, as evidenced by his chorale cantatas, which take as their starting place known chorales: one voice sings the chorale tune, while the other three voices and the string quartet create quick, contrapuntal textures around (and before and after) the slow-moving chorale. Curiously, though called a cantata, this form resembles the original, medieval motet perhaps more than Bach’s motet. In “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, My Joy”), the chorale is sung in the soprano part; in Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (Whoever Lets Only the Dear God Reign), Mendelssohn expands the formula with simple chorale presentations at the beginning and end of the work and a larger second movement featuring florid counterpoint set around the chorale tune, this time in the bass. Mendelssohn also adds a short soprano aria before the final chorale.

*Christoph Wolff, “Motet: III. Baroque: 3. Germany,” Grove Music Online, Oxford University
Press, accessed April 9, 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What happens when you post a parody video on YouTube? Copyright, that’s what

When fake lyrics are better than real lyrics

More than six months ago, I posted a YouTube video that had been at least two years in the making. Around 2014, a misheard a phrase in Taio Cruz’s pop hit “Dynamite.” “Gotta let go” changed to “Galileo” (a leap I was not the first person to make), which eventually grew into “Ganymede,” a parody song about the four largest moons of the planet Jupiter. The new parody lyric was memorable while being educational, and also had the advantage of actually rhyming. After I put the lyric to paper, I realized that I wanted to share with a wider audience, but the lyric sat while I tried to find someone else to perform the music and make a video. Last summer, 2016, I realized a music video wasn’t going to happen unless I made it myself, so I bit the bullet, taught myself GarageBand and iMovie, and made it. Here’s the final product:

This treatment is not a cover, but a parody—instead of putting my own spin on someone else’s artistic vision, this parody derives humor from the music being recognizable. Because of this, I put a lot of effort trying to recreate the sounds of "Dynamite" with the tools that came prepackaged in GarageBand (though I transposed it down a minor third to fit my voice), with mixed results.

Wait, is that legal?

Something interesting happened less that 48 hours after I had privately posted the video on YouTube—YouTube’s music algorithm identified the song as “Dynamite acapella cover” and additionally, EMI music claimed the song as their property and then optioned it for monetization (meaning they put a commercial in front of it). I was impressed that the algorithm was correct in identifying the song title, even if the version was wrong, but is EMI correct in claiming ownership of the music?

Recorded music actually has two copyrights—one for the underlying musical composition (usually controlled by the publishers) and one for the actual recording (usually controlled by the producers); that is why when someone records a cover, they still need to get copyright permission from the songwriters. In my case, it is the publishers (EMI) that asserted their rights over the underlying composition of “Dynamite” on the basis that it's cover version.

But parodies are a special case: in order to make their comic point, they need to borrow music, otherwise the joke doesn’t make sense. Courts have protected parodies under copyright Fair Use, which is a legal doctrine in copyright law that allows use of copyrighted material in a limited way, usually with a transformational intent. Fair Use is how we can quote other copyrighted works without asking permission or getting sued all the time; or how the news can show video clips; or we can xerox parts of a book—the point is we are not using the copyrighted material to steal financial or other gain from someone else, but critiquing it, putting into another context, or changing it into something else.

Fair Use is complicated, but to boil it down, parody is protected because it conveys a transformational message that can only be accomplished by using a fairly large portion of the original material. This 2012 article from Library Journal (also a good introduction to some of the problems of posting a parody video) raises another important point—defining something as parody can be tenuous. Parody has to make fun of the material itself, instead of just being satire (which is not protected). Does one need to ask for permission to write a parody, though, like Weird Al does? The answer is no; asking permission is not a legal requirement for Fair Use. Also, if people could sue you just because you made fun of them, it would be curbing free speech.

A new approach

Since 2012, publishing companies have realized that putting down take-down notices on YouTube videos is unsustainable, bad PR, and might even squelch free advertising. Instead, they’ve just decided to monetize these videos, which is what happened with my music video "Ganymede." The YouTube algorithm, though, analyzes music, not lyrics, so it will automatically flag anything that sounds like the original, regardless of if it a parody or not. This is a big problem with the system. There is a mechanism to dispute the copyright claim, but most people don’t have the time or money for the legal battle which may ensue or just don't understand copyright law (and can you blame them?) The result is that these companies make money off of someone’s else work.

