Tag Archives: music

Quiet Loud Listen Sing

You know, Dad… I really like songs that go quiet, then loud!

When my 6 year-old daughter said this to me the other week she said it with hand movements, pressing down on the quiet, then going up high for the loud!, just like a conductor. I resisted the immediate urge to say, well, then you need to hear the Pixies, Missy Moo, you’ll love This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven. Instead, I stayed quiet letting her finish the thought that had distracted her from her drawing.

I had put a video on the telly to learn a song I was unfamiliar with for an informal singing group I recently joined, and I took her dramatic statement as a critique of what I saw as quite a laid-back ditty.

I say my singing group is informal as it’s for people who enjoy singing and don’t seek the formal structure of church, choir or barber-shop. While we could be characterized as ‘enthusiastic amateurs’, we’re not as bad as that phrase implies. And while we often have the crazed energy of the Portsmouth Sinfonia (a wonderful orchestra of untrained musicians made famous by Brian Eno), we’re much more ‘on song’ than that deliberately experimental group (which disbanded once they became too competent). William Tell Overture – Portsmouth Sinfonia

The song I was trying to get familiar with was one I had never taken a shine to, I See Fire by Ed Sheeran; a # 1 hit in New Zealand (and Iceland, and Norway, and Sweden… countries that believe in hobbits, I guess). I See Fire

i-see-fire-duet

Firey duet

In the few seconds it took me to suppress my urge to whip off the song and put on the Pixies, my daughter looked up from the picture she was working on for her classroom boy-crush, and continued her thought saying, like Roar, Wire, Recover… and this one.

I was a little taken aback; by both the thoughtful analysis of a 6 year-old, and that she placed this movie theme song in her pantheon of great tunes – the ones we regularly sing along to in the car.

When it finished she insisted I played the video again, accompanying my vocals while adding purple to the picture she was drawing for Austin (it’s his favourite colour!) Fascinated by the sheet music I was (patchily) reading (I sing by ear rather than eye), she insisted we went through the tune half a dozen times; slipping into some lovely harmonies (I have always found it hard to stay on my note).

Roar

Katy and her little band do a wee Roar

Now, I need to make it clear that despite what I said above, we have never listened to Roar in the car. Nothing against Katy Perry; my daughter loves her. And while she as at the more acceptable end of the ‘stripper-pop’ spectrum, I just don’t need a copy of that song. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop and we listen to heaps of contemporary (and classic) commercial wonderful/awfulness, but I find that particular tune loses its vim fast, quickly becoming a flaccid grind. That said, I did happen to see the (former Mrs.) brand Perry perform the song ‘acoustically’ at the Grammy announcements and was impressed with the live energy (as opposed to the somehow soulless and cold single) so watched that video with my daughter many times.

But the Katy Perry that gets played and sung along to in the car (along with The Wire and Recover) is Dark Horse, as it stands above the rest to me. Dark Horse

  1. Her voice is pitched down in my range 2. I’m a sucker for the wonderfully low 808 drum sound, and in this track it has an addictive reggae-type feel that I just can’t get sick of. Yes, my girl is digging her idol but the lyrics she sings along to most, is Juicy J.’s rap, which kind of surprises me.
    Dark Horse 2

    Dark Horse? Garish filly

We also often dance to the lurid video, as she’s into things Egyptian at the moment. It’s a fun vid which courted controversy when a brain-dead stylist thought it would be cool to burn contemporary religious symbols. It’s not the only dull-skulled element, however, as the lyrics start with make me your Aphrodite… the Greek goddess of love… okay, so let’s make an Egyptian! video. Righto. Sure, Cleopatra, being a Ptolomy, was of Hellenistic stock… I can handle that, I’m not a total pedant (even though I seriously doubt that reference is going on). But what I find grates most of all is the need to put in some gratuitous pole dancing near the end… damn you to hell/Hades/Duat, stripper-pop, I hope Cerberus bites you on each cheek!

