Sunday, April 14, 2013

Gone Fishin'

I'm just about to start a new job, and I won't have as much time for blogging as usual, so I'll be taking a short hiatus. Back in a few weeks!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why Matchbox Twenty is So Bland

Compared to many other criticisms, I've found that calling music "bland" seems to make you more vulnerable to being perceived as a pompous ass. I think it has to do with the fact that the word implies a deficit, whether of musical interest, creativity, inspiration, etc., etc. When you break out the criticism you're implying that you have some sort of vision for what good music should be, but you can come off as focused more on slagging music that doesn't meet that vision than articulating what exactly the vision is.

Even articulating the vision you have, as I've tried to do in some posts here, only deflates some of the pompousness. You're still talking about the bland music in a way that defines it purely in terms of its failure, rather than as a real piece of music that several living humans probably worked hard to make. The best possible option, it seems, is to try and discuss as fairly as possible what's not working for you in the moment, to find affirmative signifiers of blandness rather than defining it in terms of what it lacks.

Matchbox Twenty has been one of my paragons of blandness for basically my entire music-listening life. (Their first album was released in 1996. Yes, you really ARE that old.) My first instincts for explaining why are, of course, in terms of deficits. Their lyrics are full of clichés. Their melodies and chord progressions are standard and predictable, without any of the surprises that make a band like Sloan sound fresh. Their arrangements are standard modern pop-rock productions without any color from unique instruments, unusual sounds, interesting layering. And here I am sounding like a puffed-up arbiter of musical taste, complaining how an undeniably competent and popular rock band doesn't live up to my standards as one random yahoo from Wisconsin.

So I went back and listened to every major single of theirs, and some of the songs from Rob Thomas' solo career, to see if I could start over with a new definition of their particular flavor(lessness) of bland. The lyrics certainly still weren't all that great- it's simply too late in my music-listening life for me to hear anything fresh in in straightforward pleas for a baby to come home or complaints about feeling a little crazy. I've already noted that weak lyrics are okay as long as the music is decent, but it still wasn't. And I'd like to try out two new definitions for why that's the case.

1. Their lack of rhythmic power results in rock songs that don't rock. Consciously or not, we associate rock songs with energy- they're supposed to be blasted out of car speakers, make you lose yourself in tightly packed crowds at concerts. A Matchbox 20 song like "Bent" is written like a rock song, with loud electric guitars and a soaring chorus, but it's so rhythmically flat that it never feels at all energetic. Listen to the drums under the chorus: they're just playing a plodding, steady beat that you or I could lazily tap out on the end table- there's no groove, no force, nothing that grabs. There's a decently written hook

Now compare that to the Goo Goo Dolls "Slide." It's tempting to lump the two bands together as fairly straight-ahead rock bands that were popular at the same time, but "Slide" feels much more energetic because it's doing a lot more rhythmically: the insistent strum of the guitar, a syncopated bass drum rhythm, a tambourine helping to hustle the beat along. No one's going to call it the most innovative song in the world, but it has enough of a kick that I'd never call it bland.

2. The weak vocals limit the emotional palette of the songs. Rob Thomas has one vocal tone and one only: a strained-sounding tenor that communicates emphasis and emotion almost entirely by increasing the strain. That works fine with songs that focus on stress or desperation, like "Push":

But the vocals just sound out of place in songs that try to strike a different tone. To me the most glaring example is "Smooth," his duet with Santana. The lyrics and video alike seem to suggest this is supposed to be a party song, and, well, a smooth come-on to Rob's female companion. When the chorus asks her "give [him] his heart, make it real, or else forget about it," everything else about the context suggests this is supposed to be teasing banter. But growled through Rob's standard delivery, it sounds more like a threat, one that somewhat stifles the lighter tone of the rest of the arrangement.

