Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Good idea: using musical examples ("All I Want For Christmas")

I spend a fair amount of blog space pointing out bad music journalism—specifically, journalism that fails to use musical examples to back up their argument. While Christmas isn’t yet the distant past, I thought I would share an article that effectively uses musical examples about a Christmas song. The article from Slate by Adam Ragusea attempts to explain why Mariah Carey and Walter Afanaseiff’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” has become a holiday classic, while so many other new holiday songs in the last 40 years have drifted into obscurity. While I’m not sure I totally buy Ragusea’s argument that “All I Want For Christmas is You” sounds Christmassy only because it uses chromatic-rich chords similar to Christmas standards in the 1920-1950s (for instance, there are other songs that use these chords that don’t evoke Christmas, so there must be something else going on, too; also, plenty of songs today feature more than 3 or 4 chords suggested here), I salute his use of theory and specific musical examples to prove his point and attempting to make the writing accessible to non-specialists. Here’s an example:
The song also includes what I consider the most Christmassy chord of all—a minor subdominant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words “underneath the Christmas tree,” among other places. (You might also analyze it as a half-diminished “ii” 7th chord, but either interpretation seems accurate.) The same chord is found, in a different key and inversion, in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—on the line “children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” specifically under the word listen, among other spots.
While many people don't know what a "iv chord" means, he does link it up sonically with an aural cue most people can recognize. Enjoy the rest of the article and have a happy new year!

Vocab: chords, minor, subdominant, half-diminished

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Alfred Burt carols

Every Christmas music lover should know about Alfred Burt. Burt is most famous for his 15 carols that he produced as his family Christmas card every year from 1942 until his death in 1954. Eventually, after Burt’s death, the carols came to national prominence and are performed all over the world.

Here is the Salt Lake Vocal Artists singing the most famous of the Alfred Burt carols, “Caroling, Caroling,” and “We’ll Dress this House”:

One Christmas season many years ago, I sung one of Burt's carols and was inspired to work on my own Christmas card carol. Several years later, for Christmas 2001, I sent out “The Ephemeral Carol.” I wrote the music and my sister-in-law Brooke Shirts penned the wonderful lyrics. I haven’t written any Christmas carols since, but I’ve had many chances to perform this one. It’s about how the events and objects of the nativity (the manger straw, the angels' song, Christ’s life on earth) were fleeting, but the work and words of Jesus Christ continued and will continue on. I’m posting it here with a creative commons license. Feel free to download and share. I hope you enjoy it. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why are so many good songs about bad behavior?

 "The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder"

I realize this post does not lend itself to writing about actual music, but there's a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot and deserves a treatment: there is a lot of good music out there featuring lyrics of people behaving badly. Why is that?

First, why do I care? Because many people reject songs simply because of the lyrical content. I myself become uncomfortable listening to some music. And while I respect someone's decisions to listen or not, I think portraying bad behavior in song can be more complicated than simple glorification of actions of dubious morality.

Although I should probably try and define bad behavior, a can of worms in itself, I’ll just simply say that it’s hard to define.* In fact, that is the point of some of these songs feature bad behavior—some artists write about bad behavior precisely because other people define the behavior as bad, and the artists disagree. These artists either create their songs to argue against the dominant narrative and normalize the “bad” behavior, or more commonly (especially in hip hop) present caricatures of the bad behavior to make fun of negative stereotypes thrust upon them. While listeners are free to agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, I think a listener should at least recognize when an artist is motivated in this way.

Besides glorification or normalization, another reason to depict bad behavior in a song is to critique the behavior as bad. Just like how stories need evil villains, sometimes artists need to depict bad behavior to successfully critique it. Songs are so short, however, we may only get the evil perspective instead of the good.

Unfortunately, the line can be fine between critique and glorification. Songs can be easily misinterpreted because of hard-to-understand poetry or obscured lyrics; a song that the listener might think is glorifying bad behavior may be critiquing it. Or it may be ambiguous. And at some point, the author’s intentions may not even matter—what’s important is how the song is used by the listeners.** Also, sometimes artists seem to be having a bit too much fun behaving badly, undermining their original motivation.

Which brings up another reason why people write bad behavior in songs: in order to vicariously be a part of the bad behavior. More than any other type of passive entertainment, music invites the listener to role play. Music is a fiction (despite rap music being used as evidence in criminal trials) that invites participation, for example dance or karaoke, and the listener can be a part of the forbidden, tempting bad behavior without actually doing anything immoral. And because of music’s ability to heighten and prolong emotion, listening to the bad behavior in song form is more powerful than just reading or talking about it.

Another reason for the depiction of bad behavior could be money—songs about good behavior don’t necessarily make as much money as songs about bad behavior. Not only is this because people enjoy exciting and tawdry things sometimes, but also because depicting good behavior does not usually produce passionate art. Good behavior can be boring, or at very least isn’t a problem that artists need to solve.

I’ve thought about another reason for depicting bad behavior in music: simply presenting the bad behavior. However, I think this option is not possible with music, because of how music can elevate what is depicted. Music is not a language of neutrality.

Once we have parsed why (or our interpretation of why) the bad behavior is depicted, then we have enough information to decide if we should reject the song or not. Or we can just feel guilty for liking a song that is definitely glorifying bad behavior.

* I'll include "explicit" language in this definition, at least.
** Anyone heard "Every Breath You Take" sung at a wedding?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bad X-ray: failing to describe music of "Since U been gone"

Every so often, NPR does a segment that analyzes a hit pop song to see how it ticks. This week, the lens turned on Kelly Clarkson's "Since U been gone," and I think failed in a spectacular fashion. Notice that the article never features musical descriptions or mentions what the music actually sounds like. Instead, it stumbles into two major pitfalls of music criticism: band comparison and genre labeling. The article name drops Pavement, Parquet Courts, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as if those bands always sound the same in each of their songs, and if we could figure out which of their sounds we are suppose to hear in this particular song. The article genre labels this song as punk, indie, R&B, rock, emo, and pop. I know the point is that the song is a mix of many things, but these two tactics by themselves do not help the reader understand what is going on.

Chris Molanphy’s Soundcloud snippet embedded in the article (which is featured in the radio version of the article), however, actually gives a few musical specifics (I could have used more). The distorted, repetitive guitar intro is the indie-punk part, the electronic beat is the pop part, and the restraint in Clarkson’s big voice is the R&B part (which I think is a stretch, but fine). Don't get me wrong, band comparisons and genre labeling can be useful—but only when accompanied with some musical specifics to back up the broad, general brush strokes.

