Tag Archives: Nick Hornby

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 6

1. “Us Against The World” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I listened to this tune for about a minute and a half and couldn’t think of a thing to say. It’s a really pretty song, as most Coldplay songs are, and I think that’s the problem. Since they released X&Y in 2005, they’ve seemed to work on perfecting their very specific sound. Viva La Vida was the last album I feel was a stretch for them. And this isn’t meant to rip Coldplay apart, they could release 10 albums of “their” musical sound and I’d love each one. I just don’t know how much evolution the band has left, based strictly on the evidence from Mylo Xyloto. It’s a great album, but it’s no different thematically or musically from the last few. This particular song highlights that pretty well. A really nice acoustic guitar strum, layered with ephemeral, reverbed and echoed electric guitar riffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a gorgeous song. It’s inspiring. It’s just not a stretch for Coldplay.

2. “Call Me The Breeze” – John Mayer, Paradise Valley

One of the very newest additions to my Top 1000, as this album just came out four days ago. I’ll do my best to focus on the song itself rather than the entire album, about which I have a lot of thoughts. Confession time, I had zero clue when I first saw the track list of Paradise Valley that this was a cover. It was only after looking at liner notes that I saw this was originally a J.J. Cale tune. Which was an interesting connection to make, because when I first heard this song, I immediately thought of anything Eric Clapton has done past the year 2001. This is a smooth little number that meanders along at a nice little clip, and JM’s guitar tone is seriously a carbon copy of recent Clapton. Again, this isn’t bad, it’s just nearing a bit too close to derivative for me. For my money, JM has a dicey track record when it comes to covers:

  • Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” – A
  • Cream’s “Crossroads” – C-
  • Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” – A+
  • Police’s “Message In A Bottle” – B-
  • Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” – A

Throw this song on that list and I give it a B. It’s a nice song, pretty fun, good for a few listens, but it’s just so easy to not realize it is on until after it ends and you realize there is silence or another song started. There’s no reason I’d listen to this one twice in a row.

3. “Alma-Ville” – Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus

Good grief! This is as close to a Charlie Brown song as we’ll probably get on this list. Vince Guaraldi is the genius behind all of the music of the Charlie Brown cartoons from the ’60s, and therefore is the genius behind the sound of my every single Christmas season. This is one of his explicitly non-Charlie Brown themed albums, and it’s by far my favorite. Guaraldi had this style of piano playing that was so very unique. That’s why you can hear when a Charlie Brown cartoon is on. His style was so distinctive, and it permeates all the music he released. This album is full of rhythms that change ever so slightly, song sections that highlight drum brushes and hi-hats, bouncy upright bass (imagine Pigpen playing it), and Guaraldi’s own wandering riffs. I feel like to play his music well, you’d have to look kind of dopey. Just loose and silly and behind the beat a tad. That’s what this song feels like to me, just a tad dopey. Not caring what section comes next or how to nail the transition. It keeps it very light and colorful.

4. “Reptile” – Eric Clapton, Reptile

This is the opening track off of my favorite Clapton record. I’m not sure why, but my ear tends to gravitate toward smoother, fully-produced music. I love studio-recorded music that’s been tweaked and engineered and mastered well. This album is the second in a phase-change in Clapton’s career. Pilgrim started this move towards blues-based pop songs with slick production, and this album perfected it. This song is a beautiful instrumental, and the tone of Clapton’s electric is what I wish I could always make my guitar sound like. It overlays a very bossa nova rhythm section, with brushes and some pretty awesome rhythmic finger picked acoustic guitar. For any aspiring lead guitarists, this tune is also a fantastic exercise. I learned the entire lead guitar part note for note, and it was a great lesson in how to construct an awesome solo, how to incorporate great blues licks in a non-blues style, and simply how to get your fingers to move fast. Clapton’s entire lead part on this song is an exercise in understated soloing. He creates a memorable lead line without overtaking or monopolizing the entire song, which is awesome. Clapton’s versatility shines so brightly here.

