Sunday, October 27, 2019

Album Review: Taylor Swift's Lover—some great songs, but there's this one thing...

Taylor’s Swift’s seventh album, Lover, came out at the end of August to mostly good critical reception and (perhaps inevitable) high streaming and album sales. And Rolling Stone, in their October 2019 Taylor Swift cover issue, predicted that Lover will win album of the year in the coming Grammys.

I personally approached Lover guardedly, being a Swift fan since the second album, but perceiving a general quality dip in 2014’s 1989 (see my review here) and 2017’s Reputation (see my short review here, buried in my best songs of 2017 mix). To recap, my justification for feeling that the quality has lagged recently has nothing to do with her move to pop, the studio production, her collaborators, or her performance. Instead, I feel like her melodies/songwriting have become less well-crafted and the emotions she channels in her songs harder to relate to—I think at some point, she stopped writing from the point of view of an "everywoman" and started writing from the viewpoint of privilege (with some exceptions). In preparing to write this review for Lover, I went back and listened to hours of Swift’s previous material (which was great!), and while it was occasionally jarring when my iPod shuffled from the first eponymous album to Reputation, it was not the whiplash that I expected; I even occasionally had a hard time guessing which album particular songs came from. After this exercise, though, I stand by my previous reviews—of course, there are some great songs in both 1989 and Reputation, but there are a greater quantity of ho-hum songs than Swift's first four albums.

So, my question to answer in this review—is Lover a return to form? Or a continuation of the pattern of her last two albums?

Can we connect?

Let’s tackle the emotional and “everywoman” aspect first. I do think that Lover for the most part comes from a place of privilege that is hard to relate to, especially “London Boy” (even Londoners have a hard time relating). Some of the best-written songs on Lover, however, take on typically Swiftian narratives: “The Man” and “You Need to Calm Down.” And while both focus on common critiques of Swift, I think a lot of people, especially women, can still relate to being subject to discrimination and harassment, and Swift has a humorous way of confronting these issues and giving us a window into her world. The rest of the songs on the album are easier to connect to than the songs on the two previous albums, especially “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a heartbreaking song about wanting a loved one's health to improve and “Death by a Thousand Cuts” about a small-town breakup (that isn’t Swift’s).

Melodies matter

Moving on to songcraft, one thing I discovered going back through Swift’s large back catalog is that the song construction, removed it from the production, really hasn’t changed much in the recent albums. I think it would be pretty easy to re-write many of Swift’s newer songs as country, and  several would be improved by fiddle or banjo solos and a harmony above the melody. You can see proof of this in Swift’s recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert, where she plays stripped down versions of a couple of Lover’s songs

And many of Lover’s songs are better than anything on Reputation; the aforementioned “You Need to Calm Down” and “The Man” are both well-constructed songs with important themes and catchy melodies in the verses and chorus plus good bridges. I often find the chorus of “I Think He Knows” stuck in my head. “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” while not having a terribly interesting verse or chorus, won me over with clever bridge riffing on the high school cheer “Go-Fight-Win,” and ends up one of high points of the album (and of course, in an uncommon but totally-called-for song form, the bridge comes back later in the song, a la “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”). There are also some interesting production choices in “Death by a Thousand Cuts” and “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” that I think set those songs and their writing apart. (Though forgive me for commenting on the one turkey in the flock—I agree with Lydnsey McKenna of NPRs description of “ME!”: “a half-hearted, half-baked not-quite-hit with a spelling interlude”).

