Bittersweet Distractor

at the intersection of music and psychology

My pick for best song of 2013: “We Can’t Stop”

I think that when musicologists look back at music created between 2008 and 2014, they will call this period the “Apocalyptic dance music” period. (Can I coin that phrase now? Eh, someone will come up with a better one). A lot of the popular music nowadays centers on a common theme – drinking, dancing, and partying until death or the end of the world. “Just Dance,” “Tik Tok” “Die Young” (how do you explain the popularity of Kesha otherwise?), “We Are Young,” “Till the World Ends,” “I Gotta Feeling”…the list goes on. Besides the songs that are clearly about this topic, there is also the popularity of EDM (electronic dance music) and dubstep. This music is meant to be danced to, and almost always contains a build to a climax (an “apocalypse” of sorts).

I think that this music is popular for two main reasons.

1) One might argue that the Great Recession sparked an interest in living in the now (YOLO – that’s another one). First of all, due to the market crash, people lost a lot of their savings – i.e., money for the future – leaving them feeling hopeless about the prospect of being happier later…so, why not be happy now? People want to enjoy what they do have, and they want music to be an escape. I, for one, find myself partying in my mind every time I hear one of these songs. Secondly, the industry WANTS people to spend money and party. Since the artists and producers are no longer making money on CDs, they earn most of their money through concerts and performances at clubs. Concerts and clubs cost a lot, but if you make people feel like they need to be living in the now, they will go to the shows.

2) The second major reason refers to the “dance music” part of “Apocalyptic dance music.” As Sasha Frere-Jones wisely summed up in a New Yorker piece a few months ago, music is often a tool of rebellion for young people against their parents. But parents listen to cool music! Music from the 70s, 80s, 90s is still cool! So the only way to really make music their own is to listen to it at raves while dancing all night (parents don’t do that!). Dancing all night is something that only young people really can do (often this is aided by drugs, but increased drug use is just another example of people choosing to live impulsively).

I can think of no better example of this period of music than “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus.

People have written about this song extensively already (see this Business Insider piece, for example), so I won’t give it a thorough review. But part of the reason why it’s a great song is because it does what most great pieces of music do – it makes you feel both happy and sad, or either happy or sad, depending on your mood. (More examples of classic songs like this – “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey; “Take on me” by A-ha; “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys). It’s obvious that listening to “We Can’t Stop” induces happy feelings. The nice melody, the fact that it reminds you of partying with your friends, and the fact that it’s fun to dance to at clubs are all part of this happiness. But it’s also a very sad song. The melancholia is conveyed, first of all, by the minor key that the song is written in. A song like this in a minor key is rare. Also, the fact that the main line is “We can’t stop” is very interesting – after all, when people can’t stop doing something, that’s addiction. Miley (well, whoever wrote the song) is hinting at addiction throughout the song. The delightfully-executed reference to Molly (or did she say “Miley?” eh?) further suggests that this song is about drugs (MDMA, specifically). So, it both encourages partying all night and talks about the horrors and dangers of partying all night. Once you start, you can’t stop. What a scary, but tempting notion.

My favorite part of the song probably has to be: “the line for the bathroom, trying to get in line for the bathroom.” The way she sings this is so sad and urgent, and indeed, when you are out and you either 1) really have to pee because you’ve been drinking too much or 2) you really want to do another line of cocaine or hit of ecstasy, then not getting into the bathroom seems like the biggest tragedy ever. Miley is relating to all of the young people who have experienced such a dreadful thing.

Another part I like: “We run things, they don’t run we.” I don’t want to analyze the song too much, but I love the fact that she uses a subject pronoun in the predicate of the second sentence. Sure, maybe it’s better for a rhyme. But it also gives you this sense of a never-ending cycle: ending where you began. None of the current pop hits are about moving forward. They are all about cycling back and forth, around and around, in the now.

January 5th, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Sight over sound – or judging music on mute

Looks matter. We choose politicians with strong chins. Taller men make more money. Products that sell best are sleek and cute.

