Tag Archives: music

Fleetwood Mac: “Second Hand News”

Every once in awhile I come across a song so wonderfully ingenious and exciting that I go around telling people breathlessly that I can't believe it was written by human beings.  I then proceed to listen to it almost continually for days on end, soaking up its every nuance.  "Second Hand News," the opening track on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is just such a song.

I first came to appreciate this classic Lindsey Buckingham composition this year at SXSW.  As it happened, I had come to Austin right on the heels of a terrible bout of mononucleosis, for which my doctor had prescribed a course of a powerful anti-inflammatory steroid called prednisone.  Unfortunately, while the drug relieved both the terrifying throat swelling and crippling fatigue I had been experiencing, it also had the unfortunate side effect of MAKING IT SO THAT I NEVER SLEPT.  Early one morning after staring at the ceiling of my room at the Stephen F. Austin all night, I decided to just throw in the towel and take a sunrise walk from downtown Austin to Barton Springs.  What better accompaniment to a morning of drug-addled insomnia, I thought, than a selection from Fleetwood Mac's "California cocaine trilogy."  And I was right: its air of weariness and bitter resignation fit the moment perfectly.

As "Second Hand News" became a major part of my personal soundtrack for the next few weeks, I also began to appreciate it as a wonderful example of musical sprezzatura (the Italian word for the art of making the difficult look easy).  The chord structure is basically just a simple riff of A, D, and E (I-IV-V)–the sort of simple ditty you'd find in a Mel Bay beginner guitar book.  But Buckingham has three tricks up his sleeve that make his arrangement exciting.  First, his rhythm guitar feel lends the track an infectious energy; second, his escalating, choir-like outro ("I'm just second hand news, I'm just second hand news") gives the whole affair a euphoric climax; and third, his use of an open D guitar tuning on the second guitar, combined with the simple chord progression, allows him to add harmonic interest through the use of unusual harmonic guitar fills.  All of this just goes to show you that compelling rock songs can be built out of the simplest of materials.

Second Hand News
Fleetwood Mac

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Cesar Chavez Dead or Alive: “Ten Thousand Waves”

For the past few days I've been staying at Ten Thousand Waves, a beautiful, Japanese-style hotel in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The Waves is just one stop on a nearly month-long trip that has taken me, first, back to Colorado to visit friends and family, and then on a road trip through Southern Colorado and New Mexico (I hope to post an extended account of this trip later).  While pure relaxation has been the main goal of the trip, I have to admit I've also been thinking of it as a sort of Jack Kerouac-esque exercise in stoking my creativity by getting myself out of San Francisco and my normal routine for awhile.  And, while I can't say I've exactly spewed out a stream of consciousness novel on a single scroll or anything, I do think it's been very helpful in that regard.

I've been working on music on and off during the trip, sometimes adding guitar parts to my brother's songs, and sometimes just recording crude acoustic guitar demos of my own using my MacBook Pro's built in mic, and, much to my amazement, I've actually been liking a lot of what I've been coming up with.  All of this culminated last night with me sitting down with laptop in my room, opening Ableton Live, and putting together the song below, which I named "Ten Thousand Waves" after the place that inspired it.

I think it's pretty evocative of The Waves' setting–the beat (inspired by "When Doves Cry," incidentally), main synth part, and lack of a proper bassline suggest to me the dryness and starkness of the New Mexican high desert, while the rippling synth lead suggests the water of The Waves' Japanese onsen

The general sound reminds me a bit of Boards of Canada and I'll probably try to refine the track even further in the direction of something like "Dayvan Cowboy" by adding some more BoC-style, electronically twisted production and percussion variation.  The outro piano coda is definitely inspired by Aphex Twin's Drukqs.

For anyone interested, the software I used was:

• Ableton Live 5.2
• Native Instruments Reaktor (for the beat)
• Native Instruments Pro-53 (the main synth part)
• Native Instruments Absynth 4 and Native Instruments Spektral Delay (for the rippling synth lead)
• Native Instruments Akoustik Piano and Native Instruments Spektral Delay (for the piano coda at the end)

Ten Thousand Waves
Cesar Chavez Dead or Alive

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The Black Heart Procession: “You Got Lucky”

I keep mentioning my non-ironic fondness for Tom Petty and my love of moody, Americana-ish music, so this live Heartbreakers cover by The Black Heart Procession (which my friend Robert sent me) is, of course, right up my alley.  I always think the best covers are ones that don't seem like obvious choices at first, but end up sound head-slappingly brilliant once the artist has reinterpreted them, and I think this song is a great example.  Who would have thought the 80s synth chords of Petty's original would translate so well to Black Heart Procession's brooding piano?

You Got Lucky (Live)
The Black Heart Procession

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Bright Eyes: “Light Pollution”

If you want to know what's going on in my life at any given time–and I'm talking about my inner life, not just the sorts of things I would choose to tell everyone about–you'd often be better advised to check out my Last.fm history than my blog.  My musical taste is pretty variable, and it tends to change a lot depending on what's on my mind.  The Afghan Whigs album Gentlemen and Arab Strap's Mad for Sadness, for example, are albums I only listen to while I'm down, while Belle & Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress is only in rotation when I'm feeling exceptionally upbeat.

