Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mumford and Sons - Little Lion Man

In the last music in review I mentioned how the strange and delightful Florence and the Machine won best new artist at the 2010 Grammys; I am not finished talking about that. I like Florence and the Machine, obviously, I just did a Music in Review on her and stated as much, but I do not feel she was the best new artist in 2010. No, that honour should have gone to Mumford and Sons.

I first heard of Mumford and Sons from my friend Oscar at work. Oscar is a very hard working and very respectful, all round great guy, so befriending him was easy and enjoyable. Like anyone foolish enough to befriend me he was dragged into a long conversation about music, which fortunately for both of us we enjoyed. Oscar as a lover of guitar, when prompted by me to recommend a song or two, he strongly recommended Mumford and Sons, since their guitar work was amazing. Indeed, it is. I was a few months ahead of the crowd discovering Mumford and Sons thanks to Oscar, and I always try to give a shout to my friends and colleagues whenever I can.

Mumford and Sons were formed in 2007 but since their first album debuted in 2009 they qualified as a new artist in 2010. Don’t ask me why the years don’t add up, I don’t know. Named after front man Marcus Mumford, this British rock band has come out strong in their debut album “Sign No More.” Like so many times in the past I am confronted with the problem of picking one song. It would be easy and appropriate if I just said “’Sign No More’ is a great album, go get it.” In fact that’s exactly what I am going to say;

“Sign No More” is a great album, go get it.

Since I am only going to link one song, it might as well be “Little Lion Man,” it may be their best. I love the guitar, I love the sound of acoustic stings; the tab of a pick on the pick guard, and the whimpers a guitar makes from fingers moving up and down the neck from fret to fret, pretty much everything about the guitar is perfect. One of the things I most dislike about modern music is that all these personal touches are lost, they give music character and personality, and it is always wonderful when new bands embrace the true art of music. I love the guitar in “Little Lion Man,” I love the Irish sound, (I’ve always had a soft spot for anything Irish, my name is Colin D’Arcy Kelly after all) even though Mumford and Sons are a British group I feel confident in saying there are Irish roots in them, if not in their blood then at least in their musical influences.

I found it truly charming that a band like Mumford and Sons exists in this day and age, few highly talented musicians attempt this kind of song writing anymore, and any fewer of them get any acclaim. Mumford and Sons being nominated by the Grammys was as much of a surprise to me as anything else, and this somewhat restores my faith in humanity that people have not completely forgone good music, or taste. In truth they should have won, of all the bands nominated Mumford and Sons was defiantly the most worthy of the title “best new artist,” but I do take comfort in knowing the second most worthy won in the end. The important thing is Justin Beiber did not win, how embarrassed would we be, as a species if ten years from now we look back and thought “oh god, we gave that kid an award as the ‘best’ of that year?” The answer is very embarrassed.

Mumford and Sons is an exciting new band, and they are exciting because in many regards they are a traditional Celtic folk band, I love all things Celtic, so this is nothing but good news to me, and I am sure you will agree it is good news and good times for everyone with Mumford and Sons around.

Until next month keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly

Friday, November 11, 2011

Flash and Substance

There is a mantra I often use to focus when I am writing, “less is more.”

I was reading John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” The book that inspired John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” and the one thing I had to conclude was that it was very badly written. It was a very imaginative story and great idea, but very poorly executed in delivery, not the story itself just the presentation. The entire book was driven by long winded dialogues that explained everything. There was rarely any scene dressing or narration, the book moved forward by conversation, the plot was established by conversation, and things were resolved while people talked to each other thoroughly explaining everything to one another. I do not wish to give a negative impression of “Who Goes There?” it was a very interesting read, and I do not wish to present the idea that John W. Campbell is a bad writer, thought he clearly is, I want to first and foremost declare he had the most important tool, creativity, and though he struggled to share his great ideas with a proper sense of coherency or eloquence, he did share with us a great story nonetheless.

