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Sunday, September 25, 2011

So Much Good Music, So Little Time

Due to my wonderful friends and family, I have had the great fortune of receiving some absolutely fantastic music lately. In fact, I have so much I need to listen to that I'm having a hard time finding time to listen to it all! This is a wonderful problem to have, but it's still a problem. In order to hear the painstaking details that went into these songs it is only appropriate to listen to them on quality speakers or headphones. I love the volume that Apple is able to get out of these tiny little Mac speakers, but they are simply not up to par for a quality listening session.

These listening sessions go way beyond simply listening and following along with lyrics (which I rarely do.) No, I see these sessions as learning opportunities, studying not only the recording techniques and decisions, but also the song structure, instrumentation, and all that other good stuff. Does this suck the fun out of music? Absolutely not. I love learning and it is a challenge and something that I enjoy more with each new artist I stumble upon. I make mental notes in hopes of using what I have learned in my own work. I try to learn what works, and more importantly, what doesn't. Having an arsenal of options in my head pays dividends in the real world.

One of the artists I have been crushing on lately is Josh Ritter. Described by iTunes as Country and folk, Rock, Pop, and just Folk, Josh Ritter is an extremely talented singer/songwriter whose lyrics and song writing are worth more than one listen. The first song I heard of his was called "The Curse," off of his newest album So Runs the World Away. Thank God for NPR's World Cafe. That was a great car ride home and I was eager to find more by this guy. (Because I didn't hear who the artist was before the song started, I initially entered the World Cafe playlist from the evening and thought it was Tim Robbins and his band...that was close.) "The Curse" is about a mummy who falls in love with the female archeologist who found him and brought him back to New York. She repeatedly asks, "Are you cursed?" to which he replies "I think that I'm cured." But as the song progresses, she gets older, he becomes famous, she dies, and we are left with the initial question and answer again. It sounds hokey when I spell it out. Any story with a mummy is bound to raise eyebrows, but it is an incredible song that I suggest you check out. Other favorites include Harrisburg, Gallahad, and Girl in the War. Each of these displays clever wordplay that is instantly memorable, some making you smile and the others making you think.

This whole "folk revival" has gotten me very excited. There is such a unique focus on writing quality songs and crafting memorable stories that it is impossible to let Bob Dylan ruin the genre for me anymore. In fact, some of Dylan's work is now listenable. This is huge for me. But my new band, the Miss Misery Trio, has gravitated towards the folk stylings without even thinking about it. The combination of personalities and influences is creating my own exciting music. It excites us anyways. And speaking from years of playing in (shitty) bands that range from Irish Folk/Punk to Grunge/Metal, I have never been this excited. Most bands have revolved around songs that I have written, but that doesn't mean they were good. I am now at a point in my life where the "listening sessions" are culminating into sensibilities that translate quickly to my music, making the songs much better. I also have great band members that I can bounce ideas off of, echo my enthusiasm, and can collaborate and trust immediately. Wish I had more time to dedicate to this stuff.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Staying Power

I've discovered a pattern in the music that I have chosen to surround myself with over the last few years. All the music and artists must have staying power. Basically I just ask myself, " will I still want to listen to this in 5 years? 10 years?" This mentality has really helped me discover some great music and look past the average.

As you can probably guess, none of this music is "mainstream." These are artists who are creating works that do not appeal to the mass audience. I believe this is due to that fact that the music is not aimed at anyone. The songwriters and bands are returning to a frame of mind that was prevalent in the great songwriters of the past. They make music for themselves. Is this selfish? Not at all. It is simply an outpouring of human emotion and experience that is created for the benefit of the author. This is not to say that the music is not meant to be shared with the world, but it was not made because people will like it or it will make them rich and famous.

