Monday, December 30, 2013

Goodreads for music?

This week, Goodreads sent me a list of all the books I read this year. As I contemplated why the number was so low (mostly, I forgot to record the dates read), I wondered how many albums I listened to this year. I realize that it doesn't take as long to listen to an album as read a book, but I've probably listened to 30 or 40, at least. I'm sure I would listen to more, had I the time and money.

Maybe I would know if there was a Goodreads for music—an online forum where you could keep track of your own listening experiences and then share those experiences with your friends. In an ideal system, many people could easily share and find sound recording reviews and ratings, maybe with recommendations based on previous reviews and ratings (some monetization is necessary for survival, of course).

There is one site that comes close to this: While Discogs has much of the functionality of Goodreads, with star ratings and reviews, its focus is different. Discogs is mostly for audiophiles who are trying to buy and sell vinyl. It isn't really people-centered. The "community" activity is really negligible (electronica/techno may be an exception for this), and people aren't really there as themselves to share their musical opinions with their friends. Also, a large percentage of resources is spent to describe the variants of a single "master" recording—something that is only slightly important in Goodreads.

Of course, Goodreads would need to be altered for use with sound recordings. There are a few issues that make this  medium different. Genre is a problem, as there are more possible genres and sound recordings have a harder time fitting into genres than books. I think, however, that an online forum and crowdsourcing (letting users describe the album's genres themselves) would actually help solve this problem. Another problem is that many more people are involved in the creation of a sound recording than a book. One solution might be a IMDB-style person tool, so that a user could find everything produced by a particular person (Discogs is pretty bad about personnel information, too).

Would something like Goodreads really work? I don't know. Music apps like the ones developed by MySpace and Twitter have failed to gain traction, but those failures could be based on technical problems more than anything else. The shear volume of metadata needed for each recording makes a sound recording system much more complicated and time intensive than it would be for a book system. At the moment, the best system for musicevangelism is still word of mouth (or word of Facebook).

Would you use a service like the one I described? Any Discogs users out there?

Vocab: vinyl, audiophiles, metadata

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I don't like "O Holy Night"

"O Holy Night" (a.k.a "Cantique de Noel") is ubiquitous during the Christmas season. I know it is a very popular Christmas song, but I really don't like it. I may be taking away from the Christmas-Eve spirit, but here are my reasons:
  • It's sooo long, even when it is cut. There are technically three verses and choruses, but just one verse and chorus takes about two minutes. Most popular versions just slap on a chorus repeat after that and call it good. Another option is to string several verses together before making to the chorus. Still, even the most cut versions take a long time at the slow, plodding tempo.
  • It's very hard to arrange, mostly because the arpeggiated accompaniment is such a vital part of the song. The lack of creative arranging is made worse because so many professional artists perform the song, and so there are a lot of versions that sound mostly the same. Mariah Carey's version attempts to change this accompaniment up, and somewhat succeeds, though I'm not so sure about the added backbeat:
  • It's very technically demanding vocally, but unfortunately that doesn't keep many amateurs from trying to perform it. This translates into a lot of cringe-worthy performances, like this one. Okay, that performance was hilariously bad on purpose, but this singer does a great job of making fun of how badly this song can by performed. But even with a competent singer, the song has musical problems.
  • Besides length and slowness, I think the main musical problem in "O Holy Night" is how the music takes precedence over the lyrical content, especially in the chorus. The vocal acrobatics really steal the show and put the emphasis on the performer. You can see this in the Mariah Carey music video above, where Carey seems to be the object of worship in the chapel instead of the Christ child. Relatedly, the music climaxes seem manipulative. Each chorus phrase demands that you pay attention, and the successive phrases keep ratcheting up the tension with each phrase, leaving me exhausted and annoyed by the end.
On a positive note, here's a Mariah Carey performance that I think is really awesome:

What do you think of "O Holy Night"? Anyone want to defend it?

Vocab: arpeggiated, accompaniment, chorus, climax, backbeat

Monday, December 16, 2013

Music Libraries…of the Future!

This past week, I wrote a reflection paper for a class on my predictions about music libraries of the future, and I'd thought I'd share some of my thoughts here. I think parts delve more into a wishlist than prediction, but I tried to base my speculation on current trends. I'm sure it will be amusing to read in 10 years and realize how wrong I was, but it's still fun to think about the future.

I believe that in 10-15 years, there will be two main trends in music libraries, especially academic music libraries: First, collections that are increasingly 1) electronic, 2) searchable AND browsable online, and 3) aggregators for third-party content. Second, management that focuses on greater outreach, more specialization, and a shrinking (or at least not growing) number of professional positions.

Trend 1: Streaming music, browsable sound collections

As more and more musical resources are put online, music libraries will offer more streaming services, even starting to offer popular music streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora. Of course, the streaming services now existent (Alexander Street Press, Naxos, and DRAM) will continue to add content and also increase their prices. Because of this expansion in electronic sound recording content, music libraries will find their budget for physical sound recordings dwindle, and will have to rely more finding rare music that is hard to find electronically on third-party markets. Although libraries will develop the tools to lend MP3s, legal problems will prevent the execution of this program. Subscription video streaming services will continue in the same way, becoming a greater percentage of music library’s budget as more and more music content becomes available online and fewer and fewer resources are published in a physical form. As physical sound recording budgets shrink and CDs become less of a theft risk, music librarians will figure out new ways to increase their physical circulation or risk their material having almost no use at all, perhaps finding a cheaper method of moving from closed stacks to open stacks or making their physical collections virtually browsable online.

Trend 2: E-books and e-scores

Music libraries will begin to catch up with other libraries on the purchase of e-books, as more music e-books become available and demand for them increases. Better tools will be developed to display textbook and academic e-books, making theme more popular, because the market will call for it, and because these tools as so bad now, they can only get better. In addition to e-books, some scores will start to be leased through aggregate publisher databases for use on tablets. These program will allow musicians to mark their own copies, and perhaps keep those markings for the next time they will lease the music, solving one of the big problems of non-physical copies. In the next few years, however, the score leasing model will only apply to old public domain material and new music from active composers who are willing to try the new model. In order for patron to use this new music leasing, the library will have to start lending the technology to use such music, such as tablet computers. In addition to tablets, the library will need to rent other multimedia technology that will continue to be too expensive for students, such as video equipment, microphones, and video and sound editing software.

