Feats of Strength

Feats of Strength: Low

Yesterday we ran a piece in which, among other (legitimate complaints), we knocked a band for being “repetitive.”  But we want to make it clear that “repetition” itself is not necessarily a problem in music, and in fact in many instances can help enhance a song.  For example, repetition can help create a rising tension in a song, as the listener patiently awaits any change that would signify a resolution to the chord progression or drum pattern to which they can finally experience some relief.  With “All My Friends”, LCD Soundsystem accomplished this by expertly employing a simple progression of two chords and a relentless drumbeat to keep the listener’s attention over its seven minute running time.

Low also uses repetition in their song “Nothing But Heart”, a highlight from their stellar album C’mon, but in a manner that differs slightly from the traditional purpose outlined above.  Musically speaking, Low uses a single descending progression repeated several times over the course of the song, but uses this as a foundation on which they can layer on top several other instruments and melodies and musical ideas.  That sounds similar to what most other bands do, but the added wrinkle is that Low also does this through repetition in their lyrics.  The entire song is only four lines, with the last line repeated endlessly.

I would be your king,

but you wanna be free.

Confusion and art–

I’m nothing but heart.

As the listener realizes that the band is not going to deviate from this pattern and instead have fallen into a sort of endless loop or repeating this last line, the phrase “I’m nothing but heart” begins to take on different meanings.  It at first appears to be a sort of mantra, but as the repetition continues without fail, the phrase begins to take on different tones.  The band plays this up with their vocal performance, embellishing it with different dynamics and points of emphasis.  As a result, the band is able to convey several different meanings from the same phrase–over the course of the song, it appears to be hopeful, conciliatory, regretful, bitter, even defiant.  Though the band sings the line over thirty times, one can sense that with each utterance that Low intended the listener to feel a different emotion each time.  It’s an extremely powerful performance.

Oh, and it allows the band to really rock out with some gorgeously jagged guitar solos over the top of it as well.

Feats of Strength: Television

Last week, we took an in-depth look at Television’s brilliant debut album, Marquee Moon.  As one would expect, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the brilliance of the instrumentals on the album, noting the excellent work of each member of the band beyond the usual praise for the dazzling and intricate guitar.  For this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to be cliche and examine the band’s excellent guitar-playing, but do so for a song that is often overlooked: the album closer “Torn Curtain”.

We briefly mentioned “Torn Curtain” in our previous feature, but it’s definitely worthy of further examination.  There is a wonderful dichotomy between the restraint shown by the careful and deliberately paced music and the emotional and expressive lyrics, which are filled with various declarations and descriptions that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Consider the memorable chorus, with a reflective and cathartic Tom Verlaine mourning the passing of time with the other members emphasizing the words “years” and “tears”, while accompanied by straight-forward rhythm section that accentuates each beat, with a delicate piano twinkling over the top.  Fred Smith anchors the song with a sturdy bassline, with the occasional rhythmic flourish–pay particular attention to his sixteenth-note pickups in the second verse for example–while also providing some necessary counter-melody.  Billy Ficca also delves deep into his bag of tricks to loads the song with countless little drum fills and ornaments, beginning from his rolls in the beginning that change pitch with added pressure, to various accents using his ride cymbal to a keen use of his kick drum to accent certain beats.

Though there are stellar contributions all around, it’s Tom Verlaine’s solo guitar that stands out, especially his epic finale.  Throughout the song, he and Richard Lloyd trade riffs as they build on a simple minor key progression, relying on elliptical licks and strategically-placed open strings to subtly color the chord changes.  Verlaine has a nifty little solo that does a good job bridging the second and third chorus, but its true greatness is the fact that it foreshadows a second, more gorgeous solo after the third chorus.  Initially, it seems like the song will end after the third chorus, but Tom gradually begins to improvise around the lead lick introduced in the third chorus.  He steadily picks up steam as he incrementally makes his way up the neck.  As Verlaine works his way up the scale, he ratchets up the tension both by spending more time on each step and by increasing both the number and sweep of each bend.  The listener keeps waiting for the natural resolution of the solo, but Verlaine keeps delaying his march to the summit, until he finally hits the peak on a last gasp series of bends (6:20-6:23).   But right when he gets to the top, Tom abruptly breaks the tension by creating the illusion that his string has snapped, suddenly dropping to the bottom of the neck with a jarring riff using his bass strings.

