Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ten Favorites from 2013

We were all sitting around the TV on Christmas Eve, watching The Polar Express. We were looking for a good stopping point. The Little One’s bedtime had clearly come and gone, and although she knew something was special about this evening, she was still a little too young to be stricken by the insomnia of anticipation that keeps children awake pending Santa’s arrival. She knew he was coming, but we were not sure she knew exactly what that meant.

We were looking at each other for confirmation that it was, indeed, bedtime. Right as we were about to put out the cookies and head for bed, a song about Christmas trees arose on the movie. The Little One listened intently. Suddenly, she leapt out of her grandmother’s lap and ran up to our tree. Uncharacteristically speechless, she pointed at it, then at us, then at the song playing on the TV. After a few moments in this rotation, the song was over and she smiled. We turned off the movie and she cheerfully headed off to bed.

She seemed to make a connection, as if she figured out that the stuff that she has been seeing and the stuff that we keep talking about are all part of this same “Christmas” thing. In truth, I’m not sure exactly what happened there. I am just incredibly thankful to have been there to see it, because it was a beautiful moment.

10. The Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO: If The Beach Boys had joined Julee Cruise on Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic Twin Peaks soundtrack, it might end up sounding like the Besnard Lakes. Clearly, they belong in the dream pop genre, but I find them more believable than Beach House, if last year’s Bloom is any indication.

9. S U R V I V E – Imagine Depeche Mode reinventing themselves as an instrumental jam band and rewriting the Blade Runner soundtrack. Classic synth fans should look no further.

8. The Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan: This quirky and undeniably musical pop album framed several defining moments in the new house this year. The Dirty Projectors take fascinating risks and tame them in every way imaginable.

7. Fleetwood Mac – Rumors: When all my CDs were packed up for a move a couple of years ago, I got Rumors on a whim. It was the first album I played in our second Austin apartment, but this year I discovered how amazing it really is.

6. Syd Arthur – On and On: Seriously great prog-pop from Canturbury. On and On is totally infectious, but is also subtly cerebral if you choose to listen in that mode.

5. The Format – Interventions and Lullabies: Although the inclusion of fun. in the top 20 sort of challenges the “one-entry-per-artist-per-year” rule, The Format is, technically, a totally separate project. I also think that Interventions and Lullabies is more consistent than Some Nights, and I most assuredly would not have followed Nate Reuss into the latter if I did not love the former so much.

4. The Dark Knight Original Soundtrack – It took me nearly all year to crack it open, but Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack to the second Dark Knight movie has had a profound effect on my listening. It has reframed the way that I listen to current movie scores.

3. Tame Impala – Lonersim: Another album that initially defined our move into the new house, but in this case its depth unfolded into wider horizons. The distinctive songwriting defines the album, but there are intentionally crafted layers of sonic depth that seem unending.

2. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories: A well-crafted and unique progressive rock album that allows its players distinctive voices to shine through its concept is a rarity. Its even more rare that this situation could arise on a solo album, but Wilson stepped aside just enough to allow The Raven to become one of the finest albums this year.

1. The Postal Service – Give Up: Sure, the album is over a decade old, but was totally new to me this year. No matter where I was or who I was with, Give Up was the soundtrack for nearly any occasion and it never, ever wore thin. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 8: Iron Man

While we are relatively deep in the DC universe, the Little One is just scratching the surface of Marvel’s roster.  If the past few years are any indication, these characters will probably play a role in her childhood through well-conceived films that pay reverence to their source material.  I don’t want to co-opt that experience too severely by assigning music to characters that may have their own themes in the future.  Additionally, there are some issues with the scoring of the current films that don’t quite fit the classic theme song paradigm that I have been operating with. Iron Man, the Little One's latest discovery, serves as an example for a couple of these issues..

In recent years, it has become increasingly important to distinguish between a movie’s “soundtrack” and its “score.” I always remember a “soundtrack” being mostly original music associated with a movie. These days, however, the meaning of this term has shifted, and usually designates a collection of songs by popular artists that may or may not even be in the movie. This has been a particularly pervasive practice in superhero movies, and Iron Man is no exception. As a result, it would not be beyond reason to make Ol’ Shell-Head’s theme painfully obvious.

