For the past few years, I have made listening to King of the Beach a part of my Labor Day festivities, as a gesture to commemorate the last dying gasp of summer. Usually the Wavves album serves as a soundtrack to an actual trip to the beach, but I decided this year to take that trip to the land of those beautiful grey skies only in my mind. However, the celebration did give me the chance to explore what it is exactly that has spurred my love for this album.
There is a key moment in the title track that opens the album that manages to set the tone for the rest of the album. It is the kind of throwaway idea that most listeners would gloss over, but every time I hear it I cannot help but crack up precisely because it is so stupid. After the first chorus (around the :53 mark), the band uses a ridiculous echo effect on the snare drum as the song kicks into the next verse. Though the band deploys other effects throughout the rest of the song, they do not use that drum effect again, giving the impression that this was some sort of studio joke that the band decided to leave in place, regardless of whether any better takes existed.
That little joke sets the mood for the rest of the album, alerting the listener to not take anything seriously. Though songs about weed and surfing should already signal to the audience what kind of album it is, this leaves no doubt that King of the Beach is an irreverent romp. It also shows that even though Nathan Williams was now working in a real studio with money and musicians and everything, the same fun that he had experimenting with lo-fi techniques in his bedroom from the group’s early days would still be a significant part of the band’s sound.
I am certain that this post represents more thought and effort than what into tossing in that silly effect, but sometimes dumb jokes pay off.
The profile of British Sea Power has diminished considerably in recent years, which makes the title of their debut unfortunately prescient. While there are several things that I love about Open Season and Do You Like Rock Music?, there is still a certain quality about The Decline of British Sea Power that puts it a cut above and helps establish it as one of the great indie rock records of the last decade. The band found the perfect mixture of idiosyncratic rockers, catchy anthems, and gorgeous ballads, and twelve years later I still find the record as fresh as it was the first time I listened to it.
There are several extraordinary moments worthy of discussion on Decline, from the bizarre “Apologies to Insect Life” to the epic guitar freak-out of “Lately” to the dazzling instrumental “Heavenly Waters” that closes the album. But there is one particular aspect from the middle section of the album that we want to single out for closer inspection, when the band runs through a string ofsongs packedwith hooks. Even amid all those great tracks, the propulsive and energetic “Remember Me” stands out and gets stuck in your head for days, and the key is a subtle strategy employed by the drummer Wood.
The immediate element that grabs your attention is the jagged and raucous twin guitar attack from Yan and Noble, a trebly, noisy blast packed with bends that doesn’t bother to stop to catch its breath as it jumps from riff to riff. Of course, even after multiple deep listens you aren’t going to shake off those prominent leads, but you can pick up on some of the other parts hidden underneath the surface, such as the brilliant drumwork. Wood does an excellent job from start-to-finish on this song, expertly deploying fills and keeping a rock-solid beat amid all the surrounding chaos. I can point to his ridiculous snare-rolls or deft cymbal-work, but the element that I love the most is a very simple trick he does to keep up the energy and provide some variety to keep the song from getting stale. Listen carefully to the verse (around the :47 mark), and pay attention to how Wood shifts his pattern with each lyrical phrase. The first line is a standard beat, but then it shifts to a double-time beat on the hi-hat for the next phrase; this alternating structure is repeated throughout the song.
It’s a very small detail, but it’s an excellent example of a drummer providing some extra creativity by deviating from the standard approach, yet not doing too much to overshadow the work of the rest of the band. By switching between the two patterns, Wood provides an extra push-and-pull to the song and establishes an additional forward momentum, driving the song through the verse into the chorus. There are several other excellent moments in the song, but this is something that I listen for every time I hear the song.
However, if that’s not satisfying enough for you, then take a few minutes to enjoy the tranquil beauty of “Heavenly Waters”.
