5 songs I like at the moment

(in no particular order)

1. R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts

This classic song is #1 on the PRS Music list of songs that make real men cry. It’s one of the best ballads I have ever listened to (I can’t think of a better one). Just listen.

2. Coldplay – Brothers and Sisters

A lesser-known but really good song from an otherwise (very) well-known band. This was their début single in 1999, and could have fit in on either of their first two albums. Some commenters on YouTube have understandably accused it of being a rip-off of Radiohead’s song ‘You’ (from their debut album Pablo Honey). But what’s wrong with using a song as inspiration and making it your own? In fact, ‘Brothers & Sisters’ does well as a more subtle version of ‘You’ and arguably rivals it in quality – and though Martin’s voice isn’t as good as Thom Yorke’s, it’s still deep and sombre enough to fit with the atmospheric nature of the song.

3. Radiohead – Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Great song from one of the most acclaimed bands of all time, on their seventh album In Rainbows (2007). Brilliantly atmospheric, the song starts with a beautiful minor chord progression on acoustic guitar and gradually grows in intensity as the song goes on. I haven’t got In Rainbows yet; in fact so far I’ve only got three of their albums – The Bends (1995), OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000) – all of which I’d highly recommend. But I’m hoping to own all eight of them at some point.

4. John Legend – Ordinary People

As I said in my previous post, genres like soul and jazz have a direct warming effect on the soul and this piano ballad by a guy with a fragile but excellently fitting voice for the song (and its subject manner) is no exception.

5. Extreme – More than Words

The fact that this song is by an otherwise heavy metal band makes its stripped down nature all the more astonishing. With just an acoustic guitar, using a percussive tap on the strings on the offbeat in the place of drums, and two voices, it is as acoustic as any rock band gets. A great song, though, and good enough to fill in its time of over five and half minutes without overstaying its welcome, despite the lack of instrumentation. ‘Hole Hearted‘, the other ballad on their 1991 album Pornograffiti (and the only other song I know by them) is also well worth listening to.

Extreme – More than Words

 

Meditative music

Certain music really does have a meditative quality. For example, I recently bought the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It’s the first jazz album I’ve bought.

This evening I was just listening to the album in the living room in front of a warm fire, almost as warm as the music itself, and there were candles beside the fireplace. I can honestly say that listening to the music in such a way really did have a spiritual effect on me. The longer you listen to music like that, the deeper it penetrates your being. It’s a form of meditation. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something specifically about the sound of the genres of jazz and soul that has a spiritual effect on one’s being.

Not to say that this effect is limited to those genres. Just now I listened to the 3rd Movement of ‘Electric Counterpoint’ by Steve Reich, a 20th century minimalist classical piece, and to ‘Planet Telex’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ by Radiohead on YouTube, and they are all continuing that spiritual effect in me. Coldplay’s music, not their rather disappointing new stuff but in particular their second and third albums, also has that ambience to it.

That’s it, really. It’s ambient, atmospheric music – particularly jazz and soul, I think I’ll find as I listen to more of it – that moves me. Also anything that is just so melodic that it strikes an emotional chord. ‘Something’ by the Beatles is one of my favourite ones of those…   

The joys of songwriting

Others know it, I am just discovering it.

I have come up with two musical ideas in the past 24 hours.

The first one came when I was tinkering about on the piano yesterday evening and came up with a tune to a Dm/C7 chord progression. I suddenly started to imagine this on an electric piano with an elaborate bassline, then a possibly electronic drum kit, then a synth, then an acoustic rhythm guitar part coming in one by one. I began to imagine a repetitive but very atmospheric bassy electronic song coming into being. I wrote it down on some manuscript.

Today I had a music lesson (I do music GCSE) at school. We had a practical lesson, so I used the computer program Sibelius to write what I’d learnt down, and I added a bass part. I didn’t get much done, but I really loved the sound of it.

