Archive for the ‘Musical Musings’ Category

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Deleted Scenes: Let it Be

March 27, 2013

Deleted Scenes is going to be a collecion of pieces I wrote for other outlets, things that for one reason or another didn’t get published. They could be full 2,000-word articles, they could be 50-word blurbs. If I write it, it doesn’t get posted, and I think it’s good enough to publish, this is where it’ll end up.

Let it Be, 7" SingleOver the last two weeks, the good people over at popblerd.com have been posting their list of the best albums of the ’70s. It’s an interesting and fairly eclectic list, with most of the albums you’d expect and a few you might not; it’s worth checking out, even if music from the time before you were born isn’t your thing.

I wrote a few blurbs for the list, including one for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and one for Zeppelin’s III. I also wrote one for an album that ended up in the top 10: The Beatles’ Let it Be, one of my favorite Beatles albums, not to mention the only chance for a proper Beatles album to be listed in a list of “albums of the ’70s”. My blurb wasn’t the one to get published, so here they are: a couple of thoughts on The Beatles’ final album:

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The Beatles – Let it Be (1970)

It’s no surprise, I’m sure, to see The Beatles show up on any list that they happen to be eligible for, and Let it Be was late for the ’60s by about five months, so here it is. Rarely does Let it Be make any noise as one of the best Beatles albums, because as Beatles albums go, it is uneven and unambitious. It was recorded before Abbey Road, but disagreements in its production style and the songs that were to be included kept it off of shelves until two years after it was recorded. Even as recently as ten years ago, a new version of the album was released — Let it Be…Naked — that purported to be closer to the “original version” of Let it Be.

Nobody ever follows the advice of the album’s title. Everyone seems to wish that it could be more, that it could be better than it is, largely thanks to the pedestal that everyone puts The Beatles on. Every album must be perfect, it must define its era, and if it doesn’t, the problem must be circumstance rather than the music itself.

The constant tinkering is unfortunate, because taken as it is, Let it Be is still a great album. “Across the Universe” and “Let it Be” are two of the band’s most identifiable musical statements, and for good reason; they are immediately catchy and beautifully layered pieces of music. “Get Back” is one of the best “rock ‘n roll Paul” songs The Beatles ever did, and George Harrison’s aggressively cynical “I Me Mine” is a display of his simplistic songwriting style at its best.

Sure, there are a couple of bombs on Let it Be; “Two of Us” is a pleasant throwback at best — a lousy way to open the album — and “The Long and Winding Road” is a dense, saccharine mess no matter which version you’re listening to. Still, the bright lights outshine the missteps, and while Let it Be may never be more than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are sufficiently brilliant to stand on their own.

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A Bastion of Emotion: Music and Words

August 3, 2011

Two times through Bastion, and there’s a good chance it’s ruined me to pretty much every other game that’s going to come out this year. There are pieces of this game that made me feel things that I haven’t felt from a game in years…maybe ever. This is the first of three increasingly spoilerific posts in which I try to break down just how Bastion manages to be as affecting as it is.

Part 1: Music and Words (Minimal Spoilers)

Songs with words do not typically go with video games unless they are presented purely as background. This approach is most prevalent in sports games, where licensed soundtracks compete with each other until you’re trying to figure out whether you’d rather listen to Puddle of Mudd or Staind or freaking Hinder until you’re done picking whatever you’re picking out of menu #4. Songs with words written specifically for the game in which they appear? Usually the result is a too-precious or cute pop song running along on top of a particularly carefree moment in a JRPG, or you get Portal, whose end song is one more joke courtesy of the always funny GladOS.

While Bastion‘s everpresent narrator Rucks is often quite funny, he’s not a joke in and of himself; he actually ends up coming off as a dire, cynical character, in a world that is deadly serious despite the game’s cartoonish veneer. Most of the music here is simply background work, a little bit more atmosphere in a world positively crawling with the stuff. It’s spaghetti western with the odd downtempo beat, metal guitar, with a touch of Indian influence — a fantasy-world wild-western concoction that wouldn’t have sounded terribly out of place scoring, say, Firefly.