Some may call it shallowness or superficiality, but really, it’s no surprise that we act this way, considering how well-developed our visual systems are, especially compared to those of our other senses. Most of the occipital lobe (back part) of our brain is dedicated processing the color, shape, contrast and motion of visual stimuli. Other parts of the brain are responsible for naming objects and categorizing them. There is even a brain region for recognizing biological vs. non-biological motion, and a region dedicated to distinguishing faces from one other (although how specific this “fusiform face area” is to processing faces is still a matter for debate). We are visual creatures.

Of course, in many domains, visual information does actually matter. Maybe we want our products to be good-looking since we have to stare at them all day. Maybe we associate people’s good looks with other good qualities, like intelligence (we do: this is called the “halo effect”). But visual information doesn’t matter when we’re judging music – so how can it possibly affect our judgment there?

A new study in PNAS by University College London researcher Chia-Jung Tsay shows, shockingly, that judging live music depends more on visual information than we thought. Participants were asked to view videos of 3 finalists from 10 prestigious international live music competitions and to try to guess what the final rankings of the finalists were. This is an EXTREMELY hard task, since all of these musicians were very good at their craft. Here’s the twist – people were asked to make these judgments on the basis of 1) video alone, 2) audio alone and 3) audio & video together. People who watched video alone of the performers did better than those who only listened to audio – this is kind of crazy, but perhaps not so surprising. Even more crazy was that people who watched video alone did better at ranking the performances than those who had access to both audio and video footage! Although almost everyone in the study claimed that sound was a more important factor in ranking live music performance than sight, it was almost as if the audio was distracting people from making the correct choices. Even more shocking – this effect was true for both novices and music experts. But then again, I guess music experts are the ones making the rankings in the first place. So, it might be – and probably is – the case that visuals during live music performance contribute greatly to deciding the winners of these competitions.

Scary, right? But before you start sulking, worrying that the quality of music doesn’t matter at all, remember that these videos were of finalists, all of which were incredible at performing live music. When these decisions are so hard, and when there’s so much uncertainty, we might default to making judgments based on vision, because vision is our most developed, and usually most reliable sense. These situations of uncertainty are not all that common in everyday life, but it is these situations that teach us about how we process and interact with the world around us.

August 21st, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Is Kanye a visionary?

Oh, Kanye West – one of my favorite characters on the popular music scene. I am always so intrigued by him, because I sense a vulnerability behind his pomposity. I also think that he might be a genius – not a genius at rapping, of course (there are far better rappers out there, and there have been far better rappers in the past), but he is an excellent producer, and he might be a genius when it comes to creating a public persona. That doesn’t seem like a skill that should be touted, but in this day and age, I think it deserves to be. I mean, he pissed off TWO PRESIDENTS. His rant on stage at the MTV Movie Awards will go down in pop culture history. And I don’t mean to insult Taylor Swift too much, but I’m pretty sure that one day, her name will be the answer to a trivia question: “Which celebrity won Video of the Year at the MTV Movie Awards when Kanye stormed the stage to say that Beyonce had the best video of all time?” (extra points if you know what song Taylor’s video was for). He “cannot be controlled” (his words; they come up on his new album, naturally).

Of course, Kanye’s recent NY Times interview was yet another showcase of his brand of ridiculousness (I recommend the article). Here is an interesting quote from Kanye:

“I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period.”

The comparison to Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, is quite apt. Like Kanye, Jobs was also an asshole whose inventions were trendy and infectious. Steve Jobs will go down in history, because Apple will. I can see why Kanye admired him, because Kanye’s status isn’t as clear. It’s hard to predict what art is going to stick in the long run. Kanye thinks of himself as a “black New Wave” artist, probably because New Wave artists (think Joy Division, Talking Heads) were appreciated more later than they were during their peak time. Kanye IS appreciated now, but he insists that it’s not on his own terms. His last album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” was fantastic – it was huge in scope and sound, had lots of singles and dance music, and the critics loved it. But Kanye talks in the interview about how he made a lot of compromises on the album.

