Author Archives: Luke

Come On, Tower Crane Driver

Despite enjoying the twilight of my twenties, I am occasionally surprised to miss out on a whole class of music I would describe as “adult music”. It is not anything like “adult movies” (sexually explicit music ultimately sounds juvenile more often than not). It is vaguely yuppie. I’d characterize it primarily as inoffensive and I would buy it in a Starbucks (which incidentally has become the chief indicator that an indie band has “made it”). I probably heard about it from NPR or a New York Times article and it might get a sleeper Grammy nomination. I would not download it (even though I may have picked up a download card for the single at said Starbucks); I would listen to it on CD in a real stereo at home or in a car or maybe in an iPod dock or something that Bose makes (because whether I am conscious of it or not, I believe music belongs in space and I value its format as a physical/informational/aesthetic entity). More often than not, it is rootsy or a comeback record.

My tastes suggest I actually do listen to quite a bit of adult music. I love Spoon and Neko Case, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. The problem is, most of what falls into the adult music category is either as commonplace as it is principled or it’s a comeback record. And for every great song that pulls you into the genre (e.g. Dylan’s comeback “Sick Of Love” or the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration “Killing The Blues”) you’re going to be disappointed by the rest if you aren’t actually a bona fide “adult”. Considering how often these albums are made by highly talented musicians and engineers, this may not apply to recordists, audiophiles, or “players” who can abide passable songs for either their sound or the performances.

On the night of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, I had drinks with friends in a quiet and moderately fancy bar in Harvard Square. While a solitary dancer swung and ran over projections of Canadian landscapes to the close-captioned lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, I became typically distracted with the house music and couldn’t help inquiring about an unfamiliar song that intrigued me. It turned out to be a mouthful for the waitress: “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” by Mercury Prize winners Elbow. The next day, I found the album at the public library and took it home for a listen. It was a thoroughly adult music experience.

Elbow – The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver

The track comes from their most recent album, The Seldom Seen Kid and it has the kind of title that is no surprise after a single whose chorus brilliantly favors “There’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall” over “I get drunk a lot recently”. It reads like an academic treatment of the working class and there is a real-life inspiration for the song. But the image itself is incredibly compelling in its familiarity: the workman trapped in a box of glass and metal hovering in air working alone. It’s the poetic depiction and the musical context that sells it as an applied symbol of personal alienation.

What I find most remarkable is the dreary massiveness that’s conveyed here. After a brief plucking guitar intro, the huge drums rumble in from a great distance with sharp synth strings filling the air. The other guitar appears to play a solitary harmonic panned hard right that chimes in to alternate with the vocals. For all the space that is filled by the production, it feels very private and timid. Singer Guy Garvey begins in a somber low register. “Got to get out of TV / Just pick a point and go.” This is a song about the desperation of escape. The refrain is plaintive. “Come on, tower crane driver. There’s not too far to go.” But after the first verse, we get an open break that transforms the track from a song to a concept piece. Suddenly the space between here and there is as wide open as it is undeterminable.

When the song resumes suddenly, though we haven’t noticed its absence thus far, the bass finally arrives panned hard right with overdriven bursts like a tuba so that the guitar harmonic is revealed to perfectly syncopate with the bassline. Up an octave, Garvey’s voice slides from an easy mid-range to an anguished, tragic croon. “I must have working the ropes when your hand slipped from mine.” By the time the refrain returns, the hope dissipates in the untenable “Oh so far to fall.”

From this pregnant mood comes the climax of the song. In a perfectly paired movement of lyrics and music planted in the middle of the primary progression, Garvey sings “Send up a prayer in my name” and the track soars into a brief but intensely saturated bridge. Suddenly, the track feels like a plane that’s been barreling down the runway as it reaches take-off: there’s no noticeable change in velocity, but the ground has clearly dropped beneath you. The tension sustains like a burning flare. Before you know it, you’re back to a familiar incline, stewardesses are serving beverages, and you’re napping in the clouds. The beat runs out and the ethereal break returns to end the song.

In keeping with the adult music distinction, The Seldom-Seen Kid is one of the most unique-sounding albums I’ve heard in a while and contains a bevy of interesting arrangements (from what I’ve read, they not only recorded the album themselves; they did it with the resources of a mere project studio). The liner notes include lyrics and a refreshingly modest but defiant stance against the loudness wars. The rootsiness of aforementioned single “Grounds For Divorce” turned me off when watching the accompanying video, but ends up being the other highlight of the record (for another, album closer “Friend Of Ours” acts largely as a quiet reprise of “…Tower Crane Driver”). And the rest of the album is pretty good.

