Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Album Review: Taylor Swift's Folklore—cool songwriting experiments, but overusing tricks


People who (still) read this blog know that I can't NOT review a new Taylor Swift album (though my review of 2017's Reputation was just done in a "best pop songs of 2017" post); this includes the surprise release of Folklore in late July. As she did with Red, Taylor cultivated new sounds by inviting new collaborators, this time The National's Aaron Dessner and others. She is also more explicitly songwriting the stories of other people (though she has actually been doing that for a long time). 

Like many of the glowing reviews I've read, I agree this is not a bad album; the production and arrangements keep interest, like the subtle, string-like effects on "Cardigan." The songwriting is often complex: verses made of up many chained subphrases that build over time, like in "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," and return sometimes unpredictably; in the layered duet in the last half of "Exile" with Bon Iver, the melodies accentuates important words; "Mirrorball" has a verse and chorus that both sound like choruses. There is some great lyric writing ("My Tears Ricochet" about her split with her label, Big Machine records) and nice turns of phrase (like "I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere" in "This is Me Trying.")

On the other hand, after listening a few times, I am not sure that any of these songs are going to jump back into my head like many of Swift's other songs (I just had a "Cruel Summer" from 2019's Lover stuck in my head this week). At 16 tracks, this is a long album, and some of the songs seem a little longer than they need to be, maybe a little more contemplative than I prefer.

Songwriting staples, connecting but more blandly than necessary

While Swift is still using “devils roll the dice” motif that plagued Lover and Reputation, at least the motif is not used quite as prominently or often. The most obvious use is in "Peace," where it was employed almost exactly as in previous Swift songs. The motif occurs repeatedly in the chorus of "Cardigan," mostly in its downward form. It is also in the pre-chorus of "Mad Woman." 

But Swift has a new songwriting strategy that would, again, be fine if she used sparingly, but instead she uses it over and over on Folklore. Her chained subphrase strategy of writing (mentioned earlier) often puts these long phrase structures over the same repeated chord patterns, sometimes even into the chorus—this leads to choruses that don't arrive as forcefully, and songs seeming longer and less varied than they might be. Songs on Folklore that fit this pattern: "The 1," "Cardigan," "Mirrorball," "Seven," "August," "Peace," and "Hoax"—that's almost half the album using this songwriting strategy. The production tries to obscure the laziness of the chord changes, and mostly succeeds, but I am left with tracks with too much sameness. Even "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," though they vary up the chords with the subphrase chains, end up with very little contrast.

The bright spots

I think three songs rise above the crowd in Folklore
  1. "The Last Great American Dynasty" is a great story song with a conventional song structure—but the story pulls us along, as we wonder if something horrible is going to happen to the described woman. But at the end, instead of condemning her, Taylor connects herself to the supposed misbehavior, critiquing those who think women (especially rich women) should behave a certain way ("Mad Woman" is another explicitly feminist song, with a similar "pot calling the kettle black" message). 
  2. "Invisible String" almost falls into the chained-subphrases-over-the-same chord trap, but Swift varies up the chord changes in the middle of the verse megaphrase, and throws in a nice contrasting bridge (I think we could have an argument about whether there is a chorus at all; the catchy melisma, perhaps the best candidate for a chorus, seems to use the same chords as the beginning of the verse). The plucked string texture that pervades the song is lovely. And to add a bit more interest, the chord pattern changes over the last return of the melisma, reminiscent of the chords used in the bridge, taking us out of the song à la "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" (the “devils roll the dice” motif also occurs in "Invisible String," but only briefly and in the middle of a phrase; somewhat disguised, at least). 
  3. The production and songwriting of "Betty" reminds me of Fearless, which I'm sure is intentional, since Swift is telling a high-school story similar to the songs on that album. It's pretty amazing she can recall that style. I wonder what would happen if Swift next tried to write a whole album pretending to be her teenage songwriter self? Not that I think she should, if she didn't want to.
What did you think of Folklore?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Favorite tracks of 2019 mix

Last postI presented my top six albums of 2019. But I wanted to share additional songs not on those albums that you should check out, so I made a mix. 2019 featured a bumper crop of socially-conscious songs, probably more than any other year since the late 60s, and I included some of my favorites in the playlist. I left off Billie Eilish and Lizzo, however, because they seemed omnipresent already. Here’s a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order):