Trend 3: More (and cheaper) e-journals, with content aggregators

While legal action will not convince courts to allow the lending of MP3s, lawsuits against big academic publishers will finally make electronic academic journal access cheaper rise only as fast as inflation. More journals will be open access, but in the next few years these open access journals will still not have figured out how to keep their academic standards high in the new model, such as working peer review process. Large, publisher-driven journals from academic presses will still continue to function and carry the most credibility, even with decreased revenue and court settlements. While the number of journals will continue to increase, more and more periodicals and books will be published as e-only. The library will become the aggregator of these resources for their patrons. With the continuing increase of e-content, someone will have to develop a tool so that these items electronic items are readily browsable, instead of just searchable. New books and journal issues will be funneled into something like Feedly or even Facebook, a reader that posts new content that is available in the library, such as the table of contents of patron’s favorite journals or a type of new books, so that patrons can quickly see what’s new. While browsing capabilities will continue to increase, music databases will become better at pinpointing material patrons need based on their search queries and search query history, a direction that we are moving already.  

Trend 4: Public domain expansion

While American copyright probably will not change much in the next 10-15 years, I will continue to hope that the restrictions to public domain material will slacken. There is currently an international movement to pull back the life-plus-seventy copyright stipulation back to a more reasonable life-plus-fifty. As demand and availability of out-of-copyright sources increases, libraries will become more involved in the location of online public domain resources and the production of out-of-copyright resources for these online platforms. Fair use will continue to be nebulous, but libraries will become more important in informing the public how to navigate these laws.

Trend 5: Less product, more service outreach

In addition all the changing collections (or perhaps because of it), music libraries will function differently, especially in terms of public service and personnel. Because of the de-emphasis in physical resources and large increase in online providing, music librarians will be doing more time with laptops having “office hours” in music schools, marketing themselves as a provider of resources instead of a repository of resources. While other academic libraries, such as large graduate and undergraduate libraries, will continue to gain in study and technology space, music libraries will be forced into smaller and smaller spaces, another reason why music librarians will need to concentrate on outreach.

As part of this outreach, music librarians will continue to do advertising exhibits; if anything, these exhibits will get bigger and more complicated and will be connected to social media (maybe a series of exhibits on a similar theme throughout the year, pushed heavily on university websites and Facebook and Twitter). Advertising of resources will become even more important, as will education about the increasingly complicated and varied music tools available.

In order to do this outreach, librarians will increasingly rely on paraprofessional and part-time workers. I think as budgets continue to flatline, the trend will continue to have fewer top people with library degrees and more full-time paraprofessional positions. However, the top positions will continue to require MLS degrees because of the continuing importance of technical education. MLS programs will be changing, however, to reflect the need of greater technical expertise. Because of the peculiarities of musical resources and overabundance of trained musicians versus jobs, though, musical expertise will continue to be desired for these top-level music librarian positions.

What do you think is in the future of music libraries?

Vocab: streaming, MP3, paraprofessional

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bach's "Echo Aria" from the Christmas Oratorio

This week, I performed half of Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the North Carolina Symphony. Bach's Christmas Oratorio is basically just six cantatas that tell the Christmas story (we sang parts 4-6, for those counting at home). A cantata, if you are wondering, is basically a church sermon set to music. Bach wrote literally hundreds of them, often the same week he would rehearse and perform them. Usually, a cantata features scripture passages, commentary on the scripture, and related chorales. Each cantata has from 7 to 14 parts. Some parts are sung by soloists or groups of soloists, and some are sung by the choir. Sometimes the audience would join in to sing the chorales, and sometimes just the choir would sing a more complex version of the chorales.

In comparison with Handel's music, which I sang last week, Bach's choral and vocal music is more intricate and has more exciting, carefully-structured part-reading, but is less flashy and memorable. For example, I don't have Bach stuck in my head for weeks after I sing it, which is what usually happens with Messiah. However, there was one aria, or solo number, from part 4 of the Christmas Oratorio that left an impression on me. It's named "Flößt, mien Heliand, flößt dein Namen," but is often just known as the "Echo Aria." Why, you ask? Well, the aria is basically a duet between the oboe player and the soprano, and both of them has a backstage pair that sometimes echoes the notes they sing.

Here, watch and listen:

I don't think this echoing is just a gimmick. Not only is the echo worked seamlessly into the music, but it fits with the text of the song. The main soprano singer is basically asking questions of the Lord, and the Lord is answering the questions in the echo, in the first part no, in the second part yes. Perhaps "Ask and ye shall find."

It is also really interesting how Bach foreshadows the echo with his music. In the solo oboe's introduction, it repeats a motive, the first time loud, the second time soft, as if Bach wants us to get used to that concept. When the echo from the upstage oboe happens, at first we aren't sure if the echo just might be the solo oboe. Then, the solo oboe starts echoing the voice. Finally, we are surprised by the upstage voice, though we've already been subtly prepared for it. That's some good foreshadowing. And neither the oboe's nor the soprano's echoes are ever quite the same—sometimes one echo, sometimes two, and in different orders—so the surprise continues. The balance of two echoing pairs is also a nice touch.

What do you think of the "Echo Aria"? Anyone have any other favorite Bach cantata numbers?

Vocab: cantata, chorale, aria, oratorio, motive

Monday, December 2, 2013

What music are you enjoying right now? Want to share?

It’s officially Christmas season. I don’t know when you all started listening to Christmas music, but I started while I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It’s interesting that this “genre” of music keeps coming back seasonally, and it's really a whole mishmash of genres.

It’s also officially end-of-term project and finals season, so I thought I’d throw this one out to you, my readers. Here's the question: what music are you digging right now, and why do you like it?

I’ll start. I just finished a performance run of Handel’s Messiah, and even though I tried to pick something else as I wrote about Messiah last year, it's what's on my mind. Specifically, I've had "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" stuck in my head. It has two parts, one fast and one slow. The slow part has a catchy melody, but the fast part is the kicker—not only is the vocal part flashy, but also the string parts sizzle with quick bowing, evoking fire (at least in my mind). Here's a video, and I hope you like countertenors:

Now it's your turn, and it doesn’t have to be Christmas music, and it doesn't have to be long.

Vocab: bowing, countertenor

Monday, November 25, 2013

Noteworthy Instruments: The Viola Organista

The outer workings of the viola organista. Photo: Tomasz Wiech/AFP

I'm sure many of you have seen the video of the viola organista as it was circulated on social media this week. The instrument, which is part of the chordophone family, is basically a harpsichord or piano whose strings are vibrated with a spinning wheel instead of plucked or struck. The spinning wheel is meant to imitate the bowing mechanic on many string instruments.

