Apr 15, 2014

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3 Songs: “Obscure Classical Snobs Club” Edition

I am famously—okay, no, I’m not famous for anything except in very small corners of the internet pertaining to comedy and fundraising. Scratch that. Anyhow, the point is this: I love classical music, and in an exceptionally visceral way; my likes and dislikes are dictated by the sheer gravitational tug of the music itself. I think it’s a shame that some people dismiss classical as being just for snobby rich people, because in truth it’s some of the most emotionally rich art on the planet, capable of imparting serious Stendhal Syndrome with nothing but a piano and a few string instruments.

Classical music in the West often falls into an aural dead zone, so to speak, populated solely by the most outrageously famous composers—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and the like. Even if you’ve never called yourself a classical music fan, I will bet you ten dollars that you’ve heard at least one piece from each of those composers in your lifetime; they’re used in everything from kids’ cartoons to beer commercials. But classical music composition hasn’t stopped, and there are some breathtakingly gorgeous pieces that just aren’t as well-known as the Moonlight Sonata or the Queen of the Night aria. So let’s talk about some slightly less well-known classical pieces that I love with every fibre of my being.

Andre Mathieu – Concerto No. 4

This guy was Canada’s Mozart, a child prodigy who composed his first work at the age of three and performed abroad while still in the single digits. His fourth piano concerto is outstanding, going to some wonderfully high and low places and building to a wonderfully gratifying conclusion. I actually saw this performed live by Alain Lefévre, the pianist responsible for bringing Mathieu back into the spotlight, and oh man. Listen through to the very end, especially the last movement, and you’ll realize just how goddamn good you need to be to pull this piece off without just breaking the piano into pieces.

Note: The only way I’ve been able to find this piece is in separate parts on YouTube, so make sure to listen through all five videos to get the entire thing.


Carl Nielsen – Symphony No 5

I feel like I’m cheating a little here, because Nielsen’s fifth symphony is probably his most famous amongst those who know who the hell he is. But every time I’ve mentioned his name, people haven’t had a clue. Nielsen is one of Denmark’s most beloved composers, for a very good reason. Symphony No. 5 was written in the aftermath of Nielsen’s experiences during the First World War, and it was startlingly weird for its time. For one, it only has two movements, rather than the usual three; for another, he has a snare drummer essentially pick a fight with the rest of the orchestra. The piece is all about darkness and light, contrast and opposition—and while Nielsen denied that it was directly inspired by the war, the excuse is pretty thin when you listen to it. The piece plays with opposing forces, clashing them together and then restoring them to order, and the result is an epic, direct piece that always leaves me reeling. Plus, seriously, he was repeatedly photographed rocking an epic cape-coat and hat. The man was cooler than any of us will ever be.


Dmitri Shostakovitch – Concerto No. 2, II: Andante

It’s highly likely that you know of the first part of this piano concerto; it was used as the backing for the Steadfast Tin Soldier short in Fantasia 2000, and to great effect. It’s a lively piece that’s incredibly demanding on the pianist, and I love it. But the middle section of the concerto slows everything down, and creates a new mood altogether—one of romance and pain and great, arresting beauty. There’s a part at about 4:35 in the linked video that always, always makes me stop in my tracks. Without knowledge of this second portion (and the zippy finale), Concerto No. 2 is a fun little romp with quick-fingered Russians; with the full context, it’s a genuine and heartfelt journey.

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Apr 8, 2014

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3 Songs: “Dance Your Ass Off” edition

Today’s post was originally scheduled to be Part 2 of my Zolas piece from last week, but after a somewhat stressful day I think this piece is more relevant. I’m no stranger to awesome dance parties; they cheer me up, get me out of bed on bad days, and it’s how I put on makeup half the time (though prospective employers have yet to recognize the benefits of being able to apply liquid eyeliner while also doing air drum solos). Overall, they’re a great way to boost your mood. While my dance party mix does include dumb pop songs, it also includes some kickass rock, and these three are guaranteed to get my feet moving.

Library Voices – If Raymond Carver Was Born in the 90’s
Good golly, Miss Molly, if this isn’t one of the best songs of the past five years. The drumbeat is infectious, the chorus is energetic and catchy, and the melody is well-layered and very memorable. To top it all off, “If Raymond Carver” is one of the most personally relevant rock songs I’ve ever discovered. The chorus—“All my friends are buying diamonds for their girls / and bringing children into this world, / Signing their names to a home on land they’ve captured, / me, I’m still writing songs I hope you’ll hear someday”—is a pitch-perfect description of my life after university. While many of my high school friends have gotten married, bought houses, and settled into careers, I’m still discovering what I want to do when I grow up—and furthermore, I graduated with an arts degree on the heels of the economic collapse, and was often blatantly told that I would never be able to get a job. For those of us whose lives are permanently altered by the effects of the 2008 recession, it’s a highly cathartic song detailing exactly how lost we feel as we realize how the normal markers of adult life—marriage, children, home ownership—is still a very long way away.

Raymond Carver was a mid-20th century writer whose work was often characterized as “dirty realism”, a subgenre focusing on the lives of lower-class or marginalized people and the seamier aspect of everyday life. If Carver was our contemporary, he’d have plenty to write about now; luckily, Library Voices has it covered.