Sorry if this all seems like self-glorification; it’s just – though I’ve often enjoyed improvising on the piano and have often had tunes popping in my head, either through improvising or at random times – I’ve, perhaps at my peril, not usually bothered to record them or write them down. But as soon as I played this one, I felt utterly committed to it. I couldn’t go back on the piano until the next day at school, but I felt really frustrated that night that I couldn’t.

By the time I got home from school today, my feelings of near-ecstasy had died down, but I still got back on my piano and the lower four strings of my acoustic guitar, trying to add to the bass part. I then (on the guitar) came up with a different bassline that sounded more rock than the other one, which I also wrote down.

It could be played on a guitar or on a bass, though I’m inclined to writing it as a bass part. I think it’s more of a hook than what I had come up with on the piano, but it didn’t provoke us much feeling in me. It’s actually in a different key to the electro piano tune and it will definitely be a different song.

I have always enjoyed improvising on the piano, much less so the guitar (as I’m not very good at it and have only recently started really enjoying it) and I have written some stuff down. I’ve recorded (on paper) several piano and one orchestral idea but only developed one of them, into a classical piano piece which I was quite proud of.

On the guitar, my teacher once asked me to write a song, but I came up with very little over three weeks so we dropped the project – although shortly after, I got the GarageBand app for my iPod Touch and came up with a guitar-based tune I quite liked.

None of it compares to my electro piano tune, though. Although I might well have forgotten it if I hadn’t written it down then, I was still humming it when I got home from school this afternoon. I’m actually slowly beginning to get bored with it now. It’s too catchy. It’s gone through my head so many times now that it’s annoying.

Sorry! I know it’s sounds like I’m too big for my boots, like I think I’ve concocted a masterpiece, the catchiest tune ever, up with the Beatles. But I’m just being honest. I doubt it’s up there with what professional songwriters/bands can achieve, it’s just that I personally seem to love it. I’m experiencing the kind of happiness that I’m sure any songwriter will feel when he comes up with something that means a lot to him, for whatever reason.

This, I’m sure, will be the first thing I’ve come up with and actually made into a proper song with different parts – an electric piano part, a bass part, a(n electronic) drums part, a rhythm acoustic guitar part, a vocal part, probably a synth part, possibly a lead electric guitar part near the end, I don’t know yet. However, the only obstacle that’s getting my way is being able to get everything that’s in my head onto paper. I feel that worrying about the correct rhythms and all that stuff is getting in my way. Sibelius, especially, is fiddly. And, paradoxically, my excitement is making me a bit too hyper to concentrate on it.

I also still need to come up with the lyrics, though that shouldn’t be hard.

I’ve been interested in songwriting for quite a long time, and I have the book Songwriting for Dummies. But I am only beginning to discover why my favourite writers love their jobs so much. The deadlines, the pressures and anxieties of bands must get in the way of enjoying it, but to me it doesn’t seem like a bad part of a career. Not that I’m setting my heart on that kind of career, mind you. I’m not sure I’d even want a job like that, having to spend such long periods of time touring with very little rest.

But anyway, if nothing else, I might have discovered a new hobby. And to any other people who want to write music but don’t feel inspired enough to turn their ideas into songs, don’t give up hope! One day you’ll come up with something you’ll just have to work on!

Keane Night Train review

Night Train coverBack in 2004, Keane first broke into the spotlight with the 9x Platinum Hopes and Fears. This was a fairly predictable piano pop album that was albeit infectious and gorgeous, also producing some excellent stand-out tracks (“Somewhere Only We Know”, “Untitled 1”, “Bedshaped”).

Two years later, their sophomore album, Under the Iron Sea, had more synth-based tracks and a lot more variation, from rock songs with fake guitars (“Is It Any Wonder?”) to genuinely moving ballads (“Try Again”). Perfect Symmetry (2008) definitely marked a big change in direction, with proper guitars in some tracks, an overall move towards ’80s-style pop and even a musical saw in one track (the excellent “You Haven’t Told Me Anything”).