The instrument's builder and designer, Slawomir Zubrzycki, claims to have been inspired by Leonard Da Vinci's notebooks. However, lest you think this is a major breakthrough in instrument technology, it should be noted that bowed keyboard instruments have been made before, as early as 1575 by Hans Hyden and as recently as 2009. For a great essay on the background of bowed keyboard instruments, see this blogpost from The History Blog. The post also features the best video of the inner workings of the instrument, narrated (in Polish, unfortunately) by Zubrzycki. Take a look!

But wait, remember my Noteworthy Instrument post on the hurdy-gurdy? The hurdy-gurdy operates using the same principles. They both feature a rotating wheel which causes strings to vibrate. The only major differences is smaller range and lack of keyboard. And while the viola organista probably does not have a future as more than a novelty instrument, the hurdy-gurdy will continue to inspire generations to come…as a novelty instrument, too, I guess.

What did you think of the viola organista?

Vocab: chordophone, harpsichord,
keyboard, bowing

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read #4

It's time again for another installment of New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read. As always, I've been busy processing new books for the music library (about 100 per month), and I note the ones that I think would be interesting to read, had I the time. Hopefully, there's something interesting here for everyone. Here are my biased picks, listed in no particular order:
  • Music Career Advising: A Guide for Students, Parents, and Teachers by Eric Branscome - Maybe a little too academically inclined, but I think it is important because so many young people go into university music programs because they are told they should, yet have no idea where such a program could lead them.
  • Download! How the Internet Transformed the Record Business by Phil Hardy - Tries to chronicle how the music industry had to adapt to the new internet digital music market, from the CD boom through MP3s to the present. Probably a bit premature, but we have to start somewhere.
  • Ubiquitous Musics: The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice, edited by Marta Garcia Quinones, Anahid Kassabian, and Elena Boschi - Essays on gym music, mood music, ambient music, mobile phones, listening while traveling, etc.
  • Javanese Gamelan and the West, by Sumarsam - Examines not only how Gamelan performance in Indonesia has changed since it was introduced to the west, but how Gamelans have influenced the western music, including the many university Gamelans in the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • Made in Spain: Studies in Popular Music, ed. by Silvia Martinez and Hector Fouce - English language collection of essays about popular music in Spain, encompassing jazz, folk song and dance, pop, music during Franco, and regionalisms (because Spain is not a monolithic whole like sometimes we think in the U.S.)
  • Understanding the Music Industries, by Chris Anderton, Andrew Dubber, and Martin James - The plural in the title is no mistake—instead of talking about the monolithic industry, instead they try to see how all the little pieces interact and work together (or don’t work together): Songwriting, publishing, production, distribution, promotion, live music, audiences (which have a big impact on how people make money, it turns out), and copyright.
  • “Cashville”: Dilution of Original Country Music Identity through Increasing Commercialization, by Stephanie Schäfer - I’ve always thought that country music was mostly a self-perpetuating myth refined over the years to make money, but now here’s a book that backs up that arguement.
  • The Notation is Not the Music: Reflections on Early Music Practice and Performance, by Barthold Kuijken - While this book focuses on early music, which is usually not my cup of tea, I think it is important to keep in mind that what you see written was not necessarily what was heard when it was originally performed, especially for pre-1700 music and folk music.
  • Elvis Costello and Thatcherism: A Psycho-Social Exploration, by David Pilgrim and Richard Ormond - How could you go wrong with a title like this?
  • Music Education in Crisis, edited by Peter Dickinson - A collection of essays from the past 15 years, mostly from a British perspective, defending music education as it has been recently attacked and cut. Because we all need more things in our pocket about music advocacy.
  • Erik Satie: Music, Art, and Literature, edited by Caroline Potter - A collection of essays, including one on a topic for which I wrote a short paper as a graduate student: Satie as a comic. Sadly, (or probably happily for those reading this essay), this is not my paper.
  • Songs of People on the Move, edited by Thomas A. McKean - A collections of essays about the music of itinerant groups from all over the world, groups which are often on the margins of society.
Have you read any good music books lately?

Vocab: MP3, gamelan, ambient music

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Rise and Decline of KT Tunstall and Avril Lavigne—or Not?

Is this girl just relying on crazy eye shadow to drive record sales? (Image from Amazon)


The best laid plans...

I have to admit, I had this post planned a few months ago. I was going to write about two female pop artists who had exceptional debuts in the early 2000s, Avril Lavigne with Let Go (2002), and KT Tunstall with Eye to the Telescope (2004). I loved both of these albums and have followed the careers of both of these artists ever since.

And then, I was going to write about that despite both their great starts, I've been mostly disappointed with everything since these debuts. For Lavigne, the only good songs on her second album were clones of the best songs from the first album. Her third album was a complete departure from her previous material in a direction that I didn't like. And strangely, it’s not just Avril’s music that has suffered, but her words, too, even though she wrote all the words for her first album. As for KT Tunstall, I bought her subsequent two albums, but decided later that they were both mostly forgettable. Forgettable as in, it is hard for me to name or hum any songs from those albums even though I own them and have listened to them many times.

And then I was going to bring up that both KT Tunstall and Avril Lavigne recently released new albums, Tunstall in August with Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, and Lavigne with the eponymous Avril Lavigne this past week. I was supposed to lament about the quick rise and decline of both of them on their release of yet more mediocre albums.

...can go awry

With Tunstall, I can stick to my original intent. Her new album is mostly blah, with a bunch of slow, mopey, strumming-guitar prominent, forgettable melodies. Though there are some nice fleeting timbral moments, more than anything else these only seem to try to make up for lack of substance elsewhere. She almost rises out the stupor with "Feel it All," but even this song doesn't quite make it to the energetic/relevant surface. The album's failure was the last straw for me; I've given up hope that she'll ever rise to the level of her first album, and I can only guess why her output has come up short.

I predicted that Lavigne's new album would send me the same message as Tunstall's. But I can't say that. Though I've only listened to the iTunes Store samples so far, I think Avril Lavigne may be her best album since Let Go. I can't say that I personally loved it and want to buy it; some of her musical and lyrical directions are not my cup-of-tea, but that doesn't mean it isn't good music. The album accomplishes what it was meant to. She's constructed some powerful ideas, emotions, and personas (note the plural) for this album, all wrapped up in pretty good music, and it really comes out (in great variety) in the final product. On the other hand, I should have guessed that Lavigne might have a comeback. I failed to mention her fourth album, Goodbye Lullaby, in the previous list—I think about half of the songs on it were pretty good. So the quality of this album should not have been the surprise it was.

The moral of this story is...