Besides the lack of musical description, I also think the article does a disservice in not mentioning the possible influence of Avril Lavigne. I'm not saying that Lavigne (and the Matrix) were the first to mix pop and punk, but she did, and I think we can draw a pretty solid line from them to Max Martin and Clarkson. Lavigne co-wrote the opening and title track of the album on which "Since U been gone" was released, Breakaway. The song "Breakaway" was originally planned for Lavigne's first album, Let Go (2002), and produced in advance of Clarkson's album. I think that Clarkson and/or her production team did a fair amount of listening to Lavigne's album in the interim. The relatively bare first verse of "Since U been gone" is followed by an electric guitar-fueled explosion with a powerful, bratty, punk-style, multi-tracked female lead—this formula was also featured on many tracks from Lavigne's freshman album, especially "Unwanted" and "Losing Grip." Some of the same brash, dissonant guitar effects are also present in both to herald the big chorus. Now, "Since U been gone" arguably has overall better production, better pop panache than those two songs from Lavigne, with a remarkable building in the complexity of the music from the beginning to end. But the similarities are there for all to hear. Can I prove this connection? No. But I think the musical elements and circumstantial evidence is much stronger for this connection than, for example, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Post on MMM: Card’s Songmaster: the Power of Songs and Negative Emotions in Mormon Music

My weekly post comes a little early this week, and you can find it on the Modern Mormon Men blog. The post is kind of a book review of Orson Scott Card's novel Songmaster, a book in which music plays an vital role. I also use the book's message about music as a jumping off point to talk about emotions in music, specifically negative emotions connected with music, and what that might mean for the music of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, of which Card is a member. You can leave comments about the post here below.

Enjoy, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Science: musicians use their brain better

File this one under music advocacy. TED-Ed produced a snazzy video that presents a summary of neuroscientists’ studies on the brains of musicians. The results? Simply listening to music uses a significant portion of the brain, but playing music also involves fine motor skills, meaning this activity uses even more of the brain. Also, musicians have better “executive function” meaning they plan and strategize better, and pay greater attention to detail. Also, musicians store memories more efficiently. The video makes the claim that the brain training acquired playing musical instruments can be applied to other activities. While I hope this is true, this seems the least substantiated claim. Certainly, video games meant to train brains really only train your brains to do that video game. But playing an instrument may be better.

So why are we cutting music programs from schools? (Also, for the neuroscientists, what about singers?)

Enjoy (5 minutes):

Monday, November 17, 2014

Video game music: why the big deal?

I just put this picture here and you’re already hearing some music in your head, aren’t you?

For some people video game music is a big deal. Not only do the thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to hear a symphony orchestra play video game music live, but also there are many more (not just in Japan) who find enough pleasure in video game music to want to experience the music outside of gameplay, sometimes years after the original game releases. For example, there are online fan communities that recompose, rearrange, and share video game music. And not just amateurs are joining the fray; the professional field is growing, too—many composers, finding it hard to break into a movie music industry controlled by a few composers, are instead scoring video games.

I should mention here that not all video game music is created equal. Just like movie, popular, and art music, there is good music and bad music. Strangely, there is consensus that the best video game music comes from a period when it was simple, limited to 8- and 16-bit game systems, a claim I will attempt to address in a future blog post. The best video game music sometimes has continued to generate interest after the game itself has stopped generating revenue.

So, why is good video game music such a big deal, at least to groups of loyal fans? I’ve got some speculations below. The first three could apply to movie music, too; the last two apply more directly to games.

Video game music:

  1. Connects with emotions - Music can heighten the emotions that the video games are trying to convey, whether sad or happy, dramatic or infantile, serenity or even chaos and freneticness (much more effective in video games than movies).
  2. Associates itself with positive experiences - People enjoy playing video games, and so when they hear the music again, they associate positive feelings with the music.
  3. Builds community - While there are certainly exceptions, a video game experience is often a solo experience. Even with multiplayer games, gamers are often in a room by themselves interacting with the game in their individual way. But everyone playing experiences the music, so the music can serve as shorthand for communal game experience.
  4. Is repetitive - Because video games are often a long form of entertainment (games usually are at least several times longer than their movie counterparts), the music is often very repetitive. Certainly, modern Wagnerian-inspired movie music will have reoccurring themes, but when a gamer is playing a 30-100 hour video game, they will hear the themes many more times. Because of this, gamers have the music engrained in their memories, especially if the melodies are catchy.
  5. Signals interaction - Music is a often a crucial part of the interaction of video games, especially longer games with a story. Music can signal shifts in the story, mood, or interaction method (such as signaling combat or puzzles). Music can also help gamers be somewhat stimulated when they are doing a boring task, which happens occasionally in longer games. Because of this interactive element, people tend to pay attention to music in video games more than they might when watching a movie.
So, video game music is an important part of the experience, and especially good or effective music stays with gamers for long after they’ve put the game down. Just a final experience to reiterate my point: once I played a video game for which the music was broken. I knew that it was a well-reviewed and well-liked video game, but I had a hard time getting into it. I know the lack of music played a big role in my feelings for the game.

Why do you think video game music is a big deal?

Vocab: theme, melody

Monday, November 10, 2014

Album review: Fictionist—when to give it up? Not yet.


The story

Utah-based band Fictionist has a story to tell. In 2010, they achieved every band’s dream of signing a multi-album contract with a major record label (Atlantic records) after getting to the final round of a contest to be featured on cover of Rolling Stone. But reality slowly eclipsed the dream—after trying hard to please the record company despite an adversarial relationship with the producer, rewriting much of their material and compromising their own aesthetic decisions, their debut album was shelved. Three years of work, and nothing to show. Eventually, about a year ago, Atlantic dropped them. I think many other bands would have split ways at this point, but for Fictionist, this was freedom and a new start—the band regrouped and recorded the album they had always wanted to, eponymously titled and released last month.

So that’s the story, and it’s a good one. But a good story doesn’t make it far without good music. How is the album?

Lather, rinse, varied repeat

The more I listen to this album: 1) the more I like it, 2) the more it gets stuck in my head, 3) the more new, exciting details I notice. Besides having catchy vocal lines that fit their voices well, they know how to fill the empty spaces between vocal melodies.
There is never a dull moment. Nothing repeats in this album without having some rewarding changes. For example, compare the difference between verses one and two of “Not Over You”; the bass, piano, drums, keyboards and even the vocal delivery charges. While the choruses of this song are somewhat similar (to provide some foundation opposite the variant verses), even these aren’t exactly the same. For a song whose verse and chorus are built on similar chord changes, they certainly disguised it, or even used the consistency to their advantage to vary the heck out of everything else.

