Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 8

1. “December 4th” – Jay Z, The Black Album

This is one of my Top 3 Favorite Jay Z songs. I’m not sure what exactly hits so deeply with me. When this album was released, Jay Z was billing it as his retirement from hip hop, so it was a pretty huge deal. This song plays out like a fond farewell to a long and illustrious career. Hov is reminiscing about his early days and there is something sad when he says “Goodbye to the game / all the spoils / the adrenaline rush…” Jay is without a doubt one of the best rappers in the history of hip hop, and to have him looking back at his broken childhood and adolescence through the lens of his current state sounds bittersweet.

Just Blaze is the producer on this track, and I have to say he knocks it out of the park. I don’t have the Chi-Lites album that features the song that he samples here, but when the beat kicks in at 0:32 after the “that’s how long” hook, it resonates; it really hits deeply. There couldn’t be a better opener for, arguably, Jay Z’s finest album.

2. “Gravity” – Sara Bareilles, Little Voice

This is a superb closer off of a fantastic debut album by Sara Bareilles. The whole album is catchy piano hit after catchy piano hit, but she brings the mood way down low to close it out. This is not a particularly happy song, but the music seems to befit the sentiment very well. She seems to be trying to get away from bad love, hence the theme. It’s a sprawling ballad, complete with an Adele-like orchestral climax where she hits a note that is truly stunning. Bareilles’ has a breathtaking voice, and this is coming from a guy who prefers male voices over female. It’s clear, controlled, and it’s a perfect blend of strength and breath. Her voice is relaxing because you never worry about what’s going to happen with it. She makes the listener trust her because of how well she can handle her own pipes. There isn’t another song on this album that communicates that ability so well.

3. “Fragments Of Time” – Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

I read several reviews of Daft Punk’s latest album that referenced a slick, ’70s, breezy, California feel. All of those reviews were referring to this song. Honestly, this song sounds like the result of an insane musical threesome between Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and Eagles, with some robotic noises thrown in for good measure. Definitely one of my favorite songs off the album, and the exact model of what I wish every other Random Access Memories song was like. Not even in sound, but more in structure. When Daft Punk put together a tune that is normal length and normal structure (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/solo, chorus, etc.), they create tunes I could listen to for days. That’s why I love Discovery so much; it is almost all “normal” tunes. Lots of Random Access Memories songs are great, but unnecessarily long and weird. This one is immediately listenable, where lots of their stuff actually isn’t. I can imagine my parents tolerating this, if not even enjoying it a little bit.

Musically, it’s incredibly similar to “Digital Love” off of Discovery, which is not too surprising, considering that is one of my favorite Daft Punk songs ever. This is just a well-paced, fun listen, with a kick-ass robot-voiced solo. Major props to Todd Edwards for delivering fantastic vocals, much like his vocal work on Discovery. When the robots make a song with a vocal, it’s almost always a winner. This one definitely is.

4. “Wheels” – Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit

If Cullum’s cover of “Don’t Stop The Music” had any competition for my favorite song off of this album, it would be “Wheels.” This is a tune that draws you in immediately. Another example of perfect understatement, the beat here is the real star of the show. Cullum sings with an earnestness that doesn’t cross into desperation, discussing the plans we make as youths which are so often abandoned as time changes us. The piano hook is so simple and cyclical, matching the lyrical theme. But as I said before, the rhythm of this song pushes this song farther than you’d expect. There is a quickness and circular nature in the beat that makes me think of a fast-moving train, plugging along in a way that we can’t stop. Much like time, and change. This is a sad song, and Cullum has dressed it up in such a gorgeously melancholy way.

5. “Theme” – Jon Brion, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

This is a spell-binding two and a half minute instrumental, or as it’s titled, the “Theme” from the Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind soundtrack. This piece is truly one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard. I think a lot of the reason it affects me so much is because of the gut reaction I get from the movie. For me, it’s one of the most emotional movies I’ve ever seen, and that is manifested in a really special way through this music. This is the tune that opens the movie, and it always brings me excitement, pensiveness, and melancholy. It’s a beautiful piece of music, plain and simple. When the song starts, there is this gorgeous sound behind the bass and piano melody, much like waves on the ocean. Not the actual sound of ocean waves but it’s as though that specific sound could be expressed in a completely musical way. The subtlety of the sound makes it almost imperceptible. It forms the foundation of the song, on which every other part is built, and it’s the last thing you hear in the song. There is a simplicity in this tune that captures the innocence and bittersweet nature of the film. Just piano and bass. Hardly anything else. The bass plays a hypnotic and gorgeous riff while the piano plays a magnificently sad melody. How these pieces fit together captures me every single time.

If this was looked at as a one off tune, it would be considered a very beautiful instrumental. But within the larger context of the film’s score, it underpins every other musical piece. It is called “Theme” because every piece in the score is a variation or offshoot of this original tune. And to listen to the score once, you’d most likely not hear it. It takes many dedicated listens (or viewings of the film) before you begin to hear the “Theme” inform and haunt nearly every scene of the movie and every part of the score. On the first listen through, this score is disjointed and jarring, much like Jim Carrey’s character responding to the memory-erasing treatment. There are musical parts that are lifted from other scenes and things that are repeated or called back and it often sounds incredibly chaotic. But with time, you can begin to hear the nuances of the “Theme” running through the entire score and movie, and it adds an entirely new dimension to the experience. This is a truly captivating piece of music.

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