Cerberus_by_Mootdam

Good boy, Cerberus

Still, I can bite my tongue on those bits purely because 1. I enjoy other elements 2. My girl loves it 3. She hasn’t a clue what pole-dancing is 4. I love dancing with my girl.

I like to think I’m pretty liberal when it comes to lyrics, which by their very nature are hard to nail down. You may as well try to confine the wind in a box. But the Aphrodite/Egyptian thing pales when I think of another song I quite enjoyed until some particularly numb-nutted lyrics became apparent.

kanye

Awesome Black Skinhead stylings

It’s Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, which is a massively addictive production with some gorgeous sounds (and interestingly provocative lyrics). However, when I realised that in the chorus he was singing/rapping I keep it 300, like the Romans…300 bitches were the Trojans. You WHAT?! They’re Spartans in 300, you gimp… fighting Persians… Sheesh, was Kanye too busy discussing lip gloss with wifey in that bit of the film? I simply can’t find a way to see it as anything but arrogant and dull-headed so it has killed the song for me. Black Skinhead

chilton

Alex with the Box Tops

But it doesn’t always have to be the case. For instance, I love Alex Chilton but when in Bangkok he sings… Here’s a little song that’s gonna please ya, about a little town down in Indonesia…Bangkok!… Bangkok! I can’t help but wince. But it doesn’t kill the song for me. Would you honestly expect geographical knowledge from an American? (Especially one who became a star at 16 singing the #1 hit The Letter with the Box Tops. Early success always messes with your head). Bangkok – Alex Chilton  The Letter – The Box Tops

Getting too pedantic about lyrics is a no-win as, like poetry, it’s all about play. But we all have our limits. I love lots of I See Fire but hate the… if we should all die tonight, then we should all go down together… refrain as the glorification of martyrdom just sticks in my craw (especially in what is essentially a kids movie… albeit one for big kids).

And Sex Pistol Steve Jones always says how much he winced when Johnny Rotten forced the rhyme… I am the anti-Christ!, I am an anar-chist!… in their debut single. But it sure made a glorious announcement of intent. Anarchy In the U.K.

mark-ronson-amy-winehouse

Mark Ronson: Producer to the stars, DJ/Musician extraordinaire

Haim

Haim employ way better stylists than Katy Perry

But enough of what’s not to like, here’s why I love the other song my daughter mentioned, The Wire by Haim. I came across this by chance, found it didn’t catch me immediately but was soon listening out for little hooks secreted throughout… the organ line that fades up in the chorus, the distorted bass run, the unexpected guitar solo, the big glam drums, the lyrics I can’t quite get a handle on. After hearing it a dozen times I decided it must be a session singer with a DJ/producer mashing up the elements a la Mark Ronson (who I love). But I was wrong: it is 3 sisters from LA with a strong musical pedigree, hence the vocals which blend so you don’t know that the lead vocals have shifted. Having played in a covers band with their parents in L.A. the middle sister became a session guitarist, was picked to play live with Jenny Lewis, then Julian Casablancas, and Cee-Lo Green. The eldest went off and got a musicology degree and then, having learned all the tricks, they dragged in little sis’ to have a proper crack at the scene. The Wire – Haim

Haim Lorde

Haim helping out childe pop star Lorde

Clearly, I’m in love with the results. Whether this first album is all the best stuff of many years of work brushed up beautifully, is yet to be seen/heard. Although they’re nothing like Mark Ronson, they’re akin as he also had a (greater) musical pedigree (his mother married the guitarist in Foreigner and Sean Lennon was a childhood friend).

Somebody To Love Me – Mark Ronson (ft. Boy George)

In case you think I have a crush on Haim, it’s not just about the girls. The often un-featured drummer’s dad was in 3 Dog Night, and the subtle and seductive rhythm tracks are a big part of the overall appeal for me.

Chvrches

Chvrches

Which leaves the other song my girl loves, Recover by Chvrches. They are exactly what I mistook Haim for… a couple of knob twiddlers and a chick singer. They seem okay, but I don’t want to sing along as my daughter does. However, as she can sing pretty much all the words I’m more than happy to play it whenever she asks to hear it. Recover – Chvrches

That’s the thing about music, we all hear different things. The hooks either grab us or make us recoil in pain… or float right through us as if we were made of jelly.