We’re going to make this an impromptu Theme Week (we can call it Rust Is Just Right Goes to the Movies if absolutely necessary, but we’d rather not formalize this detour) and continue looking at films from last year, pivoting from our praise for the score for Birdman to analyzing the themes of Whiplash. In our piece yesterday, we claimed that 2014 had few great films but a lot of solid ones, and though I would end up slotting Whiplash into the latter category, there are several scenes that nearly elevate the film into the “great” category. Even with that caveat in mind, I would still recommend that anyone who enjoys the creative process or just watching fantastic musicians perform amazing technical feats should check it out.
The film delves into the twisted professor/student relationship that develops between dictatorial jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and ambitious drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who is determined to do whatever it takes to be remembered as a jazz legend. Simmons is rightfully receiving Oscar buzz for his portrayal, even if it is in some ways a variation of his usual schtick, and Teller keeps pace with the veteran and delivers a remarkable performance of his own. It’s a story whose beats should be familiar to most, playing off an extreme version of the mentor/protégé relationship, but the actors elevate the material by digging deep and finding real nuances in their roles, often subverting expectations and reversing course at the drop of a hat (especially Simmons, who can alternate between sympathetic and terrifying in an instant but remain believable throughout).
For the musicians in the audience, there’s a real joy to be had in watching the actors go through the nuts-and-bolts of performing jazz at an extremely high level, and see the sacrifices that each player makes for what ends up being for little recognition. It was an amusing game on its own to see how much of Teller’s playing lined up with the soundtrack, and it was a marvel to realize how much preparation an actor went through to convincingly play drums at such a high level. Though the movie should probably have been titled “Caravan” because of the importance of the double-time swing section in that standard to the plot, it was also great to see other classics get some recognition as well.
As much fun as it is to just watch the pure musicianship on display, the film’s greatest strength is its ambivalent approach to the central conflict. While it’s clear from several moments in the film that Fletcher’s methods to coax “genius” from his students go far beyond what is acceptable behavior, it’s the fact that the movie doesn’t paint him as merely an antagonist to Andrew that is truly thought-provoking. As the film progresses, one begins to wonder if Andrew is complicit in his own downward spiral, that his belief in an anecdote about a cymbal being chucked at the head of Charlie Parker was really what created the legend of “Bird” instead of practice and talent is as much to blame as Fletcher’s antics. The movie doesn’t necessarily paint this as an internal struggle, but is instead one that the audience must confront. The climax of the film is a show-stopping drum solo, and while it in some ways validates Fletcher’s brutal tactics, they still have irrevocably damaged Andrew at a fundamental level.
Or, if you don’t want to get too philosophical about the movie, just enjoy it for all the pyrotechnic drum solos (even if realistically they are a bit too showy). Then go home and watch some old Buddy Rich videos on YouTube.
We here at Rust Is Just Right have other passions besides music, though because of the nature of this site it makes sense that we rarely discuss them; we assume that our regular visitors are not particularly interested in our prediction of how the 2016 campaign will shake out or why we believe this is the year that the Trail Blazers will win the Western Conference, so we do you the favor of not mentioning them. Instead, for this brief detour, we will discuss a subject that is more universally beloved: movies.
We enjoy many things about the movies, from the simple act of going out to the theater with friends to spending countless hours discussing various theories of film and film criticism. This past year was a bit of disappointment, with a lot of solid films but few great ones, but in our eyes one of the bright spots was Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (even if we were hoping for a biopic of either the Cash Moneyimpresario or the enigmatic NBA player). While the film’s ambition exceeded its grasp on occasion and often seemed to be in search of a thesis, one had to admire the brilliant acting performances, the whirlwind cinematography, and its overall kinetic energy which kept the audience consistently engaged and on the edge of their seats. The element that was most responsible for that last quality was the film’s brilliant and innovative score, which was dominated by Antonio Sanchez’s fantastic improvised jazz drumming.
