Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chris Thile's "Alright"

I don’t have much to say post-Grammys. Awards-wise, it went about as expected (except for Ed Sheeran, which was weird…). I didn’t get to watch it live, but based on chatter afterward, the best performances were from the cast of Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar, who performed pretty much one after the other.

But I want to point out something that happened on Prairie Home Companion about a week before the Grammys. Chris Thile, who with his band the Punch Brothers had been nominated for several Grammys this year (none of which they won), was guest hosting the radio show. He started talking about what amounted to a lullaby for his baby boy and then dived into an amazing one-person cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a song that won two Grammys last Monday. You can listen to the cover on the Prairie Home Companion archives here (you’ll have to jump down to the “Alright; Song for a Young Queen” segment, which is just after intermission). Update 2019: Here is the new link:

Some comments:

1) I think this performance shows a lot about Thile and the diversity of music that influences him. I’ve seen him cover the Beatles, the Cars, Radiohead, Of Montreal, and many others, all with his own take, all unironically and incredibly well. But this is even more far afield from bluegrass than those others (though considerably more PG-rated than the original).

2) You can tell from the performance that Thile isn’t just throwing this song off; he is genuinely in love with the music and spent hours learning the words and figuring out the best way to perform it (he did mention later on Twitter than he had flubbed a few of the words). He throws himself into the song. He later tweeted this after the Grammys, which got a lot of reactions:

3) This song is so not Prairie Home Companion. I don’t think the audience even knows how to take it, besides acknowledging the virtuosity that the performance took. Can you imagine them having the real Kendrick Lamar on this show? Yet Thile does it anyway. I think it shows guts, conviction, and firm cosmopolitan musical sensibility.

After you listen to “Alright,” take a listen to the opening number for that Prairie Home Companion show on February 6, 2016, Thile’s cheeky “Omahallelujah,” a great conflation of sports and religion, with Peyton Manning as the center of worship. Gold.

Monday, February 15, 2016

OK Go: Does the music matter anymore?

If you are like me, you can’t stop watching OK Go’s new music video. You know which one—the one with zero gravity, ehh…I mean bursts of microgravity from being on a plane flying in parabolas. What the name of the song again? Oh, you don’t remember, either?

This may just be me, but it isn't possible for me to watch this elaborate and amazing video and pay attention to the music. I spend the whole time marveling and just trying to figure out how they did it. In fact, the music hardly registers at all; I just get too distracted.

I was tempted to write a similar blog post about Ok Go’s 2014 video, “I Won’t Let You Down”
The blog’s tag line would have been something like“—Or Do They?”, meaning that even though the video was amazing, the music was unremarkable. Or perhaps the music was okay, but I couldn’t actually listen to it because there was too much going on in the video. To get back to “Upside Down & Inside Out” (which is the name of the new song and music video, by the way), I think the music is not bad, or at least has a lot of potential. The song has ups and downs, climaxes and calms, that match well with the plane’s parabolic periods. It is emotionally explosive, which is matched in the choreography. But the music production suffers from too much extraneous noise, unclear pitches, and superfluous echo that takes away from the emotion that it could show. Maybe that was the point of the production—but to me, the song sounds overproduced and lacks nuance.

Should OK Go just concentrate on making videos, then? Well, no, music does add something important to the genre, besides just the first word in the genre’s name; it wouldn’t be a music video without music. Why is the music important? Well, first, I think it is important to make clear that music videos are mainly a performance, more particularly a dance performance. Movement and music go together. The music gives the video structure in time, pacing, and often emotional impetus, often with some input from the words.

Having agreed that in general music is important, is this particular song replaceable? I would say that in the case of the last two OK Go music videos, another song with similar tempo and structure could be substituted just fine. In my opinion, the songs were not really emotional powerful on their own. But that is not always the case with music videos—I think the best music videos complement the song, bring out themes in the song, and even extend the song's meaning, while not distracting from it. You could say the same about ballet; what is ballet but an early form of music video? I think the closest OK Go got to this ideal was “A Million Ways”. The choreography is subtle, winningly awkward, and at least didn't get in the way of the message (mostly). Or maybe the song was just more interesting and stood out over the video, or I was actually able to pay attention to the music, unlike the next one (you know, treadmills…or whatever the song was called…) or their subsequent string of videos.

I don’t think this emphasis on video at expense of music is a problem exclusive to OK Go (though their videos are an extreme example). Actually, I encounter this problem with most music videos, for example most recently with BeyoncĂ©’s highly-acclaimed "Formation". I’ve watched the video a few times, but in order to pay attention to the music, I have to ignore the video. This NPR’s article got it right—it’s a visual anthem, foremost. Musically, I’m not sure it’s her best work. Does that matter? Probably not; but I do wonder if emphasis on videos—especially visually overstimulating videos—drives down the quality of music.

Do any of you ignore or hide videos to focus on the music?