What do I think is the lesson to be learned about all of this? Collaboration. Avril Lavigne is at her best when she's working with someone else. All the hits on her first album were co-written by a music production team called the Matrix (I have no idea why they split ways). On Avril Lavigne, she worked mostly with her now-husband and member of Nickelback, Chad Kroeger. Having partners in crime really brings out her best work (though I'll still pine about her and the Matrix splitting up). Maybe that's what Tunstall needs, too.

I don't plan to write a full review of Avril Lavigne, but if you are curious, this track-by-track Billboard review is pretty good.

Did you like Eye to the Telescope or Let Go? Have you listened to either of these new albums? Any thoughts?

timbral, music production

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Ain't too many folks play too many notes on the mandolin"

I wasn't going to write a concert review about Chris Thile, seeing as how I already dedicated one blog post about him last week and concert reviews have historically been my least-viewed posts. However, after seeing him live, I decided I needed to share a couple of things. I'll keep it short.

Why I like Chris Thile in concert

  • Not many people can do a solo concert with one instrument and one microphone and no intermission. And keep it up for two hours. He didn't even have a loop machine.
  • He talks to his audience about form and chord progressions.
  • He really tries to make his songs sound different and try new things, even after years of performing. For example, among many novel things he did at this concert, for one short piece, he treated the mandolin only as a percussion instrument.
  • He often used his body to indicate the purpose or direction of a musical phrase or note.
  • I could tell that he thought deliberately about the placement of every single note, especially when he played Bach.
  • He never repeated a musical phrase exactly the same way.
  • His lyrics are well written, and he often uses form to accentuate the meaning of the words.
In short, if you ever get a chance to see him perform live, I would take it!

Vocab: loop machine, phrase

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Chris Thile Show!

A mandolin. Thile's, actually.

For my post this week, I'm doing something a little different. Tomorrow, I'm going to a concert by Chris Thile, a mandolin virtuoso (meaning he's very, very good player) and one of my favorite performers. As an assignment for one of my classes, I made a basic pathfinder or guide about Chris Thile and the concert, which you can find here. I hope you enjoy it.

A personal note: you'll notice Thile is quite accomplished for someone so young (he's 32); he's actually only four days older than I. I guess I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Vocab: mandolin, virtuoso

Monday, October 21, 2013

Birdsong and the Musician Wren

What are birds? We just don't know.

Birds of a feather sing together

Some of you may know that I like birding. Since I also like music, it may come as no surprise that birdsong is particularly fascinating to me. I'm not the only one; birdsong has intrigued and stimulated people throughout history. For example, in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale "The Nightingale", a nightingale's song brings the Chinese imperial court to tears and later distracts Death, saving the life of the emperor.

Probably the best-known composer to use birdsong in music was French composer Oliver Messiaen. He wrote many pieces based entirely on birdsong. While I'm not a big fan of these pieces (to be overly simplistic, to me, they don't have direction or progression), I think it shows the fascination some musicians can have with natural sounds, especially something as ordered as birdsong.

While I'm not as knowledgeable as Messiaen about birdsong (and European birds are just different, anyway), I can tell a few birds just from hearing their song. One of my favorite common birds is the chickadee, which has several different interesting songs in its repertoire.

And your bird can sing

Yesterday, the blog The Presurfer featured a bird called the Musician Wren. Here's what it posted about the wren (

The Musician Wren is a species of wren named for its elaborate song. It is native to the Amazon Rainforest in South America, and west and southwestwards into the Amazonian Andes. In Portuguese it is known as Uirapuru. Especially in Brazil, the Musician Wren is the subject of several legends and fables, most relating to its loud and beautiful song. One of these tells that when it starts singing all other birds stop their song to hear it.*
Here's an audio example of the bird's song, which has a very clear tone, with a picture of it:

But how does it work?

What's interesting to me about the Musician Wren's song is that it's beautiful without fitting into our normal common practice tonality, the system that Western culture has used for music for the past  three centuries. Yet, the music fits together as a whole because it is broken into phrases with a hierarchy, meaning some phrases feel more conclusive than others. There are really only three phrases in the example, which I will call (in the order we hear them): B, A, and B'. All three start with a similar melody, but the B phrase sounds like  a consequence phrase, or most conclusive, mostly because of the descending octave at the end. The A phrase, on the other hand, doesn't sound as final, perhaps because it ends on something close to a second-inversion triad. These two phrases alone would be enough for a complete song, but the wren also produces a variation on the B phrase (B'), which starts like the B phrase, but just kind of stops. These three phrases are different enough and mixed around enough (and their melodies complex enough, with unexpected jumps and clips), that I can listen to them for a while and not get bored. But they are similar enough to make this birdsong sound connected.

Now, do I hear these phrases in a hierarchy because of my musical training, or because nature's music really works that way? I think that's very debatable.

What do you think of the Musician Wren's song? Do you have any favorite birdsongs?

Vocab: common practice tonality, phrase, antecedent phrase, consequence phrase, second-inversion triad

* I think this blurb was summarized from another, lower-quality YouTube video of the Musician Wren, which you can find here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I don't know how music works

What's with this guy, anyway?
A few weeks ago, I performed as a singer in four performances Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It's a long work, and the choir doesn't come in until close to the end, so I had a lot of time to sit and think about what was going on in the music. And with Beethoven, there's always a lot going on. As any regular readers of this blog know, I like taking music apart and analyzing it to see how it works. At the end of the four performances, what I decided was this:

I don't know how music works.

I know what pitches the open strings of a violin sound, how many times a second a string vibrates to sound an 'A' in Europe or the U.S., how to spot a second theme in the first movement of a classical sonata or symphony, how to lift my soft palate so that my vowels sound better, and how to sing beautifully in German.

But I don't know how this music made Beethoven, a middle-class German who lived centuries ago, a hero and household name for all the generations since.

I know how to analyze or write a four-part fugue, how to orchestrate, transpose, and balance a woodwind section, how to finger an Ab on a trumpet and what the same note would sound like if played on a bassoon. I know how to take apart a clarinet, how a baritone sax is different than a soprano sax is different than a bass clarinet. I know the German name for viola, how to dance an Irish jig, and the difference between a bulgar and a freilach. I know how to dampen an Javanese reyong, how to chant kechak, and how to count gong cycles.

But I don't know what about the music of 9th symphony made it a symbol of New Years in Japan or the reunification of Germany in 1990.

I know how to conduct music in 11/8, how to recognize a blues progression and improvise a solo over it, how to correctly voice and resolve a Neapolitan chord, how low a bass can usually sing and what happens to their tone above an 'A'.