Taken more broadly, Thomas' ever-consistent vocal style pivots his songs into bland-ville because it also stifles love songs, laments, and other emotions whose musical effectiveness merits a lighter vocal touch or a richer vocal tone. His songs quickly begin to sound unremarkable and samey, because whatever other parts of the arrangement may do to achieve their nuance, craft, and emotional effect, they're largely subsumed under an unchanging and rather unremarkable vocal style. As I've said before, I'm fine with weak singers, but the successful ones find ways to make their vocals serve the songs (or at least pick songs that stay within their limited wheelhouse).

Are these criticisms generalizable to the broader world of bland music? Perhaps. Weak vocals- or, more precisely, vocals that don't support the emotional tenor of the song- can always flatten out musical strengths. And the first point might apply generally in the sense that bland music lacks some of the basic characteristics we expect for its genre- which could just as well be, say, beauty in a ballad as energy in a rock song.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Sexy and I Know It" Is a Great Song. Seriously.

Lyrically great songs, as I wrote below, lay out an effective narrative over a supportive musical backing. The examples I picked to illustrate were those that achieved greatness addressing rich, emotionally freighted topics of loss, loneliness, redemption.

Here's the thing- "Sexy and I Know It" has lyrics that communicate another common human emotion just as effectively: horny dumbassedness. As I write this, I haven't listened to the song in weeks. But right off the top of my head, I can think of numerous lines in the song that strike that tone in a way that's both memorable and at least a little bit clever- "animal print pants on patrol," "passion in my pants," "no shoes no shirt I still get service." They're delivered with complete conviction, with nothing overtly jokey or ironic to undercut them. And they're backed up by music that supports and reinforces that kind of open silliness- a synth riff with an unexpected, goofy-sounding high note at the end of the phrase, those "aahs" as they demand you look at their body, and a beat that, as numerous YouTube commenters attest, is simple and bouncy enough to get their small children dancing.

Those precisely meet the criteria I laid out for strong lyrical songs. The difference between this and a song that meets those criteria by soberly addressing love and regret is between the ends of the songs, rather than the means. You may well think that loss and redemption are more appropriate topics for quality music than flopping your dick around in a speedo, and there's a clear logic to that. It's consistent with the sort of distinctions that people have been making for decades between the "highbrow" material they're willing to teach you in college and "lowbrow" disposable fluff.

But my guess is that even if you appreciate and embrace some "highbrow" art like jazz music or classic literature, you've also done at least one, and possibly all three, of the following in relation to this song or other equally "lowbrow" songs:
  1. Openly danced to it at a wedding;
  2. Watched the YouTube video to laugh along with friends;
  3. Jokingly yelled a catchphrase (here it would most likely be "I WORK OUT!") from the song.
For "Sexy and I Know It," I've done all three. And I'm further willing to bet that the sheer, memorable ridiculousness of this song will make it more likely that I remember it in 20 years than a lot of music with the more traditional trappings of quality. I'll remember more archetypally "great" songs like those by Iron & Wine and the Mountain Goats, too, but I'll be more likely fondly remember "Sexy and I Know It" than a lot of only moderately successful attempts at traditionally "great" music.

To recap: "Sexy and I Know It" successfully communicates an emotion we've all felt; I've enjoyed it lyrically, musically, and visually; and I'm confident I'll remember it fondly down the road. Those are exactly the types of experiences that explain why I listen to music in the first place, so why should I get hung up on exactly how and why it succeeds? It just sounds like great music to me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Song of the Week: Basia Bulat, "5/4"

"5/4" is a just a singer with a guitar, live-recorded in open air, and yet it sounds incredibly rich and full. Part of that is Bulat's strong vocals. She's got that same subtle ability as Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg to smoothly transition between multiple vocal tones, which she uses here to turn an airy folk-song verse into a piledriving chorus and get a lot of musical power out of the contrast.

After a few more listens, though, what really impresses is the guitar harmonies. That driving chorus riff is rhythmically strong and immediately memorable, and it would probably be easy as a songwriter to double down, strum the hell out of a few simple chords, and call it a fist-pumping song well done. But Bulat opens up entirely new layers by including some unexpected minor-key high notes in her guitar chords throughout, adding a twinge of sadness that pushes against the extroverted rhythmic power of the riff. The result is a single guitar that supports a range of emotional tones, and a song that sounds just as rich and full as what many bands get out of a roomful of instruments.

