First Blush, a duo from New York featuring Charles Sekel and Carlo Neda as vocalists, multi-instrumentalists and meisters of synth, have just released their (self-titled) debut EP. It’s composed of four genre-bending songs, which can only really, and vaguely, be classified as new New Wave. It’s in the indie vein, sure, but it doesn’t shy away from catchy riffs and hooks. The songs are diverse in character, but a thread of melancholy runs through them all. Lyrically, there is a strong theme of insecurity, combined with obsessive reflection.
“This Century’s Dance”, the EP opener, starts with a poppy, 80s-esque guitar riff, which makes you think that you’re about to hear something by The Cure or New Order – that it’s just another bittersweet, danceable tune. But after the first few lines, you quickly realize that, at core, this is a song about a charade, and it’s overflowing with angst. The middle section even introduces a synth sound that conjures the notion of spinning around in circles, over and over again. And when Carlo sings, “I cannot escape this century’s dance,” it really feels like he wants to. When the opening lines are sung again at the end, you feel relieved, but your attitude toward them has changed completely. This final section is the artistic pinnacle of the song, because its chaos betrays the fractured confusion of the dancer. But the catchiness somehow persists.
“Last” is the most minimal and, arguably, the most intimate of the tracks. The intimacy probably derives from the fact that it’s the only song with one vocalist – Charles, in an enchanting, whispery register – and also from the sense of longing in the lyrics, especially in the landmark line, “Are we forgiven now?” The biggest strength of “Last”, however, is the repeating, background guitar riff, which trickles in at the beginning. It gives the song its ground, even as it meanders, from thought to thought. The drumming is also deft – the use of brushes during the “you’re just wasted away” interludes gives the song a chillwave feel.
As compelling as the first half of the EP is, the last two tracks are definitely the strongest. “Be Back Home/Gemini” starts off in lo-fi, just a single voice and keyboards (violin is eventually added in, only increasing the poignancy of this section). The lo-fi seems to be a nod to the ’70s and ’80s artists who influenced First Blush, but it’s also extremely effective. It gives us the feeling that the singer is drowning, suffocating without his love (the sadness and frustration peak at the fantastic lines, “Are you made of make-up? Am I made of stone?”).”Be back home” is a command, and unlike the more traditional “come back home”, it expects and needs a sudden salvation, not a gradual journey. The transition into the second section of the song (“Gemini”) is skillful and smooth, but indeed, the clarity that comes in is sudden. We know exactly when it’s begun. It’s not a journey or building-up – the second part is in the same plane as the first, but is different in myriad ways. The singer is new, the beat is sharp, the bass is prominent, the sound is fuller. There are a few melodic references to the first half, but overall, this is a new person, who is now not so desperate, but still retains some insecurity. “The man you see” becomes the man he sees, almost like he’s still trying to convince himself of just who he is declaring to be.
“Old Sun” is reminiscent of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” records, and it’s similar to M83 in its synthesized glory and fullness. The drums – recorded by Devin Gray – are brilliant, but the keyboard structures and vocal melodies are what give “Old Sun” its character. This is a triumphant piece of music, and even while it sprawls in soundspace, it’s incredibly tight. The angst and melancholia of the previous songs is still present, but now it’s presented more firmly. The final section of this song is the artistic pinnacle of the whole EP, and it winds down well; it is as if the vocalists dropped their mics and left the room, having hurled their hearts and poured their grievances into each and every bar, note, bell and whistle.
Disclaimer: I know the members of First Blush personally.
This year, John Taylor broke the Guinness World Record for fastest guitar playing, ripping through “Flight of the Bumblebee” at 600 beats per minute (video here!). Insanity!
Of course, John Taylor isn’t a renowned musician, and if you asked the average person who the fastest guitarist ever is, they might say Joe Satriani or Yngwie Mamsteen…or Eddie van Halen. They would never think of this music teacher from Colorado. So, what’s the point of doing this? What’s the point of proving you’re the best at such a specific skill?
Maybe we should ask Ashrita Furman, the current record-holder for greatest number of Guinness World Records (a profile on him is out in the New Yorker now; he has over a thousand). Furman frequently puts himself through outrageous challenges – riding a bike or jump-roping underwater, climbing the highest distance on stilts – to break and set new records. Some might call it an addiction, especially because he’s putting his life in danger.