Devils roll the dice…again and again and again

Now, there is one exception where I have seen that Swift’s songs have changed over time, and not for the better. It is the overuse of one particular motif. This is the motif, which I am going to call in the “devils roll the dice” motif (from the lyrics in “Cruel Summer”), though I will show below that this motif has been used by Swift for some time before Lover:
(same note) 3-and-4-and-(up in pitch) 1. This is usually repeated at least two more times. The "Up" note sometimes is an indeterminate pitch, but is most often a 5th higher than the first note. 
Here are the songs on Lover that use this motif or a variation of the motif (with timings, if you want to listen along):
  • “Cruel Summer” pre-chorus (0:22, “devils roll the dice”)
  • “I Think He Knows” pre-chorus (0:29), same note is repeated longer before the Up
  • “Me!” pre-chorus (0:24)
  • “The Man” pre-chorus (0:18), variation
  • “Paper Rings” pre-chorus (0:24), variation with the Up on the offbeat instead; the verse in this song also has an inverted variation of this pattern, a repeated 16th notes on the same pitch followed by a drop
  • “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” chorus (0:52), variation
  • “I Forgot that You Existed” beginning of chorus (0:34)
  • “London Boy” end of verse (0:46)
  • “You Need to Calm Down” beginning of the verse (0:12), built around the motif, with the Up note in the middle of long phrase of the same note

Swift did not begin using the “devils roll the dice” motif in Lover—she repeatedly uses this motif in Reputation, too:
  • “…Ready For It?” verse; the verse is constructed of a string of these motifs, some inflecting up and some inflecting down
  • “I Did Something Bad” pre-chorus (0:30), variation
  • “Look What You Made Me Do” pre-chorus (0:45), variation
  • “Getaway Car” pre-chorus (0:30), variation
  • “So it goes…” chorus (0:46)
  • “Dress” (beginning of verse)
  • “Call it What You Want” (beginning of verse)
  • “Afterglow” end middle of the chorus (0:57), variation

Once you start hearing it, it is everywhere!

Does Swift use of this "devils roll the dice" motif extend back in 1989, too? Yes, but only in one song: “I Know Places” seems to be the first time that Swift uses this pattern (although I discuss at length in my 1989 review how many of Swift’s songs in 1989 feature melodies of mostly one note, which may have been a precursor to this motif). But unfortunately, she seems to have stuck on it from that time forward.

A challenge

I would like to say that the “devils roll the dice” motif is a Wagnerian-style leitmotif that borrows meaning from other contexts; but unfortunately, it is just lazy songwriting. Swift especially leans on the motif for her pre-choruses—a short, choppy phrase to build tension into the chorus relief. And it does work, which is why she keeps using it. And if she only used it occasionally, it would be fine. But she uses it and variations on it so much, the motif is getting old.

Maybe I am just being the person Swift is criticizing in “You Need to Calm Down.” But I do think avoiding this songwriting crutch in the future could lead to better songwriting. If Swift is reading this, I challenge her to write the next album without the “devil rolls the dice” motif! She did it on her first four albums, and she can do it again. Also, an occasional banjo or fiddle solo would make my day.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Sting Appreciation Day '19: Album Review: Sting, My Songs

Today, for Sting Appreciation Day, I will quickly review Sting's latest album My Songs, which came out earlier this year, in March. Didn't know that Sting came out with a new album? Well, you not knowing is not that surprising—the album does not feature new material, but instead reworks classic Sting hits. How much does Sting re-work his material in My Songs? Unlike 2010's Symphonicities, the answer is not very much. Besides some slick drum beats, the synth equivalent of rainstick effects, maybe even some electronic rhythm accompaniments, and some short extra interludes, the songs are pretty much the same as the originals—the structure of each song, the vocal delivery, and even any lead instruments. One exception might be "Fields of Gold", which was re-worked to be more guitar-centric and folky, with a fiddle replacing the Northumbrian pipes (and a subtle, though inexplicable, drum machine); still, the structure of the song remains the same.

So, we appreciate you Sting! These are still great songs. But unless you are a die-hard Sting collector who needs every last version of something, I would recommend that you can skip this one.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Old music in the time of streaming

Not this type of streaming. "Truckee River, Tahoe" is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A few weeks ago, NPR produced a series of new articles about the opportunities, perils, and possible future streaming music as it has become for many the main way of accessing music. These articles were an update of a series they produced in 2015, which I covered on this blog.