Iron Man by Black Sabbath on Grooveshark

But that would be totally wrong. It is my intention to allow all of these superheroes to inhabit the same soundscape regardless of intellectual property legalities and other such nonsense. Iron Man’s theme would have to come from a “score” rather than a soundtrack. Scoring conventions have changed, however, partially in reaction to current movie formats, and well-developed themes are not always given the prominence they once did. A theme once would have played during the opening credits of a movie, but high profile movies rarely waste time with protracted introductions. Very often, there is little more than a title sequence. This was the case for the majority of the films in the Iron Man franchise. Iron Man 3, however, had a change in director, composer, and, surprisingly, a pretty memorable theme.

Granted, this theme has some non-traditional sounds at its fringes, a factor that has perhaps ill-advisedly dissuaded me from choosing some great music for this project. It is also relatively straightforward, but after the hyper-complexity of Hawkman’s theme, I did not see anything wrong with presenting something a little more accessible on behalf of Iron Man, especially if it was actually from the franchise.  The final selling point was the programmatic hammer-and-anvil, which, coincidentally, was a sound I was looking for at the outset.

For the Little One, this energy and power of this piece made it an immediate success. I think that she could listen to Iron Man on infinite repeat and be totally happy. Due to lack of exposure, however, Iron Man isn’t on her radar as much as Superman or J’onn J’onzz. She doesn’t regularly ask for him. Perhaps in a few months we can crack open the Avengers animated series on Netflix and raise her awareness about these heroes as well. For the short term, though, I think we’ll mainly have a DC Christmas.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 7: The Martian Manhunter

The Martian Manhunter is certainly one of the most underrated of DC’s classic characters. Thanks to the Justice League animated series streaming on Netflix, however, The Little One has a soft spot for (as we call him) J’onn J’onzz. When, over Thanksgiving, I suggested that J’onn J’onzz might have a “song,” she ran down the hall yelling “J’onn J’onzz! J’onn J’onzz!” Even the comic book fans in the family were confused.

Even though the Martian Manhunter is a relatively obscure member of the Justice League, I wanted to get this one right. A theme song for J’onn J’onzz was an opportunity to introduce some moodier sounds into her superhero theme playlist. The character’s stoic and lonely demeanor, coupled with otherworldly powers like telepathy, shape-shifting, and phasing, make him the “Other” on the team. He is an outsider with the capacity to objectively comment on humanity. It seemed like a wide-open field, but once I set out on the path to find J’onn J’onzz’s theme, things got sticky pretty quick.

I initially considered some more exotic 20th century chamber music, and although 12 tone music certainly captured an otherworldly feeling, I thought that might be just too far out (especially after pushing the limits with Hawkman). Instead, I used Debussy’s Nuages as a starting point. For me, this alI-time favorite would be welcome listening three times a day, but ultimately, its length and mood was prohibitive for a 2 year old.

I - Nuages by Claude Debussy on Grooveshark

I asked around and checked out lots of unfamiliar suggestions, but it was a little difficult to immediately decide if a piece really captured how I saw the character. J’onn J’onzz is obviously a science-fiction character, but his demeanor is far more introspective and detached than the space themes that I had been examining for Green Lantern. His alienness is otherworldly and his powers surreal, so I began to look for themes from reality-challenging movies. Inception was a top contender.  Although this score is basically orchestral, its instrumentation often reaches far beyond the boundaries of traditional scoring, and its use of melody is not always obvious.

Dream Is Collapsing by Hans Zimmer on Grooveshark

It seemed like a step in the right direction, however, so I started to research the soundtracks to other reality-bending movies, and it was not long before I came up with The Matrix. I remember the movie’s soundtrack as being quite synthetic, but despite the technologically-driven theme of the movie itself, its score largely stays within the boundaries of the traditional orchestra. What really caught my attention, though, was a pervasive sequence of layered chords that, in the movie, accompanied most of the bullet-time sequences. I have since been referring to this texture as “the Matrix Sound” (with some deference to Tristan).

As a whole, The Matrix score was even less thematic and more programmatic than Inception’s. Taken out of its context, however, I began to relate the Matrix Sound with J’onn J’onzz walking through walls or changing shape. As a result, for a brief time during the Thanksgiving break, I became a bit obsessed with the Matrix Sound. I wondered if it could be compelling enough on its own to pull a piece together into a cohesive theme for J’onn J’onzz. I listened to as much of the Matrix soundtracks that I could, distilling them down to the tracks that fit the two-to-five minute mark. Then I repeatedly listened to and reviewed these tracks, trying to find one that had both some thematic strength and an emphasis on the Matrix Sound.