I was able to identify all of Campbell’s mistakes with relative ease because when I look at a lot of my old writings I am guilty of the exact same thing. I never much cared for describing all the little details in the background of every setting or offering up every single character’s life story once introduced, so I often had the characters explain to each other, who they were, where they were, and why there were there. Writing dialogue came easily to me, writing long winded narration did not.

In time I learned that the opposite could be even more damaging to a book, after struggling through Robert Jordan’s first three books in his “Eye of the World,” series, I concluded it was better to allow ham fisted dialogue push a story forward rather than waste hundreds of pages wasting the reader’s time describing the most irrelevant details. Honestly does a writer really expect anyone to remember or care to remember every meal the main characters have ever eaten? For some reason Robert Jordan did.

Writing is easy, good writing is hard.

The same is true for good song writing.

There are some songs that are perfect, like Led Zeppelin - “Stairway to Heaven.” The other day my brother Devin and I were discussion the following lyrics;

“If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There's still time to change the road you're on.
And it makes me wonder.”

Devin was surprised that one of his friends did not get the obvious pagan references to the May Queen. He was right to be surprised, even if you lack insight into Celtic culture, you should easily be able to piece together that the May Queen is a spirit or entity that brings forth, you know, spring. I was quick to add that, the hedgerow was a metaphor for the mind. This is less obvious.

“Stairway to Heaven” is a song about rebirth, heaven being the afterlife is just another form of rebirth. How will you enter the next life? What are people willing to do get there in good fortune? Do we try to buy happiness, if not in this life than perhaps in the next? It all ties together, but like anything human there is the human condition to consider. The song is a song of peace, and as Robert Plant once said, “this is a song about hope... I think.” You would think Plant would have deeper insights into his own song, but that is the beauty of Stairway, there is a room for interpretation even for the writer. The second life will come to you, like how spring comes every year, reawakening the beauty of the garden and the harvest, and the same is true for you. If there is a problem in the hedgerow, don’t be alarmed change in coming, is just another way of saying, if you are troubled in mind or spirit, don’t be alarmed change in coming.

Stairway to Heaven is a perfect song it is both descriptive and poetic.

Not every song needs to be lyrically perfect to be good or great. Metallic was never very poetic, but there have many great songs. “One,” a song many would consider to be Metallic’s best, is a very deep song, and not because of fancy word play, but rather the opposite, it is deep by digging deep into our fears with blunt statements.

“Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with life in hell”

Without any subtly, or hidden meaning, Metallica states something horrifying and sets it heavily into our hearts. By simply stating the terror Johnny is going through point blank Metallica accomplishes something much more touching then if they had tried to cover it up with elaborate poetry. Simplistic has served Metallica well, and they should be proud of themselves for having the wisdom to be so damned good at song writing.

All of a sudden this conversation is about flash and substance. Lyrically, “Stairway to Heaven,” has both, flash and substance, “One” has heavy substance with little flash, both are great songs, and there are countless other examples we could point to with vary degrees of flash and substance. The important thing to remember is that you can do without flash, but you cannot forgo substance. There are musicians and songs were the lyrics are all flash and no substance.

“Blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts.”

That sounds deep doesn’t it? But what does it mean, “blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts?” Let’s dissect this line, “blinded by silence” obviously this is not a literal expression, blinded by a lack of sound, that’s not possible, so there must be something so horrible in the silence that it made you not what to ever look upon whatever caused it; maybe? “Silence of a thousand broken hearts?” so I guess we are suppose to infer the that the silence stricken upon us from massive heart break will make us go blind? Is that really deep? Does that really make sense?

The answer is, no.

Green Day is a terrible band. I hate to waste energy focusing on insects like Green Day, but sometimes it is hatred that offers us the best examples of what to avoid and disdain in life. Green Day is an embarrassment to music; they have adopted the worst possible kind of song writing approach, the illusion of poetry.