Night Train, an eight-track EP they released May 2010, carried on from the departure of Symmetry, still following the band’s ethos of never retreating old ground. With a strange percussion-based instrumental intro, the aggressive synth riff of “Back in Time” (which was actually first written years ago) and the catchy guitars and vibraphone in “Clear Skies”, it’s pretty good considering that, being an EP, it was only really a between-albums stop-gap.

The highlight was single “Stop for a Minute”, a duet with Somali-Canadian worldbeat rapper/singer K’naan – the idea of which might have made many fans think “This is going to sound really bad.” But it’s an infectious combination of styles that genuinely works, while still being piano-led and not losing Keane’s unique sound.

It wasn’t all particularly special. The cover of the Japanese Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Ishin Denshin” (featuring Japanese singer Tigarah) had little to say for it. “Looking Back”, also featuring K’naan and a sample of the Rocky theme tune, sounded pretty awkward compared with the very well-done genre-busting of “Stop for a Minute”. “My Shadow” is fine but feels like you’ve heard it somewhere before.

However, the one thing you can’t accuse Night Train of is having a lack of variety. Keane may still not be the most creative band around, but despite the album’s 30-minute running time, its tracks range from the charming ’80s-flavoured synthpop of “Your Love” (featuring a rare lead vocal from keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley) to guitar-based rock to terrifically catchy R&B.

Night Train is far from a classic, but as an EP it is interesting, enjoyable and gives very high hopes for the quality of Keane’s fourth full-length album.

3½ out of 5

The jangly charm of Vampire Weekend

What band produces music more infested with inventive, genre-busting jangly charm than Vampire Weekend?

I posted a very positive review of their 2010 second album Contra a few months ago but now, though it is a very good album, I don’t think it quite matches up to their self-titled debut. From “Mansard Roof” to “A-Punk”, “Oxford Comma” to “Campus”, “I Stand Corrected” to the beautifully baroque-pop closer “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”, the melody, percussion, jangly guitars and perfect fusion of indie, world and classical music is something exceptional.

Of course, you might say the same thing about Contra. It builds on the tunes and is even weirder, adding speed-rap (“California English”), synthpop (“Giving Up the Gun”) and reggae (“Diplomat’s Son”) to the mix—though actually the latter two tracks are average compared to the other tracks on both albums where they stay true to their jangly, charming baroque-Afro-indie-pop identity.

There are people I know who think Vampire Weekend sound really bad and, well, I guess it all depends on your taste for weird but original music. But the earworm-tunefulness of their songs should surely make them more agreeable to everyone than, say, Everything Everything (though they are an incredibly talented bunch). And if VW aren’t to your taste, then you at least have to admit their talent.

Yep, there’s never been a band quite like Vampire Weekend.

The Feeling’s new album: not bad…

 

Together We Were Made is the third effort of English pop/soft rock band The Feeling. After two albums of irresistably energetic and catchy songs that you could sing along to all day, they have now given us a third one, which…isn’t bad, I suppose.

It starts off with lead single Set My World On Fire, which again is not at all bad. Combining a catchy guitar riff with African-style percussion and a tribal sing along in the chorus, it’s certainly original and memorable—but it’s not, indeed nothing on the record is, energetic enough to be a Feeling lead single. This is followed by “Dance for the Lights”, which is an electropop collaboration with Roisin Murphy, employing the band’s trademark harmonies and a guitar solo, that is altogether better.

Then we have the rather average “Another Soldier”, followed by the excellently catchy “Leave Me Out of It” featuring the bassist’s wife Sophie Ellis-Bextor, dominated by synths and vocal melodies until a typically Feeling-esque end of guitars and “Na na na”s. The fifth track “Build a Home” is completely average apart from the reasonably catchy key changes that permeate it.