While this new series of articles covered some important issues in the new world of streaming, such as how new stars are made, how artists get paid (or not), even how music is written differently, I noticed one strain that was absent in the coverage: how people find and listen to music that is not coming out now. There were several in-depth reports of pining after old methods of distribution (cassette mixtapes, Tumblr, and early alternative streaming services) that helped people discover music, but even those focused on how people found the new music of time.

But there is a lot of music out there that is not new, but undiscovered to many people, and what is apparent from NPR's coverage is that the major streaming services care less about this older music than promoting new music.

Not on streaming?

It turns out there is a lot of older music that is not available via streaming; it was only ever distributed on physical formats. It costs a non-negligible amount money to put and keep music online (not just the format transfer, but keeping track of rights and revenue), and if the music doesn't fit a service's criteria, it doesn't get posted. Jazz and classical music are only 1% each of the music market, but they and other genres produce a lot of music. Because there is so much music online, many assume that everything is online—but this is patently false.

Where does music go to die?

Modern streaming services, like the old-school record labels, don't take care of things that they don't think are going to make them money. This was part of the reason that the master recordings that burned in the Universal fire were stored in bad conditions and not cataloged well—Universal did not justify spending money on something that wasn't making money for them now. For streaming services, how do they decide when a song or album isn't worth posting on their platform? What about taking down songs or albums or genres that aren't earning enough money or have rights problems too complicated to deal with?

The Universal fire also showcases the ephemeral nature of recorded music—it has to be stored somewhere, even if it only is distributed via streaming. And unlike with physical media, where multiple copies are distributed that can be re-discovered, the access-only model streaming services control what who has a copy. What happens when streaming services decide an album that was only released on streaming should be taken down? And then a fire or simply bad cataloging causes the label or streaming service to lose track of the music? Or, maybe more likely, a popular streaming service suddenly goes bankrupt and shuts down overnight? (After all, Spotify has still never really made a profit).

In these cases, the music ceases to exist, for all intents and purposes. I predict that in 30 years, 2050, our era will be known in music circles as the “lost years” because there will be a lot of music that just isn’t available because no one was able to collect it and streaming companies decided it was not worth preserving.

Under protection...from preservation

Before the 2018 Music Modernization Act (MMA), there as no federal copyright protection for sound recordings produced before 1972, but instead a loose patchwork of state copyright applied. The MMA patched up this loophole, at least as far is streaming is concerned, but in doing so, it greatly extended protections for older music—which while these protections are good for a few artists and acts that are still well-known and popular, the protections are certainly bad for lesser-known music. Long copyright terms before passing into the public domain only hurt the chances that preservation will occur for these older recordings—and there are some major preservation problems. Magnetic media (such as cassette tapes) and even CDs not stored in optimal conditions may deteriorate in less than half of the time of their copyright terms, so we may get to the point where we are allowed to copy recorded music, only to find it doesn't exist anymore. The MMA does allow some preservation exceptions for recordings that aren't being commercially exploited, but there are some somewhat cumbersome steps you need to take first—and these exceptions would not have been part of the law at all if some library organizations hadn't lobbied for them. Finally, those services that do take the steps to preserve these recordings have to pay a lot of money to digitize and keep the recordings accessible—and who knows when someone will decide it is not worth it for their organization, either?

Let's figure out a way to keep old music available, okay?

What do you think?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

3 new Irish traditional music albums for your St. Patrick’s Day playlist

As I’ve written about before on this blog (here and here), I am not a big fan of the way most people celebrate St. Patrick’s day in the US. I think one of the best ways is to listen to Irish traditional music—and to help you celebrate, I’m presenting 3 new albums of Irish traditional music (all from the last year) that you can add your holiday playlist. In no particular order:

The Gap of Dreams by Altan – This group from Donegal has been around for over 30 years and is still coming out with great music. Tracks rotate between songs in Irish, English, and purely instrumental, both traditional newly composed. (If you follow the link to the Amazon page, notice that the artist is listed as “ATLAN”—a misspelling that hasn’t been corrected in the year the album has been out; funny if it wasn't so sad. Metadata fail.).

