Thursday, March 12, 2015

If you like music, thank other music

Hello, loyal LTF-ers! It has been a long time since I was inspired to update this blog, but with the recent news regarding the ruling in the Robin Thicke vs. the estate of Marvin Gaye case and the Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith brouhaha, it seems that songs that sound like other songs are more timely and relevant than ever.

Photo credit: ABC News

The general consensus among creative people seems to be that the decision to make Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke pay damages of $7.4M to Marvin Gaye's estate is ultimately damaging to the music industry. They argue that at its core music is an art of pastiche, in which themes, ideas, melodies, bass lines, rhythms, etc., that have come before are reused in fresh, new ways to create new works of art.  Creating a litigious environment in which artists fear this basic process of pastiche is ultimately detrimental to the creation of new music.

Photo credit: Getty Images
All of this examination of the fundamental pastiche-iness (I made that word up) of music has inspired some great comparison between songs in popular media this week.

One of my favorites is this blog post by Chicago radio station WXRT, in which they cite 10 instances of songs that sound like other songs, including Jack White sounding like Led Zeppelin, Radiohead sounding the the White Album-era Beatles, and the Black Keys sounding like Pink Floyd, among others.

But to my ear, the most compelling comparison they make is between Cage the Elephant's "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" and Beck's "Loser," primarily because "Loser" was such a sonic leap for its time, sounding like almost nothing else out there at the time.

 Beck's sound here is still so distinctive 20 years later that the Cage the Elephant version sounds almost derivative to my ear. And therein lies the challenge of regulating the borrowing of music ideas. How similar does a song have to sound to another song to be considered a blatant ripoff?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

10 ways to beat Snow Day cabin fever

Taking a quick break from music to fulfill a specific request for a blog post. Hope you enjoy!

If you live in a place where the high is in the negative digits today, I'm right there with you. Since I'm seeing a lot complaining about cabin fever and boredom, I thought I'd share some "snow day" ideas gleaned from my years of expertise as a not-very-outdoorsy only child.

10 Ways to Beat Snow Day cabin fever

1. Learn something new! YouTube how-tos, iTunes University lectures, NPR podcasts, whatever floats your boat. (I'm really enjoying learning German on DuoLingo right now.) Photo: Tama Leaver
2. Call an old friend you haven't talked to in a long time. Yes, on the telephone. (Or Facetime.) No, texting/emailing/tweeting doesn't count. Photo: Trace Meek
3. Gather up whatever crafty supplies you can find and make some valentines. Before you tell me you have no one to give them to: give them out to elderly acquaintances or even strangers. Photo: shadfan66
4. Bake something. Preferably with cinnamon or vanilla in it so your house/apartment will smell amazing. Photo: GoodNCrazy
5. Clean out a closet/junk drawer/basement/attic/the refrigerator. You know how you always say, "I should really do that sometime when there's nothing else to do"? The time is now, friend. Photo: QueenieVonSugarpants
6. Start a book you've been meaning to read or watch a classic movie you've been hearing about all your life but have never seen. (Dr. Zhivago is good for this weather.) Photo: meddygarmet
7. Start researching your genealogy, or scan and organize old family photos and then share them with the rest of the family. They'll love you for it. Photo: anyjazz65
8. Do you play a musical instrument? Learn a new song! Photo: Scott Ableman
9. Do you knit/crochet/embroider/quilt/etc? You're already set, and don't need this list. Photo: LornaWatt

10. Feeling restless? Netflix and Amazon Prime both have plenty of exercise video options: yoga, pilates, aerobics, indoor walking... Do it to it. Photo: NatalieLucier

Thursday, July 11, 2013

If you like (certain) new Daft Punk OR Mayer Hawthorne, thank Steely Dan

From the moment their first album, Can't Buy a Thrill, debuted in 1972, Steely Dan was a band that defied traditional rock and roll tropes. Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, the duo behind Steely Dan, were frequently ahead of their time musically, preferring jazz influences, slick-sounding and complex production techniques and ironic, high-level lyrics. As a result, the sound they pioneered has remained an entrenched and elemental framework for indie music that only seems to get fresher with age. They've influenced everyone from Rickie Lee Jones to the Mountain Goats and their influence shows no signs of waning.

In fact, two of the summer's most-anticipated new releases feature songs that are clear homages to (if not downright imitations of) Steely Dan.

First there is Daft Punk's track "Fragments of Time" from the critically-acclaimed Random Access Memories:

Hear the synth-happy melodic hooks, the warm guitar riff, the nostalgic, post-collegiate lyrics? All of these are direct hallmarks of the Steely Dan sound, as evidenced on "Hey Nineteen" (which bears a remarkably similar tone and chord structure to "Fragments of Time," just at a slowed-down speed):

Now consider Mayer Hawthorne's "Reach Out Richard" from the soon-to-be-released Where Does This Door Go (click link to hear the album version via NPR or try this live version):

This song is such a direct imitation of Steely Dan's "Peg" that it would almost be easier to mention the things that are different about them:

Mayer Hawthorne's song has a slightly more traditional 12-bar blues structure than the complex chord changes present in "Peg," but the central rhythm, tone and shape of the song are remarkably similar to the Steely Dan song, written in 1974. Both songs are written from the perspective of a third-person narrator. Both songs employ a backing chorus that echoes the central rhythm of the song with harmony and melody. Hawthorne's verses are more connected, legato... but the chorus returns to a syllabic, staccato sound prevalent on the Steely Dan track. The influence is unmistakable.

So remember, if you like the new Daft Punk or Mayer Hawthorne, thank Steely Dan.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

If you like Grizzly Bear, thank The Beach Boys

Astute LTF reader Stanford Chiou sent me an email the other day after noticing a striking similarity between a popular Grizzly Bear song and a classic Beach Boys song. An excellent observation, Stanford! Thanks for the tip.

So first, listen to Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" from their 2009 release, Veckatimist:

Beautiful, haunting multi-part harmonies really define this song, as they rise gorgeously above the quarter-note piano chords, and then seem to soar into their own atmosphere for a moment before coming back down to earth, drawn by the steady rhythm.

That kind of studied, chorale treatment of vocal harmonies in pop music was arguably invented by The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, as he wrote ever more complex music that allowed the classic surf band to evolve into cutting-edge pop artists. (Paul McCartney once famously said that The Beach Boy's 1966 Pet Sounds was his favorite album, for that very reason.)

That masterful blend of high vocal harmonies, almost madrigal in style, is on its greatest display in The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" from the aforementioned Pet Sounds:

Much like the Grizzly Bear song, the soaring vocals are bound to earth by the steady quarter notes (in this song played on an organ rather than a piano, but still a clear inspiration.) The transcendent, ethereal quality of the vocals was the clear inspiration for the Grizzly Bear song. To quote, "The end result is a song that has the orchestral loveliness of a ballad but all the power and forward drive of a good pop tune." I would say the same of Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks."

So remember, if you like Grizzly Bear, thank The Beach Boys. (And thanks, Stanford!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

If you like The Head and the Heart, thank Peter, Paul and Mary

First, of course, there are the obvious similarities between The Head and the Heart's Charity Rose Thielen and Peter, Paul and Mary's Mary Travers: icy blonde hair, an arresting grace and vulnerability, a uniquely throaty voice. But the echoes of PP&M's influence are found woven throughout The Head and the Heart's sound in more complicated ways as well. Listen, for example, to the hauntingly pretty "Winter Song:"

Listen to the perfectly synced three-part harmonies (two baritones and a soprano). To the lilting and spare acoustic guitar backing. To the sadness.

These are all elements found in the music of pioneering folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s. What we think of as 1960s folk music was really a rediscovery (or revival, in the preferred vernacular) of the concept of "traditional music." The sound we associate with Folk Revival actually blended everything from British medieval court music to Appalachian bluegrass and created something new that sounded earthy and authentic and familiar; in essence, it was a new sound that seemed as though it had been around forever.

And no one encapsulated that new sound better than Peter, Paul and Mary. When Travers, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow recorded their first album together in 1962, they weren't creating a new sound; they were simply absorbing the elements of the Folk Revival that had begun in the 1950s and polished them to a pretty and widely palatable sheen, combining elements of humor and political statement into a familiar-yet-fresh folk sound. Their voices were untrained and unbalanced (they also had two baritones and a soprano), and they had their biggest hits either recording other people's songs or recording traditional tunes that had been around for decades. And yet despite their simplicity (or more likely because of it), they became so hugely popular that their influence continues to resonate 50 years later.

For example, compare "Winter Song" to Peter, Paul and Mary's "500 Miles:

You'll hear the same complex harmonies, the pleasantly uneven vocal balance, the resonating guitar accompaniment. And of course, the sadness. (Folk Revival was nothing if not beautifully sad.) So many of the elements that make Peter, Paul and Mary sound like they do manifest in one way or another on The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut album.

So remember, if you like The Head and the Heart, thank Peter, Paul and Mary.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

If you like Stornoway, thank Nick Drake

I stumbled across the song "Zorbing" by British indie band Stornoway (who are, ironically, not from Scotland), thanks to the Song of the Day project that actor/director/fellow Kenyon grad Josh Radnor has been doing on Twitter (which I cannot recommend highly enough):

It has the haunting, harmonic beauty of the British folk revival of the '60s (which ultimately inspired the corresponding folk revival in America). But there's also that infectious brass band riff that comes in halfway through the song, which is an element of the folk revival that is distinct to the U.K.

Which is why I was immediately reminded of one of the last British folk revivalists to have a national following -- the incomparable Nick Drake. Compare "Zorbing" to the song "Hazey Jane II" from Drake's 1970 release, Bryter Later

You'll hear the same haunting vocal quality, though admittedly with less harmonizing than Stornoway applies. And yes, those are electric guitars rather than acoustic. But the brass band riffs take on a leading role in this song, driving the whole rhythm and energy forward, and it's suddenly easy to hear where Stornoway got the inspiration for "Zorbing."

So remember, if you like Stornoway, thank Nick Drake.

Friday, September 07, 2012

If you like John Legend, thank the Staple Singers

Heard this classic soul gem on the oldies station by the incomparable soul/R&B family, The Staple Singers:

It ran around my brain all day, sounding so very familiar. Where, where, where had I heard that string arrangement before? Just before bed, it came to me: it was the sample John Legend used in his breakout hit collaboration with Kanye West, "Number One":

Hear it? I think it's sampled directly from the Staples. And in borrowing the loop, John Legend turned the sentiment of the original song on its heel -- what was initially a song about getting busy with the one you love is inverted to a desperate apology for cheating on the one you love. By doing this, it's almost as though he's questioning the authenticity of the sentiment of the original song, calling the notion of faithfulness into question in the most dulcet possible way. Which I guess shouldn't be so surprising. John Legend is an Ivy League grad, after all.

So remember, if you like John Legend, thank the Staple Singers.