Every member of this band is strong and they all contribute. For example, in “Lock and Key,” there is not just one good line of music—each part has its moment to shine. They also show their unselfishness by recently moving between two song writers and lead singers (previously, it was just one). The lyrics are for the most part memorable, thoughtful, and not as annoyingly obfuscated as many art pop bands’ lyrics. The words lend a depth and emotion to the already well-constructed music. Though occasionally, they could be a bit better at showing, not telling.

Formally, while sticking to the verse-chorus paradigm, when each verse or chorus will happen is not always predictable. One compositional technique that pops up in “Cut String Kite,” “City at War,” and “Lock and Key” is something like an ostinato extension: they take one little motive that didn’t seem important and repeat it over and over, in the process taking the music to a new place.

Sandwiched between an introductory church organ and an ethereal guitar + clock ticking outro, “Free Spirit” is the high point of the album, a delicious pounding dance track with a masterful building pre-chorus. It gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. Though I’m still not sure, I think the drumming might be the secret ingredient. Other honorable mentions (besides the tracks mentioned above) include “Give it Up” and “City at War,” a song which echoes the fears of so many towns around the world while simultaneously confronting fears of one’s personal dark side.

But who are they like?

One thing that’s amazing to me is that every review I’ve read mentions different comparisons to other bands—in one place The Police and Phil Collins, in another Pink Floyd and Gotye, in a third Chvrches, Phoenix, and Cat Stevens, and in yet another Pet Shop Boys, MGMT, Passion Pit. I think these offhand comparisons do Fictionist a disservice. Instead of trying to put the band in a box with other groups (which I think is overdone in music criticism anyway; it’s an easy way to talk about the music without actually talking about the music), maybe we should recognize Fictionist as something new that pulls from everything around them to create something original and new.

While I can’t say it’s a perfect album (they haven’t quite worked out how to end songs, the wobbly synth sound in “Leave the Light On” and “Statue in the Stone” gets old fast, and some songs are a little forgettable), I’m glad Fictionist didn’t “give it up”—their “fire’s still burning,” and I’m glad “something told [them they] should hold on.”

Vocab: eponymous, outro, ostinato, pre-chorus

Monday, November 3, 2014

Album Review: Swift’s 1989—otherwise great, a formal and melodic hit-and-miss

Trying to be like the cool kids #TS1989

One week ago, Taylor Swift released her fifth studio album, 1989, and the album is projected to sell more than 1.3 million in the first week alone. The critic’s reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable: see one from Pretty Much Amazing (not a site known for gushing reviews) and two from the Guardian, here and here. I agree with critics that in this album Swift is again doing a great job of letting other people ride her emotions, though of course with the caveat that music is always fiction. The lyrics at very least are up to the standards of her previous albums.

But very few critics talk about the music of the album, besides the usual: it’s not country anymore (which most people already said about the last album, Red). They also take at face value Swift’s claim of 1980s electro-pop influence, which I think is not as present as advertised (more so in some songs, “Welcome to New York” and “Out of the Woods,” than in others). Ann Powers's review of the album does talk a little about the music, specifically talks about Swift’s stellar and unique vocal delivery and a little bit about production. She does not, however, talk about the most basic parts of songwriting: form and melody.

While Swift’s vocal delivery, lyrics, and production are still great, compared to her previous albums, I found many songs on 1989 musically lacking, especially melodically and formally. With a few welcome exceptions, the songs on 1989 have very small melodic ranges with too much rhythmic and melodic repetition. Also, the bridges (those melodic breaks near the end of the song that provides us a welcome musical departure, keeping the chorus fresh) are often either lazy versions of the chorus, or entirely absent. Here’s some specific examples:
  • While “Welcome to New York” uses more than just one note, both the chorus and the verse (especially) are pretty similar and focus on one note.
  • “Out of the Woods” has a two-note chorus (really mostly a one-note chorus), after a verse with a pretty narrow melodic range and lots of rhythmic repetition. The bridge is mostly a version of the chorus, which has already gotten old at that point. I keep waiting for the music to take off at least once, but it never happens.
  • “All You Had To Do Was Stay” has basically a three-note chorus, is very rhythmically repetitive, and uses the same bridge formula as “Out of the Woods”—continuing the chorus’s harmonic motion, dropping out a few instruments, and then adding a slightly altered chorus melody.
  • “Style” is pretty well constructed, with interesting production, but the song asks for a bridge that never materializes.
  • “Clean” is similar to “Style”—it stands out from the rest of the album (because of Imogen Heap’s trademark production), but the lack of a bridge for a musical break really hurts the song, especially as it’s the longest song on the album.
  • “How You Get the Girl” tries to vary the form up with two distinct parts in each the verse and the chorus. However, both verse sections use basically two notes, and the two chorus sections feature three notes and two notes, respectively. Once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “Wildest Dreams” is the most like Taylor’s Fearless era, including some characteristic melodic turns. But once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “This Love” has basically a two-note chorus, too, but at least the bridge has a new harmonic foundation.
  • The worst for forgettable, lazy songwriting is “I Wish You Would”, which uses a two-note melody with a basically three-note chorus AND the altered-chorus bridge formula. The tight production cannot rescue it’s lack of inventiveness.
I’m not saying that two- or three-note melodies are necessarily bad all the time. In fact, “I Know Places” starts with a three-note verse, but this choice works because 1) the verse has three distinct sections that evolve as the song progresses, and 2) the chorus opens the song up, with expansive, complex, and catchy melody. These narrow-ranging melodies can be used effectively. And chorus-based bridges can be musically effective, but using them  for almost every song on the album shows a lack of creativity. 

