Music as a Blanket

There are times when the quiet of the world surrounds and engulfs you. The rest of the populace has gone to bed, the traffic has gone still, and it’s left to you and the owls and the moon.

Not that this can’t be a wonderful thing, but occasionally, the white noise machine that plays the ocean waves or the Brazilian rain forest to slow your brain to a dreamstate just won’t cut it.  Maybe the voices are too loud — or maybe they’ve gone quiet.

The right songs, chosen carefully and ordered correctly, can be the best blanket you have — to protect you from the cold, or the breeze, or the boogeyman.  You can set it to carry you sleeping through the night, or even to create the dreams you specifically hope to have.

On the rare night that I find myself in an empty bed, or on a sofa, I share my thoughts and dreams with her still, thanks to music, and I awaken warm and refreshed, even if I do long for her skin next to mine.

The Music of the World Around Me

I have a tendency to always be listening to music.  In the car, at home, at work — even when I sleep. It’s an addiction worse than many — I just can’t get enough. It’s my last vestige of my own world, of shutting everything else out and withdrawing into my own head, even as I keep pushing forward through the rigors of the day.

Sometimes, though, whether intentionally or not, I find myself in silence.  But even in the silence, there’s music, if you know how to listen.

For a rhythm, there’s street machinery, or the passing of cars at rush hour, or a dripping faucet.  There’s melody everywhere, in the pitches of running appliances or car alarms in the distance or animals. Wind blowing through drafty windows or the cooing of a neighbor’s baby act as occasional fills, adding to the melody.

It’s all about perception — how you see things, how you hear things, how you choose to experience the world around you. You can find solace in the quiet, a moment of peace — or you can find your own new symphony.

Knowing the score

I always wanted to make soundtracks.  As a kid, I put together playlists (mix tapes, for the analog crowd) for movies I wrote in my head.  Later, when I learned to play instruments and got my hands on a four-track cassette recorder (and later, ProTools), I created my own scores.

I’m a huge fan of a number of composers who work primarily in film: Hans Zimmer, James Horner… Who knows if it’s because they work in film or it’s why they work in film, but their music is as cinematic as the images that show over the tunes. The pieces are amazing in the films, and just as wonderful on their own, standing alone.

That, I think, is the mark of an excellent score — music that not only enhances the meaning and feeling of the movie, but that evokes visions on its own while played about from the visuals.

TV, movies, documentaries — doesn’t matter which it is. If it’s a visual medium, start paying more notice to the music behind the action.  Some of it is obvious, some so sublime that you’ve seen the piece a thousand times and never noticed the sound.  In your head, change the music, and notice how the visuals and their impact change, as well.

It’s funny that actors and directors get so much credit for making or breaking a movie or TV show.  It’s very obvious when they’ve done their job poorly. But musicians can completely change the emotion behind the film, for better or worse.  It’s amazing to think how much of an intertwining there is between vision and sound, and how much each can affect the other.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X831XU66lpE]]

Cover Me Badd

(Thanks to Butch Walker for that title — you really owe it to yourself to check it out, or any of his original material for that matter.)

Music is a unique form of art, in the realm of tribute and homage.  To my mind, there aren’t any remakes of books, sculptures, or paintings (I’m sure that there are a few, but nothing notable?  Correct me if I’m wrong).  TV and movies — especially lately — count a number of remakes in their fields, but they aren’t necessarily reinterpretations, but rather thinly-veiled cash grabs.

Music, though — there are countless cover songs.  Some good, some bad.  There are note for note covers that are almost indistiguishable from the originals, and there are some that are only connected thematically.  I would even argue that some covers far surpass the originals (though I’ve been given grief  by some – notably, songwriting musicians – for suggesting such).

There are some songs that are fun to play, for musicians like me.  There are some songs that are so inspiring and moving that we musicians want to pay tribute to the song by recording it ourselves.  And some songs are so wonderful at their base, but lacking somehow in the recording or preformance, that a musician will make an attempt at bringing their own (better?) vision of the song to life.