The Little One had no patience for all of this research, though. Every time we stepped into the car from that point on, she begged for J’onn J’onzz, so I somewhat prematurely chose a track of the appropriate length that prominently featured the Matrix Sound, which was the Main Title/Trinity Infinity track shown above.

This is the first time during the course of this project that I was, and am still, a little ambivalent about the track I chose. Clearly, it is meant to accompany the action of the film. Perhaps I can justify the somewhat erratic, jarring nature of the piece by attributing it to the complexities of the Martian Manhunter character, but as a standalone piece of music, it does not really make a whole lot of sense in comparison to other tunes in the playlist. This would be a pretty serious issue if it weren’t for one thing: the Little One loves it. J’onn J’onzz has been first on her lips every morning since the track’s introduction and it always gets at least two repeat requests. I guess I shouldn’t let my personal predilection towards melody and form inhibit her formative musical experience.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 6: Hawkman

I knew the Hawkman or Hawkgirl request was coming.  There were several issues that I foresaw, and my superficial knowledge of these characters’ accepted canon provided relatively little background with which to navigate them. With their closely interwoven history, I was wondering if these two characters even deserved separate themes, or one singular “Hawkperson” theme. The majority of the Little One’s exposure to Hawkman and Hawkgirl has been through the Justice League animated series, which, if you are familiar with the series, doesn’t paint either character in the most positive light. As great as it is, however, the show is a little too violent to let her watch without sitting beside her as a moral guide, so we have backed off from watching it regularly. Hawkman does show up in her Super Friends Busy Book, though, so he was her initial request and my template for finding a theme.

I already had something in mind, and it pretty much sounded like Anvil of Crom. This song has clearly settled in as Wonder Woman’s theme, but its martial power certainly seemed appropriate. I briefly considered O Fortuna from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, but this felt too diabolical and gothic.

O Fortuna by Carl Orff on Grooveshark

The Ride of the Valkyries was another suggestion that came up, and in some ways, this piece certainly conveys an aspect of the character. Like all of Wagner’s instrumental pieces, however, unedited, it’s just too long. Even in an edited form, I don’t think that I could listen to it three or four times in a row every day for the foreseeable future. Wagner did not ask for this piece to become the Nazi war theme some seventy years later, but the cultural baggage is still there for me and it renders The Ride of the Valkyries inappropriate.

The Valkyries from Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner on Grooveshark

I came back to the 2nd Movement from Shostakovich’s 10 th Symphony, which was in the running for Flash’s theme. This piece has an unbelievable energy, but it also has a feeling of menace that did not match the sleek drive I wanted for the Scarlet Speedster. For Hawkman, however, it’s aggressive, warlike vigor felt like a good match, and its swirling chromatic lines brought to mind birds of prey circling overhead, waiting for the opportunity to rain down havoc from the sky.

I loaded it onto the playlist and waited, and soon enough, she made the request on the way home. She listened intently to the entire thing, but did not ask for a replay. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised. It seemed a far cry from the elegant simplicity of her favorites. There is a whole lot going on this piece, and although I was drawn towards its intensity and complexity, I wondered if it might be a bit too much for a 2 year old. Still, there is a ridiculous amount of memorable melodic material to draw from.

I thought that perhaps a bit of reinforcement would help. When getting into a complex piece, becoming familiar with even a small chunk often helps me to gain a foothold on the whole thing, so when we got home, I went straight to the piano. I can’t fake a recognizable version of the Spiderman song (it is, after all, freaking Zappa!), but thanks to the miracle of ear training, I can play short melodic excerpts from the pieces related to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. I gave her a little quiz, and after a few successful rounds, I threw in the opening riff from the Shostakovich. She shot me a confused look, but with a little help, she was able to correctly identify it as "Hawkman." Then our attention started to wander back to Dinosaur Train, juice, and other normal after-school activities.