My New Theme Song

I’m 6’5″. Sometimes that’s neat. Other times it’s obnoxious. At the amusement park, for example, I can’t ride certain rides because I just can’t keep my limbs and head safely out of harm’s way and my spine isn’t short enough to sit comfortably in those harnesses that clamp down over your shoulders. And all those times when it’s convenient, like when I’m at a show or in a crowd looking for someone, there are always the folks behind me hating me and the short people looking up with strange scared faces.

Now I have a theme song. It’s called “Tall” and it has nothing to do with being tall. It’s about big wheels. And it’s by two gentlemen named Alley Boy and Young Dro, whom I know little to nothing about. But they kill it with some great double-time raps, which is a relief to hear amidst this whole slow flow style that seems to be the standard these days. And the vocals are well-mixed, thank goodness! Underneath their performance is a killer beat whose success relies on an expert combination of East, West, and South. There’s the soul sample that creeps in as a brief bridge, the high-pitched Dr. Dre synths, the bouncy drums. It may not seem like the kind of song that would garner such a recommendation, but I’d say it’s easily the best rap track I’ve heard this year. And it’s one of the biggest blips on my rap-dar since “Int’l Player’s Anthem”. This joint is hot. Feel it.

Alley Boy feat Young Dro – Tall

Apparently, this is from Alley Boy’s new mixtape, The Definition Of Fuck Shit, which sure is a striking title. Here is a link to it thanks to the folks at The Fader.

Fore & Aft: Echoplex

“Ella-ella-ella-ay-ay-ay”. Or so goes the biggest line of the biggest single of 2007. The deviously catchy delivery tactic of that echoing artifact sunk its hooks in so deeply that over the last few years, we’ve heard its success replicated far and wide by both the original songwriting team of The-Dream and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and their imitators. The pair have clearly become a goldmine for record labels, the go-to team for big hits all over the pop world. And fortunately, we’ve been blessed to enjoy the real McCoy in their success and ingenuity. Not satisfied to settle for juicing every drop from a played-out gimmick, the duo dropped the heaviest, gnarliest, R&B hit of the decade in Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies”–a massive, transforming statement piece that will alone keep them in the history books, goofy Toy Story allusion bedamned–only to suffer an obvious aping with her follow-up single “Halo”, which they did not pen.

Though I’m no expert on their catalog, of what I’ve heard, their most successful ballad–their most earnest and honest and least corny–is the slow jam “Bed” by J. Holiday. As soft and sweet as it is sexy and seductive, and with The-Dream on backing vocals, we have an expertly crafted tune with memorable lines, inventive melodic cadence, and a compelling structure that builds verse hook upon pre-chorus hook upon chorus hook upon bridge and back again. It’s nowhere as explicitly game-changing as “Umbrella” or “Single Ladies” but it’s incredibly refined, well-conceived, and perfectly executed.

J. Holiday – Bed

In the digital age, it’s been light-memes since its 2007 release. It’s 2010 and who now should take up The-Dream’s cause but the one and only R. Kelly.

R. Kelly – Echo

The leadoff single from his newest album Untitled, “Echo” is perfectly R. Kelly, both amazing and hilarious. The background vocal chiming in with “sex in the morning, sex all day” and its converse is fabulous. And the real conversation piece of the track, the yodeling chorus, is yet another historical Kels vocal performance, expertly entwined with the bridge’s “got you sounding like you’re screaming from a mountain peak” line to round out the storyboard of a Ricola commercial for the ages.

Of course, the echoing “echo” is the obvious culprit of the indictment that R. Kelly is just the newest derivative of The-Dream’s trademark work. But when we revisit “Bed”, we start to see it as a kind of model for “Echo”. There’s the lingerie talk, the care-taking of the working-woman partner, the same building structure climaxing in the ecstatic bridge. Of course, these are all topics and cliches of modern R&B, but if “Bed” weren’t so distinctly crafted and well, so “bed-bed-bed”, it wouldn’t be as suspect.

Regardless of the level of influence here, R. Kelly nails it like a consummate professional. Moreover, we can just as easily look at the matter from the other direction. R. Kelly has contributed more to what we know about modern R&B than just about everyone else out there today. If you make R&B you are beholden to his innovations. Right off the bat, I doubt J. Holiday would have ever donned the first initial if R. Kelly hadn’t before him. And we have to remember that the central character in all of this is a writer and performer who clearly hasn’t come into R&B from a vacuum. Innovators succeed by knowing their genre so well as to capitalize on its needs. The-Dream is no different.