If you’ve never given cover versions a chance, I recommend hitting YouTube or last.fm and checking out some of the many versions that exist.  Start with the following (and make sure to listen to the original, for comparison’s sake):

  • Butch Walker – Since You’ve Been Gone (originally by Kelly Clarkson)
  • Marvelous Three – Reelin’ In The Years (originally by Steely Dan)
  • Aimee Mann – Nobody Does It Better (originally by Carly Simon)
  • Metallica – Am I Evil? (originally by Diamond Head)
  • Between the Buried and Me – Bicycle Race (originally by Queen)
  • Frost* – Here is the News (originally by ELO)
  • Deftones – Drive (originally by The Cars)
  • Reel Big Fish – Take On Me (originally by A-Ha)

Perhaps you see it as blasphemy, or maybe it’s selective (i.e., as long as it’s not your favorite band that is being butchered).  Some bands have made a career out of out nothing but performing other people’s material, and some people refuse to ever touch someone else’s song.  I think the latter — at least, the attitude that underlies that school of thinking — prevents you from enjoying a wealth of great music, though.

A Blanket of Sorrow

I taste your sorrow and you taste my pain
Drawn to each other for every stain
Licking the layers of soot from your skin
Your tears work my crust to let yourself in

[Pain of Salvation, ASHES]

There’s something soothing, comforting, about sad music when you’re feeling down.  Safe, even.

Some people I know will listen to upbeat and happy music when they’re sad.  It’s a way of countering the darkness, of pushing back against whatever bothers them.

I sometimes will do the same, or instead listen to something heavy and angry, convert the depression to a rage instead, something that will burn brighter and faster and extinguish itself more quickly.  It’s a strange light to shine into the dark corners, but the shadows are chased away nonetheless.

Mostly, though, I turn to sad songs.  Maybe it’s the familiarity, or knowing that I’m not alone with the thoughts that race through my head. If these songs are out there, then someone, somewhere, felt these things enough to commit them to tape, and that’s enough to carry me through another cold night.

It’s not a common thing, I think, judging from what others have told me.  But it’s the way that works for me, sometimes. Whether I’m missing someone who has passed from my life, or life has thrown me too many curveballs for one day, or I’m just having one of those days, I try to keep a few darker pieces at my listening ready. In the cold rain, even a blanket of sorrow can provide warmth and protection from the elements.

MUSIC: The best of 2009

(This article was originally supposed to appear in the 2010-opening issue of Birmingham Weekly.  It did not.  Perhaps it will eventually pop up there, but in the meantime, you can read it here.  Do so… now:)

Mastodon “Crack the Skye” – It’s the year that Mastodon reached out to the overlooked and underappreciated Trustifarian metal heads.  A friend remarked at their tour kick-off at Workplay in the spring that Mastodon had become “Widespread Sabbath”.  And maybe they have, but goddamned if these aren’t the scariest, most brutal hippies ever.  Blenderize old-school Metallica, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, a conceptual thread inspired by Bill Burroughs and a sheet of blotter acid, and two bottles of Absinthe, and you’ve got a hangover made just me.

Hey, Charlie Manson might really dig this disc, now that I think about it.  Maybe Phil Spector can pass him a copy?

Bigelf “Cheat the Gallows” – I’ve heard people categorize Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie as horror rock, but I think of both of them as more slasher-metal.  Really, is Jason Voorhees that scary? Bigelf, though – man, there’s something really creepy lurking underneath the surface of this whole disc.  Yeah, it sounds very retro, sort of Alice Cooper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Floyds From Mars, but then you start picturing the three-ring circus, and the tent, and the clowns… Yeah, lots of clowns, but not the happy ones.  More like that goddamned doll from Poltergeist. And John Wayne Gacy.  And Willie Whistles. Ever been ear-raped by a clown?  Yeah.  That’s it. (Note: This apparently came out in August, but I live in Birmingham, AL, where nothing happens when it’s supposed to.  Therefore, it counts. For me.)

Swallow the Sun “New Moon” – In a better world, the sequel to TWILIGHT would have been written by 1970s Wes Craven and directed by Eli Roth.  It would have been filled with torture and buckets of blood — not red syrup, but actual blood.  The entire soundtrack would have been replaced with the latest release from Finnish doom metal band Swallow The Sun.  It would have been AWESOME.  And teenage girls everywhere would be traumatized for life.

Ah, to spend a day in my fantasy world…

Muse “The Resistance” – Does Matthew Bellamy have a Thom Yorke fixation?  Does Muse want too badly to be Queen? Are positive answers to the previous two questions bad things?  Really, imagine it: Paul Rodgers stuck with making Muddy Waters tribute albums, and so Brian May and company invited Yorke to spend six months away from Radiohead to work on a new album. How wonderful would that be?  The correct answer: “The Resistance.”