The latter half of the album has songs that range from a really original combination of hip hop rhythms and the band’s guitars (“Mr Grin”), through catchy piano-led tunes (“Love and Care”, which also retains their usual lovely harmonies, and “A Hundred Sinners (Come and Get It)”) to the slightly boring “Back Where I Came From”. “Say No” is a good soft-to-loud-and-back-again piano-led ballad, in the image of “Rose” and “Spare Me” from their previous two records, but not quite as good. We end off with “Undeniable”, which is perhaps the only song on the album that could be described as really energetic, but there’s still not much in there apart from repetitions of the lyric “together we were made”.

Overall, I would not actively warn against buying this album or any of its songs. There is some good, memorable and quite original music in there. But it does seem as if there’s something missing. Maybe if they had added in a few melodic and energetically animated songs, like “I Thought It Was Over”, “Never Be Lonely”, “Fill My Little World” and “Without You” from their first two albums, the record would collectively sound better. Most of the songs are good, but it doesn’t quite sound like The Feeling.

Everything Everything have produced an original and intriguing debut. Whether you’ll enjoy it is another matter

I first listened to alt-rock band Everything Everything when they were supporting Keane on their forest tour last year (the Keane concert was thoroughly enjoyable, by the way). Did I like them? Not much, although I suppose the fact that they were playing for an hour when all we wanted to do was see Keane may have played a part in that (it must suck being a support act).

But then recently I heard they had been nominated for an Ivor Novello Award and for some reason I found myself curiously searching them up on YouTube. I watched the music video for “MY KZ UR BF“, which is the first and best track on the album. Combining syncopated rhythms in the verses with harmonies in the bridge and a simple but irresistibly catchy killer chorus, it is clearly an excellently original earworm of a song that deserves to win that award.

I bought their debut album Man Alive to see if the other songs match up to it. Well, track 2, “QWERTY Finger”, is reasonable and the divide between the first and (much more deserving of respect) second half is intriguing, but lead singer Jonathan Higgs’ yelping and his lyrics about making soap out of whale-flesh render the song basically annoying.

This is followed by the rather uninteresting “Schoolin'”, which has good musicianship in terms of the keyboards but ends up sounding like a much more annoying, less good version of Peter Gabriel. Later on, Photoshop Handsome is catchy and has a good beat but is overshadowed by Higgs’ screeching voice in the chorus, compared to “Suffragette Suffragette” which has harmonies, guitars and contrasts between heavy and soft that work well.

In songs such as “Leave the Engine Room”, “Final Form”, “Two for Nero”, “Tin (The Manhole)” (the latter with choir-like harmonies and soft, scintillating keyboards) and, to an extent, “Weights”, Higgs’ falsetto and the band’s harmonies are sugary and they actually work. But they begin to grate after a while, and in some parts they grate if you listen to them once. I’ve already mentioned “Photoshop Handsome” and I will add that the way Higgs screams “Cascade!” in “NASA Is On Your Side” is the only complaint I have for an otherwise good song. It successfully incorporates strange syncopated rhythms into a Coldplay-esque ballad, while being enjoyable to listen to.

As for the lyrics, well they have shown they can use a lot of interesting words in a short amount of time, but, while they’re not all as bad as they are in “QWERTY Finger”, they could at least have tried to squeeze in some form of overall meaning in them (the words of “NASA Is On Your Side” go from teenage terrorists to chasing homeless cheerleaders through sewers lit by polythene bags). Still, there’s a certain sophistication to it that’s hard to describe, which makes them at least far superior to ordinary pop lyrics about parties and high-school break-ups.

Overall, I think I will say EE are definitely a bunch of talented musicians and songwriters. However, whether you’ll enjoy the album or find it too irritating to bear much depends on your taste for original but weird music – and, above all, falsetto which is prevalent in all the songs. Personally, I would mostly describe their music as weird and wonderful and the falsetto as either nice or tolerable. It’s worth buying to see if you’ll agree.