A Lyric by Any Other Band….

I had originally wanted to write a post about how lyrics where a mostly unimportant add on to a lot of good music today. Then I found myself writing about how the lyrics are important to my understanding of the music in every post I have written so far. I began wondering if the lyrics are really an important part of the song.

I still think the answer is that lyrics are an important part of some songs but certainly not a necessary component to every song, and even some songs that contain lyrics are not lyric dependant. But I find I am more interested in why lyrics fit in songs; in other words, why does a lyric that works perfectly in the context of a song sound so downright cheesy when it is spoken aloud?

There are some musical artists that have managed to perfect the art of putting poetry to music. Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) are some artists whose lyrics are almost as effective apart from the accompanying music. The music heightens the emotion, but take it away and you still have some pretty powerful stuff.

On the other hand is the music that employs lyrics that heighten the emotion of the music that the lyrics back up. Radiohead or Neutral Milk Hotel seem to embody this style of lyric writing, with lyrics that would be mostly impossible to decipher without the accompanying music reiterating the emotion. On the extreme end of this spectrum might be bands like My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins who seem to be interested in the lyrics more as a melody line with no concern towards making them decipherable or sensical.

Perhaps the most fascinating study are the compositions where the music says one thing and the lyrics say something else, but it somehow still manages to work together (I’m looking at you Passion Pit). This is the strategy that impresses me the most because I have no idea how it works, I can only tell you it does.

All of these bands employ lyrics in unique ways, but interestingly they all use them so they all must feel that there is something that vocals or lyrics can add to a song. Also, switching around lyrics and music of various artists would make some great music into an unlistenable mess (of course I am reminded of how awesome Jaydiohead’s mixture of Jay Z’s ’99 Problems’ and Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’ is, but the rest of the Jay Z/Radiohead mix-up mixtape is a mess that’s not worth listening to).

Are lyrics an important part of the song? Well, no and yes, although most pop/rock artists seem to use them as a way to make their music distinguishable or unique. What function do the lyrics serve? Sometimes they serve almost no function at all other than providing melody and sometimes the lyrics are the function of the song. I think the best lyrics make us feel something without us feeling like we are being manipulated into that reaction. I am most appreciative of an artist that can concisely tell me what they think or feel without trying to tell me that I should think or feel the same way. And, please make sure the music and the lyrics are saying the same thing – except when they don’t.

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God in Everything

I have been trying to write this post for about a month now. I started it sometime before Christmas and got stuck about two paragraphs in. It is one of those things where I know what I want to say but I couldn’t figure out how to say it. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog is because I wanted to hone my ability to put my thoughts in print in a concise and cohesive manner. And for whatever reason most of my grander thoughts are about music so my blog has transformed into a medium to post my blurry ideas about music and art, whilst trying my best to make a semblance of sense to someone who hasn’t listened to the music that I enjoy.

One of the best things about great music is that it doesn’t often meet our expectations. By that I mean that the best albums usually have parts that we didn’t expect to hear. I love hearing a new album that I know almost nothing about and having it turn out to be completely different from my expectations. A good album will be something that you weren’t wanting it to be at first but will end up being more than what you ever could have envisioned later on.

One thing that I generally do not expect to find when I take a first listen to a new album is God. The music that I listen to doesn’t generally have any stated intention of trying to show God to me which is why I am always very pleasantly surprised when I find God there.

51wZfmud7CL._AA160_One of my favorite albums from last year was Girls album Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I suppose by the title I should have expected to find some glimpses of the divine, but I wasn’t really looking for them at when I pushed play the first time. The first few songs are great guitar songs that bring to mind a time when the guitar was part of the emotional core of a song rather than a device for the vocals to ride upon. Then, unexpectedly, on the sixth track ‘Vomit’ (which takes its title from Proverbs 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit…”), a track that on its surface is about, well, girls, or a girl, a beautiful line rings out, “Come into my heart.” This line is repeated and a backing gospel choir is added. This line lifts this song into the spiritual realm for me. I can’t help but think about man’s longing for God when I listen to this song and I wonder if the singer somehow feels this longing, because he expresses it so wonderfully here.

The ninth track on the Girls record is called ‘Forgiveness’ and this song is about God, or at least Godly things, and this track is aware of that. I think there is a lesson for everyone to learn when the singer sings “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ll have to forgive you if we ever want to move on.” The music on both of these tracks start soft and pensive and then soars up above everything proceeding it by the end and I think this adds to the experience for me.

There are plenty of other bands that I enjoy that struggle with God and reach for Him in ways that you would not expect. Deerhunter (and Bradford Cox’s solo outlet Atlas Sound) talk about being saved and being a praying man, but Bradford Cox claims he is a Christian so I will have to take him at his word which makes his spiritual longings a little less surprising. Belle and Sebastian are another band that have wonderful themes of God, grace, and redemption in their songs.