Animals as Leaders “Animals as Leaders” – I wouldn’t normally list an all-instrumental guitar record on a year-end list, but there’s something so phenomenal and out of this world about Tosin Abasi’s debut that not including it is a musical injustice on par with Jethro Tull’s 1989 Grammy win.  Sometimes I want to compare his writing and playing to Miles Davis, but that’s only because both are so far beyond my ken that it’s pathetic.  Other times, I compare it to putting Mentos and bleach into a mixture of Diet Coke and ammonia.

3 “Revisions” – You know how critics are always all like, “These guys are an overnight success!” And then the bands are all like, “Nuh-unh! We worked for, like a month on this!” New York’s 3 are not at all that band; in fact, they had three discs released indepently before scoring a national distribution deal.  REVISIONS is a nice little project of re-recorded reboots from those first three discs and some bootlegs, cleaned and tightened for a modern day.  These are tight pop songs, not as adventurous as their last two more progressive efforts, really showcasing Joey Eppert’s songwriting and arranging abilities. It’s a great introduction to the band, as well as being something that fans of other bands may find themselves wishing for – another, more polished listen to songs that deserve a wider audience.

Them Crooked Vultures – This is like the best tribute album you could ever imagine.  It’s Zep, but it’s not.  And it’s not a Queens of the Stone Age disc, but it kinda is.  If you know both bands, and picture smashing them together so violently that neither one ever existed, then this is the album you got stoned to every day after class in high school. I expected Grohl to be more prominent, until I realized that if ever John Bonham had a natural successor it was the guy who played drums on Queens of the Stone Age’s SONGS FOR THE DEAF. In all honesty, this disc made me ask for a Karmann Ghia for Christmas.

Andrew Bird “Noble Beast” – My girlfriend couldn’t make Bird’s show at Workplay earlier this year, and so passed on her ticket to me. I was, to drastically sell the moment short, blown away, so I borrowed her iPod and now refuse to give it back. Among all the indie, alt-kewl stuff I’m finding there, Andrew Bird’s is probably the most cinematic, like watching someone paint with sound.  It’s captivating, provocative, and best of all, happy.

I still though, for the record, hate hipster audiences.

Porcupine Tree “The Incident” – There’s this idea that progressive rock has to be pompous and effete, that concept albums are for stoners and armchair philosophers. But remember TOMMY? Or THE WALL? Both are concept albums, progressive in their own right, that have a number of brilliant and classic songs that stand alone (Pinball Wizard and Comfortably Numb, respectively). Add THE INCIDENT, a fourteen track “song cycle” about “beginnings and endings and the sense that ‘after this, things will never be the same again’”.  It’s a seamless, beautiful  but demanding project filled with dynamics and explorations both comfortable and challenging.

Devin Townsend Project “Ki” / “Addicted” – Look, folks. Off and on, since 2000 (holy crap, Glenny – 10 years!), I’ve been writing these little capsule reviews of albums that I love and hate.  I try to focus on the stuff I love, because there’s too much hate in the world.  And seriously: if you’ve not yet picked up a disc featuring Devin Townsend – either one of his solo projects or some of his work with Strapping Young Lad – then maybe my job here is hopeless, superfluous.  There’s only so much I can rant and rave about something before I realize that no one’s listening.  KI is soothing, sublime, reflective – I love it, but I’m willing to accept that maybe it’s more personal than something I can recommend to everyone.  ADDICTED, though – frankly, if you don’t pick this disc up, you’re doing yourself a real disservice, and if you pick it up and don’t like it, your soul was stolen in the middle of the night.  It’s bouncy, and heavy, and poppy, and layered, and filled with so many ‘ands’ that your head will explode.  If there’s such a thing as an aural orgasm (an eargasm, maybe?), you will experience it sometime during tracks 7-9.  And then you can thank me – after you wash your hands, please.

Friends of mine also suggested the following albums make the list: “Born on Flag Day” (Deer Tick), “Veckatimest” (Grizzly Bear), “American Sunshine” (Colin Hay), “I and Love and You” (The Avett Brothers), “Cage the Elephant” (Cage the Elephant), “OK Bear” (Jeremy Enigk), “Me and You” (VAST), “Elvis Perkins in Dearland” (Elvis Perkins in Drealand)“Monsters of Folk” (Monsters of Folk), “Black Clouds and Silver Linings” (Dream Theater), “Outer South” (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band), “Wilco” (Wilco), “Back from the Dead” (Spinal Tap),”It’s Blitz” (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), “Bitte Orca” (Dirty Projectors), “Masterful Mystery Tour” (Beatallica), and “Kingdom of Rust” (Doves).

Sadly for them, this is my list, not theirs.

Someone also suggested Scream (Chris Cornell), but I punched them in the throat, and we are no longer friends.