I believe “Ganymede” is a parody and should be protected under Fair Use, but on the other hand, I’m not interested in making money. Six months after posting, the video still only has less than 200 views, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any viral YouTube fame. I'm not planning on disputing the claim at the moment.

But the video was fun to make and I learned a lot about making music—and copyright.

What do you think? Should I dispute EMI’s copyright claim?

Update 6/26/2017: I decided to dispute the claim; you can read about what happened here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Album Review: Sting, 57th and 9th

Click to view on Amazon

Regular readers are probably wondering: “Didn’t a new Sting album come out a few months ago? How come SSF hasn’t reviewed it?” Well, those people are right; it has taken me a while to get around to writing up a review for Sting’s latest album 57th and 9th, which came out in November 2016. The truth is, despite this being the first rock album from Sting in more than a decade, it didn’t make much of splash. For example, it didn’t make anyone’s end-of-the-year list. I think there’s probably a good reason for the snub—the album was somewhat thrown together quickly (which was unwisely billed as a strength), and the lack of polish in the production and songwriting was evident in sometime unoriginal or staid music.

57th and 9th should not be dismissed outright, however; while perhaps not writing at the same level of Ten Summoner’s Tales (probably his best solo album), in 57th and 9th, Sting is for the most part not just sitting on his laurels by producing bad copies of his earlier music. Each new song gives us listeners something to grapple with, either musically or thematically.

“Petrol Head” is the best song on the album; not only is it the song with the most energy (in two senses), but it doesn’t seem like it was hastily written or built. It has a catchy little melody, a nice tight little contrasting bridge section, and is chalk-full of religious and mythic imagery and reference. It also is probably both the most humorous and nuanced song on the album—both celebrating and poking fun of the macho road warrior of the American highway. I’m flummoxed why this song wasn’t picked as the lead single (maybe someone thought the references came too densely?). One of Sting’s songwriting strengths especially apparent in this song is that the chorus is not some monolithic block that comes back the same every time—when a chorus returns, he will often change up the words or even add phrases to the melody for emotion and musical impact.

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Heading South on the Great North Road” (the second best song on the album) was a reject song from The Last Ship—at least it comes from the same spiritual place of Newcastle and a trail of migration for better opportunity. The title conveys a great image—dripping with failed dreams, disappointment and heartache, and a golden age lost. It succeeds in the folk song genre where “Pretty Young Soldier” (discussed below) fails, with enough verses for an emotional journey.

For the topical challenges, “One Fine Day” takes on climate change, a topic sadly in need of more good songs, and while this song could be catchier, I’m sure it will be a regular at Greenpeace gatherings and other similar events. “Inshallah” is a solid song; a sympathetic lullaby telling the story of refugees who at great risk boat to Europe for a better life, and the Oscar-nominated “The Empty Chair” is from a film about a journalist who was captured, held captive, and then killed by ISIS.

Other songs don’t quite live up to these; “I Can’t Stop Thinking about You,” the lead single, is a solid song with some surprises in the form and some twists in the verse lyrics, though the chorus is somewhat unimaginative. “Pretty Young Soldier” is Sting’s take on a cross-dressing folk song from 18th-century England—but the song isn’t quite long enough for this genre, and the chorus tries to moralize the cross-dressing in some strange way. “50,000” is probably the weakest song, and I could understand if critics stopped listening to album after hearing this, the second album track. It is more navel-gazing than I think Sting’s audience is ready for. Also, I have the same complaint with this song as I did with the last Taylor Swift album—a string of the same repeated notes does not make a good melody. He doesn’t even try to spice up the note with a catchy rhythm.

I got to see Sting in a live show a week before the album came out, and while he was mostly playing his greatest hits (he did play two from the new album), he doesn’t like to keep things the same. He changed things up, tries new things, and keeps the audience thinking. 57th and 9th, though somewhat flawed, still does that, too. It was not disappointing to have a little more original new music, and I would recommend it to those who have liked Sting in the past. There’s even a song in a mixed meter! (“If You Can’t Love Me,” in 7).

What did you think of the album?