5. “Doc Pomus” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

Another fascinating tune off of BF and Hornby’s collaborative album. What’s interesting is that Lonely Avenue was written in the style of the men BF sings about in this song, and that title is even an homage to one of the biggest hits they wrote. Doc Pomus was a songwriter in the ’50s and ’60s, writing songs for a host of popular artists including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley & and Dr. John. He often collaborated with Mort Shuman; Shuman providing music while Doc Pomus would write the lyrics (how BF and Hornby created this album). Doc Pomus was stricken with polio as a child and was in crutches or a wheelchair for his whole life. This song describes a bit of his life, where he spent his time, celebrities with whom he rubbed elbows, and the normal/crazy folk he came in contact with and who provided inspiration for his songs. This song almost becomes a sort of statement on songwriting as a therapeutic output. The second verse/last tag is a reference to how Doc Pomus described himself later in life:

And he could never be one of those happy cripples / the kind that smile and tell you life’s OK / He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter / He found a way to make his isolation pay

It’s also a very musically Ben Folds song. One of the great things about BF’s music is that it all sounds very Ben Folds without sounding overly derivative or incestuous. He doesn’t ever really need to shoot for far outside his wheelhouse because he’s got such an eclectic songwriting style that allows for a wide range of sounds and styles. This song is a great example of the Ben Folds sound in the post 2005 world.

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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 1

I have an iTunes playlist named Top 1000, and it is the 1000 songs with the highest playcounts. Last night, Colleen and I were hanging out and listening to some music, and I had a great idea. I am going to put this playlist on random and write about the first few songs that play. Might be my personal review of the song, or what influenced the song or who it influenced. Not only does this give me a chance to relisten to songs I probably have listened to in awhile, it will help me learn more about the incredible music I own. Let’s get to it.

1. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This might be the easiest to unpack on this first set of five. This is a song off of Lonely Avenue, the joint album between Folds and Hornby. It’s written from the perspective of poor Levi Johnston, an Alaskan kid whose life would be completely different had he just worn a condom. When they were just 18 years old, he and Bristol Palin announced (via Sarah Palin’s campaign) that they were pregnant. And getting married. Poor kid. And that’s essentially the message of the song. He clearly had no idea what he got himself involved in and was in over his head. Obviously, this song paints an unpleasant picture of the entire gang involved. Johnston, the Palin women, and the moral value system their campaign was based upon is not looked on in a favorable light. But whatever your political view is, the song does get its message across in an effective way as most Ben Folds songs do. It takes the pretty awful protagonist and makes him relatable, so rather than judging the kid for being a douche bag (which he clearly is), you’re left shaking your head at how much of a kid he was when the whole thing happened. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it makes me feel bad for him and Bristol more than anything else. The song has a very pretty pre-chorus too.

2. “The Root” – D’Angelo, Voodoo

Definitely my favorite of this set of five, and the most dense. I listened to this song during my break outside tonight. As the song gets into the penultimate chorus, my head bob got increasingly inaccurate. That’s where the groove lies. The interplay between ?uestlove’s drumming and Charlie Hunter’s bass guitar playing is so laid back. It sounds like they’re playing a game to see who can be behind the beat more often, and they each have their turn. It’s a crazy beat to follow. And the guitar is insane. I mentioned Charlie Hunter; he not only plays bass for this tune, but he is simultaneously laying down the guitar track. The guitar he used was an 8-string guitar/bass combo, so the three low strings are actually bass strings, and the top five are guitar. The way he marries the two sounds so good.

Now focus on D’Angelo. This is how good his whole album is; when I listen to it, I often find myself overlooking his vocals because of how good his instrumentation is. And his vocals are from another world. His voice is saturated with soul. His voice is so strong and stirring that he doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of soul, he stands among them. And this song is a perfect example. He sings of the emotional remains of a love that has broken down. This woman has done worked a root on our man D. What I love is the drama he brings to this tune. He speaks about his failed love in terms of life and death and all things in between. “In the name of love and hope, she took my shield and sword, from the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor. Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” While this might seem a bit sensational, this is how it feels to have love mess you up. Clearly this poor guy is wrecked. But his emotional trauma makes for the funkiest,dirrtiest break-up song ever.

3. “Midnight Cruiser” – Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill

Not much to say about this one. This is off the album Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is a great album, and that’s the reason this song made it into the Top 1000. While not a terrible song, it is one of the more forgettable tracks from the album, with Stewart Mason of Allmusic.com* calling it “musically faceless.” A great description.