But lest you think I think the album is a total wash, here are some other highlights on the album:
  • “Blank Space” is one of the best, with provocative lyrics, an interesting and innovative production, and a bridge that does it’s job.
  • Though “Bad Blood” doesn’t have the best lyrics, Swift uses interesting melodies and plays around with song form, starting with a chorus and employing a pre-chorus. The bridge is a little more interesting than the other bridges on the album, though is still based on the chorus's harmony.
  • From a song-writing perspective, the best track (by far) is “Shake It Off”. There’s a somewhat harmonically ambiguous verse (varied throughout the song), followed by a pre-chorus build and a catchy chorus with a wide melodic range and that is easily varied and extended. I’m not sure about the rap section, but even if one thinks it doesn’t fit the rest of the song, at least it was unexpected and breaks up the chorus, serving as a bridge. And using the bass sax instead of electric bass was a masterful touch.
Unsurprisingly, the most complex songs melodically and formally ("Shake It Off" and "Blank Space") are the most popular on iTunes. In conclusion, here again are my three reasons why Taylor Swift is a good song writer from my Red review, and why 1989 did not quite live up to them:
  1. Melody: This time, the hooks are not always memorable.
  2. Control of repetition: As you can see above, Swift repeats too much in many of the songs. Frequent two-note and three-note melodies with overly repetitive rhythms and lazy bridges do not make a musically stellar album. 
  3. Instrumentation and texture: For the most part, 1989 does a good job at varying instrumentation and texture, but the album is inferior to her previous albums in this respect. One example is the overdone overdub high note/scream, used on the majority of the tracks.
You proved you’re a good songwriter with passionate voice, Taylor Swift, but after you get those great lyrics, please try a little harder on your melody and song construction, instead of simply relying on the music production to breathe life into the songs. I'm looking forward to hearing more good songs on the next album. Until then, I've got a few good tracks to tide me over.

Vocab: melody, harmony, lyrics, bridge, hook, instrumentation, texture

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rerun: Scary Art Music

Note: Maybe I haven't been blogging long enough to warrant a post rerun, but this post first appeared on October 28, 2012.

Phantom of the Opera – neither scary nor artsy

At this time of year, people are thinking about scary music, so I've put together my top five list of scary art music:

5. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna - I don't think this music was meant to be scary, but gained that connotation after it was used in conjunction with the black monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - I've been thinking about this work a lot, as this weekend UNC–Chapel Hill hosted an international musicology conference dedicated to the Rite and the Carolina Performing Arts series is programming Rite-related concerts all season long

3. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, movement 5: "Dream of a Witches Sabbath" - Berlioz evokes a trip to hell in which his ex-beloved dances an "infernal orgy" at his own funeral. You can't beat the lengthy parody of the Dies Irae, a chant from the liturgical Requiem for the dead.

2. Crumb's Black Angels - An electric string quartet with dark overtones of just about everything evil, reportedly finished on Friday the 13th.

1. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - a pretty amazing work for string orchestra written with graphic notation and producing amazing, never-heard-before sounds.

Honorable mentions: Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (also check out the disco version), and Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre.

This brings up an important question: what does it mean for music to be scary? Is it ugly? Microtonal? Dissonant? Does it feature screeching violins (the fiddle has long been characterized as the Devils music)? Does it mean sudden contrasts that might startle you? Instruments mimicking scary things like clouds of insects or bats? Well, it's complicated. All five are scary in their own way.

I will be the first to say I'm being overly reductive of these five "scary" works. All of these works have sections that could easily be described as beautiful, probably the opposite of scary. What is very interesting, though, is that all five either are given a programmatic element, or had one thrust upon them. Perhaps we need that extra touch of reality to let the music set our imagination loose. Or maybe the composer was able to create a link between their music and our emotions associated with the scary thing.

Another trait all these pieces share is that they are pretty much each composer's most popular work. Coincidence? Maybe not. Ever try and watch a horror movie without the music? Not very scary. It turns out that we're used to having composers manipulate our emotions with music, and we like it. And when composers can manipulate you with as strong emotion as fear, people will remember and want to hear it again. If it's a really good piece, as these are, the fear will come again.

What do you think makes music scary? Do you have your own nominations for scary art music?

Vocab: programmatic, liturgical

[Note: musicologists often prefer the term "art" music instead of "classical" music, mostly because to them, Classical music is a specific period of art music (c.1750-1825)]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mouth Music for the People: Capercaillie, Scots-Gaelic Culture as a National Symbol, and the Global Celtic Stage, Part 2

This is part two of a two-part series. Read the first part here.

Last week, I discussed the history of Scottish nationalism and the rise of Scots-Gaelic culture as an alternative national symbol in the 20th century. Into this scene in the mid-1980s stepped Capercaillie, a traditional band born of the folk revival and composed at its inception mostly of musicians from the Gaelic-speaking west coast and islands, including organizer Donald Shaw and frontwoman Karen Matheson. They drew their name from their own land, after a type of pheasant that lives only in Scotland. Similar to Altan in Ireland, their native Gaelic-speaking birthplace was their inspiration. Though drawing from specifically local sources, Capercaillie’s sound was a musical hybrid, using contemporary Irish models as much as Scottish ones for their instrumentation and musical arrangement. Their inclusion of bouzouki, an instrument of Greek origin introduced into Irish music in the 1970s, is indicative of their connection to the folk revival as opposed to older traditions. Noticeably lacking were the tartans and Highland bagpipes. 

Taking traditional to a new place, in a new way

Capercaillie’s early albums, Cascades and Crosswinds, consisted entirely of traditional dance music and locally specific Scots-Gaelic language songs. To get an idea of where Capercaillie started musically, here’s a “Puirt a Beul” (Scot-Gaelic for mouth music) from Crosswinds, a traditionally unaccompanied vocal genre to which Capercaillie has added instrumentation, included limited synthesizers (mostly as drones). 

A stylistic turning point for Capercaillie came when the group was asked to write music for The Blood is Strong in 1988, a television series about the worldwide legacy of the Scottish Gaels. For this production, Capercaillie added electric bass, drumset, and heavy use of synthesizers to their usual repertoire of Scots-Gaelic songs and dance. They were probably following the example of the Irish family group Clannad and Clannad’s wayward sister Enya, who had just produced her own very popular television soundtrack The Celts. Clannad at the time had mostly abandoned traditional melodies and production, and was on their way to helping create the New Age music scene and culture.

Why did both Capercaillie and Clannad adopt popular styles and the English language? Most likely, it was the lack of sufficient support base for them at home. Gaelic speakers were few, but produced a disproportionate number of musicians (1). As a result, artists and their labels sought to reach out first across the Scottish and Irish diaspora, especially in North America, and then onward. This complex negotiation of style resulted in local artists catering to international tastes. According to Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, white America has played the most significant role in the shaping of musical output of these small music-rich fringes of the Gaelic-speaking world (2). Instead of a pub, the community is now a virtual one, into which the listener projects themselves onto the Celtic musical imagery. This new musical product, developed on the world stage, is then marketed locally and globally as a symbol of the nation, perhaps as much an invented tradition as kilts. Meanwhile, the non-diaspora-specific “New Age” culture, describing an imaginary ancient past connected with an alternative spirituality, fed on the Celtic folk movement and claimed anyone who wished to participate.