It is rare for a film score to rely so much on a single instrument, much less rely solely on percussion. It’s certainly a risk to anchor a film with an instrument that to the untrained ear seems to lack the capability of melody, but it’s Sanchez’s ability to work through these potential constraints that makes his score so brilliant. Sanchez is able to mine different sounds by using every part of his drum kit, and in the process creates melodies that, while not traditional, augment what is happening on screen. The viewer feels the full range of emotions of the characters onscreen through Sanchez’s employment of different textures and rhythms. Most notably, the frenetic, jittery drum flourishes perfectly captured the intense personal anxiety of Michael Keaton’s Riggan, as he grappled with both the internal struggle of finding artistic meaning as well as the external difficulties as his production was collapsing all around him. The drum score is such an important component on the film that when one sees a drummer on-screen acting out the score, it elicits shock and delight from the audience. These particular scenes are not merely showy gestures, but are significant examples of one of the main themes of the film, that of exploring the line between the stage and reality and how the difference between the two can blur on occasion. The score left such a mark on me that my first comments to my friends and the theater manager afterwards were raves about the drumming.
Hopefully, enough people will be outraged by this idiotic ruling that the Academy will be pressured into reversing course and restoring the Sanchez score to its rightful place on the list for potential nominees. However, if that fails to occur, let us hope that the controversy at least gets people to hear Sanchez’s fantastic work and that he earns some new fans as a result.
*Normally we don’t like to use such a clickbait-y headline for our pieces, but the simple direct approach worked best with this particular subject. We loved the score that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote for Gone Girl, but this was truly the best film score of the year and one that will undoubtedly leave its mark for years to come. It’s ridiculous that an idiotic interpretation of the rules will prevent it from possibly receiving the recognition it deserves.
Due to our special theme week, we didn’t have the chance to mention another new release we were eager to hear that happened to come out the same day last week. The latest album from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, IX, came out here in the US last Monday, but considering it had been released in various forms weeks earlier, it was easy for it to get lost in the mix, even for people that listen to Trail of Dead as much as the Foo Fighters. We’re still processing IX (in many ways the album it most resembles is Tao of the Dead, but we’re not ready to give a verdict beyond that initial comparison), but we decided to use this opportunity to defend their most unfairly-maligned album, Worlds Apart.
Like many fans, I first encountered …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead during their Source Tags & Codes days, and to this day that album still stands out as one of the landmark indie rock records of the 2000’s. I remember catching the premiere of “Another Morning Stoner” and being transfixed by their relentless yet melodic approach, with their catchy cyclical, arpeggiated guitar lines tied to an ever-rumbling drum pattern punctuated by insistent snare hits and rolls, as the emotional intensity of the vocals increased with every verse. At a time when rock music had become stagnant from a creative perspective, it was a revelation to see a band with this much energy and ambition creating a complete “album”, with shifting moods and repeating motifs that added up to a brilliant whole.
I wasn’t the only one enraptured by Source Tags & Codes, as it ended up at the top of numerous best-of lists for 2002, and it set expectations sky-high for their follow-up. Due to my living situation at the time (attending college in the middle of nowhere), I remember having to make arrangements for purchasing Worlds Apart as soon as possible, either borrowing a car or pre-ordering it online, although I think the preparations were probably rendered moot since we likely received advanced copies at the radio station. No matter how it was procured, the important point is that as soon as I played the album, it instantly proved to be a worthy successor to Source Tags & Codes and became one of my favorites. The ringing guitars and pounding drums of their earlier work were again both there in spades, but Worlds Apart was aided by crisper production and greater dynamic contrast; individual parts came in with greater clarity, and the band used its increased budget effectively with their expert layering of additional instruments (namely strings, piano, and extra percussion) to create added depth to their sound, as well as utilizing keener ear towards balancing the extremes in volume. Aside from these technical advancements, there were still plenty of great hooks and memorable melodies throughout the record, from the explosive “Will You Smile Again” to the anthemic “The Rest Will Follow” to the strident “Caterwaul”. I’ve found myself singing that one in particular for days on end.
