Tag Archives: Personal Soundtrack

Personal Soundtrack

14 Mar

The Song


So Good at Being in Trouble by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

So Good at Being in Trouble” is one of those songs that may very well be everywhere within a few short weeks, either due to an appearance in a national car/bank/insurance ad, a tasteful placement over some wistful closing sequence on a popular TV show, or maybe an insertion into the playlist rotation by a canny producer at your local Adult Contemporary Rock station.

It’s tailor-made to be that kind of ubiquitous song – muted, laid-back, achingly pretty, non-threatening, and catchy as hell.  Everyone from your 18-year old barista to your mom can get behind it and picture themselves as the irrepressible subject of the song; they’ll imagine how much trouble they can get into sometimes and will smile knowingly as they sing about it.

When that kind of universality happens to a song, it usually runs the appeal of the track into the ground – quickly – and it becomes easy to hate the song and maybe even the artist because they’ve come to represent things that have nothing to do with their music itself.  Commercialism, mass taste, modern popular culture, etc.

So before all that happens, before the hypothetical cultural explosion of “Trouble” ruins it for all the hip and jaded listeners out there, we should appreciate the song for the small, fragile, and well-crafted piece of music that it is.  “Trouble” comes from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a group that almost seems to stumble across undeniable hooks, beautiful melodies, and tightly-wound beats without ever meaning to.

On the surface, UMO mostly affects a New Hippie-type of vibe; the group dives into the psychedelic part of the pool with their loosely-kept appearance and the hazy gauze they wrap around ramshackle and jangling rock songs.  They are most definitely a free-wheeling group that if pushed, will always choose the weird routes over the more conventional ones.  However, the band is also a focused bunch at times, refusing to let their music just take off in a fuzz of discordant guitar jangles.

The group has an ear for melodies and crunching chord progressions that can quickly find their way into becoming straightforward jams.  If they want to, they can write well-crafted songs that stick in your head while also striking some deeper emotional pressure points.  And one great example of this ‘want-to’ would be “Trouble.”

“Trouble” comes across like an acoustic sketch on the surface, all strums and spare backbeat.  Underneath that shaky, fragile cover, however, is some deceptively crafty songwriting.  Frontman Ruben Nielson fills in the song’s open spaces with lyrics both yearning and world-weary, and when the the melody and lyrics comes together for the chorus, it becomes like a scientifically-engineered strummy hook delivery system.

For a band that seems to pride itself on earning a ‘different’ label, this is a surprisingly affecting song that will not leave your head anytime soon.

The Activity

Ever since you parted ways with That One, life has dissolved into one big montage.  Like a full-on, flirting occasionally with out-of-body, observing-not-doing, actions-out-of-your-control sequence of scenes.  This is probably partly due to the fact that you watch too many movies and TV shows, but no matter the direct influences, that’s what things have come to.

And not just a normal, quick, motivational montage either.  No “Eye of the Tiger” shit here.  No, you’re in the full sad-sack montage.  Populated by glum walks through the drizzly mist outside; big pints of Cherry Garcia and Sinful Devil Cake Fudge serving as paperweights on your overflowing coffee table; silent yet painfully expressive tearful breakdowns that rear up after the sight of some esoteric romantic reminder on the street; misty-eyed scenes of solo sunset-gazing as people go out of their way not to sit on the public bench space next to yours; awkward call-back scenes to the earlier montage shots of those esoteric romantic reminders, in which you’ve taken your tearful breakdowns to the figurative and literal next step and are now lying prone on the sidewalks in aforementioned esoteric grief while alarmed adults hurriedly shuffle their pets, children, or selves across the street and away from eye contact; strangely anachronistic scenes in which you huddle over a tape player, fanatically starting and stopping the tape at the right moments of anthemic or rueful or just-plain angry love songs, followed by you carefully writing the names of said songs in black marker on the side of a tape cassette, furthering this scene that makes no contemporary sense; and as the montage wistfully, thankfully comes to close, we all take a big leap (probably about 9.5 days) forward in time and, rest easy everyone, you emerge one young morning after a storm, with the dew-tipped grass twinkling almost as brightly as the wide eyes above your tastefully unkempt ‘I’m Sad’ memorial beard, and the forceful look on your face tells us all we need to know: things are going to be okay, and it’s time to write a song.



Personal Soundtrack

9 Jan

The Song


Nuthin’ To Do by Common

In 2013’s world, Common is a suave, well-built character actor with a velvety voice who occasionally lays down above-average rap verses on the side.  That’s a bit of a departure from the Common of nearly twenty (holy shit) years ago, who climbed to the top of the underground hip-hop scene behind hungry, sensitive, and brash verses that found the sweet spots on top of and within iconic beats from the legendary Chicago producer No I.D.

Common’s early records are head-spinning combinations of a warm, laid-back and funky production aesthetic paired with wordy, breathless, and at times frenetic lyrical verses.  The apex of this period is Resurrection, and within the underground hip-hop world at the time of its release, Resurrection was monumental – the match between Common and No I.D.’s vintage productions was a match made in hip-hop Head heaven.

What makes Resurrection so noteworthy, apart from Common’s performance, which is compelling, is the career-defining production from No I.D., who produced nearly all of the record.  For No I.D., Resurrection represents not only the producer’s best body of work, but also a clear example of the producer’s musical signature, and of the aesthetic contributions he made to hip-hop that continues to influence the genre today.

No I.D. is often referred to as the godfather of Chicago hip-hop, and he has long been a mentor and partner with Kanye West.  One listen to Resurrection, and you know exactly where Kanye got the inspiration for many of the production touches he used to propel his stardom and influence the global music scene.

The production of Resurrection sounds almost timeless, forever encapsulated in a fuzzy cloud of old jazz and soul samples, dusty drum hits, and undeniable grooves bubbling from the low end.  Everything comes off sounding like a fresh vinyl record even if the tracks are streaming through a computer.  It’s a warm sound that still manages to hit hard and get heads nodding.

“Nuthin’ To Do” is a standout track on Resurrection, presenting a strong example of the album’s best qualities.  The old-school sample of choice on this track is a smoky saxophone, sounding out and glancing off into the ether while the bass line keeps things tight with the drums and the record scratches at just the right times. This is the sound that Kanye rode to superstardom, and it’s still influencing him today – and the work of every other hip-hop artist out there aspiring to be the next Kanye.

No I.D. was doing it way before everyone else, and he was doing it the best on Resurrection.

The Activity

The mournful bleat of Miles’ horn trickles out through an unknown and unseen window, crawling over brownstone bricks and finding your ear just as you set your head back and close your eyes against the Day.  Right now the Day is earning the mental capitalization you’re giving it with the aggressive heat and humidity it’s tossing around like a statement of purpose and power.  The temperature has hovered just above 100 degrees for several hours, and with the sun sitting firmly in the highest part of the sky, things show no sign of abating anytime soon.  You half-crawled over to this front stoop solely because of the light shade its steps offered; the vinyl explorations of jazz icons is the least of your concerns as the sweat cools momentarily on your forehead.

As you collect your breath and allow your body temperature to retreat from dangerously high levels, the sluggish aura of the city begins to lull you into a hazy state unique to days like these.  Before you know it, the brassy blows from Miles and Co. have taken over every other sound around you and now brush against your face lightly with the force of a light breeze.  Every blast from a sax sets you off even further from reality, a fact that you don’t begin to appreciate until you next open your eyes.

Your first indication that things are not entirely normal comes with the young couple walking hand-in-hand across the street from you.  His denim overall and snap-back combo could probably be overlooked as a forward-thinking fashion throwback, but the distinct patterns of her dashiki and bold beats of her boxy boombox are noteworthy.  The thing she’s holding is enormous, and as you look around your side of the street, is not alone.  There are shiny metallic boom boxes everywhere – in open windows, on front stoops, cradled under arms of every passersby.  And with another blink, you realize that they’re all playing the same music.

Upon the recognition of the deep musical grooves now completely surrounding you, you also start to notice that each sonic beat is accompanied by the appearance of vibrant stripes and squiggles of color on the urban landscape.  These bits of color squirm around, diverging from and bumping into each other with patterns that are completely in sync with the music of the moment.  You haven’t seen anything like this since the glory days of Tribe and Common Sense, and it’s not a bad way to spend the day.

Personal Soundtrack

14 Aug

The Song

Don’t Owe You A Thang – Gary Clark Jr.

“Don’t Owe You A Thang” is an old-school blues stomp in all the right ways.  It starts with the lyrics, which follow the oft-present blues standard of finding a defiant pride in the midst of emotional and physical poverty.  The narrator may not have love, and may not have a dime, but damn it, he’s surviving.  To add more blues flavor to those defiant lyrics, “Thang” also churns with a lowdown and dirty sexual energy that builds up through searing guitar licks and releases in exultant ‘Whoos’, as if even Gary Clark Jr. can’t believe how hot his groove just got.