Capercaillie, however, did not go in Clannad and Enya’s New Age direction, at least musically. Instead of abandoning Scot-Gaelic songs and traditional dance music entirely, they connected to the middle-class Celtic world by updating their sound with modern production and instruments. Additionally, in 1991 for their fourth studio album Delirium, they added a third type of song to their repertoire—original songs in English written in rock-popular style. Perhaps their use of English was inspired by the success of the Scots-Gaelic rock band Runrig, which achieved international success only when they switched to mostly English for the album The Cutter and Clan in 1987. Scotland’s taste in music was actually not that different than the UK’s, and the Scottish spoke mostly English. This strategy seems to have worked— four of Delirium‘s thirteen tracks have English lyrics, and the album was their first major financial success. Capercaillie’s choice of audience is made clearer by the content of the original songs on Delirium—they were all overtly political, timed just before the 1992 elections when Scottish autonomy was making a renewed effort. For Capercaillie, the United Kingdom shaped their aesthetic more than the global Celtic sound.


“Waiting for the Wheel to Turn” from Delirium ties the oppressions of the political moment in the 1990s with oppressions in Scottish history. It makes reference to the Highland clearances of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggesting that once again the rich men from the south are taking away Scottish (and specifically Scots-Gaelic) land and culture. Scottish rural town culture has special emphasis, referred to as the “soul” of the land, and the lyrics suggest that the rich landlords are “taking it all away”, “pulling the roots from a dying age.” The song is a call to action, as the lyrics suggest that the Gaelic people “feel the breeze of the storm to come,” and that these dispossessed people living on the rocks of the coast may finally get the better of their oppressors, when the “wheel” comes around.

We would be hard-pressed to find any musical connection to Scots-Gaelic tradition in “Waiting.” That is, at least until a brief whistle and fiddle duet at the end (about the 4-minute mark). This was new. The inclusion of traditional-dance inspired instrumentals is the most interesting and novel element of these English-language songs, and the importance and complexity of these interludes grew as Capercaillie continued to produce recordings through the 1990s. These high-energy solos replace what would normally be a pop-style electric guitar or saxophone solo. They serve as a powerful reminder of locality and roots that differentiate Capercaillie from Clannad, who preferred pop-style solos. Capercaillie’s folk-style instrumentals, in turn, may have influenced the Irish popular group the Corrs, as this type of instrumental became a major characteristic of the Corrs’ style.

The Scottish autonomy movement had a major setback in the 1992 elections, but the political fire was still charged, and Capercaillie continued to produce English-language political music in their next albums, the bluntly-titled Get Out and Secret People, alongside the dance medleys and Scots-Gaelic songs. Examples include and “Four Stone Walls” and “Outlaws” which treat the common situation of poor Gaelic speakers who are deprived of their traditional jobs and forced out of their ancestral houses when they can no longer pay the rent, and “Black Fields” which deals specifically with environmental and economic destruction resulting from the exploitation of Scottish oil, a major cause of the political rift between England and Scotland. The common underlying theme is anti-modernization, a theme that plays both to the middle-class New Age Celticism and the lower-class Scots-Gaelic political movement.

Capercaillie’s album To the Moon brought the influence of New Age spirituality to their Scottish nationalist music. “Claire in Heaven” from To the Moon exemplifies all of the features of Capercaillie’s topics in this period: a mix of neo-pagan and Christian religion, anti-modern economics, and environmentalism. “Claire” is told from the point of view of a girl who has died and gone to heaven after living for only a few days; from her perch, she surveys the world, lamenting its dismal state but hoping for improvement when she is reincarnated. The lyrics criticize the modern lifestyle, epitomized by economic competition: “you tear, you part, you claw.” There is also a stab at the oil industry and Europe’s nuclear waste dumps in Scotland: “I gaze from poison sea to poison land.” The idea of reincarnation is harder to place, and is probably drawn in from the Eastern religious current in New Age spiritualism. Ultimately, this is not a pessimistic song; Claire still smiles because she sees that things can be brighter in the future, another call to political action. As you can hear, the popular and traditional musical elements are increasingly seamlessly intertwined.


“Claire” also demonstrates Capercaillie’s musical hybridity, despite their Scottish nationalistic image—the songwriter is bouzouki player Manus Lunny, who joined the band at time of the production of Delirium and who is actually Irish. Lunny brought to the band (and this song) the rhythm-heavy percussive style of string playing from the Irish folk revival. The Irish bagpipes are also prominent in “Claire.” 

To conclude: paving the road for the resurgence of Gaelic culture

The 1990s, during Scotland’s political turmoil, was the height of Capercaillie’s creativity and popularity. Their most recent albums Roses and Tears in 2008 and At the Heart of it All in 2012 seem to be step back to the days before Delirium with an emphasis on acoustic instruments and traditional tunes. Even the few original songs are in a more traditional style than the 1990s songs, though still very political.

Still, Capercaillie’s music and image, though devoid of kilts and Highland pipes, articulates Scottish nationalism in a new way. Their overall style is one of global Celtic culture, which has been reflected back to Scotland and embraced as authentic. Their juxtaposition of different genres of music—English rock songs, traditional Scots-Gaelic songs, and traditional dance tunes—enables them to communicate their nationalistic views while tying them to the oppressed Scot-Gaelic, their symbol for Scotland as a whole. With the English-language songs, they make political, modern connections; with the Scots-Gaelic language songs, they make connections with a past culture; and with the dance songs they connect the past with the transnational present. They’ve taken their esoteric “mouth music” and made it accessible to the rest of the UK and the world. Perhaps the recent official revival of Scots-Gaelic language as a cultural symbol with bilingual road signs and language education initiatives would have never happened without the popularity of musical groups such as Capercaillie, who managed to lift a dying language and music out of obscurity and into the national and international consciousness. Maybe the wheel is turning.

Vocab: bouzouki, track, drone

(1) Simon Frith, “Popular music policy and the articulation of regional identities: The case of Scotland and Ireland,” Soundscapes: Journal on Media Culture 2 (July 1999).
(2) Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, ed., Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mouth Music for the People: Capercaillie, Scots-Gaelic Culture as a National Symbol, and the Global Celtic Stage, Part 1

This blog post was originally given as a paper presentation at the Singing Storytellers Symposium, 11 October 2014, in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. Part 1 of 2.

When the Scottish band Capercaillie produced their first album Cascade in 1984, they were considered a “traditional” folk group, born from the folk revival and built on the same super-group model as Planxty and the Bothy Band. They played for concert audiences, used traditional acoustic instruments, and their repertoire was drawn from traditional dance tunes and songs in the Scots-Gaelic language. However, seven short years later, their sound was markedly different and they had broken into the UK top 40 charts. What had changed? While not abandoning their Scots-Gaelic songs and traditional dance medleys, Capercaillie had infused that music with popular stylings. They also added to their repertoire a new type of song, English-language and rock-style, usually with nationalistic political overtones. Why did they do this? What led them to construct this unique sound and identity?

Capercaillie’s music is a product of two negotiations: first, between local, national, and transnational audiences, and second, between traditional and modern styles. These negotiations resulted in the articulation of the dispossessed Scots-Gaelic speakers in Scottish nationalist discourse, using a transnational commoditized Celtic aesthetic. The dichotomy between local and global forms the heart of Capercaillie’s nationalistic music: on the one hand, they work to break down class barriers and promote a feeling of unity in their own country, while on the other, they market their own small rural culture to the world as distinctive and timeless. 

What is Scottish nationalism?

Scottish nationalism is basically the idea that the Scottish maintain themselves as culturally distinct, a nation without a country. Anthony D. Smith suggests that the traditions or languages that define a country are not as important as its persistence as a separate identity, and he gives Scotland as an example of his concept of an “ethnie” which survives despite multiple cultural groups and languages. More important for creating a separate identity are one, shared cultural symbols and two, conflict with other groups (1).

Scotland’s specific symbols and conflicts, however, have changed over time. Scottish culture may have initially been Irish culture, but after Scotland became a colony of England in the fifteenth century, the Scottish nobles went to England and assimilated, thereby increasing the marginalism of the majority of Scottish people. Later, the Scottish upper class instigated a revolt against English cultural supremacy, first declaring that Scotland was really the cradle of Gaelic culture and second claiming several “invented national traditions” such as adopting the Highland bagpipes as their national instrument instead of the harp and wearing tartan clan kilts, invented by an English Quaker industrialist and capitalized upon by English textile companies (2). While the upper class was creating their own proud national identity based on a Romanticization of the Highland culture, they continued to oppress the lower classes, instigating a series of mass evictions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries collectively called the “clearances,” which affected mostly the poorest and predominantly Gaelic-speaking populations, who either emigrated overseas or resettled on the rocky west coast. Approximately fifty thousand of those evicted ended up on Cape Breton Island.

Globally-made local symbols

Cultural symbols do not always come from within an ethnie, however. According to Veit Erlmann, cultural products can be defined and created in a negotiation between the nation and world stage (3). In other words, perceptions of a nation can be adopted as true expressions of their local culture. This phenomenon is called global imagination, or “glocalization,” and Desi Wilkinson gives as an example the Celtic tourism of French Brittany, where neither the tourists nor the local inhabitants care if the music comes from Brittany as long as it fits into their imagined local aesthetic (4). Something similar has occurred in Scotland.
Music has been for many years part of the global image of Scotland. Across Romantic Europe, people were already familiar with the upper-class version of Scottish music, an indicator of a vibrant native culture full of “highlanders" and "tender lassies.” This version of Scottish music was popularized by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Berlioz and the military Highland Regiments. At the beginning of the 1800s, as Gaelic-speakers were being driven from the their lands, the poetry of upper-class nationalist poets Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott was put to music, further defining Scotland’s culture across the world. The music of the Scot-Gaelic lower class, however, was until recently neglected in the annals of Scottish history.

Scot-Gaelic as national, political culture: a new thing

With the decline of the English-assimilated upper class during the twentieth century, Scottish nationalism finally moved to the middle and lower classes, as the Scottish once again found themselves perceived as a backwater nation, this time a nation of oppressed blue-collar workers upon which the rich English (and the rest of Europe) depended. Only in the twentieth century did this nationalism become political and not just cultural. This political fervor peaked first in the 1990s with the first move for Scottish autonomy, and of course again a few of weeks ago. While the Scottish still do not have their own country, they continue to push toward greater autonomy. Earlier in the twentieth century, as part of the national identity crisis, some called for  deconstruction of Scottish tartany myths, now seen by some as oppressive and belittling. This search for new identity coincided with the folk revival, which had started in the United States and soon spread to Ireland and Scotland. With the elevation of folk music explicit in this movement, Scotland finally turned its attention to its few Scots-Gaelic-speakers for production of a new national culture, as these people symbolized Scotland’s own state of repression. This old cultural capital could be used to redefine the Scottish people against the English hegemony, with a new emphasis on autonomy.
By the time of this crisis, the Scot-Gaelic culture had been dying a slow death for some time. Casualties of Scots-Gaelic soldiers in World War I had effectively halved the number of Scot-Gaelic speakers, and that number has dwindled to around sixty thousand today, about 1% of Scotland’s total population. Considered one of the poorest in the country, this small population lives almost entirely on the west coast and islands. They have kept alive, however, a vibrant and distinct music tradition, especially with regard to Scots-Gaelic songs.

Next week, I’ll delve more into Capercaillie’s music and how they specifically tapped Scottish tradition and the global Celtic culture. Read part 2 here.

(1) Anthony D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (New York: Routledge, 2009).
(2) Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: University Press, 1983): 15-42.
(3) Viet Erlmann, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
(4) Desi Wilkinson, “‘Celtitude,’ Professionalism, and the Fest Noz in Traditional Music in Brittany,” in Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe, ed. Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Celtic Colours Festival and the Singing Storytellers Symposium

(Nova Scotia with counties from a government website. Cape Breton Island is on the upper right, encompassing the top four counties. Here's another, more detailed map.)

This coming week, I have the opportunity to present a paper at the Singing Storytellers Symposium in Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. The symposium is being held in conjunction with the annual Celtic Colours International Festival, which for 17 years has brought Celtic musicians to Cape Breton Island for a week of traditional music.

Why Cape Breton? In turns out that a sizable majority of Cape Breton’s population is of Scottish descent—and not only Scottish, but Scots-Gaelic. In events called the “clearances” in the 19th-century Scotland, many poor Scots-Gaelic people were kicked off their land
by the English-assimilated upper class to make room for sheep. Approximately 50,000 of these outcasts settled in Cape Breton, which had many similarities to their native highlands. Even today, a few of the older generation’s first language is a dialect of Scots-Gaelic. In this relative isolation, Scots-Gaelic culture may have been preserved in Cape Breton even better than in Scotland, where the Scots-Gaelic were marginalized and persecuted. 

Modern-day Cape Breton’s tourism is heavily based on the Celtic culture. I love the picture of happy people waulking at the top of this Celtic Tourism webpage tourism website—now middle-class people are enjoying what used to be the hard manual labor of making wool soft enough to wear. Of course, the traditional Gaelic call-and-response songs that accompanied waulking make it culture. Otherwise, I'm not sure they could get tourists to do it.

Over the next two weeks on the blog, I’ll present a modified version of my paper, about the music of Scottish folk music group Capercaillie.

Vocab: waulking, call-and-reponse

Monday, September 29, 2014

My New Job: Music Librarian at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa

This week, I started a new job as the music and audiovisual librarian for the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. My assignment (which I haven chosen to accept) is to collect and curate resources and information and help the students and faculty at UHM find said resources and information. I'll be serving the whole university, but with a special mission for the department of music.

And the department of music at UHM is special. For those of you who would like a short introduction, here's a recent video about the music department, narrated by the music department chair Larry Paxton:

The broad range, diversity, and presence of many music cultures at UHM made the job appealing to me and I look forward to serving everyone here. Now, back to work.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Clean Bandit, classical music's influence in pop, and Japaneseness in music

Classical crossover?

Last week I mentioned new artist Megan Trainor and her slow-ish rise on the Billboard charts. This week, I’d like to talk about another new artist whose song is still climbing up near the Billboard top 10, even though it was released last January. This artist is Clean Bandit, and they are a British band whose membership grew out of a classical string quartet. Their heavily-played single is “Rather Be”, and features another British singer Jess Glynne.

When I heard “Rather Be” on the radio for the first time, the classical-sounding opening motive grabbed my attention as something you don’t hear on a top-40s station.

But, though this BBC article about Clean Bandit describes a mixing of classical music and pop, “Rather Be” is not really a classical approach to music—it’s a pop approach that utilizes classical instrumentation and texture. The music is riff-based like pop, formally constructed like a pop song, and uses a pop singer. The riff themselves, however, feature classical instrumentation and stylings (especially the piano and strings) and are heavily layered, probably influenced by classical counterpoint. I think it’s a wonderfully written and produced pop song (unlike their other main song, “Mozart’s House”, which, with its
depressingly confined string parts, doesn't really work).

Besides the classical texture with a pop sensibility, something else about “Rather Be” caught my attention. I thought the song sounded Japanese (even before I heard the word “Kyoto” in the lyrics), and so I was almost unsurprised when the music video was Japanese-themed, too. But the group and singer are British. What made music sound Japanese? I think precisely the same reasons that people want to talk about mixing classical music with pop: the mix of electronic sounds and classical, acoustic instruments. In this song’s case, especially the classical piano that sits on top of the electronic and string texture, which is common in Japanese movie and video game soundtracks.

Metal, baby?

Speaking of Japaneseness in music, I also recently found out about the band Babymetal, an attempt to mix metal music and Japanese culture. Check out "Gimme Chocolate!!" here. Unlike “Rather Be”, I’m not sure the “fusion” really works; it seems that any moment, the music is either metal or J-pop, not a mixture of the two. I enjoy the juxtaposition of the innocuous lyrics with the crazy metal distortion, though. “Megistune” is a little bit more successful in creating a fusion, using "Sakura" and traditional instruments, but still seems more like a one-time gimmick than a fertile, sustainable musical platform. We’ll have to see if the group has a future.

I do this both of these cultural hybrids is more interesting, subtle, and flattering than the appropriation of Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video, perhaps because the others are attempts to mix the musical as well as as visual.

Vocab: riff, texture, metal, J-Pop

Monday, September 15, 2014

U2’s free album, the music industry, and metadata

Not actually on vinyl, which is kind of the point.

So, as many of you know, the band U2 came out with their new album this week, Songs of Innocence, with very little foreshadowing. And they released the album by letting anyone who has iTunes download it for free between its release and October 13. In fact, the songs just appeared in everyone's library. I won’t spend much time reviewing the album, because you probably can listen to it for yourself. If you would like a review, you can read this one from Peter Tabakis, which I pretty much agree with. In summary, it’s a pretty good album, well-produced, with great (but maybe not outstanding) songs. It’s supposed to come from Bono’s late 1970’s mind, kind of like a memoir. Fear is a big theme.

Instead of “how good is it?”, the question I would rather answer is “why did they give it out for free?”, which is how people will probably remember the album, anyway.

U2 doesn’t need to make money on albums. In fact, albums sold on iTunes make very little for most musicians. U2 makes money is touring and licensing. So, this album and its strange release was about publicity for them and for Apple, which wants everyone to put everything on their cloud (and which has suffered some from the recent iCloud celebrity picture scandal).

While I know now that my iTunes music can be stored on the cloud, I’m not convinced by this release that I should keep my files there. For one thing, there was the big flub with the Songs of Innocence digital booklet. Unless a user visited the iTunes store, searched in their “recently purchased music” folder, and downloaded the album again, the digital booklet did not load. Besides showing that cloud downloading is not quite infallible, Apple’s mistake goes to show that the digital music industry doesn't really care about metadata. Which I already knew from the dearth of information filled in on the music I’ve downloaded already and the woefully inadequate or wrong genre labels that are sometimes assigned.

I should also note that only big acts like Beyoncé succeed when they release an album out of nowhere. Most albums or songs take longer to get the top compared with just few years ago. Look at Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, which is currently at the #1 spot on Billboard—it took about four months from its release to get to that spot, and that's pretty quick compared to some indie music being released.

Vocab: metadata

Monday, September 8, 2014

Alex Ross and the Classical Cloud

Is your music okay up there? From Freestock.ca

This week in The New Yorker, classical music critic and writer Alex Ross wrote an essay about the state and future of online classical music. You can read the whole essay here.

Amidst some dalliances about his favorite obscure classical music, Ross does not look kindly on the state of today's online classical music. Is he just an old curmudgeon dreaming of the good-old past, or are these concerns not quite so easily dispelled?

I think his main concern with online music is quite solid: online albums don't make as much money for the artists as physical copies (nor do the streaming services),
unless artists are already famous, making it less sustainable for the long-term creative marketplace. This the main reason I still buy physical albums myself (aside that online music is usually licensed, instead of bought). Ross also suggests that physical record collectors are now seen as hoarders, carrying around shelves of albums when a small hard drive or even the ethereal cloud storage could do. As someone in the middle of a move now, I think he may have a point, especially since those little plastic boxes usually end up a landfill (I'm glad many CDs are now packaged in cardboard, but the CD itself is still there).
Ross's other problems with online music, however, bear some additional scrutiny, especially from a music librarian's perspective: online browsing capabilities are severely limited and liner notes with their pictures and information are often absent. These problems are not insurmountable, however. A browsing tool could be developed (albeit with difficulty), and liner notes and other metadata could be added to make an online collection more searchable and informative. However, this kind of data detail and development takes time and money for which neither music producers or consumers seeming willing to pay, at this point.
It should also not be difficult to create a "Listen Again Pile" online tool; in fact, I do this already with a "listen again" playlist in iTunes.
So, is the moral of story that consumers should just be willing to pay more for their music and the information attached to it? Maybe. But the draw of online music is partially based on being freely or cheaply available, so perhaps some other monetization strategy needs to be developed. Which I guess is literally the million (if not billion) -dollar question.

Vocab: metadata

Monday, September 1, 2014

Video: the History of Jazz Piano in 11.5 minutes

This YouTube video released several months ago by pianist Kris Bowers and his band takes you through the history of style of one instrument—jazz piano—since its inception in the late 1800s to today. In less time than it takes to cook pasta. 

What I really like about this video is how Bowers 1) gives us a taste of all these styles with musical examples, 2) does it in real time, and 3) plays it all himself.  What a performance!

While I disagree with the reductiveness of the video (such as the claim that one person inviting ragtime or the stride style, for example), I understand that in the short time they had, they gave their audience of lot of really interesting information. They also understandably spend much more time on the present day than warranted, and perhaps too much time on Herbie Hancock, important as he is.

For more commentary on the video, I first saw the video linked from the NPR Jazz blog, a Blog Supreme by Patrick Jarenwattananon. Enjoy!

Vocab: ragtime, stride

Monday, August 25, 2014

AV Preservation at the Library of Congress, Part II: "There is no average life span for a CD"

Same CD, different results. From the Library of Congress report discussed below.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about IRENE, a tool used by the Library of Congress to lift the audio from vinyl discs and wax cylinders without actually touching them. This week, NPR documented another research project of LOC's preservation arm: CD longevity research.

While CDs will last longer than magnetic tape media, many types of CDs are not built to last. To complicate preservation more, CDs (like other digital media) are hardware and software dependent (I'm sure many of you have noticed that many laptop computers do not even have CD drives in them any more). But laying the access problem aside, this study for the Library of Congress attempts to answer the questions: How long can the physical compact disc last before becoming corrupted? How well and it what way does the CD age? 

The short (and unfortunate) answer is this: it depends. There happens to be a wide range in the quality of CDs produced. Climate control and limiting use, however, does make a difference in increasing longevity. Click here to read the full report, or here to read the LOC summary. Obviously, more studies are needed. I was able to meet one of the people mentioned in the NPR article, Fenella France, as she told our tour group about this research, and I got to see in person the CDs shown above, both artificially aged to very different results. While CDs are more likely to become completely obsolete than vinyl, there are still vast stores of information that are only on CDs, and a huge part of some libraries' collections are on CD. In other words, these questions will only get more important.

Vocab: magnetic tape, compact disc, vinyl

Monday, August 18, 2014

"I guess the show's going on": album review of Nickel Creek: A Dotted Line

Image from Amazon

Well, they're back. I'll be the first to admit I didn't think this record would happen—at least not anytime soon. After various solo and group projects (including Sara Watkin's Sun Midnight Sun and various Punch Brothers' albums), Nickel Creek—surprise!—has returned from their hiatus with a new album and tour. Despite the success of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers and various other solo albums, he has yet to reach the popularity of Nickel Creek at their peak, suggesting that collaborating with Sean and Sara Watkins brings something out of Chris that appeals to a wider audience. I do think it shows some humility on Chris's part to take a step back and let other people have the spotlight after being the most successful soloist of the trio. I wrote recently about Nickel Creek's first three albums, the history behind them, and the term Newgrass with which they've been labeled, and today I'll review their new album, A Dotted Line. Can this album live up to the genius of the previous three albums?

For this album, Sean and Chris seem to share the bulk of the songwriting (all three are listed on the music credits for the original songs, but lyrics are attributed individually), though Sara did pen the lead single "Destination." Sean's songs are more in the tradition of classic bluegrass than Chris's, but even with the modern twists (like the ironic "21st of May", about a preacher proclaiming the date of the second coming), I think they are good enough to become classics. Chris' songs ("Rest of my Life," "Elsie," "You Don't Know What's Going On") are much less traditional than Sean's, but perhaps less experimental than Chris's recent work. "Rest of my Life" is a fitting start for the album, a song contemplating starting over after finishing something big. Although Sara Watkin's solo record showed that she is the least talented of the three creatively (and she takes a secondary role in creation here) her violin and vocal prowess (especially in the cover "Where is Love Now?") contribute greatly to the album.

"Elephant in the Corn" is classic Nickel Creek—taking the stylings of bluegrass and twisting them just enough that it's refreshing but still in the same genre. The song changes moods several of times, of course with with a languorous bass solo by Edgar Meyer. The title gives it away—instead of "Turkey in the Straw," this instrumental track features an exotic animal in a bluegrass setting. As fun as "Hayloft" is (and they seem to have the most fun doing other people's songs), I was disappointed that they turned to electronics for this cover, especially considering the group's previous successful forays into the acoustification of electronic music, though the electronics were mostly limited to one riff.

I think A Dotted Line is an apt title. While Nickel Creek continues to encircle bluegrass, keeping roots there, the dotted boarder allows other influences to get in and out. The album has the charm of bluegrass, but with more complexity and quirkiness. A Dotted Line has all the things we've come to expect from Nickel Creek: modern lyrics that twist bluegrass themes, interesting textures, unexpected chords, irregular phrase lengths, and complex forms. We can't predict what will happen in the song , but looking back after listening, we can tell they are tightly constructed.

Is this album on par with the other Nickel Creek albums? It took me a couple of listens to really get into it, and I don't think it has quite the charm, power, catchiness, or novelty of the previous records, but still I think it's a solid effort. All three are great vocalists AND instrumentalists, which is not something that happens much in groups, and they show off both here. None of the songs are throw-aways, and strangely many often get more interesting near their end. Mostly, it's great to hear these childhood friends making music again.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: theme, texture, phrase