Since I had established and reinforced my own opinion of the album through several repeated listens, I was surprised to learn that Worlds Apart received extremely mixed reviews. There were some that agreed with my assessment, that the band’s output had matched its ambition and that the music supported such a grand artistic statement, but there were others that felt that despite the herculean effort the results fell short. Then there was a third category that utterly trashed the album, though several of their reasons ultimately rang hollow–I can understand if you felt that the record was a little over-the-top or too bombastic, but to claim that it was a sell-out record when there were no obvious singles or that it was confused when everything flowed perfectly together seems more like anticipating the backlash than engaging the work on its own merits. We all have different tastes, but these criticisms seemed out-of-place with what I was hearing.
Though to this day I continue to listen to Worlds Apart on a regular basis, the band appears to have distanced itself from the album, with only “Will You Smile Again” and “Caterwaul” making regular appearances on setlists (which is a much better fate than what befell So Divided, which the band has apparently deemed unworthy of performance). And while Trail of Dead’s newer albums seem to focus on one aspect at a time (the overly-serious and histrionic The Century of Self, the energetic if shapeless Lost Songs, with Tao of the Dead a workable compromise between the two), it’s a shame that their work which best marries their epic tendencies with their raw emotions goes unrecognized at best or needlessly scorned at worst, as its fiercest critics are the loudest and insist on repeating its supposed failings years after the fact.
But I ask you to take a listen to Worlds Apart with fresh ears, because it has aged better than you might expect. Let your stereo explode with those big guitar lines, pound your head along with the multiple drumsets driving the beat, and get wrapped up in even the interstitial music (“To Russia My Homeland”, the end of “A Classic Arts Showcase”) which both maintains a connection between the songs and helps delineate their existence as well. Get lost in the grandiose “All White”/”The Best” one-two punch, sway with the ballad “The Summer of ’91”, or kick your heels to the biting and irreverent title track–the band’s got everything covered. If that doesn’t satisfy you, I don’t know what will; but at least I’ll feel better knowing that you gave this album another shot.
Some #longreads and a handful of other assorted goodies for your weekend…
We always appreciate it when people write articles about Teenage Fanclub, especially those pieces which talk about how underrated the group and their special brand of power-pop was. The AV Club urges readers to listen to Songs From Northern Britain in particular, and hopefully that inspires people to pick up the rest of their fantastic catalog.
There’s a cool video making the rounds called “100 Bass Riffs: A Brief History of Groove on Bass and Drums”. It’s a great way to explore the development of music in the last fifty years, and the musicians will impress you with not only their pure skills, but their memory and stamina as well.
We here at Rust Is Just Right like to analyze and explain the more technical aspects of music, especially with our Feats of Strength feature. Though we often take the time to praise the intricate and complex nature of many songs, there’s something to be said to the merits of amateurism. Sometimes, we love the simple things.
Pavement initially built its reputation along these lines, and in their early career they were tagged with the “slacker” identity. For the most part, this was an unfair and incorrect assessment of their skills as musician. While Pavement often seemed like they could just effortlessly toss off quirky little rock songs, there was actually a lot of structure and technique inherent in their work. In other words, it can take a lot of work to sound that casual.
There was one area where the initial impression of Pavement was correct, and that was with their drumming. This is captured perfectly with the opening track “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” from their classic debut Slanted & Enchanted. Gary Young’s inexpert style contrasted with the more complicated patterns that were popular at the time; the drumming is filled with lots of space and rarely settles into a groove, and filled with idiosyncratic little fills that always stick out when listening (especially those little hi-hat rolls at the end of each phrase of the verse). It always seems on the verge of collapse, but it never completely falls apart.
This “shitty” drumming style is different from a “simple” drumming style: we’re not talking about someone playing a basic pattern without any flourishes or nuance, like your standard Pink Floyd or AC/DC track; we’re talking about musicians who the listener might assume are unable to use all four limbs at the same time and keep a regular drumbeat. “Summer Babe” is a perfect example the latter, and of how shitty drumming actually serves the song. In this case, it helps maintain a loose feel throughout the song; you hear the same effect with many Tame Impala tracks, where the drumming serves to augment certain melodic ideas, but otherwise steps out of the way and tries not to weigh down the spacey ambiance. Compare that style to Nine Inch Nails’s “Piggy”, where Trent Reznor’s chaotic drumming at the end of the song gives the sense that the entire song is about to break down; it’s “order” being systematically destroyed. In fact, Trent handled the drums for the ending personally, because he felt that his more capable drumming partners made it sound too professional.
