Saturday, February 25, 2012

If you like Gotye, thank The Police

Belgian-Australian performer Gotye (pronounced GO-tee-ay, like the French "Gauthier") burst onto the scene earlier this year with the wildfire-like success of his single "Somebody That I Used to Know," a collaboration with Kimbra from his 2011 release Making Mirrors. The song's mass appeal is understandable; it combines an unusual beat with multi-instrumental accents like xylophone, distorted surf guitar, and a strange, haunting guitar effect that sounds like a theremin. The song is primal in its subject matter, but manages to express a very familiar human emotion over a sound that feels fresh and cutting-edge.

But if you're at all like me, the first time you heard this song, you thought, "Who's doing this great cover of a Police song?"

Because every single element that Gotye uses to his advantage in "Somebody That I Used to Know" was pioneered by Sting and company in the late '70s and early '80s. These elements can be found in just about any song by The Police from that era, but perhaps no song better illustrates this point than "Can't Stand Losing You" from their debut album in 1978:

First, the obvious parallels: these two songs are in exactly the same key and are powered by the same unusual, reggae-inspired beat. They are both about lost love. (Nothing terribly amazing there; half of the songs ever written are about lost love, the other half are written about love not yet realized.) Both use the technique of a restrained, single voice on the verse before opening up into a full-chord harmonization on the choruses.

But then there are the subtler similarities, like the way Gotye apes Sting's phrasing (both plaintive and powerful) when he goes full-throated on the choruses, or the way the drums come in splashy toward the end of the song to kick up the energy level.

In almost every way, "Somebody That I Used to Know" sounds like a direct reference to "Can't Stand Losing You." So if you like Gotye, remember... thank The Police.

Monday, February 20, 2012

If you like Bon Iver, thank Steve Winwood

Okay, I know you're thinking I'm crazy with this one, but bear with me. I'm not suggesting that the parallels between this year's Best New Artist Grammy winner and the classic blues-rock wunderkind are the overt kind. Part of Bon Iver's appeal is that the music doesn't quite sound like anything else you've heard.

Justin Vernon, the creator/songwriter who essentially is Bon Iver, layers multi-tracked falsetto vocals over lilting-yet-catchy melodies, and then he adds in just enough sonic interest to be appealing to the modern ear. This sonic interest usually takes the form of synthesizers, strings and beats. And it's through the application of those elements that a reverence for the 80s-era blues-pop of Steve Winwood manifests itself.

Listen first to the song "Calgary" from Bon Iver's 2011 self-titled album:

The song opens with a synthesizer playing an unresolved minor chord and the tracked vocals creating the shape of the melody over that sound; it isn't until more than a minute in that drum beats and distorted guitars enter the mix. The overall sound is one of stripped-down maximalism, as if there were once a hundred other elements that made up this song, all of which are now only hinted at through the few that remain.

Now listen to Winwood's "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" from 1988's Roll With It:

There are a lot of similarities here - unresolved minor chords on the synthesizer, multiple-tracked vocals, a relatively restrained arrangement (for the '80s) that relies heavily on synthesizer and beats. The melody itself is more traditional R&B than anything Bon Iver writes, but when Winwood sings, "And we turn into music," it is with the same raw emotion that Bon Iver sings, "Oh the demons come, they can't subside."

(This relationship between Bon Iver and '80s blues-pop is less crazy than it at first seems - Vernon readily confesses to a love of Bonnie Raitt, once an undisputed star of 80s-era blues-pop herself. He even works a gorgeous cover of Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" into his set.)

So consider the fact that if you like Bon Iver, you can thank Steve Winwood.