Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 12

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons here.

1. “Stuck In The Middle” – Mika, Life In Cartoon Motion

A fantastic hook is on display in this tune, one of many fantastic hooks on a really strong debut album from Freddie Mercury’s pop heir apparent, Mika. Granted, Mika hasn’t had the steadiest consistency in album qualities, but his debut is his best work; absolutely worth checking out if you need a smile in your life.

Lyrically, I’m reading this song as a dig at a strained parental relationship. Interesting how he dresses a heavy subject in such colorful clothes. There are several songs on the album where this is done, so if you don’t pay close attention, it’s just an overtly positive sounding album, but with a third or fourth listen, you start hearing the lyrical layers he’s created.

Musically, this tune is a really great representation of where Mika excels. It is built on an insanely catchy little piano riff. One of the best things about this song (and the album in general) is how well orchestrated Mika’s tunes are. Everything is added to that riff and it creates a lot of great kinetic energy.

It’s the little things like the rhythm guitar in the chorus or in the second verse, Mika’s fabulous at doing these instrumental flourishes that build the song out so well and create a very colorful tableau. The scat part at the song’s conclusion highlights this really well.

2. “Losing My Way” – Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds

Now that I’m thinking about it, this is the only solo song JT’s ever recorded that tackles an “issue,” unless you consider dressing fly and being a ladies man an issue. JT’s singing about the dangers of drug abuse from the perspective of a husband/father from a lower socioeconomic class.

Surprisingly, I like this song a lot (surprising because “issue” songs are often very trite; a four minute pop song isn’t really the best place to try and dissect a social issue). As far as song quality goes, it’s good enough that I’m surprised JT’s never attempted an issue song since.

Musically, this is a really subdued tune from Timbaland, with the usual Timbo touches gone, replaced here only with a “ba-dum-bah” refrain that underlays the entire song. Granted, the song ends with a gospel choir in the background, but in the context of the song, they fit perfectly and add a very soulful prayer-like flavor to the song. As this is a black sheep song in the Justin Timberlake catalog, it makes me think JT and Timbo could write more songs like this, especially to fill the space on the second half of The 20/20 Experience where it sounded like they were taking songs left over from *NSYNC days (I’m referring specifically to the last 11 minutes of the album, completely superfluous).

3. “Veridis Quo” – Daft Punk, Discovery

One of the things I love about writing these posts is that it forces me to give a really focused listen to songs I wouldn’t normally, or songs I’m surprised are even in my Top 1000. This is a perfect example, a song that was on an album I absolutely loved and listened to a lot, but for some reason, continually got forgotten about as I listened through it.

When I think about Daft Punk’s Discovery, “Digital Love” and “One More Time” are obviously the stand-out tracks, but there are tunes like “Veridis Quo” that are very unique and interesting in their own way.

This is an atmosphere track. No lyrics, just instrumentals of various kinds. It absolutely belongs in an outer space travel scene in an anime show (oh wait, they already did that).

What gives it this ephemeral, spacey quality is the fact that the synth upon which the whole melody is built never actually breaks. You know how with the guitar or a trumpet or a piano, to change notes you actually have to either let your finger off the fret, or take a new breath, or put your finger on a new key? With this synth melody, they’ve managed to connect it all in a way that sounds like an eternal instrumental loop. It creates a sound that just washes over you like the remnants of a supernova.

While it’s definitely not my favorite song off of Discovery, as far as the instrumentals go, it’s a very pretty song to listen to. My biggest complaint with this album in general is actually songs like this one, because with too many of them, you lose the listen-ability factor because the average music listener doesn’t want an album full of atmospheric synth instrumentals (this is the biggest problems with their albums pre- and post-Discovery, Homework and Human After All).

That’s not to say this song is bad though, especially considering it is a five minute long synth instrumental. I’d say it’s a little repetitive, but I don’t think Daft Punk care about repetition when they make their music. I’d almost say it’s one of their strong suits.

4. “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” – Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

Sufjan. Possibly the most complex and unique songwriter under the age of 40 that graces my iTunes library. This guy is incredibly intelligent, and each song off of his Illinois album sounds like it is the result of a graduate thesis. Or at least each song could be the subject of a graduate thesis.

Sufjan is hands down one of the most literary songwriters I’ve ever heard. This song can be read several different ways, with so many of his lyrics being just vague enough to encourage interpretation.

Here goes: I think the opening verse introduces us to the narrator, who is either in a lucid-dream state, not sleeping in the middle of the night, or just falling to sleep, as he sees something in his bedroom that reminds him of a childhood memory. The song then transports the narrator and the listener back to his childhood, to a time at a summer camp where he and his brother and/or friend came upon what they thought was a giant mutant wasp monster.

What I love about this song is how Sufjan takes a seemingly unrelated subject and turns it into a reflection on human nature and how we respond to the world around us. I read this song as a humble prayer to God about his Creation, the beautiful and terrible parts of it (i.e. the “great sights” of the land and the “terrible sting” of the predatory wasp). Sufjan is singing an ode to the beauty of God’s creation through the lens of the imagination and innocence of childhood.

Or he could be singing about a crush he had on a friend at summer camp. It doesn’t really matter, but it does display what depth Sufjan writes into his songs.

I haven’t even gotten to the music yet. This song starts with a very simple acoustic guitar pattern with some kind of woodwinds played on top. The finger-picked chords of the first verse are a perfect testament to how Sufjan can take something familiar and make it sound fresh.

The next addition is the very soft background vocals, which will come into play later in the song. And then we get into the first refrain, where Sufjan teases at the orchestration that’s to come. I hear a mix of accordion-sounding woodwinds (the accordion is not a woodwind but I can’t describe it any other way, maybe a glockenspiel?) over some piano chords and a tambourine. The blend is gorgeous.

Then right at 2:10, this horn comes in for a bar and is then followed up by another horn doing harmony. As gorgeous as the orchestration becomes just after these two bars and at the end of the song, this might be my favorite musical moment of the song. It’s so simple and so refined; you hear each element with so much clarity. This sound so perfectly encapsulates what Illinois sounds like as an album and why Sufjan excels as a musician. He’s able to create these sonic landscapes with a lot or a little, and he knows exactly where to add and where to abstain.

If you haven’t listened to this album, go check out this song. It’s a great representation of how dense Sufjan makes his music.

5. “Smooth Criminal” – Michael Jackson, Bad

If you are just about 30 years old, and didn’t listen to pop radio in the ‘80s, it is very likely that your first introduction to this song was a cover by a band named Alien Ant Farm in 2001. As I recall, it was a pretty huge hit (at least in Iowa, I remember hearing it on the radio all the time). And I remember thinking it was a pretty hard rockin’ tune.

Oddly enough, the main difference between it and MJ’s original is the metal-sounding guitars in the cover. Take those away, and you’ve almost got the original song.

Which is for the best, because obviously the original is the best. MJ somehow took a song about a breaking-and-entering/assault and turned it into a pretty intense club banger. It is a pretty dark tune, considering the hook that everyone knows is “Annie, are you O.K.?” when clearly she’s not.

But that doesn’t take away from how rockin’ MJ and Quincy made this tune sound. It all really comes to a head during the bridge, when a public service announcer’s voice tells everybody to “Clear the area, right now!” as a siren blares in the background. The song then launches into the bridge, which features an in-your-face mix of blazing synthesizer, a pan-flute-like rhythmic section, and of course MJ’s patented hee-hees.

The other thing that struck me as I listened to this one is how cinematic it sounds. From the beginning four-second intro before the song really hits to the atmospheric sound effects in the bridge, it’s really clear that MJ was moving toward a more cinematic expression in his music and art.

This is evident 100% in the music video, which I’ve linked above. While the song is about four minutes long, the video is a full five minutes past that, clocking in at over nine minutes. The whole thing is like a short film, and MJ uses one of the coolest effects in all of his videos, the anti-gravity lean. Be sure to check it out. The dude could dance like nobody else.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s