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