Tuesday, January 09, 2007

2007 Hall Inductees

The votes are in, and this year’s list of inductees includes Van Halen, Grandmaster Flash, REM, Patti Smith, and the Ronettes. A few of these artists come as no surprise to me, if you see my earlier article called “Living Legends”, but there are still a few interesting points to comment on.

Van Halen is a band that sometimes gets forgotten when discussing the hard rock bands of the 70s and 80s, and it’s a shame that it happens that way, especially when a band like Aerosmith gets so much undeserved attention in its stead. Eddie Van Halen was (and still is) a role model to so many guitar geeks, trying to replicate his solos and riffs. Alex Van Halen should equally be recognized for his prowess on the drum kit. And lest we all forgot the fun we had during the “1984” album, rocking out to hits like “Panama”, “Jump”, and “Hot For Teacher” (best video ever?), with David Lee Roth’s antics leading the way. With a collection of hits scattered across the radio and MTV throughout the 80s, we shouldn’t also ignore the talent seen on their early albums in the 70s. Van Halen may not be as much a household name today as they were 20 years ago, but their induction into the hall is well deserved.

REM is another well deserved inductee, often being credited as the seminal band of the “alternative” era, with albums such as “Life’s Rich Pageant”, “Document”, and “Green” leading the way from indie rock lore to mainstream popularity. REM has always had a gift for simple but elegant song writing, with Michael Stipe’s distinct vocals resting on top of the instruments, and their range in songwriting has been from the low-fi indie sound to pure pop to politically charged rock. Many of the modern alternative and indie rock acts owe a great deal of credit to the path that REM paved.

To keep it short, I just wanted to finally comment on Grandmaster Flash, meaning no discredit to Patti Smith nor the Ronettes. The induction of Grandmaster Flash marks the first rap/hip-hop artist in the hall, which is very significant as to the future of the hall. In the arena of rap, there is little debate that Grandmaster Flash is considered the father of rap for his contributions in the early 80s, and, for that reason, he is absolutely deserving of the nod.

The doors are now open for other rap and hip-hop artists in the hall, but I believe we will have to wait a few years until artists like Public Enemy and NWA are eligible. What I don’t want to gloss over, though, is that the name of the building itself is the “Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (and museum)”, and thus, with the inclusion of a rap artist, in some way we’re acknowledging that “Rock and Roll” in this context is more than simply the genre – it encompasses blues, jazz, rock, reggae, and now, rap. I don’t disagree with this, but I have trouble articulating why. I believe that there are two definitions of “rock and roll”, the first being the genre itself, the second being more an attitude, philosophy, or state of mind. On the first definition, we should note that while rap has become a genre unto itself, it has spread into the rock genre, with so many rock artists borrowing rap techniques for their own music, to a point where we now have a genre called “rap rock” all to itself, and, as further support of this induction, Grandmaster Flash’s influence is even more widespread. To the second definition, it means something to say that “Miles Davis was rock and roll”, that “Led Zeppelin was rock and roll”, and now, that “Grandmaster Flash was rock and roll”. There is an attitude central to rock and roll of trying to use music to describe and equally challenge the world around you, to inspire and lead movements, to drive change and to unify communities. The Rock Hall of Fame appears to celebrate the artists who have done that with their music, and for that, I applaud them. Grandmaster is deserving of this vote from the perspective of both definitions, despite being tagged as solely as a “rap artist”.

So cheers to this year’s inductees!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Year Ahead

Every year, I try to a review of the best albums of the previous year, and I also like to take note of what we can look forward to in the next year. This is the latter.

There is a lot of buzz about some major releases to come in the year – much is confirmed, some is rumored based on the artist completing or having completed studio work and moving into the final stages (including naming the album), and some is purely speculation based on tidbits here and there.

The below is a list of albums I am looking forward to.

Confirmed and Eagerly Anticipated

  • Massive Attack

  • Explosions In The Sky – I actually have a copy of this album already, and it is gorgeous!

  • Arcade Fire

  • Interpol

  • The Cure

  • Martina Topley-Bird

  • The Stooges

  • Perry Ferrell

  • Do Make Say Think

Confirmed But Not Eagerly Anticipated

  • The Shins

  • Wilco

  • Modest Mouse – the inclusion of Johnny Marr intrigues me

Rumored (or at least hopeful)

  • Radiohead

  • Bjork

  • Sigur Ros DVD – collection of live videos from their 2006 Iceland tour

  • Nine Inch Nails

  • Portishead – the same rumor every year

  • Common

  • Postal Service

  • Peter Gabriel

  • The Doves

  • U2

  • Tori Amos

  • Spoon

  • Feist

  • Blur

  • Built To Spill

Here’s to a great year!

The Year Behind

Every year, I try to a review of the best albums of the previous year, and I also like to take note of what we can look forward to in the next year. This is the former.

I try to read a lot of critics’ “best of” lists and in particular always pay attention to the lists of Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot from Chicago newspapers and the radio show Sound Opinions. The reason I do this is not so much to shape my own list, but mostly because they get the opportunity to listen to hundreds of albums every year, and typically they come up with some nuggets I haven’t considered.