But I don't know what about Beethoven's 9th (or any other piece of music) would make someone dedicate their whole lives (with minimal financial award) to studying a composer who died years ago. I don't know why some people decide to spend thousands of dollars on a music education with little hope of financial reward. I don't know why a few people spend millions of dollars to shore up the failing finances of symphony orchestras all over the world because those musicians hardly make enough money to buy their instruments.


When you get down to it, this symphonic performance is just a bunch of people waving their arms and moving their fingers and blowing, or shouting in a very specialized way, and vibrating strings and membranes and columns of air. And it's not just classical art music—all music is just
vibrating air molecules that we pick up with some very small bones in our ear and transfer into electrochemical pulses in our brains. It's not like art or literature, where pictures or words can represent tangible things in our lives and relationships (and by the way, many critics think that the words to "Ode to Joy" by themselves are pretty much drivel). How can a vibration be a symbol for joy or anger or pain or group belonging?

So how does it help me to know what I don't know? It's important because we need to know what we are assuming before we can move on. Take science—it starts with assumptions, or postulates. For instance, in Euclidian geometry we have to assume that there's such a thing as two parallel lines that never meet. But we can't really prove that, and in fact on the Earth, which is not flat, Euclidian geometry doesn't really work on a large scale, just as Newtonian physics doesn't work in large-scale space.

In music's case, we take as a postulate the transformative power of music. This assumption helps us move on to make some conclusions that in practice seem to work out. But I think we should never forget that it's an assumption. We don't know how or why music is or can become such a big deal, such an important factor for change in the world. And our lack of answers is one of the things that makes music so intriguing.

Vocab: theme, sonata, symphony, soft palate, fugue, blues progression, transposition, gong cycles

Monday, October 7, 2013

Concert Review: Ani DiFranco, Queen of the Varied Vamp

Last week, I attended a live concert by the amazingly prolific artist and businessperson Ani DiFranco. Here's what I thought.

The opener: Pearl and the Beard—missing a mustache?

The opening band for Ani was Pearl and the Beard, an indie trio from New York City. I applaud their inventive song, their powerful unaccompanied voices, and their courage at creating unique instrumentation, but that choice of instruments (percussion, cello, and guitar) put most of their sound in the low-middle register. The cello and guitar players seemed to be having a fight as to who was supposed to play the bass and the harmonic accompaniment. I think the band would benefit from some more melodic instrumental thinking, either using the instruments they have differently, or bringing in something like a lead guitar (ukulele? mandolin? accordion? zither?). This would fill out the treble range and allow for hooks, or catchy melodic snippets that get and keep people's attention. Also, it was often difficult to understand their lyrics, often a problem for those not already familiar with a band's music (though it shouldn't be, in my opinion).

Guitars, words, and vamps

As for Ani, I was very impressed by her guitar skills. The range, volume, and variation of her guitar playing is breathtaking. Nobody really plays guitar like her. Though considering how much tension her playing style takes, I'm not surprised she's had to take career breaks for tendonitis. It's also impressive that she needs a new guitar after each song (we counted six or seven guitars that she rotated through). Despite her abilities, I was happy that she brought along a drummer and bassist  for this tour, because for me, even great guitar playing gets old after not too long.

Unlike Pearl and the Beard, Ani really does a great job communicating her words to her audience. I think besides good diction, she does a good job of composing music that highlights the meaning and sound of her lyrics. Most her songs come from a first person perspective. While I think in some ways that makes her songs more powerful, I think it's curious that she has a hard time writing songs about other characters.

As for the music, Ani's songs almost always follow a similar construction blueprint. She builds her songs over guitar vamps, or repeated patterns of a measure or two. How does she keep her songs interesting, despite this constant repetition? While, first of all, the vamps are usually quite complicated. Second, she's skilled at varying them, trimming them down or making them more complex as the song progresses. Sometimes she just stops playing for a few beats, especially if she wants to emphasize her lyrics. And speaking of her words, she has learned how to sing over, around, and through the vamps. Her words often carry their own interesting rhythms. The chorus melody will also be different, even if they are placed over the same vamp. And occasionally, she does throw in a few contrasting chords.

Stop being happy and play your angry stuff!

Though Ani was touring to promote her new album, it was obvious (even to herself, from comments she made) that the audience really was there to hear her classic music, not the new stuff. I could feel the excitement build in the hall the few times she gave in to audience requests to play an older song.*

What makes her old songs most exciting to audiences? I've got a few guesses. First, her emotions aren't as strong as they used to be and that plays out in the music. Second, many of her new songs don't really have a lyrical direction or an arc; they are more just a platform to broadcast her random thoughts. Third, her newer songs are missing choruses or anthems, fun and memorable phrases the audiences can grab on to and take the song upon themselves. Perhaps if she took on other people's stories instead of her own (especially with her cooler emotions), she might find a greater fountain of inspiration.

All in all, it was an enjoyable concert. There's a reason she has so many loyal fans. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) a great kazoo solo from her drummer.

What do you think about Ani? Do you like her new stuff better than her old stuff?

Vocab: hook, lyrics, vamp, instrumentation, harmonic, measure

*I witnessed the same thing a few years ago at a They Might Be Giants concert. It's apparently hard to keep coming out with more creative stuff after a long career. But it's a critic's job to complain about that, right?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sting, The Last Ship: an album, or a musical?

Sting, a working man again. See the album on Amazon.

It's here! Sting's first album of all-new material in 10 years! But wait…it's a celtic-folk musical?

Ever since the difficult, but eventually rewarding Sacred Love (2003), the last all-original studio album Sting produced, in which he tried (and failed) to produce more radio hits, Sting hasn't seemed interested in hits. Instead, he's tackled whatever his musical whimsy has caught: lute songs from 400 years ago, re-imagining his own works with symphonic accompaniment (to help financially failing orchestras?), and "Winter" songs (not Christmas, mind-you; or only Christmas, anyway). In the booklet to The Last Ship, Sting himself characterized these intervening 10 years as a "fallow" period, meaning he agrees he's let his creative powers rest, but only in order make the next harvest that much sweeter.

But those of you expecting a harvest akin to the Sting of the 80s or 90s might be disappointed. Sting, not to be predictable, has planted a new crop, and the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, so to speak. That's right, The Last Ship is basically a pre-release cast recording with a cast of mostly one.

But don't let the singular album cover and vocal credits fool you. The Last Ship is more collaborative than other Sting albums, though the musicians are always working for Sting. At the back of the album, there is a note that reads: "All songs written by Sting…except those noted below," followed by a full page of exceptions. If you examine those exceptions closely, it turns out that 5 out of 12 tracks (10 out of 20 in the premium version) are coauthored by at least Sting's producer, Rob Mathes, and some of these credit as many as 7 people total. Not that I think this collaboration is bad; large projects like musicals take more than just one creative mind, and actually, I think some of the more interesting tracks are not written solely by Sting.

