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Recent Musical Obsessions

1 Dec

Here are some songs I have been obsessed with lately. For one reason or another these tunes have been on repeat in my brain and in my iPod consistently the last several weeks.

“Baby Blue” by Badfinger

Ever since the final episode of Breaking Bad, like millions of other folks, I’ve been obsessed with this catchy tune by ’70s power pop rockers Badfinger. This track was the perfect music for the final moments of one of the best shows on television.

“Headache” by Frank Black

I first heard this song in the ’90s after Black’s band, The Pixies, broke up (now back together and touring), and I enjoyed the retro look of the video of the time. Little did I know, for some reason, I would want to hear the song over and over a decade later. I borrowed some of the lyrics for one of my recent photomontages.

Wrinkle In Time

“Wrinkle In Time” – Click to see full size

“In the Garage” by Weezer

I like the simple sing-song melody and declarations of what’s important: a 12-sided die, posters of KISS, and the safety a space like a garage can offer a creative spirit, something no doubt familiar to the members of Weezer, one of my favorite bands.

What do you think? What are some songs that have been in your head lately? Where do you go to discover new music? Let us hear from you in the comments.

KISS in M.I.A. Sample

21 Nov

Matangi & KISS’ Heaven’s On Fire on New Album

Listen to the first 5 seconds of both of these songs…

“Matangi” by M.I.A., 2013

“Heaven’s On Fire” by KISS, 1984

Cool, huh? Share this on Twitter!

What do you think? Ever recognized a sample? Are you a KISS or M.I.A. fan? Let us hear from you in the comments.

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin: A Review

27 Oct
Note: The folks from Grammarly graciously offered to sponsor this post. I use Grammarly for proofreading online because it can free up more brain power for enjoying music.

Music is everywhere, especially when it has to do with our emotions. Music has the power to move us, physically and spiritually. It is familiarity and exploration simultaneously drawing from experience, atmosphere and energy… spatial points of reference blending in sound.

This is Your Brain on MusicI discovered this book while browsing Audible randomly for something interesting a few weeks back, and I’m glad I did. I found it to be entertaining, well-articulated and just technical enough to make solid points but not so much that I became lost in scientific mumbo jumbo. The author, Daniel J. Levitin states:

“This book is about the science of music from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience – the field that is at the intersection of psychology and neurology.”

Levitin is an experienced producer and studio engineer, who came by his musical appreciation honestly – his father offered to finance a set of headphones as long as the young author promised to use them whenever his dad was home. Sounds like good parenting to me.

Levitin later went on to become a bona-fide brain researcher and Ph.D., incorporating his musical background. This qualifies him to explore what’s happening with the brain in relation to music.

Consider how something as instinctive as “groove” works. Levitin notes: “when we talk about a ‘great groove’ in music… we’re talking about the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum. ‘Groove’ is that quality that moves the song forward. When the song has a good groove, it invites us into a sonic world we don’t want to leave.”

That’s a pretty darned good description of groove, right there.

Beats and melodies, grooves and lyrics, disconnected ideas forging a shared energy… what happens with music is happening in our brains. So many areas of our consciousness activate together in a musical experience – like performance and interpretation happening at once. I’ve long believed music is the most powerful art form.

The book explores some of the author’s own, and other recent studies conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure, along with what’s happening in the brain in relation to music, from many perspectives – biological, physical, anthropological, and others.

“Music listening, performance and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem.”

This makes a ton of sense to me, since so many, many hours of my youth were spent listening intently to music closely, over and over, concentrating on untangling its secrets into something I could tap into and impart to others through a shared experience. It’s a beautiful thing, and this book illustrates some of the biological mechanisms that enable such magic. As a self-taught musician, I found it fascinating to consider all this from a physiological and evolutionary point of view.

Above: interview w/ Daniel Levitin on The Agenda with Steve Paikin

Levitin notes that “music is unusual among all human activities, for both its ubiquity and its antiquity.” I agree that there’s something primal about music, something as elemental as the air we breathe, as visceral as any vibration. Like the rhythms of a wind rustling leaves, hoofbeats on a plain, or a brook cascading among the echoes of a forest. It makes sense of the world through organization of energy, with the power to send us elsewhere and take us back home in our minds, something that has been happening since humans first started drumming on logs around a fire, continuing to this day in new and exciting forms.

“As our brains have evolved, so has the music we make with them, and the music we want to hear.”

Just think of a song you know, one that makes you tap your foot to the beat or sing along – maybe just the first melody that pops into your mind, maybe something you heard on the radio on the way to work… in a commercial… in college… last weekend at a friend’s house… years ago when you were just beginning to understand the world — what is that sound? It’s living in your brain right now and likely will be for a long time to come. This book can offer a new appreciation for that kind of art.