  1. Ariana Grande: “NASA” from thank u, next – My favorite album from Grande’s quick Sweetener follow-up. Also, space exploration as metaphor is up my alley.
  2. Molly Tuttle: “Take the Journey” from When You’re Ready – Tuttle is the reigning Bluegrass guitar virtuoso. Check out her flying fingers playing this song here.
  3. Avril Lavigne: “Bigger Wow” from Head Above Water – Did you know that Avril Lavigne is still writing some decent music? Here’s an example.
  4. Jamila Woods: “BETTY” from Legacy! Legacy! – Each song on Woods’ sophomore album is inspired by a historical figure, many of whom were black. This one is inspired by funk musician Betty Davis, who was “not your typical girl.”
  5. Santana and Buika: “Bembele” from Africa Speaks – Yeah, Santana’s still making music, too. He worked on this album with Afro-Spanish singer Buika.
  6. Tacocat: “Hologram” from This Mess Is a Place – My favorite palindrome-named pop-punk band put out a great album this year mostly addressing the politics of 2019 and this is probably the best song on it; the message is that power can be an illusion.
  7. Sheryl Crow and St. Vincent: “Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” from Threads – Yes, Sheryl Crow put out music this year, too (this time with a bunch of collaborators), and this great song sounds like classic Crow and reminds me of Veronica Mars.
  8. MUNA: “Number One Fan” from Saves the World – Maybe the most catchy and danceable song of 2019, it also is self-affirming.
  9. Common Holly: “Joshua Snakes” from When I Say to You Black Lightning – The first line of this all-over-the-place song about an abusive relationship got my attention. The flute solo is a plus.
  10. Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening: “O-U-T Spells Out” from Hollowbone – A combination rock folk song and magic spell with a Northumbrian bagpipe solo/dance break.
  11. Coldplay: “Orphans” from Everyday Life – I am usually not a Coldplay fan (they don’t really know how to write bridges), but this song is pretty good—and it is written from the perspective of war refugees, who are normal people, too. The song even has a bridge—sort of.
  12. Twice: “Fancy” from Fancy You – You have probably heard of BTS, but Twice is another K-pop idol group you should know about. The form is fun—I’m not sure if the song has two pre-choruses or just a long two-part chorus. Also, definitely a bridge.
  13. Karine Polwart and Seckou Keita: “Heartwood” from The Lost Words: Spell Songs – A group of folk musicians read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words about many nature-related words dropped from the 2007’s Oxford “Junior” Dictionary, and were inspired to create a companion album of songs; this song comes from the perspective of tree inviting the lumberjack to give up.
  14. Taylor Swift: “The Man” from Lover – Swift’s first album tackling social issues includes this great song, probably my favorite from the album, addressing sexism in the music industry.
  15. Amanda Palmer: “A Mother’s Confession” from There Will Be No Intermission – Looking at my top music from this year, I am apparently a fan of 10-minute story songs, and this is an expressive one from Amanda Palmer about being a new mother. I went to Palmer’s tour, which featured her performing this song (with a sing-a-long section), plus a version of Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” figuratively sung by an unborn fetus. The part-standup show was almost four hours long; luckily, there was an intermission.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

My favorite new albums of 2019

As fringe music becomes ever more accessible, it also feels like I am listening to a smaller fraction of it every year, even as I spend more time listening. I listened to 76 albums new to me this year, 53 of them from 2019. Here are my seven favorite new albums from this year, in no particular order (all images link to the Amazon.com listing):

Lumos by Harry and the Potters – The first original music in 13 years from the pioneering Wizard Rock band composed of brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge, all material from the album is drawn from the seventh book in the series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), which I serendipitously listened to on audiobook this year. The content is unsurprisingly relevant to today’s political environment, such as the tracks “On the Importance of Media Literacy Under Authoritarian Rule” and “No Pureblood Supremacy.” But within the effective narrative arc of the album, there are also short humorous and deep character reflections such as “Gone Campin’” (which builds up to the phrase “swordfish of Gryffindor”) and “What Happened to the Cat?”. And don’t miss “Hermione’s Army,” the disco-inflected track about the awesomeness that is Hermione Grainger. Probably the album that has given me the most joy this year.
Amidst the Chaos by Sara Bareilles – Bareilles’ first studio album in six years, as she took some time off from recording to create (and star in) a broadway musical. The album deals with love, loss, and also ventures into politics. Highlights include “Armor,” which was inspired by the 2017 Women’s March, and the emotional “Fire.” I was able to see Bareilles on the last stop of her live tour in November, a quality show with excellent, versatile musicians and use of stage effects.

August by Trio Dhoore – A folk instrumental album from a trio of Flemish brothers who play accordion, hurdy-gurdy, and guitar. The album is based on the story of a Flemish fisherman who survived 33 trips to Iceland in the 18th century. Most of tracks feature accordion and hurdy-gurdy playing in octaves with sparse and sometimes complex guitar strumming, but there is plenty of variation to hook the listener throughout the album.

Dedicated by Carly Rae Jepsen – This album is chock full of catchy, synthy tunes, including “Now that I Found You,” “The Sound,” and “Feels Right.” If you are in doubt of its quality, consider this—the first time I listened to this album I was running a race, and I won 3rd place in my age category, having never placed in a running race before.

Front Porch by Joy Williams – A solid, rootsy, and spare album (with a touch of gospel) from this former member of the Civil Wars; an improvement her last solo project, 2015’s Venus. Highlights include “Canary,” “Front Porch,” and “When Creation Was Young.”

Stranger Songs by Ingrid Michaelson – This pop and synth-laden tribute to the 1980s and inspired by the TV show Stranger Things is a stylistic departure for Michaelson, who is normally known for acoustic pop, but her songs still shine. Standout tracks include “Jealous” and “Missing You.” I recommend to fans of Michaelson’s earlier work and the TV series.

The Woman and Her Words by Hannah James & the JigDoll Ensemble – Hannah James (voice, accordion, and foot percussion) fronts this quirky English folk group. The memorable, mostly original songs have imaginative, thoughtful, and eclectic lyrics and arrangements. Highlights include “Hush Now,” a lullaby sung to a dead victim of American gun violence and the 10-minute story song “The Woman and Her Words,” about a workaholic husband and father. As someone with a weakness for irregular meters, I also must recommend the instrumental “What the Hell Was That?”

Soon, I will post my best pop songs of 2018 mix, so get ready.

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.