It’s a stunning moment, and the result is a unique tone that’s instantly memorable; whenever I think of this song, this is the part that I think of instantly.  And despite this “drawback”, as the song fades away, Verlaine valiantly tries to make his way up the neck again.  When looked at in its entirety, it is then easy to see the guitar solo as a metaphorical depiction of persevering through various obstacles, even when one falls down the mountain, mirroring many of the themes of the lyric.  The solo also should serve as a lesson for aspiring musicians, as it’s proof that it’s not necessarily the notes, since the solo revolves around a fairly basic scale, but the rhythm and the touch that are most important.  That’s where a musician truly conveys his emotion; a decent melody is nice, and can result in a reaction from the listener, but without the right rhythm or touch, they will never make a true connection with the audience.

Feats of Strength: Wilco

We were excited to wake up this morning to the news that Wilco had announced that they are releasing the box set retrospective Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 on November 17th to mark the band’s twentieth anniversary.  Not only were we thrilled about the news itself, but we were glad to see that we had an even better reason to feature Wilco in our Feats of Strength series.  This time, we’re taking a closer look at one of their greatest songs, “At Least That’s What You Said”.

My first encounter with Wilco was during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, when they became a cause célèbre after they were dropped by their record label for making a difficult album, a decision which backfired for Reprise when YHF became a huge critical hit and brought the band their widest audience yet.  However, after downloading a copy and listening to it a few times, I was unimpressed; that’s what happens when you read too many breathless music periodicals that tag the band with labels like “The American Radiohead”.  Expectations were simply too high, and I just ignored everything Wilco for the next few years.  A few years later, while I was back home from college for winter break, I was perusing the aisles of my local favorite record shop, when I was suddenly captivated by the strains of a blistering guitar solo coming out the store’s speakers.  I stopped picking through the albums for a moment and stood there, waiting for the song to finish, before walking over to the owner to ask who had just played this magnificent solo.  “Hey man, I just threw on Wilco’s new album.  Have you heard it yet?”  I was stunned, and immediately (1) reversed my opinion about the band and (2) went and found a copy of A Ghost Is Born and added it to my stack for the day.

The song is split into two halves: a tender piano ballad that gives a glimpse at a moment of potential reconciliation for partners in a painful/abusive relationship and an epic instrumental section let by an ever-building guitar solo.  The two parts are delineated by an electric guitar that cuts in right at the two-minute mark, which introduces the major thematic melody, followed by the band joining in on a series of repetitive quarter-note hits.  The guitar then switches back to the dominant melody, and the instrumental section begins in earnest, and the true fireworks of the guitar solo begins.  It’s at this point that the guitar begins to go off the rails in a bit of barely-contained chaos: at first, the guitar pauses every few measures to go back to repeat different variations of the melodic theme, but then it breaks free from this artificial constraint to let loose some aural pyrotechnics, before one final frantic return to the melody, before slowly dying away with a careful, pulsating tremolo bar dive, as the piano creeps back in.  Many listeners have noted the similarities to Neil Young, especially from the Crazy Horse era, and in many instances the guitar captures both a similar tone and style to Young.  One can hear echoes of the winding melodies of “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the rich reverb of the lead guitar of “Like A Hurricane” (note specifically the section at about 4:15 in the song), and the focus on microtones and other near-notes in the solo also is a callback to Young’s signature technique. The notes individually don’t all make sense, but when constructed as a whole, you certainly feel all the possible emotion that the guitarist is attempting to wring out.