This video has the added virtue of catching a wonderfully concise depiction of someone becoming a new Bulat fan. Keep an eye on the guy in the green sweater after he first walks into the terrace at about 1:35. He's passing through, stops, clearly thinks he needs to keep going around 2:00, but can't help but get sucked in until the end of the song. Who knew how fun it would be to watch a convert in real time?

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Value of Lyrics, Part 2: Words for Music

I can name plenty of examples where great lyrics make for great music, well beyond the two I highlighted in the last post. Even so, it should go without saying that music doesn't need lyrical value to be great, given how much of the classical and jazz canons have no lyrics at all. And I'd go further and say that there can be great songs with lyrics that are adequate, even forgettable and mediocre, because they're cases where the vocals are serving a primarily musical purpose. In the terms I've laid out in the last post, the vocals on those songs, and whatever they may be saying, are used as an "instrument" of melody and rhythm more than as a means to deliver a narrative. They're words for music, rather than music for words.

Most of what we think of as classic pop music fits this description; even the best of its kind is commonly accompanied by pretty standard-issue sentiments of love or (less frequently) freedom or regret or late nights out partying. But those lyrics often work just fine for capturing what the music itself is doing most of the work to communicate. The Shazam's "Some Other Time," for example, is a pretty straightforward, unremarkable lyrical narrative of lost love, filled with the most obvious relevant clichés: it wasn't meant to be except maybe in a dream; the singer wouldn't change a thing; the lover's name is now just another word. Those clichés, though, are supporting a pretty terrific pop melody that uses minor-key chord changes to more effectively strike the same tone of wistfulness and regret. If the lyrics were awkward enough to distract from the music, a la Train, they'd be a problem. But in this case, they're forgettable lyrics that still fit the song well, because they're consistent with, and supportive of, emotions the music more memorably evokes.

The point may come though even more sharply with musicians who openly acknowledge that they make up lyrics to fit their music. Carl Newman of the New Pornographers, for example, has been far from shy in saying that "the song is more important than the lyrics" for him and that lyrics have to "suit the song" regardless of whether it makes sense or even "ruins the narrative." And that attitude is clear in a song like "Sing Me Spanish Techno," which is utter lyrical nonsense from the title on down. But Newman makes a great song out of it because he has a fine sense of how to make his words suit the music.

For one thing, the words are still coherent enough in terms of subject-verb agreement, sentence structure and the like. More important, close listening demonstrates that his word selection carefully supports the musical grammar of the song. The verse grounds its melody in sharp rhythmic accents- grounded in the drums and hard strums on the acoustic guitar, but further enhanced by lyrics with lots of consonance. "Picking the glass off the ground" is meaningless as language, but it puts hard consonants right on the musical accents. By contrast, when the song transitions into a more legato vocal melody at about 1:30, the lyrics start relying more on words like "hills" and "refused," with softer consonants and vowel sounds that sound better extended to whole notes than, say, the hard "a" of "glass." All the nonsense words, in short, are quite effective as musical decisions.

Sigur Ros takes the approach of musical language to its logical conclusion. Jonsi claims he's singing in a made-up language called "Hopelandic," but it's even only a language in the loosest sense; the band's own website has also acknowledged that it's no more than "a form of gibberish vocals that fit to the music." That fit, on a song like "Svefn-G-Englar," follows many of the same fundamental principles as Newman's- long, open vocal sounds to support the legato lines of most of the song, with more consonance and harsher vowel sounds when the song briefly transitions to a more dissonant harmonic structure shortly after 6:00. It's the purest example possible of using the voice as instrument, with no narrative content- or even linguistic meaning- whatsoever.

So, after about a dozen paragraphs of rambling on, I can finally get back to where I started: foreign-language lyrics. (Still here, Allison? Anyone else who managed to stick around, you should go read her blog when you're done here.) Since I'm monolingual beyond some basic Spanglish, there aren't any foreign lyrics that can hold linguistic meaning for me. But they can work just fine as they result in vocals that work well as an instrument. I judge them the same way I would any other instrument: whether it works as a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic contribution to the arrangement.