Like the great blues artists whose legends he seems to aspire to, Clark uses his vocals and guitar to reach some primitive part of your soul that just can’t help but move to the music he’s laying down.  It puts a little bit of a sneer on your face as the guitar licks burrow down deep.  Clark has only been around the music scene for a couple of years, but if buzz from his live shows and tracks like “Thang” are any indication, he may be packing a classic blues punch for a long time to come.

The Activity

You’re sitting at the bar, kicking back the beer with another Jack.  You’ve lost track of the count on each – the beers and the kickbacks.  It’s been a couple of hours, you know that at least.

It was relatively early in the afternoon when you pulled up to your current position at the end of the bar, and people have been steadily trickling in ever since.  You normally wait until the sun has gone down before heading out to the neon lights, but today was a bit of an exception.

The morning started out fine, but then quickly deteriorated as you got kicked out of your second band in as many months, this time for playing a better guitar line than the easily-threatened lead singer.  Shortly after that, you happened to walk past a sidewalk cafe where your ex-lady was kissing the guy she left you for.  It seemed like the best option after that was to keep walking until you hit the old watering hole, so that’s what you did.

And now here you are, sitting at the bar and developing a decent buzz, when the bartender slides a tall glass of expensive whiskey across the counter, to take the place of your newly-emptied cheap domestic.  You start to say that you didn’t order it, when the ‘keep nods his head towards the other end of the bar and says, Compliments Of The Lady.

You nod, and take a sip of the smooth whiskey before looking down the bar.  You already know who sent it – it was the beautiful blonde with the smoky eyes and short jean shorts, who’s been shooting said smoky eyes in your direction for the past hour.  The same blonde who came in with three rather bulky gentleman who have been getting loudly and obnoxiously drunk for the past hour.

You take another sip, still not looking down the bar, and weigh your options.  These guys are wearing designer jeans, tight-fitting designer shirts (one has some kind of glittery graphic pattern on the back) and shiny new boots.  They don’t look like they’re from around here, and they don’t look like they would take it kindly if someone happened to move in on one of their dates.

But those eyes.  With another sip, you turn your head slowly in the blonde’s direction, and catch her looking directly at you.  With the sort of half-smile that really makes your decision for you.

You tip your chair back, finish the rest of the whiskey in one pull, and stroll down to the other end of the bar.  As you get to the end, you slide right in between the last fellow and your new blonde friend and express your gratitude for the drink.

This introduction goes over quite well with the lady, but doesn’t catch on with the fellows in quite the same way.  The soberest one loudly asks Who The Hell Do You Think You Are, and the drunkest one gives you a hearty shove in the back.  Since this was about what you expected, you’re ready for it, and you manage to take out one of the guys with a right hook before the first beer bottle is swung at your head.

You manage to duck this bottle, and instead of hitting you, it careens into a group of locals at a nearby table who have been anxiously awaiting an excuse just like this one.  With a Whoop, they gratefully accept the invitation to dance, and a full-fledged bar fight quickly breaks out.

As the bottles, fists, and pool cues fly, you make your way to the edge of the fray and locate the blonde with the smoky eyes taking shelter under a table.  Extending your hand, you tell her it’s probably a good time to get out of there.  With a smile, she takes your hand and you both slink out the back door, ready to end the day on a good note.

Personal Soundtrack

31 Jul


The Song

Sixteen by Rick Ross feat. Andre 3000

One of the reasons that Rick Ross has been able to build a devoted following among hip-hop fans is that he often pairs his bombastic, drug-game swagger with personal flair that can’t usually be described as weird, but is at least firmly in the ‘eccentric’ category.  The husky rapper can take on the persona of an imposing menace in many of his songs, to be sure, but there is definitely a creative and unique streak under all those diamond-studded chains that comes out in his music.  This sets Ross apart from many other rappers who are just concerned about communicating the violent drug lord lifestyle – his creative side leads him at times to be just as artistically ambitious as he is materially ambitious.  He’s not afraid to explore some musical themes just because they don’t fit the standard conventions of a hardcore hip-hop song.  A perfect example would be the track “Sixteen,” off his new album God Forgives I Don’t.

For “Sixteen,” Rick Ross indulges his creatively weird side by reaching out to a hip-hop artist who has made his legendary name from being truly unique and unlike any one else in the rap game – Andre 3000.  To Ross’ esteemed credit, he doesn’t just bring on Three Stacks for a small guest spot.  No, Rick pretty much turns the spotlight on the Southern Spaceman, blowing the song out to nearly eight minutes and keeping only a couple minutes of lyrics to himself.

In the chorus of “Sixteen,” Andre sings about sixteen bars being not enough to fully express oneself in a song.  And after Rick warms it up for him with a few bars, Three Stacks takes full advantage of the ample song space given him with a spoken-word interlude, a free-wheeling rhyming show-off session, and an improvisational little guitar solo.  The rhymes hop from crayon-scrawled LL Cool J tributes to religious questions to wine-tasting to Flipper, and it’s all done with the same dexterity and inventiveness that has long caused hip-hop fans everywhere to drop their voices an octave and layer on the reverent fondness when they say the words “Three Stacks.”  The song makes you hope yet again that another Outkast album is on its way, but at least for now, the proper amount of respect must be paid to Rick Ross for having the artistic desire to indulge Andre in a little outer-space hip-hop weirdness.

The Activity

You’re sitting in your usual spot in the back corner of the Boss’ room, your chair set back among the shadows so that you stay out of the way – but not out of the way enough that people forget you’re there.  The Boss’ large mahogany desk and high-crowned leather chair sit just to the right and front of you, so that you get a clear look at all the walks of life who come in, sit down, and have their time with the Big Guy.

If any of these aforementioned walks of life decide to indulge their death wishes and make a move at the Boss, it’s your job to put them down.  Not that the Boss seems like he needs your help.  You’ve never had to raise a hand against anyone to this point in the job, but you have a feeling that the Boss would get there first if such a situation did arise.

But anyways, you’re sitting.  It’s been a quiet night so far, and right now the Boss seems like he might be dozing slightly in his chair at this late-night hour.  You can’t tell if his eyes are open from behind the omnipresent shades.  As a muted sax solo sounds out from the jazz club that sits just behind the large oak office door, you allow yourself to relax a little bit.  It’s quiet.

Before the knock comes, you notice that the energy in the room changes just slightly.  There’s a hint of electricity that wasn’t there before – and then the light knocking comes.  It’s a faint knock, just three slight taps, followed by silence.  You glance at the Boss, who bellows out his customary Enter, and then the door swings slowly open.

The first thing to come out from behind the door is a faint cloud of smoke.  That moves and acts like some kind of smoke you’ve never seen before.  It’s not heavy, almost ethereal, and it fills the room before you even register where it’s coming from.  It’s like one second the room was clear, and the next you’re all enveloped in this weird kind of haze.  That smells faintly like incense and weed.

Following the smoke in and closing the door behind him is a man you’ve never seen before.  His hair is splayed out in a wavy Afro, under which sit a pair of cat-like eyes and a sly smile.  The man is clothed in a tight-fitting suit that looks like it’s made out of the softest material you’ve ever seen.  The first thing that comes to your mind is Plush Masterpiece.  Underneath all of this, the man is barefoot.  It takes you a second to even register this, and by that time he’s already padded his way to the Boss’ desk and perched himself on the corner.

Before you can move forward and get this newcomer off the precious desk, the Boss waves his hand once in your direction to keep you still.  You sit back, and instantly are overcome by the feeling that there is nothing to fear from this strange new figure.

The smoke continues to drift around the room as this man proceeds to pull out a large cigar from an inside pocket of his suit jacket.  The cigar is already clean-cut, and the man hands it wordlessly across the desk to the Boss.  The Boss takes it and leans forward slightly as the man produces a lighter from the same jacket pocket and deftly sparks the cigar.

As the Boss sits back in his chair taking his first puffs on this cigar, the man starts talking.  You forget the exact words he’s saying almost the instant they leave his mouth, but all you know is that the melodic, soothing voice is telling a story that is about nothing, and yet about everything at the same time.  It’s about life on this planet, and about life in the rest of the universe.  Both you and the Boss sit in rapt attention for an indistinguishable amount of time as this stranger makes his way through the story.

As the last word leaves the new man’s lips, the last bit of ash falls untouched from the Boss’ cigar and on to the floor.  The stranger stands up smoothly, nods once in your direction, and then turns and pads back out the room, closing the door quietly behind him.  The strains of a new saxophone solo reach back through the club walls as you both sit there in astonished silence.