What is perhaps most notable about this is the fact that the guitarist in question is Jeff Tweedy.  Even though he has been one of the few constants in Wilco throughout its history, Tweedy never really got the credit as a pure musician as he deserves.  In the early years, he was always compared to his musical partners (Jay Bennett in the early years of Wilco, Jay Farrar from the Uncle Tupelo years), and with the lineup that was hired to tour A Ghost Is Born, he had quite the set of ringers helping him out, including the amazing Nels Cline on guitar (just take a listen to “Impossible Germany” and you will immediately have a deep appreciation for the man’s amazing talent).  But it’s Jeff Tweedy who handled all the lead guitar in the studio for Ghost, and he’s never really received his proper due for his work throughout that album; his work on “At Least That’s What You Said” alone should place him on those periodic “Best Guitarists” lists that run every six months or so, but a lot of writers seem to forget who was behind the six string on that one.

The element that makes the solo work is not the technical mastery (though the incredible skill involved should definitely be acknowledged and admired), but Tweedy’s ability to imbue each note with an incredible amount of emotion, each pitched in a way so as to complement the story that he’s trying to tell.  He’s compared the instrumental half to an anxiety attack, and within the context of the song, the metaphor makes sense.  The slow build-up, the gradual unraveling, the repetition of the same phrase–they all mirror a spiraling out of control, though fortunately a calm is restored by the end of the song.  It’s an impeccably crafted solo in all aspects, and yes, it really rips live.

Feats of Strength: The Thermals

The Thermals are returning home to Portland this weekend for the inaugural Project Pabst festival, and as always we’re psyched for the opportunity to see one of our hometown favorites* in action once again.  With that in mind, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to briefly discuss one of our favorite albums from the last decade, The Body, the Blood, the Machine.  A furious blast of righteous fury aimed directly at an oppressive political establishment, The Body, the Blood, the Machine stands as one of the few concept albums whose execution matches its ambition.  Its narrative revolves around a couple fleeing the clutches of a fascist, theocratic government, and though it could easily devolve into a mere screed that ultimately bores the listener, the album never fails to consistently engage the listener, both with its incisive lyrics and its ever-propulsive music.

“A Pillar of Salt” illustrates the ability of the band perfectly.  Lyrically, it’s the most straightforward depiction of the actual storyline, detailing exactly how the young couple is escaping the clutches of the authoritarian regime, capturing the tyrannical nature of the regime and also the perilous nature of the family’s quest for freedom.  Musically, it’s the perfect example of what “pop-punk” should aspire to be–catchy melodies but backed by razor-sharp playing that doesn’t lack for any edge.  One of my favorite accomplishments as a music director back when I worked in radio was playing this song and receiving direct feedback from our listeners about how much they loved the song.  It was rare for us to get phone calls from listeners, but for “A Pillar of Salt” we got several calls from listeners who wanted to know who the band was that played this song and requesting that we play it more often.  It was nice having my instincts confirmed as I shepherded the song from the specialty show into a new music showcase and eventually into regular rotation, that a band that didn’t get a big push nationally was actually really good and that listeners actually wanted to hear them.  Hopefully those listeners took the initiative and bought the album as well, because “A Pillar of Salt” was definitely not the only highlight of the album.

“Returning to the Fold” appears right after “Pillar” on the album, and though it veers in a different direction by slowing the tempo a bit, it eventually reveals itself to be another high point and would become a fan-favorite, who enjoy stomping along with its big chorus and singing at the top of their longs brilliant lines like “I can’t believe I got so far with a head so empty.”  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the songs, I want you to listen to the intros and first verses of each songs carefully, paying attention to the guitar.  You should be able to notice that…the two songs have the exact same chord progression.  Even with the different tempos, it should be obvious now, especially after I’ve pointed it out.