Buy it on iTunes

The Wombats – Let’s Dance to Joy Division
A brief foray into mathematics, then. One of the most beloved post-punk bands on the planet has a legacy equal to the positive limit of music snobs in the former British empire. A Liverpudlian indie rock band is traveling at 90 km/h down the one-way road of music history. If they release a fantastically catchy song that lovingly references Joy Division’s most successful song while also gently teasing at its infamously depressing history, how many Canadian music fans will make this their go-to random dance party song on days that end with Y which also coincide with a full moon?

*disclaimer: this math is probably incorrect. But “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” is nonetheless equal to the status of “fucking great”.

Percussion Gun
This is the opening track to White Rabbits’ second album, It’s Frightening, and that’s an apt title because it is frightening how many times I’ve listened to this song. I believe it was over 1000 before I reset my iTunes play count in shame. But it’s not for nothing; “Percussion Gun” is one of White Rabbits’ best songs, full of their trademark witty wordplay and frenetic energy, including one of the best drum lines you’ll ever hear outside of a Rush concert. The song isn’t even particularly about anything, but it has emotional ups and downs all the same—and a keyboard-centric bridge that comes out of nowhere like Booker deWitt on a skyline and knocks you right out. White Rabbits aren’t always the most consistent of bands for me, but when they’re on point they don’t mess around.

Buy it on iTunes

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Apr 3, 2014

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3 Songs: “The Zolas Are Unreasonably Good at Their Jobs, Part 1” edition:

I feel like I spend a lot of time talking up The Zolas, but I can’t help it; they’re my favourite band. I’ve racked up more listens on Tic Toc Tic than any other album in my extensive iTunes collection, and I keep going back for more. The Vancouver-based duo have crafted some of the finest indie-pop songs imaginable, both well-written and full of energy and emotion. I already spoke at length about their most recent album, Ancient Mars, elsewhere on this site, and way back in 2010 on another blog entirely I called Tic Toc Tic one of the best albums of the year. Choosing just three songs was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do for this project, so I’ve actually split this post so I can choose the best songs from each of their major albums. I’ve got several album-by-album posts planned for other artists down the line; it’s a nice way to circumvent having to pick just three songs out of a big pool of favourites. So here are the three best songs from The Zolas’ debut, Tic Toc Tic:

The Great Collapse
It’s an apocalyptic love song, you guys. A love song about being with your loved one during the apocalypse. A metaphor for breakups using the collapse of the universe. “The Great Collapse” hits so many of my personal sources of joy that it might as well be shorthand for all the stuff that makes me squee like a moron. The piano. The acknowledgment of the futility of nostalgia. The album title drop. The line “Yeah, we were lovers in the great collapse / the seasons came, the seasons passed.” Zachary Gray is a goddamn genius at conveying regret and longing in his vocals, and these qualities will be on display elsewhere in this post and the following.

And you can buy the track, if you like it, from Bandcamp: http://thezolas.bandcamp.com/track/the-great-collapse

Marlaina Kamikaze
I was introduced to The Zolas when they played the Market Square stage during Rifflandia 2010. I spent so much time focusing on their music in part because I realized, with horror, that my ex-boyfriend S was close by in the crowd, and I’d spent most of the past several months avoiding being in the same room as him. Then The Zolas announced this song, which is about seeing your ex everywhere you go. S and I laughed about it many years later, and the song itself remains one of the best from Tic Toc Tic not only because it’s frighteningly true to my own life but also because it’s fucking great on its own. Here I must draw attention to the composition, because “Marlaina Kamikaze” maintains a weird jazzy time signature throughout its verses and then proceeds into a totally fantastic piano-led bridge by Tom Dobrzanski that will knock your socks off. Like I said, the Zolas are one of the most energetic indie bands out there, and this song is a prime example. And as a conclusion to the story, the next guy I dated (and had a breakup with) lived in an entirely different city: Vancouver. So I never had to worry about this happening.

Buy the track here: http://thezolas.bandcamp.com/track/marlaina-kamikaze

Pyramid Scheme
I read an interview once where The Zolas said that this was their favourite song to play live, and it’s easy to see why; it’s a weird, almost prog-like song that includes everything from dreams to vows of jealousy to plays on children’s nursery rhymes. All I can really say is that it contains the lyric “Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a Caucasian”. SOLD.

Buy it here: http://thezolas.bandcamp.com/track/pyramid-scheme

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Apr 1, 2014

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3 Songs: “Post-Rock Existential Crisis” Edition

Post-rock, like pornography, can be difficult to define, because it’s really all about creating an internal feeling through instrumental compositions. Artists like Tim Hecker and God Is an Astronaut don’t necessarily create songs that you remember as distinct units, but rather album-length sound tapestries. I love post-rock a lot, despite (and because of) the fact that it causes me to descend into weird existential crises that may involve random bouts of sobbing and hours of staring off into space contemplating the ultimate fate of proton decay. If this sounds like a good way to spend your afternoon (and c’mon, you know it does), here are three post-rock songs to put you in that deliciously apocalyptic mood.

Jonsi and Alex – Boy 1904 (Riceboy Sleeps)

I discovered this song in a modern dance class. I was depressed as hell, overwhelmed with school and a recent heartbreak, and deeply anxious. I went to this class and absolutely loathed the peppy cheerleader-esque teaching style of the instructor. I hated the other girls in the class, all of whom seemed to be less sweaty, thinner, and just better at life than I was. I gritted my teeth and held back tears when I caught my reflection in the mirror. And then the instructor put on this song for our cool-down, and every single one of my anxieties dissolved into the warm, vinyl-inspired crackles and ambient chorus of Jonsi and Alex’s best song.

Explosions in the Sky – Your Hand in Mine (The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place)

I always imagine this song to be the score to an apocalypse film, a bit like when Danny Boyle used Godspeed!You Black Emperor in a pivotal scene in 28 Days Later. I love me some apocalypse narratives; they’re my genre obsession, the way other people watch kung fu classics or cheesy horror flicks. When the leitmotif kicks in at around 2:20 or so, I really do imagine it to be the moment when the two protagonists look out over the blasted landscape of the world they once knew, and they hold hands to reaffirm their humanity. The hesitant beginnings and slow build feel so inherently tragic, but rather than wallowing in the melancholy there’s a sense of being uplifted–that negative emotions like regret and loss are not inherently negative, but a rich part of the massive spectrum of human emotion.

Boards of Canada – Dayvan Cowboy (The Campfire Headphase)

There is nothing I can say that would do justice to this song. Knowing that it’s one of Boards of Canada’s best and most accessible songs, as well as realizing that the rest of their work is actually way better in a lot of ways, just gives you a hint as to why BoC fans are so rabid. This was the song that made me fall headlong in love with the mysterious Scottish electronica duo; their sort of long strange trip is one I’m always happy to take.

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Mar 27, 2014

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3 Songs: “Magnetic Fields Fangirl” Edition

I once tweeted that if I didn’t have CanCon restrictions, my radio shows would likely just be 90 minutes of Magnetic Fields. The Boston synthpop band has been putting out music for as long as I’ve been alive—Jesus—and for every “meh” song there’s at least two absolutely brilliant ones. I love so much of what they do that this should only be considered a “3 songs I love out of several dozen of their best” list, and you probably shouldn’t be surprised if you see an album-by-album breakdown somewhere down the line.

Busby Berkley Dreams

So The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt set out to write 69 love songs, and that’s exactly what he did. The resulting mega-album wavers across genres, from Johnny Cash-style grumblings to delicate piano ballads, so it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ll hate some of them and fall in love with others. Of my select favourites, Busby is probably the one that’s the most meaningful on a personal level. I love the story it tells—“We still dance on whirling stages / in my Busby Berkley dreams”–and the dissonance between the soft sadness of the song itself and its flashy, upbeat subject matter. When I discovered this song, I was having incredibly vivid dreams about a recent ex-boyfriend—a side effect of new medication—and it was distressing to have my brain conjure him up just as he’d been before our breakup, but also weirdly comforting. It’s that push-pull that happens when a person has hurt you very deeply, but you still miss having them in your life, even though logically you know they’re not good for you. This song captures that.

California Girls

This was the first Magnetic Fields song I ever heard, and it’s still a standout. I love the distorted instruments and the Dandy-Warhol-esque vocals, as well as the messy fuzziness that calls to mind Wave of Mutilation; basically this song is the epitome of delicious noisy neo-psychedelia. The lyrics are hidden beneath the distortion, but once you discern what they are you’ll find yourself giggling at just how vicious they are. Plus, this track can be played after the Katy Perry song of the same name to prove its entire thesis—the shallowness of a certain brand of Los Angeles-based lady—which makes me chuckle.

God Wants Us to Wait

This spot nearly went to “Quick!”, but I’ve already addressed the Magnetic Fields’ talent for aching breakup songs above, so instead I’m choosing to feature another song from the same album—2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea—because it’s got extraordinarily clever lyrics and an undeniably sexy tune full of carnivalesque motifs. As the album opener it does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the songs to follow, as well as introducing the band’s new trajectory following the completion of their “No-Synth” trilogy. Plus, coming from a band that’s written 69+ songs about love and sex, it’s pretty clear that they’re taking the piss out of religious-based abstinence here, and it works so well that I can’t help but hit the repeat button.

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Mar 25, 2014

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3 Songs: “The Standout” Edition

Our relationship with music is really interesting. We respond to individual songs on an almost visceral level, but songs are rarely consumed in a vacuum; they’re grouped together on albums by an artist who’s showing off his or her (or their) specific skills. They have a musical style that you’ll either like or dislike. Normally, when you hear one song you thoroughly enjoy, you’re guaranteed to like at least some of the artist’s other works; after all, there are sure to be elements in common between the song that got your attention and the rest of the catalogue.

But sometimes you only like one song from an artist, and the rest of their work doesn’t appeal to you. You may even wish you liked the artist more than you do, but other than the one stand-out single you’re just not into it. These three songs are all those stand-outs for me; I love them, but am indifferent to the rest of the musician’s works.

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