4. “Up With The Birds” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

One of my lesser favorite tunes off of Mylo Xyloto. Musically I feel like this belongs way more with Prospekt’s March than this album. Or maybe this whole album is really just a continuation of that EP. I’d say due to a few key musical elements (specifically Jonny Buckland’s super fast guitar riffs), there is a big connection between that EP and this new album. And while this particular tune has some nice sounds (first half), the second half reminds me so much of Now My Feet Won’t Touch The Ground. Just kind of a bland way to end a pretty cool, large album.

5. “Like A Star” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

This was the second song I ever heard by CBR. The acoustic version of Put Your Records On was offered as a free download of the week by iTunes and I remember thinking I had to hear more of this voice that just oozed British soul. Whenever I can hear a woman sing the word “can’t” and it sounds like “caaaan’t,” I very nearly fall in love. So once I heard this tune, I lost my mind. The way this song is set up is so perfect. The feeling of the song sounds like one acoustic guitar following this beautiful chord progression, but then when the drums and strings comes in just before the 1:00 mark, it brings it to this other level of sexiness that really draws the listener in and overwhelms them. I don’t know how CBR spans so many different music genres and blends them together so seamlessly. It’s R&B/soul with the genetic code of jazz. While I’m sure creating a song this fluid is not easy, it’s a credit to her talent that she is able to make it sound so effortless.

-Jon

http://www.allmusic.com/song/midnight-cruiser-t2372527

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Lonely Avenue

Music review time. I recently acquired the new collaboration between Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, an album called Lonely Avenue. It has a different feel than previous BF releases, but that’s a given as it’s a collab. Still absolutely worth a listen.

I’m assuming most readers know who Ben Folds is. He has been releasing records for the last fifteen years, some under the moniker Ben Folds Five and later on a few solo albums. He has gained a niche among college-aged and young adults with his heinously catchy melodies and heartbreaking lyrics. And he is a whirlwind live performer. If you ever have the chance to see him, TAKE IT. It will be one hell of a show.

Nick Hornby is an artist not generally corollated with writing music. He has written about music his entire career as a writer, but this is his first instance of actually collaborating on a musical album. He is most well known for writing several popular novels, including High Fidelity, About A Boy, and Juliet, Naked, as well as the screenplay for the 2009 movie An Education, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. So the dude’s got chops. I am not in love with every single thing he’s ever done, but on the other hand some of his work is the best written material I’ve ever read. This guy knows how to pierce your heart through writing about normal people with real problems. He can capture dialogue so incredibly well and make you feel heartache you’ve never had.

So how do these two collaborate on an album of music? Hornby writes words, Folds writes lyrics. Sounds weird but potentially awesome. And in my opinion, it turns out to be mostly awesome. The interesting part is that it clearly sounds like a Ben Folds album, but the disconnect happens as he starts to sing. The lyrics are not Ben Folds lyrics, and you can tell. It feels more like a Nick Hornby book than a Ben Folds album. And on some songs that’s amazing, some it doesn’t completely work. I don’t think Hornby has his complete songwriting chops down yet, like on songs like Your Dogs and Picture Window. The songs have great feelings communicated but they don’t feel natural to me. And that’s just me. The majority of the album works great. And I think the biggest reason it’s great is because they chose the perfect pairing of artists. Nobody could’ve pulled this album off but Ben Folds. His music is the ideal vehicle for Horby’s writing. Hornby writes in such a familiar way, with stories about real people, and that’s how Ben Folds has always written his music. It doesn’t feel totally like a Ben Folds album, but it’s as close as you can get. And the off-kilter feeling you get isn’t bad, it’s just not totally Ben Folds.

One of the best examples is the song Password. It uses a really unique songwriting device, spelling of words, and at first listen it seems a little cheesy, but after a few listens and the songs sinks in, holy cow it just rips you apart. You stop listening to the spelling of the words and you feel the pain in the narrator. That is unique and weird songwriting. But it’s awesome. The song changes gradually the more you listen to it.

Final verdict? Great album. Not the best Ben Folds album ever but that’s because it’s not purebred Ben Folds. What it is is a great listen for fans of either artist.

-Jon

P.S. The album comes with killer liner notes. A quick blurb written by Hornby about each song, and then four different short stories written by him as well. Super great. Cool photos too.