Now, considering the connective thread that runs throughout the album, this clearly isn’t an example of a band repeating the same tired old ideas, but is instead obviously intentional, especially since the two songs appear back-to-back.  And then it becomes clearer that there are deeper connections between the two songs, such as the fact that the first revolves around escaping, while the second talks about “returning to the fold”.  In fact, the fact that the slower song is the one detailing the return mirrors the reaction of what would occur in real life–there would be a frantic attempt at escape, but when caught, the family would trudge back home, in no way eager to come back.  It’s subtle musical and thematic connections such as this which help set The Body, the Blood, the Machine from other concept albums, and help it succeed where so many others failed before.

*Ed. Note: We don’t want to slight any of the other great Portland bands that we love, including Red Fang, who are set to perform at Project Pabst as well.  Just as parents aren’t asked to choose favorites among their children, we don’t want to do the same with our local bands.  We love a lot of them.

Feats of Strength: Spoon

We might as well finish things off this week with our Band of the Week, Spoon.  You would think that after all this time spent carefully analyzing the band’s albums and career over the past few days that we had covered everything, and to tell the truth, you would be partially correct: we did mention this particular moment on Tuesday.  But indulge us and allow us to examine a particular moment of brilliance from the band, the spastic guitar solo from “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”.

[For listening purposes, the solo occurs at around the three minute mark]

To the untrained ear, the guitar solo in this song is reminiscent of what many people say when confronted with modern art–“My kid could paint that.”  It’s true that on a superficial level the guitar solo sounds like a rather amateurish effort–similar to our previous Feats of Strength, in which we paid tribute to “shitty drumming”, but not quite.  It sounds like the kind of solo that a novice would attempt when he/she gets tired of practicing scales and wants to just rock out for a few seconds and unleash that rawk-n-roll spirit.  In other words, it sounds a lot like aural hot garbage.

In reality, it takes a lot of skill to sound that “bad”.  Take it from a musician who’s played guitar for dozens of years and is still more comfortable with writing a traditional fretboard-burner than a freakout like this one.  It may sound like a mess of random notes, but that’s not really accurate; the exact notes were not planned out, but the general plan was determined well in advance.  The use of dissonant tones and a chromatic scale were pre-planned, and Britt’s rhythm is spot-on, speeding up and repeating notes as necessary.  It is the definition of “controlled chaos”.

The solo also needs to be considered within the context of both the song and of Spoon’s music in general.  The band has a reputation for absolute precision, with each part carefully constructed to fit within the perfect space in the music.  Even on their more energetic and rocking songs, the band never loses control of the music, and they always maintain a tight feel.  This is present in the song as well–aside from the lead guitar, every instrument is locked into place, and played at a measured and precise tempo.  The lead guitar then comes in and shocks the listener, disturbing the previously imagined order.  If another band had attempted the same trick, it wouldn’t have the same resonance or power because this moment goes against everything we’ve expected from Spoon.  It makes for an incredibly compelling live performance as well, as this is one of the few moments where the audience sees Britt completely lose himself to the music as he falls to the floor to wring out all the emotion possible from the solo.  At this point, the audience now understands that when they believe, they call it rock’n’roll.

Feats of Strength: Pavement

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.

Feats of Strength: OutKast

If my Facebook feed is any indication, we’re in the middle of wedding season right now; if you’re of a certain age, it seems like every week brings news of one friend or another getting married.  In fact, I was just at a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago, and because I’m always working, I found inspiration for an article on the dance floor.  In the past decade, “Hey Ya” has become an unofficial wedding staple; in fact, I believe in most states it is now the law that the couple is not officially wed until the DJ plays the song.

What is it that makes “Hey Ya” such a universally beloved song, crossing over beyond traditional hip-hop and pop audiences into rock radio, and now onto the wedding dancefloor where grandma and grandpa are throwing it down?  The answer is in the very basic structure of the song itself, with OutKast putting an ingenious twist on an old songwriting standard.  The chords to the song are among the first that any musician learns, (G, C, D, and E minor), and they’re played in a common progression (I, IV, V, and vi).  Throughout the whole song, none of this varies; it sounds universal, because it’s based on a music tradition we’ve had ingrained for years.

The subtle trick to the song is a slight modification to the rhythm of the progression.  Instead of giving each chord the same amount of beats, OutKast stretches out the number of measures for one chord, then shortens the measure for the next chord.  The first modification gives a natural tension to the progression, because the listener is conditioned to expect the next chord to come in earlier; the second alteration resolves it quickly, but does it in a way that pushes the listener into the next phrase.  So, “Hey Ya” begins with four beats of the G chord, eight beats of the C chord, two beats of the D chord, and then four beats or the E minor chord.  The eight beats creates tension, the two releases it, but pushes the phrase forward.  Because of the uneven distribution, the short D chord measure acts as a pickup into the E minor; the E minor works as a resolution, because it’s the relative of the G, the key in which the song is written.

The result is that the listener gets the benefit of both the expected and the unexpected; there is appreciation for the familiarity, but there is enough distinction that OutKast can maintain the listener’s attention throughout the song.  And it’s on top of this base that OutKast can add other touches that augment this feeling, from the traditional drumbeat to the funky bass that emphasizes those downbeats.  Throw in some goofy keyboard leas and some backing vocals, and you’ve got yourself a hit.

What’s interesting is that the structure of the song also gives clues to the lyrical sentiment as well–contrary to first impressions, this isn’t really all that happy of a song.  Each phrase ends on a minor key, which sounds “darker” and “sadder” in contrast to the preceding major keys; it mirrors the tone of lines like “Thank God for mom and dad for sticking through together, cause we don’t know how” and “If what they say is ‘nothing is forever’, then what makes love the exception?  So why oh why are so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”  But we’re so focused on the initial happiness, that we tend not to pay attention to the end of each line.

Then again, maybe we just like singing “Hey Ya”, informing the populace what’s cooler than being cool, and shaking it like a Polaroid picture.

Feats of Strength: Deafheaven

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.

Feats of Strength: The Olivia Tremor Control

Now that summer has officially arrived, I’ve been in the mood for some bright and happy music, driving me to root through my collection for something that could be considered along the lines of the “aural equivalent to sunshine”.  One of the first songs that comes to my mind that fits this exacting criteria is “Hideway” from The Olivia Tremor Control.  And with the upcoming release from the side project Circulatory System, now is the perfect time to explore their style in greater detail.  Like many of their Elephant 6 compatriots, The Olivia Tremor Control were experts mining all the possibilities of lo-fi production, proving that a limited recording budget shouldn’t limit a band’s ambition and scope.  However, the band was in a class of its own in creating a full symphonic sound from a bare-bones orchestra.

On the surface, “Hideway” is a really uplifting and pleasant song, filled with tons of catchy hooks and memorable melodies (for example, I find myself singing those delightful horn parts days later).  The band is really able to sell what in less delicate hands could be a corny message; “I know some kind of rain will fall, but it can’t rain everyday” would fit perfectly on a motivational poster, but the band is able to overcome any possible cynical response due to their sincere conviction that comes through in their singing.  Even the darker imagery in some of the other lines take on a more positive glow, due to the overall message of triumph over adversity.  So when I say “on the surface”, I’m not claiming there’s a subtle, sinister current lurking beneath in the subtext; instead, I’m referring to the many layers of the music itself.

It’s on this track that you can really feel the influence of The Beach Boys on the band’s sound, specifically the careful orchestration of songs like “Good Vibrations”.  On the first few listens, you pick up on the easy-going guitar, the perfectly accented horn lines, and the gorgeous vocal harmonies.  With additional listens though, you can find dozens of layers of instrumental tracks.  There are multiple guitar, keyboard, glockenspiel, horn, and percussion tracks filtering in and out, and the band makes perfect use of the stereo setup by placing specific lines in different speakers.  On one listen, you may notice that in the chorus, there’s a backing guitar line that plays a quickly-repeating-single-note figure that provides a slight push to the beat, in contrast to the easygoing verses before.  On another, you may notice that in the bridge there’s two separate keyboard parts, one running up and down an arpeggiated scale figure, and the other providing short staccato bursts.  Listen again, and you’ll notice wood percussion and bells that mirror melody lines from the vocals and horns.

Each listen brings out dozens of new details, but that alone isn’t what’s commendable about the music.  It’s the fact that at no point does the abundance of instruments and melodies feel overbearing in any way.  At its heart, there is still a great summer song that’s appreciable even on a superficial level, and diving deeper into the nooks and crannies of the music doesn’t overwhelm this basic fact.  Even when identifying specific trees, you never feel as if you’re losing sight of the forest.

The I had the privilege of seeing the band live during its short reunion tour, and it gave me a new-found appreciation of the collaborative nature of the group.  While the group is driven by its two leads Bill Doss and Will Hart, you could sense the joy of each other musician who would join in and play their small part, knowing that while it may seem minor from a distance, each part was a key component to the song.  This goes to the other subtle strength of the song, that the band was able to convey the same intricacy and detail that would be found in a 100 piece orchestra with just a few friends joining along on whatever instruments they found handy.  It’s this quality that made The Olivia Tremor Control one of the most significant bands of the 90’s, and how their music still seems fresh today.

Feats of Strength: Soundgarden

Soundgarden released several deluxe reissues of their classic album Superunknown today, and along with their recent rollicking performance of the album in full, it seems like now is the perfect time to spotlight the band for our Feats of Strength examination.  When discussing the brilliance of Soundgarden, it is absolutely required that one mentions the sheer musical talent of each person in the group, and how each contributed significantly to the group’s unique sound.  From Chris Cornell’s dynamic and immense vocal range, to Kim Thayil’s distinctive and exhilarating leads, to Ben Shepherd’s dark and groovy basslines, and to Matt Cameron’s complex patterns and fills, each member represents some of the finest talent to ever pick up an instrument.  For the young musicians out there, any one of those guys would serve as a fine role model for your playing.

The point of that glowing introduction was to illustrate that it would be pretty easy to point to just about any song in Soundgarden’s deep catalog and use it to show off a particular strength of the group.  Oh, you want an idea of Chris Cornell’s range?  Check out that ending to “Slaves and Bulldozers”.  You’re doubting Kim Thayil’s ability to shred?  I have no idea how you managed this, but somehow you’ve apparently ignored rock radio over the last twenty years completely, and so have completely avoided “Spoonman” or “Black Hole Sun”.  However, those examples are the kinds of displays of technical prowess that should be obvious to anyone with ears; you don’t need someone like me to point them out.  Instead, I’ve chosen to highlight something much simpler and easy to overlook over the first few listens.

As I mentioned before, Matt Cameron is known for some complex drum patterns, such as the one used for “The Day I Tried to Live”; part of that was unintentional, and the result of fitting odd riffs to a workable drum beat.  However, the one used for “Limo Wreck” [embedded above] is one of the most basic drum beats in music: the waltz.  Step-two-three, step-two-three; boom-chk-chk, boom-chk-chk.  The genius is not in the selection of the pattern itself, but its use as support for the lyrics.  The waltz pattern, with its echoes of stuffy and old high society, provides the perfect ironic backdrop to lyrics that celebrate the imminent demise of the gaudy and materialistic upper classes.

It took several listens over the years before I noticed this pattern; the waltz is not clearly telegraphed, as is often the case (either in title or in the opening drumbeat).  But now it’s often the first thing I think of when I listen to this song, and it provides an indelible image in my mind of a snooty ballroom dance, with each participant oblivious to the crumbling of society around them.  And while the band has claimed before that they often don’t think of time signatures when writing a piece, I can’t imagine that this subtle touch was spontaneous, but instead planned to perfection.