Another thing that I have noticed is that types of music that once thrilled me and got me to rock out now bore the shit out of me. Last weekend I went with my buddy Tim to see a band I was really into in college called Pepper. They're a reggae/rock/dub trio who had one hit infused album about ten years ago. I thought that it would still be a good time, perhaps in a nostalgic way. But I was so insanely bored. The song formulas were predictable and average. The hit songs that I once blasted out of my speakers in my dorm room no longer had any effect on me besides, "when will this be over." Also went down to a street fair-type thing in Bay View yesterday. There were some bands, but they all played straight rock. The lead singer of one band yelled to the family-based audience that the next song was called "we want to get you high." Stupid. What really made me sad was that more people would go see a band like that than a local singer/songwriter ( ) I discovered a few weeks ago. But regardless, I know if I was in high school, I would have watched that band and nodded my head the way white guys do to rock. It isn't head banging but it isn't standing still. It's what we do. But it was just so...meh.

This is another thing that these new artists that have staying power excel at. The songs are interesting and make you want to keep listening. Even after the twentieth listen, you can still find something new and draws the listener in. I believe this mentality of moving away from cookie cutter rock and moving forward with music is spreading. It is part of the reason artists are making the music they're making. It is part of the reason I make the music I make. We're evolving. This has how it has always been, but nowadays it is so easy to get this music into people's hands and into their ears. We can make our own recordings and post them to the interweb latter that day. Think about 50 years ago. This was impossible. And now the forward thinking musicians are gaining prevalence and a dedicated following.

But there will always be part of the music listening society who will hold on to the four-piece rock band playing verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus songs. They also hold on to image of the pop star whose voice will make up for the lack of originality. And that's fine. But the staying power mentality is increasing, spreading to the ears of young listeners. The Darwinian evolution of music will continue and this makes me happy.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Where have all the albums gone?

As I enter my fourth week in the good land, I am still enthralled with the wonder that is Milwaukee radio. Between 88.9 RadioMilwaukee and 102.1, I rarely have to change the station. When I was on my way home from work the other day, there was an in-studio performance by a band called Gabby Young and the Other Animals. At first I thought they were playing some vintage 30s or 40s artist, lost in the crevasses of time. But no, just a performance by four musicians from across the pond, displaying an affinity for gypsy, jazz, rock and pop. They stated how they were playing at Shank Hall the upcoming Friday night. Needless to say, I rounded up my future bandmates and checked out the show. It was fabulous, but they deserved more than the 50 or so bodies in the hall. RadioMilwaukee was also airing an exclusive performance of TV On the Radio the other night. These are just some recent gems from a great station.


Mostly out of 102.1, there are a lot of good songs being played by up and coming artists. But you can tell that these are simply just songs. To buy the album would be an overpriced disappointment. It's hard to describe how I can discern the quality artists from the duds, but there is something about these artists that seems so...meh. It's as though they had a good hook or sound, but don't take the necessary steps to make it really interesting, to give it staying power. I think of it this way: rather than setting up a campfire with the proper kindling and log position and sitting around it for a few hours, these guys prefer to just pour some gasoline on the fire and see how big the flames will get before it quickly dies.

People have been saying that the album is on it's way out, that a steady stream of singles will be released rather than waiting 2 or 3 years between albums. I can see this happening, but not for any artists that will be around for more than 5 years. Well, if they partner this approach to the complete album, success can be lasting, but single after single will lose it's appeal quickly. There is a reason one hit wonders are ridiculed on VH1. Singles don't matter if the album is crap. Sure, the pop world will make more money this way, and the guys who actually write the songs will make a metric shit-ton of money, but artists who write and perform their own music don't operate that way. The argument is also made that recording on the go is so easy that people will just keep writing and recording while touring the world (and elsewhere.) Can you imagine how draining that would be on a band? Instead of taking the travel time as time for practice, relaxation, or phone interviews, they would also be obligated to write and record a quality product for almost immediate release.

I'm sure there are smarty-pants turds who can make any system of releasing music work to their advantage, and it would be a great system for bands trying to gain a following (it's actually what most do already, i.e. myspace/youtube) but I refuse to believe bands like Wilco, Bon Iver, Muse, or any other bands like that will ditch the album for the profit-hungry system that is the constantly streaming singles.