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Juliet, Naked

I just finished the latest novel by Nick Hornby, called Juliet, Naked. Where to even begin with this one. Definitely worth the read. Hornby has such an incredible way with dialogue and metaphor. He communicates his ideas in such unique ways through his prose; everything he has written is informed with this very intelligent yet accessible use of words.

My favorite Nick Hornby book is still, and probably always will be, High Fidelity. It had the perfect voice of a messed up guy just trying to figure out his relationships, connecting everything in his life with music. The book speaks to me more directly than any other novel I’ve ever read. And while I liked that one more than Juliet, Naked, this was definitely the most entertaining of all his novels behind High Fidelity, probably because it’s much along the same lines. The book is about an English couple who lead mediocre lives. The guy is Duncan, obsessed with the music of Tucker Crowe, a reclusive American musician whose last release (entitled Juliet) came out twenty years ago. Since Duncan is the regarded as the foremost authority on all things Tucker Crowe (he is basically in charge of the Tucker Crowe online forum/message board), he is sent an advanced copy of Juliet, Naked, an album of the demo tracks that eventually would become the tracks of Juliet. He writes a review of this new demo album, and this review is the impetus that sets a whole string of events in motion. That was maybe too long of a synopsis.

There are a lot of reasons why I liked this book. And one big one why I didn’t. Let’s get the negative out of the way. I didn’t like the ending. Done. Now to the good stuff. It read better for me than any of his other books (with the exception of High Fidelity, of course). A big part of that is probably due to the musical nature of the content, which I really enjoyed. Hornby has this intimate knowledge of music, and just as important, he knows how to translate that knowledge to the page. It’s incredible. And to hear his observations on music from different viewpoints was very cool. You’ve got the musician himself, the obsessed fan, and the non-obsessed fan, all with thoughts on the same album. Even cooler, it’s not just a normal album, but demos from a critically-acclaimed, classic break-up album. There is an important and intriguing relationship between the recorded album versions of songs by an artist and the demos of those songs. Hornby explores that musical relationship to very interesting depths. And the voice of each main character seems right on. I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be a famous and successful music artist but it sounds right to me. I do, however, know a lot of how the obsessed and non-obsessed fans think and feel towards the music of their idol and towards the idols themselves, and Hornby has nailed exactly how these fans think and feel and talk.

One thing that I especially loved in this book is how Hornby breaks down the relationship between the fan, the art, and the artist. One of my favorite passages of the whole book is when Duncan’s girlfriend Annie reads his review of the newly released Juliet, Naked (the demo album) and finally sees Duncan in a new light. It’s such a brilliant exposition of fans versus their idols and the art they create and to be honest, it got me super worried about myself. I’m not an artist. I don’t write songs that people listen to and enjoy. I don’t write novels that people read and enjoy. Et cetera. Yet I’d say the majority of my blogs are my review of something, an album, a book, a TV show, whatever. And Annie’s thoughts on Duncan’s review are scathing, because while he writes thinking he is an expert on the music of Tucker Crowe and able to expound on his music with more authority than anyone else, she realizes that really he’s just a pompous ass who reviews other people’s work with a smug authority because he can’t actually create anything of real value himself. As soon as I finished that passage, the passage where Annie realizes what Duncan’s review actually says about Duncan as a person, I immediately read it again and then thought about how I write. It’s a tad distressing to think that the writing you’ve spent a fair amount of time and energy on might just be a lot of hot air. It will, at the very least, make me think as I continue to write about things I’m into, or things I’m not into.

Back to the book. So there’s lots of cool thoughts on fans, artists, art, etc. Also covered in great lengths is divorce and the relationship between spouses, exes, and parents and children, some close to home, some estranged. Hornby doesn’t tread lightly around taboos, and it makes for very thoughtful writing. He challenges societal conventions, but not in a “let’s tear the system down” type of way, in a rather subtle way. For example, he touches on the subject of the differing of parental love toward different children. And he handles the subject gracefully and makes sense in the way he writes. That’s what I love about Hornby’s writing. It makes sense. Even if you don’t agree with him, you’ve never seen the idea presented from quite such a unique angle and it makes you think hard through what he’s saying.

This is a great book; Hornby’s written another gem. But don’t take my word for it! (Dun nuh dun!)

-Jon

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