Then, no mention of Hawkman again for two days. I thought I had found the boundary of what she could absorb, but then one afternoon, with absolutely no prompt, she requested Hawkman. Then again, and again, and again – four times in a row before I called it quits. Every time, she wiggled and grinned and shook her hands with enthusiastic energy.  It was as if the piece had to sift around in her subconscious for a few days before it could take hold, which, due to its complexity, may have actually happened. I can now “drop the needle” nearly anywhere in Symphony 10 Mvt. 4 and have her triumphantly exclaim “Hawkman!”


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Sunday, December 1, 2013

2013 Top Twenty Part 1 (or is it Part 2?)

In recent years, it has become a social media tradition to spend the month of November not shaving and posting a daily share of the things we are thankful for. I have never really jumped on board with these practices. For one thing, my few attempts at growing facial hair were far more irritating than successful. If I went a whole month without shaving, I’d probably itch a hole right in the side of my face.  Definitely not worth it.

For another, I don’t deal well with the pressure of having to come up with one thing a day to be publicly thankful for. I have an amazing family that means the world to me, a beautiful house, a job that is fulfilling, I am more physically fit than I have ever been, and, of late, I have even become fortunate enough to be playing music with a group of excellent musicians that push me artistically. Even though keeping these various facets meaningful and productive is an often precarious and stressful balancing act, I am humbled and grateful for my life in its entirety every day. Teasing out the strands by being thankful for one thing a day, I think, obscures the entire tapestry. I certainly don’t deserve the life that I have, so I do my best to cherish it. Every day.

At least before something annoys me and I get all grumpy.

I have, however, entertained my own mediated traditions for the past few years, and as in years past, I am releasing the “lower half” of my year-end top twenty list. I sort of fell behind on my posting this year, and trying to catch up resulted in a bit of a writer’s block. When I let go of the self-imposed pressure of writing on every single album I liked, however, things opened up, resulting in some of my favorite posts ever. As a result, several the albums of this year’s list were not addressed individually. Maybe I’ll go back and catch up someday. Or maybe not. In any case, enjoy and be thankful!

20. Zorch – ZZorchhhZorch is chaotic, experimental, and intense, which is a combination that could be heavy-handed when recorded.  Their dodge this, however, by simply having fun.

19. Spock’s Beard Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep: With former Enchant singer Ted Leonard taking a lead role, it finally seems as if Spock’s Beard is a band again. The appearance of Neal Morse in the songwriting credits also reveals an effort to acknowledge their history as they look to their future.

18. Tomahawk – Oddfellows: Mike Patton’s prolific discography is daunting, but this recent release is a focal point. It’s complex enough to hold up under multiple listenings like Mr. Bungle, but accessible in a way that recalls classic Faith No More.

17. Forest Swords Engravings: If Oneohtrix Point Never created Replica by disassembling 80s commercials, Engravings could have been crafted from field recordings of mystical rituals held in ancient ruins. Door slams reverberating down ancient castle halls form the basis for beats as spectral melodies give shape to ghostly movements.

16. Death Grips – Exmilitary: While it may not be as perfect as its successor, the amazing Money Store, Exmilitary is still a commanding starting point. It’s abrasive to the point of almost being irritating, but too engaging to put aside.

15. The Flaming Lips – The Terror: The Lips continue exploring their darker potentials with fascinating results. The casual fan will most assuredly be confused, but the dedicated will find it compelling.

14. M83Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts: Working backward slowly through M83’s catalog reveals that Anthony Gonzalez’s vision, while always artistically engaging, evolved slowly over time. On his second album, The distinctive blend of synthesizers and organs that are now distinctively M83's sound was pretty much developed, while musical structures and songwriting were still evolving.

13. The Who By Numbers: It’s a common assumption that the briefer, more streamlined approach that The Who took in the early 80s was due to the loss of Keith Moon.  By Numbers challenges this notion, I think, as it shows the band moving successfully in that direction before their drummer's death.

12. ShearwaterAnimal Joy: For some, Shearwater might dance perilously close to melodrama. In my opinion, however, their classic approach to songwriting suggests an alternate version of Fleetwood Mac, one perhaps fronted by Marillion frontman Steve Hogarth.

11. fun. – Some Nights: Sometimes good things happen to talented artists. As a whole, Some Nights contains a few moments of imperfection, but it also has some of the best songs I have encountered in recent memory.