“Yeezus,” Kanye’s newest (out yesterday), is meant to be the opposite of “Fantasy.” It’s raw, weird, more egotistical. The beats are strange but remarkably engaging (he collaborates with Daft Punk on a few of the songs). The central track is “I Am a God.” (Talk about egotistical!). This track is dotted with a lot of silences, and then straight-up screaming. This is like…Nine Inch Nails or something (Sasha Frere Jones makes this comparison in his New Yorker review).

So far, I love the album. This is partly because some of the songs (for e.g., “New Slaves”) are just deeply affecting. And this is partly because I admire Kanye’s ambition and his vision. This album will not do well with people who buy music. This album does not have a single on it (and Kanye may not release one). Kanye trusts that this album will leave a mark in the long-run, just as he insists that his album, “808s and Heartbreaks” (a record-sales flop) “redefined radio.”

So here are my questions:

Is Kanye crazy or is he prophetic? Is he being controversial on purpose?

Are the songs that stand the test of time necessarily not popular now? (Or aren’t the BEST songs popular across many time periods?)

Why are we so obsessed with finding music that stands the test of time? Why does it matter when we’re listening to music NOW? If we won’t be around to appreciate it, why do we care whether or not the music we like has staying power?

Is there any way to predict what will be popular in the future? Are there elements that dominate the best musical pieces of all time that we can uncover?

June 19th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Art Envy

Jealousy gets a bad rap. It’s a deadly sin; there’s a commandment discouraging it. The effective Buddhists can somehow avoid feeling it. But envy, unlike gluttony or sloth, is a natural human emotion that doesn’t necessarily have to be accompanied by reprehensible actions (although – let’s be honest – it often is). We all have desires, so we all get jealous every once in a while.

Artists take envy to a new level, though, and great art can evoke envy as much as it can evoke other emotions. You see, artists not only envy achievement and possessions and acclaim, and all those other good things that we all want. They also envy the capacity the evoke envy. Let me explain.

Let’s say that the purpose of your art is to make your audience feel something. Maybe there’s a certain emotion that you have in mind, or a certain concept that you want your art to explicate. You can work very hard to achieve this amorphous, intangible, elusive goal. You don’t know what the goal is exactly, but you’ll know it when you see it. Well, when this something takes shape in the work of someone else, your feelings will be mixed. On the one hand, there it is! A dream realized! Aha! On the other hand…it was realized at the hands of another. Your envy is so strong because you didn’t even know what you really desired in the first place.

Maybe I’m crazy, and maybe “art envy” is just like every other envy. But one thing I do know is that some of my favorite art is a testament to art envy. One of my favorite films of all time is Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Amadeus has beautiful music (Mozart’s music, of course), a beautiful backdrop (filmed in Prague and Vienna), and a great storyline (although it’s probably much exaggerated). But what makes it stand out is the exquisite portrayal of art envy – Salieri’s envy of Mozart. F. Murray Abraham is an excellent Salieri; his tears as he reads Mozart’s music speak volumes. They are tears of joy, as well as of helplessness. And of course, the Salieri character blames God. Normally, when someone has something that you don’t have, you can be angry with him… but when the object of your envy is just channeling inspiration, you feel like you have to somehow blame the inspiration.

I came across another piece of “art envy” art recently – the following poem by Robert Hass, called “Envy of Other People’s Poems”. I will leave you with it. Interpret as you like. –

“In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.”

June 5th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | No Comments

Evolution of music

Last year in PNAS, MacCallum et al. published “Evolution of music by public choice,” which ended up winning the publication’s 2012 Cozzarelli prize (here is a PNAS podcast that summarizes the article, and interviews the first author. The link to the article is accessible from there). I was intrigued by this article, because of its foundational premise – MacCallum believes that the diversity of music can be explained by descent with modification and natural selection – the very same processes that cause organisms to evolve. Because music has creators, this idea seems crazy and hard to believe. I mean, the process of passing genetic material down from generation to generation is almost completely random, and is only influenced when certain traits make survival and reproduction more likely. Meanwhile, music can be engineered to have certain traits. Then again, consumer preferences help to inspire musicians, and help to inspire what kind of music is even considered acceptable. So, maybe if you use consumer preferences to shift the “genetic code,” you could end up with pretty decent music. MacCallum and his team decided to use their computer programming skills to try this out.