This year, Jim and Greg made a point to dismiss those who claim 2006 was a weak year, but their argument was simply that their lists were huge. To me, that does not necessarily mean it was a great year, though it does imply that it was a busy or productive year. A great year of music, to me, is when there are a large amount of great albums – meaning albums that are truly end-to-end great. This year, especially in comparison to prior years, I don’t think that was the case. In fact, I struggled thinking of even 10 albums that are end-to-end great and can stand next to the same esteemed albums from years past, though I purchased and listened to many more albums.

Well, that aside, here’s my list of the year’s best. I tend to divide them into two categories – my favorites and albums that critics are raving that either I didn’t hear or didn’t care for. I include the second list because I do give respect at least to some critics and appreciate that I may have selective preferences and thus my biases may steer others away from albums that they may end up loving.

Saurab’s Best of 2006
In alphabetical order

  • Art Brut – “Bang Bang Rock and Roll”: the most fun I’ve had in an album for a long long time

  • Gnarls Barkley – “St. Elsewhere”: probably the consensus album of the year in terms of popularity. The song “Crazy” is definitely the song of the year

  • Isis – “In The Absence of Truth”: musically, I think this is a real masterpiece and might be my own album of the year. It flew under the radar a little, maybe because of the genre, but it’s absolutely stunning

  • Secret Machines – “Ten Silver Drops”: an end-to-end solid outing from one of my favorite current rock acts. More mature and complex than their previous works

  • Yo La Tengo – “I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass”: enough great songs on this album, including one of the strongest tracks of the year in “The Story of Yo La Tengo”. And I just can’t get “Mr. Tough” out of my head!

Assorted Critics’ Picks
Albums that are consistently found in many critics’ lists

  • Decemberists – “The Crane Wife”: I think I’ll like this album but I just haven’t tried

  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”: I think this will go down as the “pretentious pick of the year”. It’s not a great album as it’s mostly just filler noise, but it seems everyone feels like the need to put it on their list. I think it will be completely forgotten by next year (or at least the next real Radiohead album)

  • Clipse – “Hell Hath No Fury”: have not heard

  • Jay-Z – “Kingdom Come”: have not heard

  • Lupe Fiasco – “Lupe Fiasco’s Food And Liquor”: have not heard

  • TV On The Radio – “Return To Cookie Mountain”: very polarizing album across critics. Some love it, some hate it

  • Cold War Kids – “Robbers & Cowards”: have not heard the album, but have heard several EP’s including songs on this album and really enjoy them

  • Mission Of Burma – “Obliterati”: solid album and I almost included it in my list, just not quite

  • Bob Dylan – “Modern Times”: not a massive fan but hear this was a great effort from him

  • Neil Young – “Living With War”: not a fan and this album feels overly preachy to me

Well, that’s it. Here’s to hoping for a better year in music, 2007!

The Perfect Rock Song?

In 1997, Radiohead released the album “OK Computer” to rave reviews amongst critics and fans alike. They have gone on the be regarded as one of the best rock bands around, blending unique soundscapes with rock sensibilities and pushing the envelope on what rock music is. They have been one of my favorite bands since I heard their 1993 release “Pablo Honey.”

Prior to the release of “OK Computer”, they had been performing live a few of the tracks that eventually found their way on that album. Two of those songs were “Lucky” and “No Surprises.” I remember watching something on MTV back in 1997 in which they were going to perform live and several other artists were being interviewed to show how excited they were to see Radiohead (at the time, remember that Radiohead weren’t nearly as big as they are now). One artist, who I can’t remember now, made a casual comment “I can’t wait to hear the song ‘Lucky’ – it’s a perfect rock song!”. Sounds like a silly exaggeration of a comment, but it got me to thinking. I’ve always loved that song, but could it be a perfect song?

The more I think about it, the more I think that it might be. When you think about a rock song and the elements that comprise it, you think of a few elements: song structure, orchestration, score (the actual notes), lyrics, dynamics, rhythms, “emotional” qualities, etc. I think “Lucky” possesses the highest order of all of these, and, therefore, if there is such a thing as a perfect song, this could be one of them. I’m not suggesting that it’s the only example (U2’s “With Or Without You”, Pink Floyd’s “Time”, and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” are other good examples), but it’s a nice song to use to think about how to dissect rock music into it’s elements.

Let’s start with the song structure. The most common structure for a rock song is simply “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solo, chorus, end”. That structure can be considered a “pure” one for rock and roll and is core to thousands of songs. A “perfect” rock song, then, can be viewed as one that is structurally “pure”. Looking at the structure for “Lucky”, you will see that it is as pure structurally as it gets:

[Brief intro]
Verse (“I’m on a roll…”)
Chorus (“Pull me out of the aircrash…”)
Verse (“The state has called for me by name”)
Chorus (“Pull me out of the aircrash…”)
Guitar solo/interlude
Chorus (instrumental)

Now let’s examine the orchestration. Orchestration is simply taking a look at not only which instruments are used but also how they are used and what they are doing. Rock and roll has almost always been a guitar-driven form, with guitars leading out the chords and usually driving a solo somewhere in the song. The bass usually holds down the root of the chords to anchor the song and connect the guitars and vocals to the drums. Drums, of course, drive the rhythm and is usually responsible for pushing the song forward – giving it the energy. Finally, the voice is useful for both exhibiting the main melody as well as providing texture, such as in background vocals. Because of the nature of the voice, these textures are usually naturally “airy” or “breathy” and provide natural reverb to the song.

Dissecting the track, we can see all of the above – the electric guitars work together to provide the chord structure and also the solos during the solo interlude. Take a listen firstly to the sound effects that start the song – it’s a guitar plucking the strings near the tuning pegs on an effect – very unique sound effect providing texture to the song. Also listen to the effects on each of the guitars during the choruses. One has a tremolo effect as it pulses the chorus chords, while the other guitar has a distorted “buzz-saw” effect with the main chorus riff. Likewise, during the guitar solo, the second guitar slips into a strong tremolo effect (using the wah-wah pedal) before reverting back to the distortion for the final recap of the chorus. Amazing use of sound to achieve effects. The bass, in the main sections, anchors the song throughout with its accentuation of the roots and small fills to bridge one chord to the next; it is always in sync with both the drums and the guitars. The drums start off light and vacant, but jump in for the choruses and finally drive the song to its climax coming out of the guitar solo – Phil Selway on drums provides the energy of the song. Finally, Thom Yorke provides the vocals with his own unique timbre, but you can also notice vocal accents as texture during the final chorus (listen for the “ah”’s). These vocal tracks fill in the space and create a lush final point to the overall orchestration.

The score to the song is simple and complex, while being uniquely “Radiohead”. As opposed to being the standard 1-4-5 (“Louie Louie”) or 1-5-6-4 (“With Or Without You”) progression, the chord pattern works hand in hand with the melody and contains unique twists and turns throughout. I’ll leave it to you to look up the tablature if interested, but, trust me, it’s a unique progression. On top of that, the choices of notes for the chorus between the 2 guitars, with one playing the main minor chords with the tremolo effect and the other working its way down a scale, is ideal for the purpose of the song. Finally, I believe that the main guitar riff for the interlude/solo, especially if you examine the tablature, is tremendous and like nothing I’ve ever heard – certainly the path it takes down the fretboard and then eventually back up to get back into the final chorus. It’s an amazing score.

Progressing through the attributes, let’s take a look at the lyrics. Thom has an ability to write powerful lyrics, but at times they can be very esoteric and even nonsensical. That’s part of the charm of his songwriting, but it also points to one of the differences that I see between poetry and lyrics. In poetry, you may always be looking for the right word. In lyrics, you need to couple that with the right sound. The song is about surviving an air crash and the feeling of luck and hope that may come from it. However, look at the words Thom chooses to say, most specifically the line that comes twice: “it’s going to be a glorious day”. The first time you hear it, in the first verse, it sounds fairly ordinary. However, the second time you hear it, in the second verse, Thom accents the word “glorious”, “it’s going to be a GLOR-ious day!”. Couple that with the other repeated line, “I feel my luck could change” and you get a sense of the spiritual meaning of the song, not just the contextual, story-based, meaning of the song. The great lyricists have a way of conveying both in their words.

Finally, let’s look at the dynamics of the song. The brief intro is empty and ominous, the drums slowly creeping in. The verse is slow and also quietly ominous – it’s not until the first chorus that we hear a huge swell of volume and energy. As the chorus reaches its end, it just drops out (“leave you standing on the edge…”), with the lyrics reflecting the change in dynamics. We proceed into the next verse, which is similar to the first with the exception of the vocal dynamism we discussed before in the word “glorious” (“GLOR-ious!”). Again with the swell into the second chorus, and we move into the transitional guitar solo/interlude. Dynamically, the best word I can think to describe this section is “smooth” – at least the first half of this guitar progression is very relaxed and dynamically stable, until, that is, we arrive at the dynamic climax of the song – a brief chaotic bridge into an instrumental final rendition of the chorus. By this point, emotionally, the listener is spent as we have gone through a complete set of dynamics throughout the song, now reaching the peak. The song ends with Thom reiterating the line “standing on the edge” on top of a sole guitar, and the song evaporates into nothingness, as it began. Dynamically, this song runs the gamut from emptiness to exhilaration.

We’ve dissected a rock song into several of its building blocks, and through this process I hope you agree with me as to the argument for the inclusion of the song “Lucky” into the arena of the “perfect” rock songs. If not, take another listen – it may just grow on you.

Off the album “OK Computer”

I'm on a roll,
I'm on a roll this time
I feel my luck could change.

Kill me Sarah,
kill me again with love,
It's gonna be a glorious day.

Pull me out of the aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
I'm your superhero,
We are standing on the edge.

The head of state has called for me by name
But I don't have time for him.
It's gonna be a glorious day!
I feel my luck could change.

Pull me out of the aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
I'm your superhero,
We are standing on the edge.
We are standing on the edge.