Often enough, foreign-language songs pass that test just fine. Nothing in the "Gangnam Style" vocals, for example, seems distracting or out of place in terms of consonance or vowel sounds. But given that other languages are bound to have different cadences, different sounds, different norms of articulation, they probably ARE more vulnerable to failing to meet the expectations for "natural" lyrical sounds I've learned as an English speaker. From the first moment of the Spanish song below, I can't get past a lyrical line that sounds, to me, both cluttered and awkwardly articulated, with lots of pleghmy consonants and hard vowels. For all I know, they're trying to articulate something narratively here that I'd find meaningful if I could interpret it. Or I could well be more acclimated to their vocal sounds if I were a Spanish speaker. In either case, I don't think I'm fit to judge the quality of this music, since it may be best measured against criteria that are outside the realm of my experience. All I can say is that, for that same reason, it's not for me.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Song of the Week: Shearwater, "Lost Boys"

If I asked you to name a great vocalist, my guess is that you'd first think of a strong vocalist, the Whitney Houstons or Jeff Buckleys whose vocal power sounds like it could level buildings. But I've noticed that a number of my posts have led to the same conclusion that effective vocals involve finding a fit between singer and song, which for some music could work just as well with a nasal honk or with subtle understatement as it could with a traditionally "great" vocalist.

Now, I'm certainly not going to say Whitney Houston or Jeff Buckley weren't great singers- they were. What I would argue is that there's also a second type of great singer who can combine vocal skill and the musical sensitivity to find a fit with multiple different types of musical backings, and "Lost Boys" is perfectly constructed as Jonathan Meiburg's case for inclusion. The song is basically two very distinct takes on one melody- a light, airy version focused on strings and bells, followed by a harsher, strummed, drum-heavy recapitulation. Meiburg's vocals shift significantly to support both, with a rich, vibrato-laden falsetto that shifts to powerful, unadorned belting. It's instantly obvious Meiburg is a technically gifted singer; on the second verse, for example, he has the sort of elemental power in his delivery that hits you in the solar plexus. But even more to his credit is his ability to shift his voice easily to make it the best instrument in very different musical settings.

On another note, the developing theme in the songs of the week so far- you know, all two of them- is the effective use of crisp, loud drums underneath arrangements that are otherwise melodically rich and ornate, even pretty. I like pretty songs quite a lot for a bearded, emotionally reserved midwesterner, but the biggest challenge even the best of them face is fusing the melody with enough energy and momentum to keep it from sounding insubstantial. The drums here and in "Mute" are prominent and powerful enough to provide that drive, while keeping to simple beats that provide support to the melodies without overcoming it. Done right, it's a marvelously effective approach.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Value of Lyrics, Part 1: Music for Words

I got a request from a friendly reader for my take on songs with non-English lyrics. Gladly! But since I'm me, and this is the blog that it is, I'm going to start by trying to figure out my general theories on lyrical value, then pivot back to explain how non-English lyrics fit in. (Allison, you know me well enough to know you weren't about to get a direct answer.)

As I've started doing research for the blog, I've discovered that while most academic musicologists, (like my pal Leonard Meyer) focus on classical music, there's actually a fair number writing about popular music. One of them, Richard Middleton, has proposed that there are three different uses of lyrics within the context of a whole song:

1. "Story," which emphasizes narrative and tends to be performed in a manner close to the speaking voice;

2. "Affect," which emphasizes the expressive nature of the words and "tends to merge with melody;"

3. "Gesture," which emphasizes "words as sound" and effectively uses the voice as "an instrument."

This framework makes a lot of sense. The sources I've read seem to agree with my biggest initial reservation, which is that "story" is not a common usage compared to the other two. There are certainly examples out there (country story-songs, rap that emphasizes the words rather than the rhythm of the delivery, that Shawn Mullins song from back in the '90s), enough to merit their place in a general model, but they're not common enough in my musical experience to need much more discussion. I'll just post that Shawn Mullins song and leave it at that.