They started with randomly generated loops of sound (which could hardly be considered music). They then took elements of one loop, exchanged them with another loop, and put in some random noise, to create new loops. For those familiar with biology, this is exactly how genes are passed on through reproduction – two parent genomes are recombined,  a tiny bit of noise is introduced (these are mutations), and thus, daughter and son genomes are created. They had a group of subjects rate each loop (they couldn’t see each others’ ratings), and the likelihood of certain loops “reproducing” was increased when subjects liked them. [This is analogous to genes for height being passed on, because tall people are more attractive, and are more likely to reproduce.].

After generations of rating and evolving, the researchers had a huge database of sounds. They then took another group of subjects and asked them to rate loops from the different generations. They found that people were much more likely to enjoy loops from later generations than from earlier ones. Cool, right? From almost complete randomness, guided only by some preference ratings, real music came about. However, the loops stopped getting better after about 500 generations or so (which really isn’t that many). The authors found that this was because certain traits just stopped getting passed on at around that point – almost as if a “sweet spot” or equilibrium was reached. When there is no push for traits to change, there is no reason for evolution to keep producing better specimens. Basically, music evolution, just like evolution in general, operates under a “good enough” principle. Once you’re reproducing at an optimal rate, and the environment is not changing at all, there is no reason for you to evolve more.

So what were these late-generation musical loops like? This was the first thing I wanted to know when I read the article! Well, they had two important qualities – chord structures & harmonies that are common in the Western repertoire (keep in mind – these were Western (British) subjects doing the rating) and rhythmic complexity. This makes sense, since these are key features of popular music, but it’s also awesome that a computer program produced these qualities through “natural selection.”

Of course, this study answered some questions, but also raised some. For one thing, music has always been appreciated in social circles, and people’s preferences influence other people’s preferences. So, individuals rating loops by themselves will not simulate the evolution of music in the real world. I think that, if music is evolving now, the social influences will be stronger than ever – you can see what your Facebook friends are listening to on Spotify, you can see how many followers bands have on Twitter, you can see how many downloads songs have on ITunes, etc. It would also be interesting to see what influences music composition besides the preferences of consumers. The “mutations” in the MacCallum experiment were random, but in real life, they are created by musicians. Where do they come from, and why do some “mutations” succeed, and why do others fail?

In all, this is an interesting line of work that’s worth checking out, and I love that technology can allow us to simulate processes like this with ease!

May 27th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Brian Eno – Why setting limits spawns creativity

 As part of the Red Bull Music Academy – a few weeks of concerts, lectures, art installations, etc. in NYC celebrating music and the minds behind it – Brian Eno participated in an interview. Eno has some interesting ideas, and the lecture is well worth a watch (link here). For example, he talked about how bad records can come from having too much money and too much time. Seems paradoxical, but once a writer opens up so many opportunities and choices for himself, he will have trouble completing the project. It’s only when you’ve really mastered a particular sound or technique that you can become creative with it. Otherwise, you’re still just learning; you have to set limits in order to transcend them.  This is an astute observation on Eno’s part, and I have to say I agree.
And the research corroborates this perspective. Research on decision making shows that the more options that people have, the more likely they are to make a bad choice. (And by “making a bad choice”, I mean ending up with an item that you don’t value the most out of the choice set). This happens because they end up breaking down the items into attributes, and focusing on attributes that are easier to analyze, but not as important. When you compare two things, you’re more likely to judge them holistically, and to let your instinct (or emotion, or whatever you want to call it) be your guide. You are also more likely to regret your decisions when more options are available (which is why musicians with too much time and too big a budget delay the release of their records). Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice discusses these problems with choice in more detail.
And what does this have to do with creativity? Well, scientists who study such things have shown that people are most likely to reach a state of “flow” (where they are really prolific, focused, and lost in their work), when they are performing an activity that is not too easy, but not too challenging. Dealing with a million different options and resources is too challenging – it’s paralyzing. But if you limit yourself to an instrument you know well, then being creative becomes a more manageable task. Since digital instruments make up Eno’s creative arsenal, it might seem like he’s not following his own advice; there are thousands upon thousands of digital sounds. So Eno exercises his creative chops by restricting himself to certain sounds or structures ahead of time. It’s worked really well for him so far! [Work on “flow” has mostly been done by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly – get his book here].
There’s a lot more of interest in the talk – check it out when you get the chance.

May 22nd, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | No Comments

Maria Schneider’s Composed Jazz

Last Thanksgiving week, I took the opportunity to see Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestra during their annual stint at the Jazz Standard in NY. I’m not usually a fan of jazz bands (I prefer smaller ensembles and a less brassy sound), but I found the music to be innovative enough and the musicians to be talented enough to engage my interest.

This week in the NY Times Magazine, there is an article about Maria Schneider’s brand of music (by Zachary Woolfe). Here were a few things that I found interesting:

1. Schneider’s background is mostly in classical music, so her focus is on composition. The music still sounds like jazz, and the musicians take solos, of course, but rather than going off in whatever direction they please, they need to get from point A to point B, for the composition to flow. This is unlike the style of a lot of previous jazz bands, but these restrictions on the soloists may actually be helpful. Sometimes innovation can be even more challenging (and powerful) when it is hampered, just a little. This also means that Maria herself is under a lot more pressure (she only composes and conducts), and she admits to suffering from writer’s block quite often.

2. Recording orchestral music is expensive! Think of all the musicians that you have to pay, for starters (Schneider’s band always features seasoned jazz artists, some of whom are professors at conservatories). To help make it possible for Schneider to actually make some money (she gets very little in the end when she records with a big label), her friend Brian Camelio started a crowdfunding program named ArtistShare, which is a lot like the present-day Kickstarter. The idea is that fans contribute money to help make the music, but – like stockholders – they get to be involved in the music-making process. In exchange for the money, Schneider gives up a little bit of her independence (for example, the shareholders can veto her working with an artist they don’t approve of), and she also gives up a little bit of her privacy. In order to bring the fans into her creative process, she’ll make videos of her creative process. These videos are often emotional and pessimistic, since Schneider does struggle against procrastination. Does this honesty hurt her in the end? (her dad said to her that she should never say that the music is bad, or else no one will buy it). Does this dependence on the fans hurt her creatively?

Or is this just the wave of the future? More and more, we’re seeing bands posting photos of themselves on tour on Instagram, songwriters sharing ideas and feelings on Twitter…fans want to be let in on the creative process, and to feel as if they have input. In the end, the bands become more successful, at least commercially. Whether it hurts the music itself – well, that’s still an open question.

3. Finally, I liked this quote from Maria in the NYT piece:

“Like dreams are a way to process your psyche, music is a way to preserve and share memory.”

Schneider’s compositions aim to bring the audience into a memory or experience in her life. To the extent that people share experiences and emotions and memories, this self-reflection and recollection through music can be very moving.

April 14th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Snarky Puppy live at Brooklyn Bowl (4/4/13)

When I say that Snarky Puppy’s sound is “unique,” that’s probably an understatement. A band that I’ve just started getting into, Snarky Puppy mixes funk and jazz and dance music in a way that works well. Sometimes they sound like The Bad Plus; sometimes they sound like Skrillex. Sounds crazy, right?

On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of seeing them at the Brooklyn Bowl (they were only in NY for a matter of hours, but they are touring a LOT this year). Headed by bassist Michael League, the ensemble that night consisted of 9 instrumentalists – 3 percussionists, 1 keyboardist/synth man, 1 guitarist, 3 horn players (sax and trumpet), and of course, Michael himself. As taken aback as I was at how full their sound was, I was shocked to discover that they record with an even bigger group of musicians (including string players!). They also record in front of a live audience on headphones, which is really cool (clip here). Snarky Puppy seems to acknowledge that its music – like all jazz, really – is performance music. While I imagine that they plan their solos in advance for the recording sessions, there’s still more unpredictability when you have an audience right there (that is, you can’t stop and do something again, because you wouldn’t do that at an actual concert). The music comes out more raw and real that way.

Snarky Puppy’s melodies are actually quite simple – not in a bad way, just in a way that is accessible and danceable. Where they really show their complexity is in their improvisation. All the musicians demonstrated astounding virtuosity on their instruments, but I was an especially big fan of the keyboardist, the guitarist and the drummers. At one point, the 3 drummers soloed together (somehow not a contradiction in terms) for what seemed like a full 5 minutes! This was a lot of fun, because the beats kept changing, and it was great to see how the drummers managed to keep up with each other. This part of the show really reminded me of hip hop – all the music needed was someone spitting rhymes over it. I think I was smiling the entire time that this improv was going on, which would have been rare for me at any other jazz show. Most other jazz just seems to take itself so seriously, but Snarky Puppy’s music seemed to have been meant to make you dance.

And people did dance. The crowd was much younger and more diverse than the crowd usually spotted at jazz shows (most jazz nowadays is watched live by young white males), and some people were jumping and hand-waving as if they were at a rave. Not only were the beats awesome, but Snarky Puppy also has a way of moving from the solos back to the main melody so that the return of the head feels like a climax, or a “drop” in dubstep terms. There’s no subtlety here, and since the melody is usually played by all musicians at once, it always sounds loud and merry and triumphant.

Overall, the Snarky Puppy show was one of the most fun shows that I’ve been to in a long time, and quite possibly the most fun “jazz” show that I’ve ever been to. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of their records and for more of their performances.


April 6th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The most delicate instrument

My favorite album of the last few weeks has been David Bowie’s The Next Day. Those who know me might think, “Duh, you’re a huge Bowie fan. How can this NOT be your favorite album?” But I’ll be honest – some Bowie albums are not great. And it’s been so many years since his last album, that this one was quite over-hyped. But man, does it deliver. The ballad “Where are we now?”, with its simple chorus and sublime bridge, is beautiful. I’m also partial to “Valentine’s Day,” “Love is Lost,” and other tracks that are more “80s” and uptempo.

What I’m most impressed with about the album is the quality of Bowie’s voice, especially given his age. In a recent New Yorker article (I know, I know, I need to read other publications), John Colapinto wrote a profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels, a laryngeal surgeon who has operated on the vocal cords of some of the best singers in the world, including Adele, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey and James Taylor. Zeitels is impressive not only because of his surgical prowess (imagine operating on such a delicate, sinewy system that is so intricately connected to the very mechanism that allows one to breathe?!), but also because he has pioneered new methods for restoring voices, including methods that involve lasers. In fact, cancer patients who would have to get their voice boxes removed now have the possibility of keeping them intact, thanks to new laser-based surgery.

Why do so many prominent (and not-so-prominent) singers need to get their voices fixed? Well, in order to produce certain pitches – especially very pure and loud ones – the vocal cords have to work quite hard, rubbing against each other. This hard work can often lead to minute rips and tears, which lead to the buildup of scar tissue and polyps. So, practicing singing works out the muscles in your throat a lot like exercising works out other muscles. “Strongmen” and body builders rip tendons all the time (as do other athletes), and they have to get surgery to repair this tissue all the time. Singers can do the same to their vocal cords. Those who belt it out (like Adele does), can get damage at a young age. [Side note: the pressure on Zeitels was really on with Adele, since everyone was aware of her vocal issues, and a lot of money was on the line. The Grammys were as nerve-wracking for him as they were for Adele, but she pulled through with an excellent performance.] But even non-singers eventually end up with crackly, “old people” voices, because of this same wear-and-tear. I noted in a previous post about The Who at the Barclays Center that Pete Townsend’s voice sounded way grittier than Roger Daltrey’s did – no wonder, since Daltrey is a regular client of Zeitels, and Pete has never had any “work done.”

The article about Zeitels has given me more respect for vocalists, especially those who are getting on in age, as David Bowie is. When your guitar or piano starts to break or wane in quality, you can get a new one. You can’t get new vocal cords (at least, not yet). So your instrument is very delicate, and you have to tow the line between giving it your all every time you perform and holding back to take care of your voice. I’m happy that there are doctors like Steven Zeitels who can restore singers’ voices. Why shouldn’t vocalists get the same advantages as athletes or other musicians do? Why should they have to give up singing once they get older? If Bowie had stopped singing, we wouldn’t have “The Next Day,” and if Zeitels hadn’t helped Daltrey, we might not be able to see The Who on tour now. Advances in laryngeal surgery help not only the performers, but also the fans and the music industry.

March 23rd, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Review: Supersynthetic EP by First Blush

synthetic (adj.) – artificial, fake, false, fabricated

supersynthetic (adj.) – very synthetic, synthetic to a greater degree; also, above or beyond synthetic (compare to: supernatural).

First Blush’s sophomore EP, composed of a diverse set of 6 tracks, has now been made available online (stream at  Led by composer, keyboardist and vocalist Charles Sekel, with Zak Croxall on bass and Zach Honoroff on drums, First Blush is finally starting to pin down their sound with this collection. The theme, of course, is the idea of “synthetic” – synthetic relationships, synthetic music, synthetic emotions.

The EP starts off strong, with its most well-crafted and polished song, “Off the Lights.” This song is a raw, honest look at a relationship between two people, and an encapsulation of that relationship. The words are definitive (“You’re an angel and I’m alive”; “Yes I know, it’s all over, all over, all over.”) But these quiet, introspective moments are quickly drowned out by cries of “Turn off the lights!”, and bursts of instrumental interludes (the moment after the first chorus, when the drums and synth line come in full blast, may be the most beautiful moment of the album; in fact, the magic of this EP really is in its transitions between disparate song segments). This drowning out signals that denial, and darkness, are where the song’s protagonist wants to remain. Despite his knowledge, he doesn’t want to shed light on a relationship that seems super-synthetic.

The next track, “Supersynthetic,” begins with an extremely cool synthesized riff; now we aren’t talking about “synthetic” in a metaphorical sense – we’re talking about synthesized music. This track is an homage to the ’80s, with its dance groove and simple vocal melodies, but also with its subtle melancholia. Again, the switch from part 1 to part 2 is the highlight (you’ll have to hear it to agree with me). Fittingly, there are effects on the vocals throughout the entire track, but on part 1, they sound muffled, trapped. In part 2, we get a feeling of breaking through, as the vocals take on more of an echoing and reverberating effect. These subtle touches are integral to the song, and wouldn’t even be possible without the technology that this track seems to be celebrating.

“Velvet” and “Velvet Remix” as a couplet explore the “meta” definition of synthetic by demonstrating that the same elements (chords) can be combined in different ways to produce totally different pieces of music. “Velvet” and “Velvet Remix” differ greatly in style, tempo and mood. One has vocals and lyrics, and the other doesn’t. (In fact, on “Velvet,” we have Charles’s most alluring vocal performance. There is also a lyrical reference back to the “Off the Lights” theme: “You may be perfect / but not down to the bone.” The listener can’t help but wonder, who is “you?” The angel, or the one who is alive?).  “Velvet” even uses real instruments, whereas “Velvet Remix” does not (but would one be able to tell? Hmm.). This is “synthetic” in the sense of fabricated, man-made. What makes music real is the choices that create it. Here, First Blush has decided to forgo making the choice between the two tracks, to show us just how delicate this process really is.

“Venture” and “Pack it Up” are also really well-constructed and fun to listen to. Zak’s bass part on “Pack It Up” and Randy Runyon’s guitar solo on “Venture” are high points of those tracks. In fact, the instrumental prowess of all four musicians is apparent throughout the EP – it’s hard to pick out the best parts. And the producer, Pat O’Leary, also deserves a nod for carefully mixing the songs.

What else is synthetic? Oh right – this review, probably. I’ve gleaned the above interpretations from my own listening, but that’s just my mind’s handiwork. If you take a listen to this EP (which you should!), you may feel different things, and project different meanings onto the songs. And that’s what makes music itself supersynthetic – something that is inherently synthetic that is somehow transcendental.

February 27th, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 28 Comments