Update: author comments & recommendation!

What do you think? Have you ever considered how music affects the brain? What do you consider an example of a song that takes you to a certain place? Let us hear from you in the comments.

What Do You Do When A Song Is Stuck In Your Head?

12 Sep

MusicOnTheBrainI experience music looping in my head on a regular basis, and I’m sure you can think of several times this has happened to you. I’m also a self-taught musician, having learned to play guitar by ear from an early age through careful listening, so, I have a hunch my brain is more active in the “melody-analysis” area, and that I’m prone to experiencing this more often (or at a higher volume) than others. This doesn’t affect my life in any huge external way — I carry on productively and engaged in most any situation. But in a moment of relative quiet, the internal soundtrack often cranks right up.

But Isn’t That What Vocal Hooks Are For?

I’ve found it’s usually key phrases from songs that stand out — like dramatic flourishes or expressive riffs. It’s not always the “pop hook” or vocal element that grabs me, and it can be any obscure track from any time in history, of any genre, not just so-called “popular” music specifically music designed to lodge itself in the brain. Though I’d bet a quantitative analysis of the last 50 years would reveal more bias toward, say, The Andrews Sisters than Metallica.

And then, after a few hours… it’s gone. Maybe I’ve made an effort to listen to the track somehow and exorcise its hold on my spirit. Or, what was there before just gets replaced by another track.

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick – Power Pop Hook Maker Extraordinaire

Why Does This Happen?

Perhaps as early human cave dwellers, the ability to memorize sound served an evolutionary purpose. Hearing a growl in the distance might have prevented being eaten by a bear, so that would have been a good sound to repeat into memory for an advance warning next time. Or maybe hoofbeats in the distance signaled a tasty herd of beasts just over the ridge. I’m totally guessing, but it’s not implausible given what we understand about the fight-or-flight response.

What Do You Do?

I really wonder if there’s a course of action here. Is there some type of “resolution” or lesson to be learned — or does there even need to be? What purpose does having a song stuck in your head actually serve?

What do you think? Do you find that actually playing the song works to “release” the melody from your brain? Or do you find that songs usually dissipate on their own? Any guesses as to why this happens? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Telecaster Transmissions

26 Aug
Telecaster Transmissions 02

Street Guitarist With Aura, Venice Beach, CA. To listen, click below or visit my Soundcloud page. To see more images like this, check out My Creations at Pinterest.

I noticed this gentleman in Venice Beach making sound shapes with his beat up Telecaster, battery-powered amp, effects pedal with a looping drum beat, and a mop of tangled dreadlocks dangling from his hunched frame. It was absolutely compelling. I took a couple of photos and recorded 40 seconds of audio to document the moment, seeking to make something more elemental than just a video. I respect and support street musicians, and this guy sure had some kind of aura happening that day, too. Enjoy.

Telecaster Transmissions

Photos by me via iPhone, edited in Photoforge2 & TTV PS.
What do you think? Ever dropped change in an open guitar case? Have you ever performed as a street artist? Do you know anyone who has, or what their experience was like? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Musical Poetry: Begin the Beguine

25 Jul
16th note

I especially like 16th notes. Particularly in power pop via tambourine.

I’m an aficionado of many types of music. From edgy alternative, to world beat, to electronica, and so on, I appreciate it in many forms.

One example would be The Andrews Sisters. It might not be immediately obvious that a Deftones and Keith Richards fan would be into each of these artists, but hey. A particular track of theirs I’ve come to love is “Begin the Beguine,” a standard from the wildly gifted Cole Porter. The poetry of the lyrics and the imagery they suggest, along with the snappy beat, brass/woodwind riffs – and of course the boisterous harmonies of the sisters – comes together so very well in this recording. See if you agree:

When they begin the beguine,
It brings back the sound of music so tender.
It brings back a night of tropical splendor.
It brings back a memory evergreen.

I’m with you once more; I’m with you under the stars.
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing.
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.

To live it again is past all endeavor,
Except that tune clutches my heart
And there we are swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.

What moments divine, what rapture serene
‘Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted.
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean.

So let them begin the beguine.
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember.
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine.

Oh yes let them begin the beguine – make them play!
‘Til the stars that were there before return above you.
‘Till you whisper to me once more, “Darling, I love you,”
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.