Middleton's other two categories, though, capture a useful distinction. The way I'd put it is that most songs with lyrics can be great in one of two ways: either the music can support strong, memorable lyrics ("affect"), or the sound and tone of the lyrics can support strong, memorable music ("gesture"). In short, a great song can either offer music for great words, or words for great music.

Underlying that statement is an assumption that the music and the lyrics both need to meet some minimal level of quality for a song to be successful. A great musical arrangement still isn't going to work that well as a song if it's accompanied with, say, lyrics as distractingly lazy as Train's. Nor will great lyrics work without an adequate- and appropriate- musical backing; sensitive love-song lyrics are going to lose some of their impact backed with death-metal music, and any example of good lyrics are going to lose some of their weight and enjoyment if I still don't want to listen to the musical backing.

Put another way, great songs have both great music and good lyrics- the distinction is that in many songs, one plays the lead role and one plays support. I have no way to quantify this, but I feel safe in saying that, more often than not, music is in the lead role; melodies run through my head more often than do lyrics that resonate on their own terms. (This probably also has something to do with the fact that talented musicians are invariably going to make music, while talented writers may well go into poetry or short stories or whatever instead of becoming lyricists.)

That said, there are songs where the lyrics carry the primary weight of quality for me. Within the confines of a standard-length pop song, that's typically not a matter of a complete thought- it's usually a matter of using just a few words to communicate something vivid. The lyrics of The Mountain Goats' "Broom People" are a total of 101 words, but line by line, it uses its economy to capture a gut-punch portrait of an abusive household, both visual (the "white carpet thick with pet hair") and experiential (a sighed reference to "well-meaning teachers"), and with clearly personal details like the abuser's old car in the garage. (John Darnielle has been upfront about saying that the whole album addresses his life with an abusive stepfather.) It's a bit like a great establishing shot in a movie, communicating worlds in brief images.

Iron and Wine's "Dead Man's Will" achieves much the same, in its slightly different, eponymous form. It's a very structured approach of finding four expressions of "buried" love, all well-drawn in a few words, and all the more powerful for being driven home as the narrator repeated chorus beg for his "love to reach you all."

Both of these are, even on paper, great writing. But part of what makes them stick as great LYRICS is because the musical accompaniment provides such effective support. It's not just that the music meets our basic expectations for the tone of the song- relatively slow tempos, sweeping high notes- though that obviously helps. Both lyrics stand out so powerfully because there are a range of subtle musical cues that support, reinforce, even expand upon their tones and connotations.

In both cases above, much of that subtle success is in the way the music introduces a note of hopefulness and grace into devastating subject matter. Dead Man's Will is, on first listen, appropriately funereal, with the slow tempo of a funeral march and a choral arrangement that evokes a hymn. Upon further listening, though, that choral arrangement contains even deeper resonance. The musical arrangement drops out on the final chorus at 2:20, an effective decision to make stark the lonely cry of the narrator. But it's followed by a wordless chorus that swells the harmonies we've already heard before, and it's easy to start imagining that the father, mother, brother, lover, are now the ones singing. In purely musical terms, it's a nice way to open up the strong melody for a final spin. But it's also a way to suggest that his love has reached them all.

Broom People seems like a bit of an odder case at first, with dramatic piano chords and a thrumming cello line that seem too energetic, too anthemic for a story of a child writing down "good reasons to freeze to death." Until Darnielle pivots at the end of the verse to talk about the arms of another (a girlfriend, most likely) that turn him into a "babbling brook." On paper, the structural choice to dwell on what's at home is effective for dramatizing the draw of his escape, yet the pivot lands with even more force by resolving the tension between music and lyric.

It remains true that for me the impact of both songs is lyrical, the near-physical impact of invoking an abused child's "friends who don't have a clue" or hearing the posthumous regret of a man too "scared and stupid" to find love. But they're great as songs because the music is pumping the lyrics full of life. It can work the other way, too, and I'll take up that topic in the next post.