Modern music is rubbish, or so the cliché goes.
Sure, we do have our share of mediocre fare clogging up the airwaves in this new millennium – as did every other era, but I digress. Of course, all is not lost.
There are still consummate artists in a variety of song-smithing styles, plying their trade in the recording studio and inspiring with their approach to the art, both in terms of composition and the technical sphere. We took a closer look at three recent tracks that have really blown our socks off.
There is incredibly inspired and innovative music being birthed into the world every day. Here we dissect and analyse three recent tracks that have really blown us away.
Andy Shauf – The Magician
It would be trite to suggest that the title of this song reflects some magical qualities inherent in the music, but there are some sleights of hand that are worth mentioning, considering that the song generally conforms with pop idioms.
The intro, for example, features a melody that begins and ends on a G sharp note, when the tonic key is D major. The textbook would suggest that this is a very harsh juxtaposition between melody and accompaniment. It doesn’t sound particularly dissonant at all though, just uneasy. From the get-go, we’re placed in a world where things aren’t quite what they seem.
When Andy Shauf himself enters the frame, he doubles-down on the ill-at-ease atmosphere with a sudden shift to the relative minor, and slippery vocal melody that shifts chromatically with lyrics that are slurred together. But when the chorus arrives, it couldn’t be any more classic pop if it tried, with a 60’s inspired “do-do-do” lyric.
Things get busier in the second verse. The hitherto emphasis on the downbeats – struck heavily with the piano chords and bass are overtaken by the countermelody in the strings, topped of with a samba inspired triangle rhythm. The call of the vocals are responded to with a clarinet melody.
This mixture reads like a cacophony on the page, but it all still works to serve the song – largely due to the very simple bass and drum groove that underpins the deftly woven melodic layers. The other musical entry of note is the electric guitar riff in the last chorus, centred around an ascending approach to the tonic D, then a dramatic drop to the octave below.
Shauf has a reputation for perfectionism and he’s clearly a connoisseur of tone. The coupling of complimentary colours – the way the electric guitar is carefully tucked in underneath the clarinet in the intro, the subtlety of the handclaps buried in the snare, the synth pad that emerges from the mix at the very end – is designed create unique surprises in every phase of the song.
The spine of the piece, the sparse and searching vocal, is delivered with raw intensity and intimacy, and acts as a counterweight to the intricacy of the instrumental arrangement. Very clever track.
Beach House – Sparks
Baltimore’s Beach House have spent a career carving their own niche. They’ve pursued an aesthetic that has married conventional pop structures with deep and opaque sonic landscapes – a sound so evocative and fascinating that it has spawned many an imitation, as well as a committed fan base.
Their last two releases appeared within a couple of months of each other, which is in keeping with their outlook: doing it their own way. Sparks (second track on the first of the twin releases, Depression Cherry) follows a similar compositional formula that has been peppered throughout their previous material: repetitive, short, melodic phrases and chord progressions, signature guitar riffage, and a danceable but down tempo drum machine groove. Ostensibly, not necessarily an ingenious formula, but the inspired assemblage of these simple, moving parts creates something memorable.
Consider the opening – a vocal sample on loop, lyrics obscured. A blazing, visceral one string guitar riff spelling out the tonal centre of the harmony. Rhythmically, these two layers are oddly out of sync. But then the drums fade in to make sense of it all. The booshie groove is deftly in the pocket now, and then the bass drops – not where you’d expect (on the tonic B flat), but instead spelling out a bewitching chord progression: simple, but ambiguous. This is all before the singing appears.
Vocalist Victoria Legrand has a unique way of inhabiting a song. Such is her talent that she can tailor make a vocal character to convey the deepest of emotions, with a surprisingly economical approach to lyrics. The phrases are sparsely set among the backdrop to allow the listener to peek inside the harmony, and inhabit the dreaminess of the sound. And while the verses are harmonically enigmatic, the choruses provide the classic “payoff” moments, with the return of the guitar hook.
In terms of tones, Sparks marks somewhat of a departure from the archetypal Beach House sound. Alex Scally’s usually hyper-clean, chorus soaked arpeggio’s are sidelined in favour of a much more fuzzed-out guitar tones. It does appear in pre-chorus moments, but generally, distortion rules the day here.
The mix achieves a great balance between the new elements that are brought in consistently throughout the piece. It would have been quite a challenge for producer/mix engineer Chris Coady to allow the loopy elements of the arrangement to keep returning, as well as carving out new territory for Legrand’s reverberant vocal layers.
The Avalanches – If I Was a Folkstar
In the time of The Avalanches hiatus, many bands and/or musical careers had lived and died. Even entire musical genres had peaked and fallen out of favour. Yet one could imagine how this came to pass. The seminal Since I Left You was such a monumental surprise in terms of critical and commercial success, that the band had every right to take some time to figure out what the hell just happened. Couple that with the fact that making their beyond-complicated sample based collages requires incredibly painstaking care to compose, to their notoriously exacting standards, sixteen years doesn’t seem like such a long time.
Back they are with Wildflower, a sweeping epic encompassing disco, hip hop, found-sounds, ambient soundscapes and many splintered styles in between. If I Was A Folkstar combines a brilliantly wispy, folk-inspired guitar and vocal performance from Chaz Bundick – better known as Toro Y Moi, and a truly canny choice of collaborator – and The Avalanches customary melodic, dancefloor friendly bass and drum grooves. And though the harmony and melodic choices are incredibly tasteful in this song, this band relies on something quite different to transport their audience to sonic fantasia – a commitment to hypnotic repetition and samples that are designed to invite the listener into the narrative of the song.
Some of the sounds that make up this collage include a driver flipping through stations on the car radio, sliced up car horns, the general hubbub of a stressful city. The heavily melodic bass groove, the catchy synth-flute and chime hook is gently opened up through a low-pass filter, high-pitched, ethereal “ooohs” a floating just beyond grasp. It feels like you and song a waking up together, deciding if you’re ready to handle what the has in store.
The song rarely strays from its harmonic core, and doesn’t rely on typical formulas of structure. This makes the song’s ability to traverse emotional terrain all the more beguiling – it doesn’t possess the standard levers to pull to create excitement, melancholy and serenity. Yet it achieves all this and more.
As you can see, those nostalgic for a golden era can take heart. Musical ingenuity is alive and well. And though these examples all contain a nod to previous fashions in various forms, that is far from a new musical phenomenon. Evident in all pieces is an all consuming drive for the betterment of their craft, and a skilful balance of technical and compositional considerations, working together to create maximum emotional impact.