What do you think? Is there a particular genre of music that you find surprisingly appealing? What about music moves, inspires, or captivates you? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Apple Knows Music, but Pandora’s Box is Already Open

4 Jun
Pandora Radio

A photo of my Pandora stations. I shot this with Hipstamatic and added ambience with the LensFlare app.

When it comes to streaming music, Pandora just works.

It appears Apple may be unveiling a “Pandora killer” music product in the near future. I, personally am unfazed. I enjoy Apple products, and I’m a loyal and satisfied Pandora customer. I’ve tried Spotify, Rhapsody, Last.fm, Rdio, 8Tracks… and while they all have their advantages, none to me match the basic, straightforward appeal of good ol’ Pandora.

Here’s a quote from a recent Business Insider article on what Apple may have in the works:

We’ve dubbed it iRadio and from what we’ve heard so far, it sounds like it will be very similar to Pandora. For instance, Apple plans to offer it as a free service, supported by ads, and it will let users create their own radio stations based on a favorite song or artist,

Pandora Passé? Meh.

I realize some may consider Pandora passé, but for me it just works, whether on a computer or mobile. I’m glad there are other trending options these days because competition is what drives free market growth, but I was an early adopter of Pandora and am religious about thumbs-upping or -downing tracks to get my stations the way I like them. And if I want to buy a song through iTunes (or Amazon), the link is always right there with the track.

Why on Earth would I put the effort into rebuilding the experience through iTunes or whatever Apple calls it? I also like sharing my tracks with comments on Twitter or Pinterest, and running an rss of what I’ve liked at my blog – I seriously doubt Apple’s “walled garden” would allow such flexibility. But hey, I’d love to be proven wrong.

Oh, and does anyone miss Ping? Didn’t think so.

What do you think? Would you be interested in a streaming music product from Apple? Are you a user of Pandora or any other streaming products? What do you like about them and why? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Chainsaw Kittens: Pop Heiress Still Rules

25 May
Chainsaw Kittens - Pop Heiress

The Chainsaw Kittens’ 1994 album, Pop Heiress

I played the daylights out of Chainsaw Kittens records in the ’90s. The Kittens were an Oklahoma-based outfit who kicked out some bang-up fabulous alt-rock. I even got the band’s newsletter (literally a letter that came in the mail), one time with a note from singer Tyson Meade – a huge thrill back then. I had all their records memorized, even the obscure EPs (some of their most exciting stuff, in fact).

This week. I downloaded Pop Heiress after not hearing it for years, and wow, do those songs hold up. It’s been trippy and great hearing them in high fidelity – as opposed to a dubbed cassette copy of a CD playing through my crappy car speakers. These guys didn’t exactly make it big, but they definitely made a big impression on those who listened. Also good: Violent Religion, Flipped Out In Singapore, Chainsaw Kittens (self-titled album).

What do you think? Ever heard of The Chainsaw Kittens? What’s some music from your past that you’ve revisited lately? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Keith Richards’ “Life” Audiobook Review

30 Apr

This month I finally completed listening to the audiobook of Keith Richards‘ autobiography, Life. For me, the best parts were his thoughts about the magic of performance and songwriting, along with hearing the intimate details of how some of my favorite records like Exile on Main Street came together.

“Believe it or not, I remember everything”

Keith Richards LifeThe parts where he gripes at length about Mick Jagger and Brian Jones got kinda tiresome, but I understand why they’re included, and the rest of the book more than makes up for it. For example, his unwavering respect and reverence of Charlie Watts is a constant theme. Also, the guy wrote Gimme Shelter, so, hey.

It’s only Rock ‘N’ Roll

I especially enjoyed the first half of the book, learning about Richards’ upbringing and what makes Keith, Keith. Hearing firsthand what it was like for a young rock ‘n roll band in the early ’60s and just how much these guys all revered American blues music was captivating and enlightening.

As for the audiobook itself, Keith narrates a few chapters at beginning and end; Johnny Depp does a few as well, and the majority is expertly read by Joe Hurley. They even won some formal recognition. All that aside, for an absolutely smashing one-on-one of the man himself doing the talking, definitely check out “Ask Keith” at Keith’s website.

Overall, this was a supremely compelling book, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the history of rock ‘n’ roll or even vaguely interested in the Stones. Because, bottom line: Keith is the real deal.

Musical accompaniment for this post:
Rocks Off, from Exile on Main Street

What do you think? Experienced any good audiobooks lately? What are your thoughts on the history of rock? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Deftones 2013 – Single Image Sundays

24 Mar
Deftones 2013 by rsmithing
Deftones 2013, a photo by rsmithing on Flickr.

Saw these guys last weekend. Got this photo. What a gig. One of my favorite bands ever.

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