But I think that proving what human beings are capable of is very fascinating, and an admirable pursuit. Up until just twenty years ago or so, people thought that our brains weren’t plastic – that if we killed neurons, we couldn’t get them back. That’s deemed silliness in science now, as we are constantly changing our brains. Addicts change the way their pleasure centers work with exposure to drugs; cab drivers in England have larger hippocampuses than average people (since they’re good at storing information about context); and musicians (who play with their hands) have a larger portion of their somatosensory cortices devoted to controlling their fingertips. Even non-musicians can increase their dexterity with increased practice. I can play Guitar Hero pretty well now, but my pinkies weren’t nearly that coordinated a year before I started. And this has way less to do with my muscles than it does with my brain, and the regions that are dedicated to learning.
Humans learn, and humans learn fast (some researchers think this rapid proceduralizing of involved processes is what makes us human, but maybe more on that another day). The Guinness World Records are a showcase for learning, and they’re a showcase for patience. People dedicate themselves to some goal that seems impossible, but within weeks or months, they’ve achieved it. Aren’t we all just setting goals and trying to achieve them all the time? Some are more far-sighted, some are more near-sighted, but people like John Taylor and Ahrita Furman are dedicating themselves to far-sighted goals that seem near-sighted…or mentally and physically strenuous tasks that seem silly. I commend them for it.
On Tuesday night, I checked out Qualia Fest at The Local 269, a music event put on by the New York Consciousness Collective. As someone who writes about neuroscience and music, I thought it was only appropriate for me to listen to, and comment on, music about neuroscience.
You see, the bands that played at Qualia Fest, such as the Amygdaloids and the Space Clamps, specialize in performing songs that have psychological and neuroscientific principles embedded in their lyrical content. Joe Ledoux is the legendary professor behind the Amygdaloids, and since his field is emotion (he’s done some of the most seminal work on fear learning, for example), he sings about emotion. But I found that, while the instrumentalists were really quite talented, the music itself didn’t strike me as that emotional.
There’s something uncomfortably self-aware about imbuing emotion into the study of emotion, just as there’s something uncomfortable about studying psychology in general. Once you become conscious of something, it’s hard to experience it naturally. I’m sure that someone has challenged you to this before, but think about breathing for a second. Did you stop breathing when you did? The New York Consciousness Collective is accustomed to asking questions about philosophy of mind (what makes up the “I”? How does consciousness emerge from a clump of neural connections? How do we think about thinking, and is metacognition solely a human trait?). Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re into such self-conscious music.
Now, I’m not one to make much of lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before (and this is especially true when I’m at a crowded music venue and can’t make them out very well), but what I do value in lyrics are subtlety and cleverness. I think that the bands that I saw on Tuesday were good at the cleverness bit. As corny as I found David Chalmers‘s “Zombie Blues”, he made people laugh. But subtlety is nearly impossible to achieve when people know beforehand what your music is about. If you take the lyrics to one of Joe LeDoux’s songs on their own – “Fear” or “Mind Over Matter”, perhaps – you might think that they’re pretty similar to lyrics that you’ve heard in other pop or rock songs. But knowing that he studies emotion, and that these constructs – fear, memory, recollecting, forgetting - are (to him) such a mechanical part of his work day, makes it harder for me to feel emotion when listening to the songs.
I think that having an intuition about the way that humans experience the world is a huge plus when you’re studying psychology. Just being human affords you a level of expertise in this field that you couldn’t have in another discipline, like physics or biology. So, I understand it when psychologists excel in the arts, and I really admire scientists, like Joe LeDoux, who make music. Composing and playing music is a great way to have an emotional life, even when your day at the lab is marked by so little emotion. It’s a way to combine that intuition about the human psyche with the knowledge that you’ve gathered from data, and use it to lift people’s spirits and make them feel something. But once your science becomes too much a part of your art, there is an awkwardness that emerges that can impede that goal. It’s a problem of consciousness.
P.S. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think that studying something by itself is detrimental to our experience of it. I just think that the knowledge should be applied, well, gingerly.