Tag Archives: column

Amplified Observations: Music might soon require us to become listeners, readers and viewers at the same time

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/music-combines-listening-viewing

Stephen King has hypothesized that his readers do not return to him for action but rather for a voice.

Artists, whether musical, visual or literary, function like a font that surfaces from underground streams of individualized and undiluted ideas. The clearest examples of these distinct voices also happen to be the easiest to name: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Richard Wagner, Bob Dylan, Jane Austen and Langston Hughes.

Despite some great artists focused solely only one type of artistic expression, others have expanded their voices into other mediums to present more comprehensive works that speak to the eyes, the ears and the psyche.

In 1849, Richard Wagner popularized a German aesthetic term called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which translates to “total work of art” or “comprehensive artwork.” The phrase looked to blur the lines between different mediums and artistic tasks into one conceptual statement made up of all its parts.

The idea continues to float underneath the brim of pop culture with Jack-of-all-tradesmen like Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, who paired his music with his paintings, and David Bowie, whose final work Blackstar included an off-Broadway play titled “Lazarus” after one of the album’s songs. In every way, Bowie’s last release followed the carte blanche, combinative tradition Wagner pioneered in his operas.

In the present age of digital storage, more and more artists have released visual compositions about the creation of their albums or as a companion piece, such as artists like NothingMGMT and recently Flying Lotus. Musicians are no longer one-dimensional in their expression, and technology has facilitated their access to honing and mastering mediums other than their primary one.

Perhaps the two releases that have most mirrored Wagner’s method are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Both 2016 albums arrived with visual stories interlinked with the music rather than added as an extra feature. At the same time, Ocean also published a magazine called “Boys Don’t Cry” featuring an explanatory project details and a silly, witty poem by Kanye West. 

Regardless of the quality of the albums, their use of mixed media, including print, is unprecedented in their professionalism and personally-crafted sheen. But full-length album films are not the only way to expand on an album’s meaning. Artists include things in releases that are often overlooked.

On my wall hangs a poster that came with the vinyl for Archy Marshall’s moody hip-hop album A New Place 2 Drown. Although the poster is only made up of different patterns of black and white lines and the album’s name, it provides another object to contemplate the deeper feelings behind abstract sounds. It gives the album a visual backdrop.

Prior to dropping the group’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead sent cryptic postcards to its mailing list complete with appropriately-paranoid lyrics and a painting related to the album.

A gesture as simple as a poster or postcard that differs from the album’s mandatory cover artwork can give listeners a better idea of which stream of human emotion the artist filled his or her canteen.

An artistic concept should not be confined to one area of expertise but rather allowed to flourish in many different forms. Artists are moving forward in releasing more comprehensive works from the viewpoint of music rather than the traditional mixed medium of film.

And as long as the voice remains strong and present throughout the work, the listeners, readers and viewers will always return for more. And more and more, those three separate labels of consumption apply to one person engaged with one work of art.

Amplified Observations: Bob Dylan cautious of media in acceptance of Nobel Prize

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/10/bob-dylan-nobel-prize

The wind stopped blowing and we finally got an answer.

Following two long weeks of speculative silence, Bob Dylan acknowledged his Nobel Prize for Literature on Saturday in an interview with The Telegraph.

He is quoted saying he would “absolutely” accept the award “if it is at all possible.” Had he not, Dylan would have been the first to turn down the prize since Jean Paul Sartre in 1964 who did not want to be made into an “institution.”

Prior to Dylan’s acceptance, hundreds of news articles and think-pieces invaded everyone’s social feed and occupied several niches of the press: music, celebrity and the almighty cold case. Why isn’t he talking and what will he say?

Sure enough, in Dylan’s long-developed mannerisms, he let the public and press sweat for a bit with his thumb and index figure on society’s air-conditioner’s knob. Dylan has long been wary of acknowledging the sacred cows of civilized culture, including time-honored awards.

Perhaps his extended reticence also emerged as a reaction to the firestorm created by the initial reaction. One party argued Dylan’s selection did not follow the traditions of the Nobel Prizes in Literature, which include William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez and Hermann Hesse. The other argued for the songwriter’s cultural contributions through his lyrics and themes (even though Dylan is no Hesse).

I fall into the latter camp and I guess so do the Swedish people on the prize’s board.

Over his half-century career, Dylan has remained wary of public attraction toward publicity stunts and ratings-magnets. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature might have been awarded earnestly, or possibly with an angle. Either way, Dylan let the medal cool down before reaching out for it.

But along with avoiding controversy, Dylan also caused “irritation and anger” among the selection committee. Perhaps he reminded them of the emptiness in their validation of him, which could have meant more to someone whose message had not yet been received clearly by the public.

To accept an award of elite validation is to give power to the validators, which is ultimately a personal choice. Dylan eventually accepted the award, but only after exposing the hollowness and vanity of the whole process.

And aside from a knighting by the Queen, music honors only look to confirm or validate what an artist already knew, especially one around as long as Dylan. The only one that seems honest in judging quality and innovation is the Mercury Prize.

With his silence, Bob Dylan intentionally or unintentionally showed that awards do not make us more human or more real than anyone else. Awards are nice, warm validation, but no one lives in a higher or lower state than anyone else because of them.

Committees and opinions would make it appear so.

Amplified Observations: Long songs need structural, conceptual support

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/09/are-long-songs-better-than-short-songs

Long songs are like suspension bridges. If there’s not enough support they collapse into troubled waters, taking with them everyone on board.

But if the cords manage to hold and the concept and engineering is strong enough, the bridge delivers its travelers safely to the other side.

Songs that indulge in themselves must be engrossing enough to the listener as to dispel the feeling that the listener is wasting precious time crossing a bridge to nowhere. They must make a connection to the listener, through storytelling, relatable experiences or stirring riffs and chords. Sometimes one of these is enough and sometimes it takes all three.

This primarily applies to rock songs ranging from seven minutes and longer. Since most jazz and classical works rely on movements and improvisation, they’ll have to wait in traffic until this column is over. There’s no way to establish movements or improvise without taking your time, but things could easily fall apart just as well.

Storytelling, the simplest of these three methods, captures the audience using narrative suspense like in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Everyone enjoys a good story and if the tale draws us in, we usually find out what happens in the end.

Other artists use powerful phrasing and relatable sentiments to hold attention for long stretches. My Morning Jacket’s “I Will Sing You Songs” and Yes’ near 19 minute opus “Close to the Edge” achieve this effect quite well.

But it’s most impressive when these two techniques are combined with a display of sheer musicality. When the melodies are memorable and the riffs are rockin, no one will want to tap the right double arrow.

Examples include Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls on Hoboken” and, of course, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Sometimes musicians cheat a little bit and stitch two compositions together into one long track like Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But whatever you call it, the changeup is effective at shaking off boredom and listener fatigue, a pitfall to song length.

It’s difficult to recall specific songs that fall apart after a certain point, probably because culture forgets them or they lack inventiveness. But it would be accurate to say that sometimes boring riffs go on for too long and lyrics sound uninteresting and soulless at a certain point (“Revolution 9”). Not every song has to be as long as Sufjan Stevens’ 25 minute album closer “Impossible Soul.” I would prefer if they weren’t.

But long songs tend to be worth the effort, even if some might bring wasted time. They have more space to convey a moving atmosphere and make a sonic connection.

It’s all about staying in the slow lane of that suspension bridge and enjoying the scenic view. It’ll distract you long enough to realize that you’re already on the other side.

Amplified Observations: Making an acoustic guitar sound psychedelic is hard, but some artists make it look easy

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/08/psychedelic-guitar-musicians

This week’s column is about to open your third eye. But not in the traditional way.

That’s because it’s about a sleeper genre that never seems to get discussed: acoustic psychedelia. And although that might not be a “documented” genre, it’s at least what I use to identify this specific trend.

Psychedelic music is almost synonymous with trippy guitar effects, echo-chamber-like reverb and wild, oscillating vocals. But pull the plug out of the socket and what are you left with? Surprisingly enough, more than a handful of good tunes.

Psychedelic rock, pop and folk are not limited to Strats and fuzz but can also be achieved effectively using the basics: a guitar, a voice and an enticed imagination.

Around the highwater mark of psychedelia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, several artists released acoustic records chock-full of naturally occurring weirdness and mysticism. Musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, George Harrison, Tim Buckley and others took to a softer side of the substance-fueled sound, focusing on the fantastical and mystical elements underlying much of what had already run its course.

Even Townes Van Zandt, the celebrated country singer, dabbled psychedelic acoustic music with his 1972 cut “Silver Ships of Andilar.” Andilar is almost as mythical of a place as what Neil Young describes in his 1970 song “After the Gold Rush.”

That approach might not seem to be a big deal, but in essence, those musicians attempted to elevate the capability of acoustic instruments to possess an aura of psychedelic wonder. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s an impressive feat.

It was a particularly strange moment when I realized Simon & Garfunkel’s largely acoustic 1968 album Bookends also incorporates psychedelic lyrics and effects. How else could you explain songs such as “Punky’s Dilemma” or “Voices of Old People”? Other songs of theirs such as “The 59th Street Bridge” also illustrate a groovy sonic landscape.

Nowadays, we think of psychedelic rock as sounding garage-y or with more effects than an alien spaceship. However, although absent in the main genre, acoustic psychedelic might have found a home in musical places such as freak folk or psych folk with bands such as Mount Eerie, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Akron/Family.

But either way, music from the initial wave like Love’s “Alone Again Or” is still easily accessible and as vibrant as ever.

If anything is important in the wider picture here, it’s that an approach like acoustic psychedelia only illustrates the true capabilities of musical creativity and the strange desires of the human spirit.