Sunday, November 20, 2011

Use Your Head(phones)

Some songs just require headphones. Sometimes certain sonic intricacies reveal themselves only when given immediate access to the eardrum. Deeply layered tracks suddenly appear; harmonies emerge, seemingly from no where; the interplay between instruments that sounds flat on speakers becomes compelling through headphones. And the neat thing is that upon finding those little bits of music that are buried in the mix, which could only be discovered with a good pair of headphones and perhaps even a darkened room, they remain ever audible thereafter, even through variously imperfect speakers -- a laptop, for instance, or a car stereo with plenty of noise bleed from the highway rushing by. However, there is also another kind of discovery that can be made -- rather than finding something new occupying some heretofore unheard part of the overall soundstage, you find a certain lack. An absence or a void. It's the recognition of some sort of intangible space in a song. A property of there being something more contained in the song than just sound. It's the air in which instruments and voices can both mix together and still retain their isolated individuality. I'm sure there is some technical process, some cut-and-dry way to engineer this vague, ethereal property, but I feel no need to attempt to demystify the space. Regardless of how it's done, it's very difficult to describe an absence, so instead of going any further down this increasingly abstruse path, I will just share some songs.

These are songs that I really think benefit from a rapt listen, and yes, I think being in a dark room helps. I don't think of this as a playlist so much of a collection of songs that can be enjoyed on their own, although listening to them together would do no harm I'm sure. So, if you find yourself wanting to listen to some gorgeous music before going to bed, I implore you, give one of these a try. But please, no iPod earbuds or crappy headphones, because really, then, what's the point.

1) Talk Talk - The Rainbow / Eden / Desire
OK, so this song is 22 minutes long. And it's weird. But pleasantly weird, not jarringly weird. I'm not trying to punish you, or do the blog playlist equivalent of a teacher making a class seem really hard at the outset to separate the wheat from the chaff early on, so to speak. This song is just absolutely amazing, and by far the best example of the whole "space" thing I was getting at. I know 22 minutes is long, but I insist that you - yes, YOU - listen to this song. Or at least give it a chance. If you don't see what I'm saying within the first few seconds, then maybe this post isn't for you. (A little background on the band, because I'm guessing most of y'all haven't heard Talk Talk before (Yes, I know how lame that sounds, but we both know it's true.). They were a fairly successful New Wave pop group in the 80s, and then in the early 90s released this album, Spirit of Eden, which was a drastic departure from what they'd been doing before. I think this song speaks to the experimentation and extreme attention to detail that runs throughout the album. I highly recommend seeking out the album - it's dense, but rewarding.)

2) Sufjan Stevens - Casimir Pulaski Day
Ah, now this is a little more familiar. It's a very sad song, but also beautiful. Sufjan, love him or hate him, has a very expressive voice and he uses it to great effect here. The gradual build with the horns and harmonies is great: the song starts so sparse but winds up so rich, which I think almost uplifts some of the weight of the sadness of the subject matter. It's sort of bittersweet in that sense.

3) Deerhunter - Helicopter
This song is more about voice than space, but I still think it qualifies for this list. Bradford Cox is an absolute machine. Between Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, he is one of the most productive musicians around today. And the thing is, he isn't just churning out loads of mediocre material -- he's consistently releasing songs like "Helicopter". Again, a little on the sad side, but just listen to his voice. This is up there with my favorite songs from the last year, and it hasn't faded over time at all. The ride cymbal is of particular note - it creates a sort of diffuse blanket for the rest of the music to settle into.

4) Brian Eno - St. Elmo's Fire
Really, almost any Eno song could qualify for a list like this. This song (and the album Another Green World) has always struck me in a kind of strange way. The production isn't as clean or crisp as most of the songs here. It even sounds somewhat muddy. But then as new instruments and voices get introduced, you realize how much room there is for everything to breathe. And you also realize just how much there is going on. I still find myself picking out new tracks buried deep in this song, and they all add such great texture, which I think might be what gets confused for muddiness if not given full attention. Eno is truly a master.

5) Television - Marquee Moon
This song has such a great feel. Listening to it always makes me feel like it's a rainy, cold and slightly foggy night. As with most Television songs, the lead guitar and rhythm guitar play off of each other extremely well. They are, no doubt, two separate tracks, but they work together as one. Tom Verlaine's yelps are especially effective here, with the hint of reverb cutting through their nasal quality and achieving something otherworldly. And there is, of course, the guitar solo.

6) Joanna Newsom - The Book of Right-On
Joanna Newsom is another artist who could unquestionably be given every spot on this list. She has complete control over the English language and can bend and twist it into beautiful, odd, funny and sexy verse. She is also pretty darn good at playing the harp. This song swerves more towards the sexy, with the matter-of-fact bass line providing proof, as well as a backdrop for the syncopation of the melody and harp-playing. The lyrics are mostly innocuous on paper, but her voice and her delivery give them a seductive, and even somewhat menacing, quality. I think Joanna's voice is unfairly characterized as weird or nasally, but this song definitely proves that, like with her words, she is in complete control.

7) James Blake - Limit To Your Love
Yes, this is a Feist cover, but there's no question that this is a James Blake song. He's been able to accomplish some really impressive results with vocal modulation, but he plays it relatively straight here, only warping and distorting minimally. It's refreshing to hear him use his voice without completely altering its character, because it's a stunning voice. And putting it up-front with sparse accompaniment is why this song succeeds - it's good because of everything that could be there but isn't.

8) Animal Collective - Banshee Beat
What's amazing to me about this song is all the sounds that at first seem so bizarre and unlikely are somehow being made by pretty mundane instruments. One of Animal Collective's great strengths is being able to treat the guitars and pianos and drums to sound so unlike themselves to be almost unrecognizable. The dynamics of this song are great - from the quietude of the intro to the booming joy of finding the swimming pool. I suppose one theme that's emerged throughout these songs is voice - powerful, unique voices being used confidently and given ample sonic space. Avey Tare's voice is totally insane, both in its power and uniqueness. It seems impossible to pin down and is capable of such aggressiveness and animalism that it's almost surprising to see how tender and soft it can be, as it is here. And it is perfectly nestled among the pulsing instruments and Panda Bear's harmonic support.

9) LCD Soundsystem - The Great Release
What, am I going to make a playlist and not include LCD? This song is a total Eno rip-off, but at least it's good. Maybe homage is the right word. The space here gets fuller and fuller as the song progresses, but in such a subtle way that it's almost imperceptible. And unlike most of the other songs, Murphy's voice is not front and center. It's low in the mix, it's hard to make out what he's saying, and it doesn't build with the rest of the song. But keeping it dialed back provides a sort of constant reference against the continuous climb of the other parts of the song, which adds a certain serenity and calm to what could otherwise be an overpowering build and climax.

Curling up in bed with the lights off, headphones on and music coursing directly into the brain is one of life's great joys. Hopefully you all might find some of the same qualities in these songs that I do - qualities that are much more pronounced when there are no other distractions, no intermediaries between the sound and soul. And if you have any such suggestions for me, please share.


1 comment:

  1. I've been informed that the songs aren't in order when you download them and load them into iTunes. There's a way to fix it, but it's too time consuming for me so either just add each song to a playlist in iTunes or just sample one at a time. Sorry for the sloth, but you'll live.