In the past month, I've been a lot more concerned with money (not money problems, mind you–more like financial planning) than I usually am, so the Bright Eyes song "Light Pollution" has started showing up a lot in my play history.  I've always liked it a lot, of course–from the snappy snare roll opening to the 80s post punk production to the rush of the "wall of percussion" chorus–but lately it's been the lyrics ("You've got to earn this living somehow/You're good as dead without a bank account," "It's love of money not the market that those fuckers push on you") that have made it one of my current favorites.  If you've ever contemplated dropping out of the rat race, I think it will probably appeal to you as much as it does me.

Light Pollution
Bright Eyes

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The Heathens: “Stickin’ Around”

I have to admit, I have a bit of a romantic fondness for the South.  I realize that this may have something to do with the fact that I've never really been there (with the exception of a few childhood trips to Disney World and a brief trip to New Orleans for CNET Builder.com Live), but the fact remains: give me a Flannery O'Connor story, a Tom Petty record, a Sazerac, or a plate of red beans and rice and I'm a happy camper.  So it's only natural that I was charmed by The Heathens, an Orlando, Florida-based band, when I saw their economically clever video in the South by Southwest film festival's music video showcase.

I think what really grabs me about this song is singer Matt Butcher's laid back vocal style and the way his charming lyrics ("I've got fair weather friends/But the weather's always fair down in FLA") roll along organically with the song's easy tempo.  There's just something emminently likeable about him that elevates The Heathens' music above run-of-the-mill country-tinged Americana.

Stickin Around
The Heathens


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Bernard Herrmann: “Scene d’Amour”

I thought for awhile about posting a song for Valentines Day, but couldn't quite make up my mind about the right tone to strike: dark cynicism (e.g. The Magnetic Fields' "I Don't Believe You") or romanticism (e.g…uh, countless other songs).  I ended up deciding that it was a good opportunity to finally post a selection from one of my all time favorite film scores: Bernard Herrmann's music for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. I think it covers both angles.

Without going into too much detail about the piece's role in the movie (to do so would give too much of the story's twist away), I'll just say that I've always loved this composition for its lush emotiveness and the way it conveys an intense romanticism while still hinting at the story's essential darkness and mystery.  It's truly drama in musical form–a struggle between hope and despair that finally results in a rapturous climax around 2:52–and I've always remembered it in a way I've remembered few other film scores.

Scene d'Amour
Bernard Herrmann

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Sufjan Stevens: “To Be Alone with You”

I have to admit, I've always been a bit standoffish toward Sufjan Stevens.  I love the song "Chicago" as much as everyone else, but the enormous crossover success of his Come on Feel the Illinoize album, combined with his cute "one album per state" gimmick has often made the indie snob in me just a bit suspicious.  It wasn't until today, when my favorite fellow music obsessive Ali summoned me across the street to the Red Vic for an afternoon screening of Danielson: A Family Movie (in which Stevens, a longtime friend of the Danielson family, makes many appearances) that I really made up my mind about Stevens' work.  And the song that finally converted me was a live performance of the gorgeous ballad "To Be Alone with You," from Stevens' lesser known Seven Swans album.

Far from the heavily orchestrated extravaganzas of the Illinoize album, "To Be Alone with You" is a raw, guitar-and-vocal-only production, but its dark, secretive evocation of longing and sacrifice couldn't be more poignant.  It's truly a testament to what a lone voice with an acoustic guitar can make you feel.

To Be Alone with You
Sufjan Stevens

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Felt: “New Day Dawning”

I'm still very much in a New Years frame of mind, with all of its attendant thoughts of new beginnings, so while everyone works on their resolutions, I thought I'd post some appropriate music: "New Day Dawning" by the obscure, British, 1980's-era indie band Felt.  The first time I heard the typically low-key, minimalist first half of this composition, I was completely unprepared for its sharply constrasting end: a soaring, almost "jammy" coda that comes in like a sudden ray of light.  Every time I hear it, I can't help but play "air drums" along with it, and feel inspired.

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Jarvis is God

I won't beat around the bush with a friends only post here, I'll just come right out and say it: people have really been getting me down lately.  Whether it's the perennial asshole at a party, or the shady Internet entrepreneur who is currently exploiting my little brother's design talent.  Let's face it: these people are running the world.

Fortunately for me, I recently discovered the hidden track on Jarvis Cocker's wonderful new solo album.  Every time some asshole gets me down, I fire it up and feel a whole lot better.

Smash the system!

[Warning: Chorus lyrics may be offensive.]

Jarvis Cocker

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DJ Muggs: “Rain”

Well, it took long enough, but those of us in the Bay Area are now fully in the grip of the rainy season (what those of you in less Mediterranean climes refer to as “winter”).  For me, this usually means terrifying white knuckle commutes on 280, a general retreat indoors, and a sudden fondness for Northern English music of the late 80s and early 90s.  Courtney did a nice post about rainy day music, and, while I’m frankly too tired to come up with a more thorough list of my own, it did inspire me to post this song by DJ Muggs, who left behind the empty-headed stonerism of his popular rap group, Cypress Hill, to produce a moody, atmospheric solo album no one could have expected.  I love the dark atmosphere and dusty production on this track, and the children’s choir at the end.