Take, for example, one of the standouts from The-Dream’s excellent sophomore album Love vs. Money, “Put It Down”.

The-Dream – Put It Down

This track, as great as it is on its own, would never exist if it weren’t for R. Kelly. The cadence and phrasing of his line “I see you running like a track meet / With your baton, saying ‘Catch me'” is a Kelly trademark (a perfect example is the moment in “Echo” when he stutter-sings “I left your next clue by the sink. It should be a box with your name, open it up, see what’s inside, whatever it is put it on and head to the bedroom”). This imitation runs throughout the entire second verse, in which The-Dream tells his lover how to respond should people ask her if he sings like Usher or dances like Chris Brown, all the while notably avoiding any comparison to R. Kelly. And seeing as no one takes full advantage of the possibilites of lyrical exploration so well as R. Kelly, what other touchstone can we cite for inspiring lines like “I’m all up on you like a monster truck”, “I’m all up on you like a whitey on a thug”, and the chorus’ query “Does he make that horn go beep?”.

The real kicker here is that by the time we’ve gotten to the end of The-Dream’s album, he’s ready to be explicit about the issue. Love vs. Money ends with the track “Kelly’s 12 Play”, the tale of an extended lovemaking sesh that employs as its soundtrack the early R. Kelly classic known for its hit single “Bump and Grind” (and maybe not so known for deep cut “I Like The Crotch On You”).

The-Dream – Kelly’s 12 Play

The song begins with The-Dream searching for his copy of 12 Play in his CD collection, scouring his shelves for the white cover with red letters. He carefully cleans the CD and checks the surface for scratches, pops it in the player, and commences to sexy time. Throughout the chorus, though, in between each lead line about doing, screwing, and brewing it “to Kelly’s 12 Play”, The-Dream utters a soft “oh Kel” that has enough sexual moan in it to get his listener fruitlessly hoping his partner’s name is a female Kelly. The song turns the more idolatrous in the second verse, when in the throws of passion, she thanks The-Dream for his prowess in the sack and, instead of returning the gratitude, he thanks Kel.

According to the bridge, over the course of the evening the couple apparently listen to the album up to five whole times before petering out. And here’s where The-Dream surpasses his inspiration and places himself in the lineage to take the baton from the aging crooner. With the lovemaking session in intermission, and with the last few seconds of Love vs. Money expiring, his partner leaves the bed, walks to the stereo, pops out the CD, and changes the disc in the CD player “to Dream’s Love/Hate“.

Listening to your own music while sexing your lady? I wouldn’t put it past Kanye. But in the context here, it’s less a literal suggestion than a bold move intended to state The-Dream’s claim to R&B sovereignty. The album ends with the self-determined inclusion of The-Dream’s debut album in the canon of R&B classics, the next great 12 Play. Let Beyonce have her crown or robo-gauntlet or what have you. Based on The-Dream’s ubiquitous success, I can’t think of anyone more worthy of inheriting the throne. That is, of course, whenever R. Kelly decides to step down. Someone may have to pry it out of his cold, dead, mannequin hands.

Senseis Are Standing By

I wasn’t as enamoured with The Ecstatic as everyone else appeared to be. First off, the mix sounded really strange to me, the same kind of strange that the Q-Tip album sounded. It had sloppy production on the beats end with flat sonics and not much frequency range, so the vocals sat on top of the music in an alien way. And none of the songs seemed very thoroughly explored.

On the other hand, the new track “24-Hour Karate School” renews my faith in the Mighty Mos for still retaining the capacity to make good music. Some critics have complained that he doesn’t spit more than a few bars at a time here, but that’s what makes it for me. Clocking it at just over two minutes, it’s a high-concept mash-up of rap meets 24-hour fitness center meets dojo that explores a laughable fantasy in song form. It’s endearing in a harmless hair-brained stoner-comedy way. And since it has no context, we have no expectations that Mos has to meet. We just get to listen to a little ditty that just so happens to have much better production (thanks to the great Camp Lo collaborator Ski) and a vocal mix that actually sits with the music.

I honestly didn’t find much in a first listen to The Ecstatic to encourage more, but I might give it another shot because of this effort. Maybe I missed something. I doubt it. We’ll see. Nevertheless, while this song is of no consequence, I’d rather have one of these every couple of months than albums of passable material every other year. Because this is fun times for real.