I firmly believe that God can be found in almost everything but it is when God shows up when I am not expecting it that I usually most pleasantly surprised, and God shows up a lot in music, intentionally and unintentionally. I think I resonate with the Girls album because I found a connection with the music that I didn’t expect when I first came to it. But the thing that I most love about this album is that it proves to me the idea that God can be found everywhere.

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My Favorite Albums of 2012

After so many great releases last year from a ton of great band (Bon Iver, M83, Fleet Foxes, Panda Bear, James Blake, EMA, Girls, Kate Bush, Atlas Sound, Nicolas Jaar and Washed Out) this year seems like kind of a letdown. This year I have spent more time going in to the past to discover some of the music that inspired some of my favorite music of today. I have learned that David Bowie actually made some pretty good music, the Cocteau Twins must have never worried about how they would do a live performance when they recorded an album, Kraftwerk may have been one of the first electronic bands but they are still one of the best and that there is a reason why many people consider ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ to be the greatest album ever. Oh, and there is this album by the Pink somebodies about the Moon or the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or something that I listened to once or twice…a day for a month straight.

The Best

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser that the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do

On the first track of this album Fiona declares ,”I am what I am because I does what I does.” She then goes on prove that this album is what it is because she does what she does. From the album title that challenges word count records to the songs that are mostly about relationship triumphs and tragedies, Fiona Apple stays true to her roots while presenting more stripped down songs that somehow seem even more personal than what appeared on her last album Extraordinary Machine.

Beach House – Bloom

If Fiona Apple succeeded by taking what she does best and stripping it down, Beach House succeeds by taking what they do best and really not doing much to it, maybe adding a little here and there but really sticking with the same formula that worked so well on their last album Teen Dream. They still make gorgeous minor key compositions that layer and swirl, always taking the music to surprising new heights. The second track ‘Wild’ shows what a great ringing guitar arpeggio can do for a song (I haven’t heard anyone do that since the ‘90s).

Grizzly Bear – Shields

Some of my favorite films are the ones that really have a sense of place. I want to feel like I am where the characters are at; when they are in Boston I want it to feel like Boston and when they are in the desert or on a submarine I want to be there with them. This album has a sense of place. It feels like it was recorded somewhere, in an actual room with actual walls and floors with resonance and echoes. And when I listen I feel like I am in that room while this music is being played. Musically, I always feel like I am listening to a collaboration between The Beatles and Deerhunter.

Sufjan Stevens – Silver and Gold

I enjoyed Sufjan’s second installation in his hopefully constantly expanding Christmas collection more than the first. I love the way he deconstructs just about every Christmas song we have heard in our lives, making Santa a creepy home invader in ‘Up on the Housetop’ and making us aware that ‘We Need a Little Christmas Now’ has a second verse that is much more cynical about the holiday, about life and growing older, and why we still love and need Christmas now that we are no longer children. His original composition, ‘Christmas Unicorn,’ may be the first Christmas song that I will want to listen to all year long.

The Rest

How to Dress Well –Total Loss

An album that is defined by its R&B influences but lives in the spaces in between the music, in the breaths between the beats, in the silence between sounds. This album continually winds back on itself, using familiar musical lines or lyrical phrases in different context to hit on a different emotion the second time around. Almost all of the vocals on this album are high wispy falsetto, but the most wonderful moment on this album comes a minute and a half into the first track when vocal line dips and the singers voice goes into his lower register, creating a moment of vulnerability unsurpassed on this very personal record of love and loss.

Passion Pit – Gossamer

I have been back and forth about this album since its release. One week I think it is the best thing that came out this year and the next I have a hard time finding anything I like on it. The first track ‘Take a Walk’ has been everywhere this year, unfortunately it is probably the least enjoyable song on the album. It’s so catchy you find yourself singing it over and over anyways, which is pretty much what happens on just about every song on this album. With topics ranging from love, break-ups, addiction, and immigration and lots of things in between, I find myself slightly self conscious walking down the street with my dog singing “Love, love, love….love is greed” under my breath.

Albums I Really Want to Like

Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

I loved Sleigh Bells first album ‘Treats’ but I just can’t get into this one. ‘Treats’ was a hugely pleasant surprise when it came out, mixing bubble gum pop and heavy metal in a way that made you think, “Why hasn’t anyone ever done this before.” ‘Reign of Terror’ tends more towards the heavy metal side prompting me to move more to the disinterested side.

Grimes – Oblivion

With my interest in electronic music increasingly growing I was incredibly excited when I threw this in my car stereo for the drive home a few months ago. What I discovered was that I still enjoy music that sounds like music. This album sounds more like a robot composed it. Don’t get me wrong, Claire Boucher’s voice is absolutely stunning and the track ‘Oblivion’ is one of my favorite of the year, so there are wonderful things happening here. I just have a hard time keeping it on for more than ten minutes.

Other Stuff I have Heard and have no Opinion About….Yet

Sharon Von Etten – Tramp

Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Twin Shadow –Confess

Wild Nothing – Nocturn

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