Words, words, words...

What does the musical theater focus mean for the content of the album? Well, it mostly means that these songs are not very meaningful by themselves. We don't really grasp the whole story from the selections we're given in The Last Ship. The focus also means that the songs are more character- and exposition-driven than in a normal rock album. Character-driven songs are not unusual for Sting, who is used to writing about fictional people, but rock albums usually don't focus on exposition.

What kind of people is Sting writing about for The Last Ship? He's astutely writing what he knows, drawing from his experience growing up in Wallsend in northern England in the shadow of a shipyard. He's also throwing in a little of his proletariat championing from "We Work the Black Seam" from Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985). Sting is revisiting themes and images from his earlier work, like the island of souls and the soul cages from The Soul Cages (1991). I wouldn't be surprised if the songs "The Soul Cages" or "Island of Souls" were included in the full musical (though, I have a feeling that The Last Ship turns out to me more hopeful that The Soul Cages).

Even for a Sting album or a musical, though, The Last Ship is very wordy. Sacred Love was notoriously wordy, and many songs and verses were cut from the final product. The Last Ship seems the next step in that progression, as verses pile on top of other verses. I suspect, too, that the album's collaboration was more musical than textural—I think most if not all of the words are Sting's. In some ways, though, he's more direct about his song's subjects than he has been in the past, as in his title "I Love Her But She Loves Somebody Else" (which could be the title of 25% of Sting's songs), but he takes a boatload of words to say it. There's still plenty of Sting's trademark literary references—biblical, mythological, and other.

Let me sing you a new ballad of times past

So how does the focus on telling a theatrical story affect the music? Well, Sting lets it influence the music a fair amount.
There's some smattering of Celtic dance throughout (I suspect some of the musical collaboration in these). Sting also decides to follow English folk music models to fit in with the working class setting. There's several long ballads, an old folk musical form with many verses that instead of a chorus, usually has some key phrase in each verse. Sting also employs some musical theater standby forms like AABA. These two forms serve to pack a lot of words with only minimal repetition, as he seems to want to do here. Sting and Mathes manage to make the ballads the most compelling songs by varying the verses's melodies, making the songs build gradually, and telling a great story.

But there are some musical aspects in The Last Ship that are un-Sting-like. The range of Sting's voice is not large, and we hear little of his trademark high voice. Sting seems less interested in experimenting with form and meter. Also, there's no radio hits here, no break-away single, which is surprising because that's usually an asset in a musical.

"What Have We Got?"

Still, there's a lot of emotion and thought and stories. There may not be a radio hit, but the title track "The Last Ship" could be show-stopper. And I'm a sucker for Northumbrian pipes and the Celtic-style fiddles. Sting + Celtic = perfection? Maybe not, but I'll take it.

And once again, Sting is going someplace completely new. He can do lute songs from the 1600s, and he can do musicals, too. Not just a review-style rock musical made up of unconnected songs from the same artist, or a musical based off a movie or a comic book, but a brand-new, original musical. Who does that, anymore? The Last Ship might end up similar to Kinky Boots: a rock musician writing music about working class people trying to get out of a ditch. I guess it might be meant to get Sting's career out of ditch, too, if I thought he cared about his career. Mostly, I think he just wants to tell a good story and help change some lives.

From The Last Ship, "we've got nowt else." But I'm okay with that.

What do you think about the album? And what genre do we file it under? Any ideas?

Vocab: ballad, AABA

Monday, September 23, 2013

"The Fox" and "Gangnam Style"

Psy asks: is someone copying me?

One of these things is just like the other

To build on last week's post about "The Fox", you may have noticed that people often compare "The Fox" to "Gangnam Style," starting with the first comments on the YouTube video. "Why?" you might ask. "Well, that's simple," you might answer: they are both comedic YouTube viral music videos with an emphasis on dance.

It turns out, however, that it's more than that—there are some remarkable musical similarities, too. The two songs are the most similar in their choruses. First of all, both verses build to the chorus in a similar way, with repeated eighth notes that grow in dynamic until a big pause of silence. Following this pause, both choruses start with a short exclamation ("What does the fox say?" and "Oppan Gangnam style"), followed by a strong, danceable bass beat. Both choruses then alternate between these short exclamations and dance breaks. Even the tempos of both songs are almost exactly the same.*

Are all clones created equal?

If this type of chorus is so successful, why does "The Fox" succeed while "Gentleman," PSY's own followup clone of  "Gangnam Style", was so bad? While "The Fox" only copied some aspects of "Gangnam" (and I'm not saying it was intentional, though it could have been), "Gentleman" tried to copy almost everything: the beat, the form, the lyrical meter, the sliding electronic instrument, the crazy group and solo dancing, the weird music video. But "Gentleman" left out what really made "Gangnam" pop—any sort of harmonic progression. "Gentleman" is just one chord all the way through.** "The Fox", on the other hand, while having some similarities with "Gangnam", is very different in a lot of ways.

And that's what makes good music—taking something familiar that works (like form or texture or harmony) and doing something innovative and different with it, something that will strike people in a new way.

Vocab: tempo, texture, harmony

*"Gangam Style" is just a bit faster.

**"Gentleman" may be also borrowing from another viral hit of the year, "Harlem Shake", which also has only one chord; there's some surprising melodic similarities, too.

PS I'm pretty mad at the Abercrombie and Fitch lip synch version of "The Fox", which they put right in front of the official music video, as if it was the real one. But being mad at Abercombie is nothing new. Sigh.

Monday, September 16, 2013

What makes "The Fox" work?

If you're like me, even if you haven't seen "The Fox"  yet, you've seen someone link to it online, usually followed by comments such as  "What was THAT?" or "I don't know what happened…but it was awesome!!!" Here's the music video, made for a comedy TV show by the Norwegian duo Ylviz, which in about two weeks has captured 30 millions views:

What was that, you ask? Well, I'm going to attempt to explain, at least with regard to the music (
if you're interested in knowing more about the creators and creation of the "The Fox", read this BBC newsbeat). I think "The Fox" really makes fun of the insipidness of popular music lyrics while also being a great listen. These lyrics, especially at the very beginning, could be be written by a third grader. But if you are like me, after watching you'll stop and wonder "wait, aren't most popular music lyrics pretty dumb, anyway?" I think we've just accepted the themes of love and dancing and their family of inane diatribes, so we don't notice them anymore. The bridge's lyrics especially follow the convention of posing (faux) deep questions (over and over again) that really don't extend the song's meaning much.*

So, if they lyrics are a bust, what makes this song work? Crazy dancing and costumes are a plus, as are the alternating morose and intense expressions on the singer's faces. But people still love the song because of the music. These lyrics parody modern popular lyrics well precisely because of the quality music.

What sound's the music make?

While the music's impact comes from more than its structure, I'm going to focus here on how the form of "The Fox" keeps our interest. Starting with the verses, both are well-structured and varied. While the first verse is basically two series of short, similar phrases, the verse's second half gains momentum by 1) adding the high synth hook from the introduction, and 2) an eighth-note drum figure building up to the pre-chorus pause. The second verse, usually a throw-away in most popular music, is more interesting, even though it's 1.5 times as long as the first. The extra length comes in the second series of short phrases, as the accompaniment drops out and the spotlight is on the close, two-part vocal harmony. Then, we have a bonus third series of phrases (an interesting melodic variation of the first two) in which we again hear the welcome intro high synth hook.

The chorus, while a nice change of beat, is kind of repetitive and long. All those silly sounds, though, actually serves to prolong our interest. The songwriters can extend the chorus much longer because the listeners are just wondering what the next random nonsense solo jam will be.

Finally, the song's
unconventional bridge plays a major part in it's feeling. The bridge comes right out of the the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" playbook—instead of finishing up with the chorus (which is normal), the bridge music takes over and out to the song's end. The song's end may not sound like the beginning of the bridge, as the texture of the music changes, but the underlying chords and melody remain the same. The decision to extend the bridge may have something to do with the sheer length of the verses—it would have been too long to cycle back to the chorus. Or, perhaps, they couldn't think up any more nonsense breaks. Or perhaps the non-return of the chorus makes us internally uncomfortable, which would be consistent with the strange comedy of the video. Whatever the reason, the extended bridge works. The songwriters did add to the bridge some continuity with the chorus, though, as the beat is similar and the fox is given his own nonsense jam right at the end (perhaps answering the song's central question?).

Do you like "The Fox?" Why or why not? Did my breakdown of the musical form help you make sense of the song and video?

Vocab: hook, bridge

*For example, how about Taio Cruz's song "Dynamite", which could totally be inspiration for "The Fox", especially this bridge:

"I’m gonna take it all, I’m gonna be the last one standing.
Higher over all, I’m gonna be the last one landing.
Cause I, I, I believe it, and I, I, I, I just want it all, I just want it all…"
Is the singer getting a big prize from dancing for a long time? How does being the last one standing make you higher than other people, figuratively or literally? What does he want all of?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review, part 2: The Civil Wars and civil unrest


In which I say authentic too many times

Last week, I began my review of the Civil War's new album, The Civil Wars, by giving a brief history of country music, with a lens on what makes music authentic. I need to make one clarification: I didn't want to insinuate that the Civil Wars are "authentic"; only that by making their inauthentic image more transparent (as a Southern gentleman and lady from the 19th century), they set themselves apart from other country music acts, and in comparison seem more honest. We saw this inauthentic transparency in their version of "I Want You Back," in which they take a known music item and reflect it through their own lens. It's a bit like cosplay (perhaps steampunk style) at a comic-con—inauthentically cool. And in all honesty, their distance from working class voices appeals to me, as I'm a college-educated middle-class white guy.

In another move of authenticity (or perhaps more correctly self-fulfilling prophesy), the duo seems to be having a fight. In November 2012, Joy and John Paul cancelled the rest of their tour dates in the middle of their tour, citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." Sounds kind of like a divorce, doesn't it? Despite the success of their new album, they still haven't appeared together. You can read more about it here.

I don't think that their musical break-up was a publicity stunt, but perhaps the story did give the album sales a boost. Their tension may have contributed another way to the album, in the music and its performance. Says Joy: "The Civil Wars feels to me more emotional and more raw and more honest then even anything we did on Barton Hollow [their previous album]." This statement sounds like a self-plug for authenticity, but I also agree with her characterization of the album.

Smoke on the water...and everywhere else, too

The album art is a good window into the album's character—it's smoke, smoke, and more smoke. Smoke is usually a signal of something being damaged, but it also hides things. I think in the case of these songs, not only are emotions being damaged, but the voices of those damaged people are trying to disguise these feelings from each other. This is true in most of the tracks: "Same Old Same Old," "Eavesdrop," "Devil's Backbone," "Tell Mama," "Oh Henry," and "Disarm."

Image can only take a group so far without good music, though. Musically, The Civil Wars is for the most part less acoustic than Barton Hollow, more about using an ensemble to tell a story instead of a small, intimate performance. I think the production is great; instruments are used with surgical precision, only when they are needed. For example, while "The One that Got Away" is bombastic, they know how to bring the volume down, and also when to mix the dobro more prominently. Also speaking of surgical precision, the addition of dulcimer in "Eavesdrop" is genius, especially in this final chorus; the song gives the appearance of a normal electric-guitar-to-the-end until that dulcimer appears on top of the texture.

While the ensemble approach is a big change, another important change from the previous album is in the vocals—instead of an even division, this album is more about Joy's voice than Jean Paul's. And Joy's voice is great; even the a little-too-stereotypical-country "From this Valley," with its predictable backbeat and chorus, is made palatable by Joy's vibrant, emotional voice. The Civil Wars is by no means Joy's show, however; Jean Paul still makes his mark with his versatile guitar playing and warm back-up vocals. And, as the previous album, they are both given songwriting credit for all but two tracks on the album.

The final track, "D'Arline" was recorded on Joy's iPhone 4S, with crows (which they named Edgar, Allen, and Poe) cawing in the background. Maybe this is another call to authenticity—if we can make music with only an iPhone, with everything stripped away, then we must be authentic. And finally, how can the song in French ("Sacred Heart") not be inauthentic in a honest sort of way?

I had one complaint: "I Had Me a Girl" sounds a bit too much like the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," as you might be able to tell from just the song title. With their eclectic palate, maybe the song was meant as a tribute, but I'm not so sure.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: dobro, dulcimer

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review, part 1: A short history of country music

Joy Williams and John Paul White of the Civil Wars (from NPR)

Last month, the Civil Wars eponymously titled 2nd album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 album chart (though it dropped relatively quickly). I can't stand a lot of country music (unless Sting writes it), but I've recently starting following this duo after hearing their Grammy-winning collaboration with Taylor Swift, "Safe and Sound." So what sets the Civil Wars (and Taylor Swift, for that matter, at least earlier Taylor Swift) apart from the rest, but keeps them classified as country?