Chop-chop body work…

Mos Def – 24-Hour Karate School

Songs That Explode

I particularly like songs that, you know, do stuff. Sequentially, the thing about doing stuff is that one goes from doing nothing to doing something. Causally, the tension of not doing stuff often propels one into doing stuff. But if we were talking about absolute opposites, doing nothing would just be nothing and doing something would be everything.

In musical composition, faced with the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything, either extreme is impossible and unlistenable. But it’s nevertheless a compelling model to work with and one that contains all sorts of exciting possibilites. So the creative problem is closer to reconciling doing just enough with doing as much as you can justify. This edging of extremes inwards requires the building of untenable tension towards an overwhelmingly cathartic and ultimately exhausting mass; one must explore each extreme until it self-destructs towards its opposite. In the achievement of these ends, we occasionally have an addition to a catalog of paced and thrilling pieces, chaste and hedonistic hemispheres that detonate upon contact: we have songs that explode.

I wanted to have a playlist all ready for this post but couldn’t think of enough tracks that fit the bill off the top of my head. Instead, I’ll contribute what comes to mind when it does and folks can throw the new additions into an iTunes playlist or something. It’s kind of hard to sequence this type of song anyway. If anyone has ideas, please comment with your nominations and we can develop a list together. Until then, here’s the track that inspired the effort…

The Twilight Sad‘s self-titled first EP contained their incredibly wonderful first splash “That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy”. Of all of their songs to this point, none challenge that track’s supremacy but the EP’s opener. “But When She Left, Gone Was The Glow” starts out with the quiet sounds of calm breathing: an air organ, the lilting Scottish bedroom voice. But once you’ve settled into the pregnant mood, the drums hit with quick warning shots, the guitar squeals like a loose engine belt, and the band opens the floodgates. It’s like that cliche stealth-to-action breaking point in crime movies: the entire police squad is positioned in the hallways and stairwells of a sketchy-ass apartment building, the delegated trumpeter knocks on the door and yells “Police”, they kick down the door, and all hell breaks loose. When I listen to this track I’m so pumped from the beginning, waiting for that moment, that when it actually occurs, I actually have a visceral reaction like a writhing sensation in flux with the roaring waves of guitar. The effect is ecstatic and transcendent and would never occur if the gesture were anything but perfectly executed.

The Twilight Sad – But When She Left, Gone Was The Glow

Fore & Aft: Drinking Songs

Fore & Aft is a new series dedicated to exploring the ways hit songs influence other hit songs, for better or for worse.

In my household, one of the more polarizing songs from last year was the Jamie Foxx/T-Pain collabo “Blame It On The Alcohol”, a little ditty celebrating drunkenness as an excuse to do something you might not normally do in the club when you’re hanging out with Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, namely, sex them. The first time I heard it was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno during a commercial break from Late Night with David Letterman. I don’t even know why Jamie Foxx was on the program. He didn’t really have anything to promote and he didn’t perform. He just talked about this song they’ve been testing out in the clubs. You know, market research. At the end of the interview, the band and Jamie Foxx stumbled into an awkward, sputtering, impromptu performance that faded into a commercial. Not very compelling. It took several weeks for me to come upon the real recording. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised; my better half threatened me bodily harm if I did not stop playing it. First of all, the chord progression (1-7?) is somewhat unusual in R&B and the intro teaser is not something I think I’ve ever heard before. And the crisp production is very well-considered and arranged. But the charming goofiness of the top-shelf rhymes coupled with the catchy-as-hell “a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” hook is what makes this song. For all the auto-tuning ridiculousness T-Pain is responsible for, he made something here I can get behind.

Jamie Foxx and T-Pain – Blame It On The Alcohol

In recent weeks/months, we’ve been witnessing the rise of Trey Songz, second fiddle to occasional partner and insta-celebrity Drake. He’s shown plenty of promise with their song “Successful” which strikes a strong chord with me for its minimal, grave production and it’s earnest, yearning sentiment. It’s one of the most original R&B hits I’ve heard in a while. One the other hand, the most recent Trey Songz hit, “Say Ahh” takes from “Blame It On The Alcohol” a wee bit. From the gate, it’s copping the theme, which wasn’t exactly new to begin with. But notice how it instantly jumps to the chorus before the verse, something Foxx/Pain only previewed. The end goal is the same for both: skip straight to the hook. The most obvious borrowing in the vocals is the a-a-a-a-alliteration Trey uses as a background for the hook “Let me hear you say ahhh!”. While the title walks the thin line between medical/dental irony and sexual suggestion, there isn’t anything overtly turn-offish, as was also the case with “Blame It On The Alcohol”. And the track holds its own from a songwriting perspective, so “Say Ahh” doesn’t sound anything like the other musically, which is the fortunate break that saves this song and keeps it so listenable.

Trey Songz – Say Ahh

VERDICT: To be honest, there’s nothing explicitly “rip-off” about the track. And that’s great. That’s what this series is hopefully going to be about more often than not. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced, nothing wrong with building on developments. Between pioneers and epochs of change, we need people who can reliably stay the course and keep us entertained. And that’s as happily Trey Songz as anybody else.

Warzone

I’ve recently reunited with my record collection after three years living without it. On the one hand, the mass of vinyl has caused some difficulties in living space organization with all the other things I’m reclaiming from storage. But it’s pretty awesome having them back. I remember growing up with my Dad’s large home-made modular shelving full of records. The first music I ever owned myself was a record: LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer. In many ways I prefer the crisp sound quality of CDs these days. But I often love the tone of vinyl and nothing beats the interactive factor for listening or dj-ing. The whole movement from CD to mp3 has records back in vogue these days and there’s something very satisfying about holding 180-gram vinyl in your hands. Go with the mp3 for ease and immediacy; vinyl makes music really special.

Among the records I have only in vinyl format is this single from Pete Rock‘s Soul Survivor II featuring Dead Prez on vocal duties. Nasty. Rugged. Ill. Dead Prez on a club track spitting hedonism in the midst of warzone-like social conditions? Hectic. I first read about it when it was released on Turntable Lab and every sentence in the review jokingly concluded with the phrase “in the club”. One section gets stuck in my head all day after I listen to it: “I don’t even bring ID to the club / Why they need to know my government name in the club? / I ain’t got no paper for the bar in the club / Already got drunk before I came in the club.” The production is ridiculously hype switching from half- to double-time throughout and is an incredible example of efficient sample selection. The guitar/keyboard line, tambourine, and strings are used perfectly by a master. By the end of the track, the “what is Dead Prez doing in the club?” factor is mostly resolved as ironic, but deadly serious, commentary. “Why the fuck I came in the club?” Well, probably because you hoped to wild out on banging tracks like this.

No luck on the mp3 for me. But here’s the YouTube version…

This Tornado Loves You, Neko

When sifting through the millions of songs we’re barraged with in any given day, week, month, year, there are plenty that are worthless wastes of time. There are some that deserve loathing. There are inoffensive others, enjoyable many, and likable some. And no matter your background or criteria, there are a few that you love. But if you are a songwriter, there is a select catalog of songs that you wish you had written. Not songs that are band opuses, beasts of arrangement and democracy. I’m talking about compositions broken down to their essentials, things perhaps bolstered by great arrangements but not necessarily so. In my collection of songs that I wish I had written, there are two acts that continually raise the bar I set my songwriting toward, continually develop perfect compositions of depth, beauty, and catchiness. The first of those has just released a new album, and the first song on that album is perhaps for me the newest epitome of this class of song.

Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” exemplifies so many of my songwriting ideals that it’s left me fairly incapable of processing the rest of the album (although the first single, “People Gotta Lot Of Nerve” is actually another in this class). Without sacrificing hooks or pop accessibility, it’s a sprawling, wandering composition with more bridges than verses and choruses (or, perhaps, multiple verses and choruses) but that never strays from a few carefully picked chords. A continuous reordering of these chords creates a masterpiece that is as familiar as it is evolving, and with the two out-of-key chords sprinkled in for good measure, we are tossed from the evolving familiarity briefly and frequently by disturbing moments of unsettling shift. Her lyrics specialize the techniques to brilliant, poetic effect. As a tornado having power over everything but her love, she sings the compositional sway exactly as you would imagine a massive funnel barreling forward, swinging unexpectedly, calming, roaring, destructive, revelatory. Just take her first verse for evidence. “My love, I am the speed of sound. I left them motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling inside out of their mouths. But it’s never enough. I want you.” It is beauty explored in the macabre, or, as goes a phrase in a subsequent song–a phrase as descriptive of her music as it is of her subject matter–“the Sistine Chapel painted with a Gatling gun.”

I think this song is pure genius refined and replicated for the masses. And how lucky to have it. But I gush too much. Without further ado, make up your own mind. Hopefully I haven’t ruined it for you.

Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You

And, for the record, three others from the Neko Case songbook that I hold near-equally dear:

Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve
Neko Case – Margaret Vs. Pauline
Neko Case – Star Witness