It’s true that drumming is incredibly important to a song; however, shitty drumming can also serve a purpose as well.
Deafheaven’s second album Sunbather came out of nowhere to appear by the end of 2013 on numerous Best Albums lists. It was no small feat for a black metal album, considering how rarely the genre receives recognition from a broad critical audience–no matter how brilliant or adventurous it may be, black metal tends to be confined to a specific niche audience. I myself am not a particularly avid metal fan; I tend to stick to a few favorites, and usually do not venture into the more extreme subgenres. However, after a random search through Metacritic midway through last year to see what albums I may have missed, I noticed one album with a peculiar cover with a score in the 90s, and I knew I had to check it out despite any possible misgivings about the labelled genre.*
I wasn’t the only person that ventured out of my comfort zone, as there were plenty of other fans and critics that went out of their way to praise the album. But I found it interesting that there seemed to be a consensus that the opening track “Dream House” was the clear highlight, it made me wonder how closely a lot of these people listened to the album as a whole. I’m not saying that people didn’t actually listen to the album and claiming otherwise; “Dream House” is an excellent song and it does a great job of preparing the listener to what’s in store for the rest of the album. It’s just that the closer “The Pecan Tree” is a perfect encapsulation of the different themes and styles of the album, one that ends with a beautifully cathartic release that may have been the peak musical moment in all of 2013.
In analyzing “The Pecan Tree”, it is then necessary to understand the structure of the album as a whole. Sunbather is made up of four major multi-part metal songs (“Dream House”, “Sunbather”, “Vertigo”, and “The Pecan Tree”), with three interstitial pieces (“Irresistible”, “Please Remember”, “Windows”) mixed in between each that weave in gentler instrumentation (such as piano and acoustic or clean electric guitar) and sometimes accompanied by spoken word and captured field recordings. It’s the combination of these elements that leads to the comparisons to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky, though there are musical ideas in the metal pieces as well that recall those post-rock artists. These interstitial pieces aren’t mere throwaways, but instead provide much needed breaks from the pummeling music and emotional assault of the other tracks, and provide some context for the narrative of the album as well.
“The Pecan Tree” kicks off with a bang by immediately launching into a furious musical attack: a thick wall of guitars that bring to mind a more extreme version of shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine matched in perfect time by punishing drums playing an extremely complicated series of blast beats. While the guitars are being played at an extremely rapid tempo, a careful listen reveals that over the top a melodic line is slowly being played over the dense chords, and that the drums match the melodic movement as well. This leads to a gradual slowing down at around the four-minute mark, as the drums enter into a series of rolls with the emphasized beat punctuating each guitar chord, before settling into a peaceful lyrical ballad that recalls the interstitial tracks. A descending guitar arpeggiated section evolves into a simple gorgeous piano melody, with another guitar providing a countermelody on top. As before, we encountered one extreme emotion and are now faced with a different extreme, but this does not provide resolution.
The true release comes at the 7:54 mark, when the distorted guitar comes in again. This is the moment that makes the album, that makes it all worth while to wallow in the muck and mire of what came before. The guitars coalesce into a single octave figure, providing the clearest and most forceful melody on the album. But while this is significant, the key to what makes this passage works is the drums, specifically with its half time feel. I’m going to try to attempt to explain this in a way that isn’t too technical, so bear with me. In music, we deal a concept called time signatures, which is how we subdivide the beat; for an outsider, this is how we break up a song so that we can all follow along easily and be on the same page. When we talk about four beats to a measure, or a 3/4 waltz (boom tst-tst, boom tst-tst), this is what we’re talking about. For the majority of the album, the drums alternate between regular time and double-time, like in the blast beat section at the beginning of the song that I mentioned. Think of the difference between the two as the contrast between regular walking and a military march; in the latter, you may not be making any gains in speed, but there’s a different feel when you emphasize every single step and make sure everyone is moving at the same time. You get a similar result when instead of everyone meeting on the 2 and 4 of each measure everyone is in lockstep 1-2-3-4.
The half time feel works in a similar way, but in the opposite direction. By emphasizing less, it frees up the overall feel of the passage. In the context of “The Pecan Tree”, it gives a sense of weighlessness to the music, as the drums purposely slow down and let the guitars float over the top. Gradually, the drums enter in with a more standard pattern, but the feeling remains, even as the fills get busier. The drums then are able to emphasize specific melodic patterns; notice how at around the 10 minute mark that while the cymbal hits are at a regular beat, the big hits on the kick drum and snare are still spread out.
This whole final section is worthy of praise, and if I were to try to convince someone to give Deafheaven a listen, this would be the specific part I would highlight. However, while the section is great in and of itself, its true brilliance is captured when the listener has fully internalized and processed the rest of the album. Notably, the guitars incorporate specific motifs from previous parts of the album and spin new melodies out of them, and the drums help bring out those specific patterns. In addition, the rest of the album has to be experienced in order to get the full emotional effect of this final section; these are some beautiful melodies, but they stand out even more in comparison to what preceded it. That’s not to say that the metal elements in previous songs lack melody, but that they don’t have the same uplift that this final section does.
And I think it’s the “uplift” that’s most significant. The guitar parts do a great job of capturing the feeling of gradually coming down from a high, but it’s really the ingenious use of the half time feel of the drums that helps capture a feeling of weightlessness in the listener. Often, the half time feel is a trick that bands will deploy seemingly at random, just for a quick burst of contrast from previous iterations of the same progression or riff. In the case of Deafheaven, there is a real purpose to the half time feel, and it helps turn “The Pecan Tree” into a true classic.
*The fact that Rolling Stone reviewed the album two months later and gave it a meh 3-star rating is about as Rolling Stone as it gets.
It looks like a pretty good Monday–a lot of new music, videos, and other fun stuff to kick off your week.
We mentioned this on Friday, and today our suspicions were confirmed: The Antlers are about to release a new album! Familiars will be released state-side on June 17, so mark your calendars now (or just save the hassle and pre-order). Meanwhile, watch the music video the band released for the lead single, “Palace”–it’s as delicately gorgeous as you would expect, and the band has already done the courtesy of providing the lyrics for you on their Tumblr.
Stereogum has the premiere of the single from former member of The Walkmen Peter Matthew Bauer, the festive “Latin American Ficciones”. It definitely evokes the spirit of his former band, especially in the insistent trebly guitar, with a nice spare percussion backing track. This follows on the heels of the recent new music we’ve heard from other former members Walter Martin and Hamilton Leithauser. It’s unlikely that any of the projects will reach the heights of the best work of The Walkmen, but all of the songs that have been released are rather promising, so fingers crossed.
Everyone should be familiar with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” right now, but you may not know the “science” behind the hit. Owen Pallett takes a look at the underlying music theory that makes the song work so well. He takes a couple of liberties to make it easier to understand for beginners, but it’s a solid look at the underpinnings of the tune.
This actually appeared on my Facebook feed on Friday, but I’m linking to it now because we need more ways to kill time at the beginning of the week. NPR has a quick quiz of “Name That Drum Fill”, and I think most people should do pretty well.
And finally, last night I had the great pleasure to see album-of-the-year frontrunners The War On Drugs in person at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. It was a blistering set, and the new songs really kick live. We may run a quick review of the show in the next couple of days, but I’m going to pass along a video from one of the highlights of the show: it was when Jim James of My Morning Jacket showed up for the encore to sing a cover of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” with the band.