If you listen to Green Day’s song “Minority,” in its entirety, you can see no connection from their message of desiring to be a “minority,” different or special, and the lyric about being blinded by silence induced from broken hearts. The line is dramatic, it calls for a greater meaning, but when analyzed it is meaningless, and under no given context relatable or even coherent. Green Day’s attempts at poetry are all flash and no substance. It is obvious to anyone who has bother to spare a thought that Green Day only put that line in the song because they thought it sounded “cool,” and like so many false representatives of intelligent before them they have only succeeded in further showcasing their stupidity.

This is the core point I wanted to making is this essay, that a simple lyric is often superior to a complex lyric, this is why Metallica saying something bluntly is so much more meaningful than Green Day saying something fancy.

I’ve listened to a lot of pop music this year, the indie rock scene this year hasn’t given me much to get excited about, and the progressive metal movement seems to be taking the year off, that has left me searching more frantically then previous years to find 2011’s best music. As a result I have listened to a lot of pop music, and there is so much to say about pop music, the corporate corruption, the popular themes of society, and the obvious sex trade influences (that’s an essay in itself), are all things I could ramble on about, but let us look at two popular pop songs from this year, one of them good and one of them bad.

I do not want to call Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” a bad song, because all the potential for a decent song is present, unfortunately Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” is a bad song. Decent singer, decent song concept, acceptable bass, nice piano, it could have worked, but there is one great short coming in “Jar of Hearts,” the lyrics. There are an infinite number of songs about women telling off their ex-boyfriends, and I am not complaining, it is a very human thing to want to express. But the lyrics in this song... did they hire an eight year old?

“You’re going to catch a cold, form the ice inside your soul.”

Is that supposed to be deep? That is the sort of poem a child writes when they want to impress their grade three English teacher.

“And who do you think you are?
Running around leaving scars.”

This is not even good English; it barely manages to make coherent sense.

Still the song is not completely hapless; there is at least one very powerful lyric;

“Don’t come back for me,
Don’t come back at all.”

This is a powerful lyric, it says a lot. There is conviction in Christina Perri’s voice when she sings this line, and unlike the rest of the chorus, this line actually sounds like something a human being would say. This line seems conversational, like she is actually telling off her ex-boyfriend at this point. You can literally imagine Ms. Perri saying this to someone and it meaning something emotional to both parties. It is by far the most ordinary and simplistic lyric in the entire song, and I am telling you right now that is not a coincidence.

Now for the good song, Adele – “Someone Like you.”

I like Adele and I am quite pleased to see her becoming popular since I do not believe she fits the mould of corporate machine pop star so we know she has earned her fame and success purely off merit of her talents, and what talent, what a voice. I could talk about Adele for an entire music in review, and in fact that is apt to happen sometime in 2012.

“Someone Like you” is similar to “Jar of Hearts,” insofar that it is a song being sang by a woman addressing her ex-boyfriend, however other than that the songs are complete opposites. Adele actually shares a beautiful message of acceptance and well wishing for her ex, and other differences include the primary point that Adele is a legitimate singer with a great song, where as Christina Perri... I’m not sure what her story is, and honestly, I don’t care.

The entire song “Someone Like you,” is very good, both in piano and vocals, but the best line in the entire song is this;

“Never mind.”

That’s it.

You might think that two words, very casual words at that, and cannot possibly be the best lyric for an entire song, especially one that is really good, as I keep claiming, but it is, now let me tell you why.

Every verse is a declaration of how Adele still loves her ex, and even though she still loves him and wants to be with him she can’t, yet she wishes him the very best with his new lover, and then; “never mind, I’ll find someone like you.” She stops her own self torture, and overzealous kindness with those two words “never mind.”

There are a lot of sad songs, and most of them have a silver lining if you look hard enough, some don’t, but all the best ones do. In Adele’s “Someone Like you,” the chorus is the silver lining, she states with strength that she does not need her ex, all she need do is find someone she can love as much as him. It’s beautiful.

Two words that is all it takes sometimes to make a song stand up and confront you with powerful conviction, if you try to flower up your lyrics you end up sounding like a fool who mutated their powerful emotions into a convoluted mess of poor poetry.

Keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Florence and the Machine - Dog Days Are Over

“Happiness, hit her like a train on a track, 
Coming towards her, stuck still no turning back,
She hid around corners and she hid under beds,
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled,
With every bubble she sank with a drink,
And washed it away down the kitchen sink.”

I never really appreciated the meaning of the song “Dog Days” until I typed up those lyrics. Running away from happiness is a rather poignant thread of thought in today’s society. Things have never been better and yet we just refuse to be happy. I know it a recession people, but let us be honest with ourselves things are better now than they have ever been, and things are always getting better. Anyway I’m getting off topic; Florence and the Machine are great.

Earlier this year I talked about the Grammys, and how it was satisfying that Arcade Fire won album of the year with “The Suburbs.” I always meant to revisit the Grammys for further discussion and I think it’s time to revisit this topic. For those who did not already know and for those did not guess Florence and the Machine won the best new artist.

Last year was a good year for music, I think I’ve said that a few times now, but it bears repeating, 2010 was a great year for music. More often than not, it is usually bands that are already established that catch my attention. Since I know to pay attention to bands I like, I know to look for their new music when it comes out. New bands often take time to warm up to me, and not just me, but everyone; did you know Kings of Leon have five studio albums now? Most of you probably didn’t. I sure didn’t. Catching a good new band is hard, so when I really like more than one new band in one year, it means something has gone right.

What is there to say about Florence and the Machine? They are good, but they are indicative of the times, as in they are the typical style of music that is popular right now, the only thing making them stand out, at least to me, is quality. Florence and the Machine are good modern music, capturing all the right elements of current pop music, add a touch of unique character that supplies plenty of charm and you have Florence and the Machine. As it stands now, Florence and the Machine have a few good songs and a decent pair of albums, but we should all know that a lot of bands start strong, run out of ideas, or run out of things to say, and either fall apart or stagnate. It always people who are interesting that manage to avoid stagnation. John Lennon had a lot to say, and he could have written good music forever. David Bowie is a very fascinating person and has successfully written great music for decades. I have always gotten the impression that Andrew Lloyd Webber was a really weird guy, and you see where I’m going with this.

There is something obviously interesting about Florence, if that is her real name (it is). She has allowed various other artist provide her voice with music, thus the machine part of the band name, at least I presume that’s where the “machine,” part comes from. When you have a strong vocalist, especially one that is as unhinged as Florence Welch, it is a good idea to leave open the possibility of mass experimentation. Allowing her voice to adopt different musical styles in the future may be the key to future success for her, or other words, variety is the key to success.

Still, far be it for me to suggest what creative advice any musician should follow, or try to predict what Florence Welch might do in the near future.

There have been many wailing, flailing, crazy singers in the past, and many of them women, but like any of the good intense crazy, flailing, wailing female vocalist before her, Florence Welch has managed to make herself stand out as different, or should I say strange.

Yes, strange, that is the best way of describing her, strange. I really like “Dog Days Are Over,” good song, powerful vocals, but to really drive the point home about Florence Welch I think a viewing of her 2011 video of “Dog Days Are Over,” is a good idea. The video is little more than Welch dressed in a variety of strange outfits singer her powerhouse vocals while flailing about like a crazy person, all the while various odd people perform in the all white background now and then. It would be a very simple video, if not for Welch’s presence, her mere presence demands a deep interest in the viewer. Seeing her flail and wail about like the strange person she is, is very captivating. Not since Kylie Minogue writhing around half naked on a blanket have I been so entertained by just watching a woman sing in front of the camera, though clearly Kylie captured my attention for different reasons. Florence Welch does not draw a listener in with sex appeal; no it defiantly is not that, she draws us in with her aura of the unusual, because she herself is unusual, one of music’s new prototypes. I do not know what to make of her, maybe she is in fact a crazy or eccentric person, or perhaps she has just the right amount of offbeat creativity to perfectly entertain us. Either way, we have a fantastic singer here and one that is fun to boot.

So that’s how I feel about that. Florence and the Machine are strange, and I like it.

Until later this month, keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly