Jul 8 2012

Why Why Can’t I by Liz Phair is a great production.

When Liz Phair released her self titled fourth CD with production by The Matrix, many jumped off her band wagon. The decision to use The Matrix was something of a catastrophic mistake by her label in terms of keeping Liz a viable artist into the future. For those of you who don’t know, The Matrix were the team that launched Avril Lavigne and several other teen singers into superstardom.

In Liz’s case, it was a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. She had spent many years cultivating a rabid cult following that now felt betrayed by what they saw as a sell out. Most people only heard the single, Why Can’t I, a pop masterpiece that really showcased what The Matrix could do if paired with a legitimate singer/songwriter. This production, in my humble opinion, is a home run and, in a fair and reasonable world, should have catapulted Liz into the stratosphere. Instead, it almost derailed her career. Understandably, I suppose but regrettably i believe.

Many see this as a big production but in actual fact, it’s just using a few elements to their maximum potential. The song begins with a seductive intro which, to these ears sounds like a distorted keyboard playing a pretty melody. Maybe it’s a guitar, who cares! The distortion in this case is not fuzzy like garage rock but instead, fuzzy like a warm, fuzzy teddy bear. The verse is just acoustic guitar, bass and drums and Liz singing a very melodic, uh, melody, with some of The Matrix’s patented radio voice call and answer. After four bars we get a new element which is a very discreet keyboard part. The pre chorus does exactly what a pre chorus is supposed to do, it helps the song climb into the chorus. The hi hat opens up, the vocal melody goes up in range, we get a more intense guitar part and there’s a short stop before we blast into the chorus.

The chorus is the main event. But it’s not like there are a ton of elements. It’s big for a few reasons. One, the vocal melody goes up again and the melody is, as the kids say, epic. The vocal is doubled and there are beautiful harmonies. There are low end-y distorted guitars that are giving the whole thing tons of weight. And that’s pretty much it. That’s how you create a gigantic chorus if you know what you are doing. No horn section or symphony orchestra or bells or whistles. Just meticulous use of what’s at your disposal. We finish by going into a re-intro with the warm fuzzy keys and the radio voice call and answer that was recycled from Hilary Duff’s So Yesterday, also a killer track.

The second verse goes down again in dynamics and we get some creative use of Liz’s vocals-using single tracks, double tracks and harmonies to make each line special.

That same philosophy guides the bridge. The producers use Liz as a call and answer with herself. It starts with an effected Liz paired with and octaved Liz. This is answered by a double Liz, one in each speaker. The last line has a dry Liz joining the effected one, which brings tons of intimacy to that last line, ‘baby I’m dying’.

Next we have a great dynamic shift that sports Liz singing the chorus with just a very nice sounding clean guitar. Clean guitars have not been a highlight of most pop or rock productions since the grunge era. Most clean guitars are just whatever the dudes amp sounds like when he clicks off all his pedals. This one feels like someone actually dialed it up to sound nice coming out of the amp. Then there is the unexpected re entry into the chorus, on the second beat of the bar, which creates lots of excitement and makes the chorus feel even bigger if such a thing is even possible.

This production is great because the producers took the time to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Everything is well thought out and the potential of each element was maximized. Why Can’t I also has a great lyric, a perfect pop melody with lots of sunny harmonies and absolutely amazing sounds. A technical and artistic masterpiece, in my opinion and something that should be listened to without prejudice.

Mar 2 2012

Just Who Is Being Dishonest?

Yesterday, I was snooping through the news feed on facebook when I read the status of a friend of mine which stated something along the lines of, “I hate it that people think they can steal music.” About a hundred or more comments followed, many, as is often the case on facebook, by the same three people waging an online argument on someone else’s page. With the public outcry over SOPA and PIPA, the internet has been overloaded with such arguments of late. Many posts key on one or the other side being, ‘dishonest’ in their positions or argument on the use of content on the Internet. For me, this is one of those arguments where it’s hard to figure out who is right. But it’s not hard to figure out who is full of crap.

People on the anti-downloading side are two types of people. First there are artists who often have little to fear from illegal downloading. Which is to say, most of the people who get ripped off on the internet tend to be really popular artists, ones that make a lot of money through legitimate sales of their music. But you rarely hear much from them. The folks I am talking about are usually artists that make their own music, don’t make any money doing it but feel they are making even LESS THAN NOTHING because of the wanton thievery that the Internet encourages.

The other type of regulate-the-interneters are people in the legitimate music and/or movie industry. These people are called, Rights Holders. There is a huge difference between a creator and a Rights Holder. Rights Holder’s are people that own copyrighted material, sometimes through creation but often through purchase,  contract, licensing or some other method. It’s these Rights Holders that are pissed off and are looking to control the way their property is being used. What is dishonest about their position is that they often invoke words like ‘creators’ and ‘artists’ when describing who kids are hurting when they listen to a song on youtube instead of heading to HMV to buy the CD. Let me be clear about something. No one at a record company gives a pony’s ass whether any creator, musician or writer, artist, whatever you want to call them makes a single penny. That’s really none of their business. That is neither a bad thing or a good thing, it’s an IS thing. Companies are beholden to their shareholders, they are not benevolent societies. They are in this business to make money, otherwise, they cannot exist. If they make more money and the artist makes less money, that’s a good thing in their world. That’s completely fine with me. Just don’t bullshit the public about what your true motives are.

In many instances, the rights holders claims are based on things that would make most fair people ponder. Disney makes movies based on stories in the public domain and then copyrights their new versions. Hundreds of blues and folk songs have been remade by rock bands who now have the copyright for those songs. A guy like Clyde Stubblefield who invented the drum beat for Funky Drummer, arguably the most sampled beat is history has never made a dime off of any of those uses. See, he is not the rights holder of that beat, the estate of James Brown and his record company are. No one gives a crap about Clyde Stubblefields rights as a creator. In this argument, he has no rights.

Furthermore, the music industry has taken great advantage of the internet when it has suited their purposes. They’ve pretty much given up on artist development, promotion and marketing since the bands can all do that themselves. Artists can shoot their own videos and upload them to Youtube, use facebook, Reverbnation, Soundcloud etc to spread the word about their band and their music. I often wonder if one of these draconian bills every passed would record companies hire back all the staff they laid off and start making 100.000 dollar videos again or would they say, “Oh, shit-we kind of had a good thing going there.”

In terms of the technologists, the other side in this argument, these people regularly show a complete and utter contempt for content providers. Their stance is that all writers, musicians, filmmakers etc should provide their content for free and the technologists and their websites should make all the money. These people feel that if someone interferes with them being able to make money off of free content that free speech is jeopardized.  (This is a complex argument, one for a lawyer not for someone like me). They also vilify the rights holders and say they are greedy and controlling when the fact is the technologists are worse. In their arrogance, what they don’t understand is that, without content, our computer screens are either blank, say ‘page not found’  or at best are sophisticated postal delivery systems. The world would turn to texting in order to communicate and the personal computer would go the way of the Betamax. There are probably 1000 people world-wide who give a crap about people who write code. There are billions of people who care about someone who writes a great song or great story or makes a hilarious video of their drunk Dad. THAT is the internet.

The saddest part of this debate is that it’s been going on for well over 10 years and we are no closer to a meaningful solution now than when Napster first appeared. I definitely don’t want to come off as some smug know it all because I really don’t know anything when it comes to this and i sure don’t have the answer. What I do know is that things can’t go back to the old rules and there certainly shouldn’t continue to be no rules. I do feel the terms of the debate need to change. Maybe we need someone more impartial to figure this out, someone who’s not directly connected to either camp. Who would that be?


Sep 24 2011

Politics, Religion and Music

Recently, Jani Lane from Warrant died alone in a motel room. Some people cared and most people probably didn’t. Some chose the moment to take shots at him about his unfortunate hit, Cherry Pie. It was unfortunate and more so the video. That video came out just before the fastest coup in the history of rock music. On Friday afternoon, Warrant, Poison, Cinderella and Whitesnake were on heavy rotation on MTV. Come Monday morning, they were all out of show business. Grunge had completely taken over MTV and the consciousness of the North American music listener. Grunge brought with it a brand new aesthetic. A very unglamorous fashion attitude , anti sexism, a more egalitarian posture between the artist and the audience, everything about it was pretty much the exact opposite of Hair Metal.

A lot of people see music the way they see religion or politics. There is good music and bad music and that the people who like or worse, perform bad music are wrong and have questionable motivation. That is occasionally true but often is not. Usually the motivation behind people who make ‘cool’ music and those who make ‘uncool’ music are relatively speaking, identical. They love music and want to play it for people. They have a burning desire to express themselves and they don’t want to do anything else.

One of my facebook friends posted a comment about how, with a few exceptions, she didn’t really care for music released earlier than 1980. This set off a string of interesting comments from some smart people. I was going to leave a comment but decided to write this blog instead.

One of the things I’ve tried to do since I left my teenage years is listen to music without prejudice. Even though I think I know what good music is in terms of composition and production, sometimes I like a song that isn’t perfectly crafted, clever or even good. Conversely, there is plenty of music that I know is well written, smart and ‘cool’ that doesn’t really move me. When I like a song, It’s usually about how it makes me feel more than what I might think about it. So saying I wouldn’t listen to a certain kind of music or music from a particular era doesn’t make any sense in that, I don’t see music as an intellectual pursuit or something that you would want to make arbitrary decisions about. When you hear something you like you just like it and I think a lot of people make up the reasons for why they like a piece of music after it has seduced them.

Jani Lane died desperately trying to continue doing what he loved to do. For a few years, the marketplace told him he was amazing and for a few decades after that, it told him he was a joke. That had to be a very tough thing to live with. Most people spend their post secondary years learning to do something and, once they acquire that skill, get to coast, (relatively speaking) for the rest of their lives. Like most musicians, Jani Lane struggled to make it with his band. He got his 15 minutes and then went back to struggling again for the rest of his life. Most people in society don’t have to deal with that. So be kind to his memory. And if you hear a song by Journey or Alabama or even Warrant on the radio and you find yourself humming along, don’t feel bad.



Sep 5 2011

Music is a part of me, really.

My family and I recently took a road trip down to the Southern States. This is something my wife and I used to do every year before we had kids. We love the lifestyle, the food and the people of the American South. Especially the food. Scoff if you must but, after a couple of weeks of fresh seafood, ribs, biscuits and gravy, collard greens and fried chicken I feel healthy and happy. Much healthier than I feel at home. But food is not the subject of this post.

One of our stops was Myrtle Beach, SC. We were wandering around a tourist spot called Broadway on The Beach looking for a place to eat that would be noisy enough to drown out the inevitable yelling of our kids. We passed by a T-Shirt shop and I heard something familiar playing on the store’s stereo. I couldn’t place the song. The guitar solo started and I realized I knew every single note of it, I was anticipating every run. As I struggled hard to remember the song, my wife looked at me and said, “use your Shazam,”. I pulled out my iPhone and held it in the direction of the music. It tagged just as I heard the vocal start up for the last refrain of the song. “I thought I had a girl, I know because I seen her. Her hair was golden brown, blowin’ free like a cornfield.” Blowin’ Free by Wishbone Ash from an album of theirs called Argus, released in 1972. I listened to this album hundreds of times when I was a teenager but haven’t heard it in decades.

As I reflect on this, I wondered why I didn’t recognize this song as a song, yet knew every note of it before it happened. Clearly, Blowin’ Free by Wishbone Ash is woven into the fabric of my memory or consciousness or cells-somewhere deep inside of me. There are likely hundreds of songs like this that, were I to encounter them, I’d be instantly recognize the notes and chord changes but not the title and band. There have been two songs that I’ve loved my whole life but didn’t know what they were called or who did them for years. One was Mr. Dyingly Sad, by The Critters. My friend, filmmaker Alan Zweig helped me with that one. The other was a song by Three Dog Night called Out In The Country, identified for me by Chris Edwards who owns Vintage Sounds on Queen St in Toronto.

What this means to me is that music is more ingrained in my memory than names, titles, bands, language. Music is in some very accessible storage space in my brain, whereas many other memories are on pages not found. I think I need to re-read  Daniel Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain On Music. Maybe the answer is in there.