As a child, before I started getting involved in music, I always used to wonder why songs needed verses. After all, I reasoned, the choruses were always the best bits. I was yet to learn the power of dynamic range; quiet and loud. But as I matured I started to find things to love in all parts of songs, even in ones that weren’t to my taste. Be it the sound of the drums, lyrical image or turn of phrase, bewitching melody or power of the bass.

I realise everyone doesn’t feel this way, preferring set styles and actively despising others.

icehouse

There’s a great Aussie movie called Mullet. It’s about the fish, not haircuts (no Icehouse, as I recall)

My daughter certainly doesn’t like everything I play and will always tell me if she doesn’t like a particular song (for instance, she loves The Flowers/Icehouse We Can Get Together but really dislikes Great Southern Land, no matter how I try).

We Can Get Together – Icehouse       Great Southern Land

Occasionally, when we drive in the garage and I am rushing to get upstairs to light the fire, do homework and make dinner, she will ask if we can hear the song we are listening to through to the end. As a musician, soundman and tireless lover of music, I’m always happy to let the music resolve. (The first time this happened was with John Stewart’s Gold… one of her old favourites… a song I have never tired of since I first heard it in the summer of 1979. The smooth Rhodes piano… Stevie Nick’s backing vocals… pure gold). john stewart Gold – John Stewart

I’m glad my girl has her own opinion and tastes. It’s as it should be.

Quiet, loud, alone, all together.

Wait for it, wait for it…

…And end.

 

Secret track: Stray Cat Strut – The group I sing with…

Music Is A Story

Having lived a life in music and story I am increasingly convinced that they are not separate entities but differing shades of the same thing.

Sorry Steven Pinker, music is not “cheesecake for the mind”, it is quite clearly part of what makes the mind. And to bend his metaphor for the purposes of this blog, it is not the icing on the cake; it is part of the cake. If you regard it as the former then you miss a great opportunity to nourish.

Earlier this week I watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ which is about their farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens in 2011. It’s a great film and the band was clearly wonderful live. I knew little about them, only being familiar with their rocking wee track ‘North American Scum’.

That said, they were one of the acts that was a must-see at the 2008 Big Day Out, a concert I got tickets to but didn’t attend as my partner at the time was due to give birth to our child within the following couple of weeks. That in itself wasn’t the only reason we didn’t drive up to Auckland from Wellington to see the great line-up that included Arcade Fire, Battles, Hilltop Hoods, Dizzee Rascal and Bjork, it because on top of the immanent child we also had no place to live. And no jobs. It just seemed to be tempting fate to head into a sea of 30, 000 revellers in that situation.

But this blog isn’t about that story, nor is it a review of ‘Shut Up’. It’s about the power of the unexpected to throw a new slant on what you have just enjoyed.

I’m referring to the outro songs that often get played over the credits of a movie or TV show. More often than not they are very obvious and add little to the experience of the drama: show’s over folks, here’s a bouncy tune you all know to see you out the door with a smile on your face.

But increasingly there is an acknowledgement that punters aren’t necessarily all sheep to herded elsewhere; that credits offer a chance to play to those folks who actually read the words as they digest what has just transpired.

‘Shut Up’ is both wonderful and sad. It shows someone gaining fame, adulation and respect without asking for it, who then finds it all too much so he pulls-the-pin (this isn’t meant to be a spoiler; the film is about a farewell concert).

James Murphy, the kingpin, is the one who calls time. He’s one of those great singers and performers who struggles with his gift. The self-consciousness is as agonising to watch as is his performance is wonderful.

He needs it to end but feels great loss and wonders if he’s making a mistake. The final song ‘New York I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is amazing. I had never heard it before but it knocked my socks off, especially when viewed in the context of what it meant in this situation… being in NY and the last song they would ever play… the final part of the documentary.

It went to black and the credits rolled. It wasn’t an LCD song but one I recognized from the distant past. It took a few bars before I realized the voice singing the final track on an LP I hadn’t played since the early 80s.

“Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain…” it was Marc Almond, Soft Cell c.1981 and I knew all the words.

I never really liked the song or the album but when you’re 14 and just spent $10 on a piece of vinyl you play the album to bits hoping it will take your fancy. While some the keyboard sounds on the track (and album) clearly haven’t stood the test of time often sounding like a Farfisa organ trying to be hip, the song just builds and builds and once it got to the chorus (I still knew the lyrics without knowing that I did) I understood why the track had been chosen.

Maybe James Murphy is a Soft Cell fan but there is so much about ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ that is directly relevant to the documentary and the tortured ambivalence of Murphy that what I had just seen kept opening up to further and further layers.

Afterwards, I pulled out ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and listened to it. Just the once. Yikes. But I have played ‘Say Hello’ every day (and sometimes several times) since I saw the movie 5 days ago. Do I think about Soft Cell? Not a lot. But I go into those lyrics (and Marc Almond’s performance) further and further.

“It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it never happens again”

So apt to the movie, Murphy and the ambivalence of love.

It’s not the first time this sort of opening-up has happened to me. The other was in the first series of Girls (a brilliant, fun, clever show). I can’t remember what happened in the twisted and funny relationships but the ending was a bit of a shocker and I was dumb-founded. The screen went to black and credits started with a very retro 80s-sounding electronic track I did not know. It was either very old, or trying to sound old: cold boom-smack-boom-smack drum machine laying down an unvarying beat ‘even white folk can dance to’ (as the saying goes). The lyrics were about seeing your ex with someone else, hence why it was chosen.

It was “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. So it wasn’t old, being from 2010, it was just trying to sound like it. I fell instantly in love with the Scandinavian coldness of the lyrics and production and it has been in my top 5 tracks ever since (“stilettos and brok-en bott-les” being my unchallenged fav lyrical image of the last year). It has gone past the dramatic moment in Girls which it was juxtaposing (I can’t even remember who it was about) and become a song of strength, resilience and defiance.

In my head, I relate these moments to the famous, infamous and (of course) outstanding final scene of The Sopranos where Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is played over the mundane family moments at the diner, waiting for onion rings and Meadow to park the car. Let me just say, I really don’t like Journey but I have listened to that song many, many times since. Why? Because that scene (and song) seem to encapsulate the whole 6 seasons, the hopes of the well-loved characters etc and I get to relive all that in the course of Steve Perry’s pompous bellowing and Journey’s overblown and average FM rock.

I just re-watched the scene and realised that, unlike the above, it doesn’t play over the credits. However, the credits were silent, and this was done to further the story (as opposed to ushering you out the door). What’s even more unusual about this is that there is dialogue all over the lyrics in the final scene… something which is very rare as most punters find it hard to focus. But it’s all part of the telling, and opening up, the story. Just brilliant.

I still have my ticket to the Big Day Out where LCD played. The ticket is worthless and having now seen ‘Shut Up’ I wish I had gone, despite the pressing concerns of my situation. Maybe LCD will reform after some time off and I will get to see them somewhere else.

Either way, this isn’t the end of the story.

Palmiers For Something That Shouldn’t Be

Image

Non-jam palmiers.

This morning I made palmiers for the fourth time. I seem to be getting the knack. They’re the easiest of pastries, a child could make them. I guess that’s why our French teacher taught us when we were in Form One at South Intermediate. It was a gentle path into the language. Songs, verbs, some words, no text books. A taster, if you will, as opposed to an academic meal. It was fun cooking in the classroom, even if it was just rolling out pastry, spreading it with jam, folding them up so that they look like pastry hearts. That’s what I remember them as, ‘French pastry hearts’.

When I googled that term looking for simple things to make with my young daughter I came up with ‘palmiers or elephant ears’. Maybe we knew them as palmiers at the time but I had forgotten the word. I would never forget a name like elephant ears.

When I made them for the first time since my childhood, I had hoped my daughter would share the magic and wonder of that chaotic day in French class. But she was very uncertain, as were the kids at the late-afternoon soiree where I took those palmiers. They picked them up, looked at them, asked their parents what they were, put them back. I said they were elephant ears hoping to undercut their neo-phobia but the kids (six-year olds and under) were rather distrusting. It wasn’t until everything else was gone that the foreign pastries were attempted and devoured.

My daughter, despite a highly evolved sweet-tooth, failed to join the brave ones. I couldn’t understand it, but persevered making two more batches which I ate alone while my daughter refused them, even when I cut down the options in her lunch-box. It wasn’t until there were only two left of the third batch that I managed to get her to try one. After she ate it, she hunted me down, gave me a big hug on the toilet and said they were ‘delicious’.

I made palmiers this morning not to taunt children with my nostalgia (although that may happen), but because there is a funeral at my daughter’s school and we’ve been asked to bring a plate.

My daughter is very excited about going. She thinks funerals are great fun. Her mother had to quell her excited cheering when I said that I could take her. Over the phone I heard her tell her mother that she had been to three, so this would be her fourth. At five, she remembers more funerals than Christmases.

Catering for a funeral is hard. You never really know how many hungry people will show up. It is disheartening throwing out food when you over-cater, like you have over-estimated how much people care.

We learned that lesson with the first funeral. For, the next one, four months later, we got the numbers right but people who talked too long in the sun missed out to those who had loaded up their plates, maybe noticing there was less to be had.

Both those funerals were for my parents. Four months apart. I remember so much but ate no food. I drank wine, delicious wine, slowly, continuously, happy to see people gathered, to feel relief descending, glad of beautiful weather. There was so much to do it was great that my daughter (who was 3 and then 4) was happy to run around with the other kids, fill her plate with whatever she wanted, leaving me to talk to people, to be both amongst it and absent.

Then, a few months after that, an old friend suddenly died. It was a shock and I had to go, taking my daughter with me up to Auckland as her mother was overseas. My daughter was excited. She wore the bright floral dress she wore at her grandparents’ funerals. But this was a different flavour. Dad was not going to be standing up the front of everyone talking into the microphone, welcoming them, pointing to the toilets, making calming jokes.

At the end of the service she insisted on viewing the body. This hadn’t happened with her grandparents although she had seen plenty of photos (it wasn’t deliberate, but a consequence of geography: they were cremated by the time of each service). Quite randomly, I had been given a guitar pick while working in a school hall the day before. I carried it up there in my pocket just as I used to when I played guitar. When we saw Stephen lying there in his suit, I lifted her up and she dropped the grey Jim Dunlop .73mm into his coffin.

It was 25 years since we had played in halls and pubs around the country. He looked so much older.

It was harder than looking at the bodies of my parents.

At the after-match, my girl resorted to form filling her plate in a room full of strangers, checking in with me now and then. There were no other small children but she knew the drill, was happy just to be, squeezing through the press of mourners. What she ate, I do not know. Probably any sweet treats she could recognize.

I made palmiers this morning because of the number four: a random thing to grasp onto. I did not really know the girl who died the other night, but she was in the class next to my daughter, another new entrant. She always gave me a friendly smile.

It tears at me to think of her parents and family. A funeral for a child just seems to be something that should not be.

But in two hours I will go with my daughter and sit in the hall with those from the school and community. To her, a funeral is like Christmas without presents. A party without a cake. That thought used to concern me. Shouldn’t I be providing weddings and christenings, celebrations of life?

Parents always fret, no matter what.

If there’s something that I’ve learned to adore in this run of funerals, it’s the joy of life. That it is to be cherished, every which way: that its noise belongs everywhere, in all corners of the room.

The kids have been encouraged to wear bright colours, and I shall, too. We will remember Lucy, even those who did not know her.

I may cry and my daughter will hug me. She will have a lot of fun.