CAS by Lúnasa – This mainly instrumental band has been around for more than 20 years, but hasn’t released new music since 2010. Besides their typical awesome instrumental tracks, the band teams up with some guests vocalists such as Natalie Merchant and Mary Chapin Carpenter. All songs with vocals are sung in English.

Allt by Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway, and John McIntyre – Two power couples of Celtic traditional music, one couple from Scotland (Fowlis and Doorley) and one from Ireland (Conway and McIntyre) got together and recorded an album that includes songs from both places, in both Scots-Gaelic and Irish. So, maybe not purely Irish…but you probably can’t tell which are Irish and which are Scottish, right? I am not sure I can. Anyway, it is a great album.

Have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day, and remember to celebrate immigrant populations and our cultural inheritance from them, such as those, like the Irish, that used to be vilified in America.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Best pop songs of 2018 mix

Last post, I presented my top six albums of 2018. But there were plenty of new songs in 2018 not on those albums that I would recommend checking out. I made a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order).

Spotify playlist link:
  1. Kali Uchis: “Your Teeth in My Neck” from Isolation – The production is of this track is exciting (and a little retro), and its theme of wealth and class is equally retro/current.
  2. David Crosby: “1967” from Here If You Listen –The Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash is still writing music, and came out with a pretty good album with his much younger touring band. This track's production is a throwback, but comes across as still fresh.
  3. Gwenno: “Tir Ha Mor” from Le Kov – Gwenno’s 2nd album is entirely in Cornish, an almost dead language—so remember that writing good pop songs is a good way to make your almost-dead-language relevant again. The song's title means "land and sea."
  4. Tune-Yards: “Heart Attack” from I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – This album, written partially in response to criticism about lead singer Merrill Garbus’s cultural appropriation, came out at the beginning of 2017, so I think some reviewers forgot about the album. But it had some great cuts, like this one.
  5. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “Koino Hana” from Japamyu – I had to throw in a J-Pop song from fashion icon's Kyary’s latest album this year.
  6. Oh Pep: “What’s The Deal with David?” from I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… – An upbeat, funny song about a toxic relationship.
  7. Alessia Cara: “All We Know” from The Pains of Growing – The best track from a solid sophomore album from last year’s Best New Artist Grammy-winner.
  8. Courtney Barnett: “Nameless, Faceless” from Tell Me How You Really Feel – A solid anthem for the #MeToo movement, describing and reacting to anonymous online comments by men; featuring a Margaret Atwood quote in the chorus.
  9. Poppy: “Time is Up”  from Am I a Girl? – I love a bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction in my pop music; I for one, also, welcome our new robot overlords.
  10. Moira Smiley: “Bellow” from Unzip the Horizon – Written with Merrill Garbus from Tune-Yards, it draws influences from world music and invites women especially to speak up for themselves and their ancestors.
  11. Sting and Shaggy: “Crooked Tree“ from 44/876 – You probably missed this, but Sting and Shaggy came out with an album of new music in 2018 (and it was nominated for Reggae album of the year by the Grammys?). The album's music is mostly uninspired, but I have the admire Sting’s audacity to do a reggae album with a Jamaican after making his career doing “white reggae” with the Police in the 1980s. This song was maybe the best, and probably the most Sting-like. Read the NPR review of the album here.
  12. (Honorable mention) Natalia Lafourcada: “Hasta La Raíz ” from Hasta La Raíz - This song by a Mexican artist was actually from 2012, but I discovered it this year, and it’s definitely my favorite song I discovered this year (actually, a large portion of my new favorite music that I discovered this year wasn’t from 2018). Here’s the weird music video: