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.