The first time you hear her, however, you know. You know that the game is doing something to you, you know that it is truly something special. For an entire stage, she’s there in the background, playing her song as you try to find her. The music gets louder as you progress, giving it a tangible quality rare for video game background music. And then, when you finally find her, all the sound in the game cuts out save for her song…and it’s a beautiful song. Shockingly so. It’s worth just sitting there and listening to it, wondering what it’s trying to say about the game it adorns. Zia is known as “the singer” in the game, and it’s for good reason.

Just as shocking as hearing Zia’s song for the first time is that her song is not the last time you’ll hear a vocal track adorning the game’s beautifully-done music, and that second moment packs at least as much of a punch as the first.

If not for the music, these moments would work, but not nearly as well. When you hear Zia sing “I dig my hole, you build a wall”, you wonder what she means exactly. Rucks treats the song as if it’s an old standard, but when you’re hearing it for the first time, it’s impossible to keep from ascribing meaning to the words. This is, of course, by design. We’re supposed to ascribe meaning to it. It’s there for a reason.

And then, when you hear the other song…”I’m coming home”, he sings…and if you have a heart in your chest, it will break.

Given that this is supposed to be the least spoiler-filled of my Bastion series, I’m going to leave it there. Bastion is a very special game for a number of reasons, but I never could have suspected that the narration would eventually be overshadowed by the music. The music in the game is uniformly fantastic, but when words are put onto that music, and a gameplay experience is laid on top of that, it’s positively transcendent.

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Stay Tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at the emotional pull of persistence.

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A Running Diary of Merzbow’s Merzbient

February 25, 2011

It looks so peaceful.

A week and a half ago, I was tasked by PopMatters (at my own request, granted) to write a review for Merzbow’s recent 12-disc monstrosity of a new album / box set, Merzbient. The theory is that it’s ambient music, run through the Merzbow noise filter. To Masami Akita himself, it probably is ambient music. This may not be terribly different from what he listens to on a day-to-day basis.

I wrapped up the review today. In preparing to write it, though, I kept notes of my Merzbient listening experience, front to back, which basically detail a man’s slow descent into insanity. I didn’t want to just delete them, because I spent a lot of time putting them together, so here they are, unedited (and rough in spots), and saved for posterity. All 1500 words or so. They’re mostly pretty dry, but if you ever wanted a blow-by-blow experience of what listening to 10+ hours of Merzbow (well, Merzbow-lite I guess) sounds like, this is your chance. I imagine the review will post at PopMatters sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Without further ado:

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Disc 1 (RBA 1A) is basically random static and chaos until the end, when it becomes more meticulous.

Disc 1 features some sampled radio broadcast-esque sounds…there’s “real music” poking through.

Disc 2 far more “structured” than disc 1…still noise, but beats are mixing themselves in.

Disc 2 (RBA 1B) reminds of late coil experiments…Worship the Glitch/Constant Shallowness/Astral Disaster…bow instruments poking through, ugly but identifiable

Disc 2 also more difficult to background.

Disc 2 continues with tape experiments – organ music chopped and re-assembled?

“Western Noise is often too conceptual and academic. Japanese Noise relishes the ecstacy of sound itself.” –Masami Akita

Disc 2 “RBA 1B” closing out with big distant drums and phaser effects…back to more improvisational stuff, but still not terribly alien

Disc 2 “untitled” is an assault – high-pitched electronics giving way to a tremendous static wave, eventually featuring “windshield washer” electronic effect

Disc 2 “untitled” is shortest track, at 12:41

Disc 3 (RBA 2A) starts much like Disc 1 – big, scary, lots of reverb and static and squealing

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” eventually develops a comparatively peaceful drone behind the big scariness, a nice variation on the sound so far…noise seems to be phasing out in favor of the drone

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” has a rock beat at the 35-minute mark! This is…weird. There’s still static and something I can only describe as wind-tunnel noise, but yeah, that’s definitely a rock beat

Disc 3 “RBA 2A” Oh, hey, big band! And I think it’s winning!

Disc 4 “RBA/Capsule Cologne Maxell”. This is the one my wife called “broken refrigerator music”, because she actually thought something was wrong with our fridge when I turned it on.

Disc 4 has lots of rattling and scraping.

I know I’m listening to Merzbow and all, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m pretty sure Disc 4 is actually giving me a headache. Read the rest of this entry ?