Boot Scootin' Boogie Back In Time

In order to answer that question, I'm going to have to step back and explain where country music came from. What we now call country music originates in the rural southeast U.S in the 1920s. It was originally marketed as "Hillbilly" music, a label meant to be sensational and derogatory. Eventually, the genre merged with Texan Honky-Tonk and was rebranded "Country and Western" in the 1930s and 40s, and then became just "Country." While the performers were often authentic, especially in the beginning, the music, its presentation and marketing were manufactured, controlled, and contrived by big record labels. The music itself also became more contrived, as more and more performers relied on songwriters who could take the authentic-sounding parts and rework and repackage them into something for mass appeal. Just think of the sparkling mock-cowboy suits that performers wore in the 40s and 50s. Why did they wear that weird getup, which no real cowboy in their right mind would don?

The answer to these outfits comes back to what sets country music apart from other genres. While answering this is very complex, I'll try and boil it down to a few things: 

  • a working class point of view (often with a twang for "authenticity") portrayed by charismatic performers, 
  • an emphasis on narrative, 
  • Some musical shorthands (fiddles, harmonica, banjo, hoopla) built on a popular songwriting foundation. 
There are a few other, more complicated musical cues for country-ness: harmonies higher than the solo voice and certain styles of instrumental playing I don't have time to get into (how hawaiian guitar came to symbolize country music, we'll never really know). Cowboy hats can be important, too, but those are also a signal of "authenticity." For more about the development of country music, you can read Country Music: a Cultural and Stylistic History, by Jocelyn Neal.

Back to the 1860s

So, back to the present. As I said above, country music is mostly about performers. The songs, for the most part, are written by other people and plugged to perfumers. In the Civil Wars (and Taylor Swift, for that matter), however, you've got a songwriting team that also performs their music. While in their own music they are still acting out parts, singing their own music does bring some more authenticity to the table, for me at least. They are more explicitly choosing what they want to present. 

The Civil Wars also gain more on my authenticity meter in what they choose to wear. Taylor Swift wears whatever she wants; the Civil Wars, on the other hand, have a costume, but instead of cowboy hat and jeans, they wear  pseudo-19th-century gentleman and lady outfits that match their name. While this choice is still a little contrived, the fact that they are choosing their style instead of just running with the trend is important. While the look still comes out of the rural Southeast U.S., it doesn't really fit the working-class stereotype, either. It's like they are trying to step back and say "This is where this country music comes from," which I like, even if their version is also a construction.

I Want (19th-Century Rural America) Back

Musically, the Civil Wars also choose their own style. They are certainly rooted in country, with their instrumentation, guitar-styling and vocal harmonies. In their first album, Barton Hollow, many of their songs follow country music formula structures. However, Joy and John Paul's voices don't have the characteristic twang (which always was annoying to me), and the harmonies and pairing are more complex and subtle. And some of their songs, the best ones, depart from common country music structures.

I think the best way to illustrate the Civil Wars' music is from a bonus track from Barton Hollow. It's a cover of the Jackson 5's  "I Want You Back," and is possibly the best thing ever:

This is not an ironic cover—they are really thinking about the meaning of the lyric, pulling into their own time (which might be back in time?). The vocal harmonies are complex, the guitar is complicated and interesting (the guitar doubling in the chorus is my favorite part). At the same time, it is acoustic, features the high vocal harmony, sounds authentic, and the trimmed ensemble actually emphasizes the narrative storytelling more, all things that are often associated with country.

That's enough for this week. Next week, I'll finally get to my review the Civil Wars' new album.

What do you think about country music? How about pseudo-country music?

Vocab: eponymous, cover, doubling, twang

Monday, August 26, 2013

Running Ahead: Sara Bareilles and 'The Blessed Unrest'

In a new attempt to review albums sooner after their release, this week I'm reviewing Sara Bareilles' third album, The Blessed Unrest. July is still last month, right? The album title comes from a quote by Martha Graham, the great American dance pioneer, and is really about moving on and continuing to change, instead of giving into routine and stagnation. Graham, who invented a whole new style and method of dance, really exemplifies this. Bareilles explores the theme throughout the record, both in lyrical content and musical direction.

The album has a surprising range of emotions, from the attempting cheerfulness of "Little Black Dress" to the longing of "Cassiopeia" to the emotional solidness of "Brave" to the unrepentant but mature love song "I Choose You." The emotions are more on the surface than in her second album, the mostly forgettable Kaleidoscope Heart. Perhaps
The Blessed Unrest features a bit too many slow tracks, but even in those, Bareilles's story-telling singing keeps me interested. The varied musical textures are also a leap in a new direction. Partly, Bareilles's channeling some Sara McLachlin with her vocal and instrumental production, especially in "Satellite Call," but mostly it's just exciting and new. Bareilles's piano is still present, but is mostly backgrounded, a far cry from the piano prominence of Little Voice.

Besides the now-ubiquitous anthem "Brave," I think "Hercules" is really the most exiting track. I'll use it as an example of what I think works in the rest of album: varied texture, continuity, and added musical meaning. She starts the track with some solid, open-fifth chords that are about as prominent as her piano playing gets this album, but strangely sparse enough to prompt questions. Bareilles's smooth voice then appears on top, with inspired string writing that mirrors the voice. Then, just before the verse ends, the beat drops away and we get a moment of calm decorated by a delicate rolled piano chord. I always get a rush when the chorus hits after that calm, with the additional movement in the strings and the high vocal backup. Throughout the song, the words and emphasis are crystal clear and never overstated. The bridge really brings something new to the song, but we also finally get an expansion of the calm music from before the first chorus. When the solid, open-fifth chords return in the final moments of the track, I realize that while this sound also began the track, I haven't heard it in a couple of minutes. And it prompts me again, what does this sound mean? Its solidness probably hints at a strong warrior (as in the title), but its disappearance may hint at something deliciously more complex, such as hinting that the wisher/singer might not get their wish. Also, "Hercules" is a great song for jogging.

I think The Blessed Unrest is really a terrific album, and shows that Bareilles can keep reinventing her music, as the title suggests. I do, however, miss the unabashed, energy filled piano playing from "Love Song" and "King of Anything." In the future, I hope we hear a lot more of that combined with the creativity on display in this album.

What did you think of the album? Did you like Bareilles's new direction?

By the way, I listen to more new music than I have time to review in depth, so I've started doing #TweetReviews @signifyingsound, as you can see from the new tweet widget on your left. I'm a bit conflicted over reviewing 30-60 minutes of music in only 140 characters, as I basically have to leave nuance at the door, but I've decided a one-line review is better than nothing.

open fifth, texture, bridge