Tag Archives: Shuffle

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 14

1. “Maybe” – N*E*R*D, Fly Or Die

This was probably the second song I fell in love with on N*E*R*D’s sophomore album. Fly Or Die is absolutely one of my favorite records of all time (it currently sits ranked within the Top 25) and that was mainly due to the ear-catching weirdness of the first single “She Wants To Move.” I purchased the album on impulse (probably the best impulse record purchase I’ve ever made) and after the sheer confusion of what I was hearing wore off, I kept coming back to “Maybe.”

This tune immediately sucked me in. “Love was the egg…see?” Spoken by Pharrell before the song actually begins, this is a perfect example of so many elements on this record, both spoken and musical, that were way over my head. There’s no real explanation of what this means, but I loved the weirdness.

Throw in the militaristic drumline (that’s Questlove on drums, he’s in the music video sporting a mohawk) and I was hooked. “Maybe” is a really great example of how well the songs on Fly Or Die are built. Piece by piece, with so much hidden, waiting to be discovered on further listens. But “Maybe” is a really straightforward song, where you can hear the pieces being added. The uber-catchy piano riff, guest musician Lenny Kravitz’s bendy guitar lick, the bass subtly added underneath.

I have to hand it to Kravitz, he does some pretty awesome guitar instrumentation here. The solo licks all over this song play so well off the crunchy power chords in the chorus. And actually, listening to the song now, I’m realizing that one part of the chorus that I used to think was the guitar lick is actually Pharrell’s ethereal background vocals. They sound shockingly like a guitar effect. So cool.

And then, after a verse-chorus (2x) structure (I’m also just hearing the weird video game sound effect that quietly comes in at 1:54 in the second pre-chorus), the band blows into the sexiest sounding bridge this side of a Prince song. Right at 2:30, the chords change from minor to major with some major augmentation thrown in, creating a very suspended sound. Good interplay between instruments here too.

And then back to the verse for a few bars before closing in the bridge. This is just such an unearthly sounding song. I guess that’s appropriate for the lyrics, which again, are way over my head. Stuff about love and eggs? I don’t get it Pharrell, but I don’t care, because you created a song that ensured I wasn’t going to give this album two listens and give up on it. A real masterpiece of prog-pop weirdness.

2. “These Walls” – Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator

This is a mellow cut from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s stunning debut album. While I absolutely love this album, this is one lesser known tracks to me. It broke into my Top 1000 mainly due to the rotation I had been giving to the whole record and hadn’t really focused on this particular song.

It’s a sweet one though. Very soft instrumentation, soft drum brushes, no hard rocking guitar, just lots of electric slide work provided by Derek Trucks, and an almost Oriental sounding acoustic slide providing the intro and coloring the song throughout.

This is a very melancholy song. The music is so soft and unassuming that I feel like it could be the music behind the montage scene of a romantic movie when the leads have split and are pondering where their relationship is headed. Pensive looks out the window, walking in chilly autumn weather on a busy New York street, etc.

In reality, the lyrical content of the song is sadder and more reality based. This is a song sung by a woman who’s been abandoned by her man and she’s left to make ends meet while trying to leave her past with him behind. Tedeschi imbues the voice of the song with so much feeling and while I don’t relate to the content, I feel like I understand the difficulty and sadness of this woman’s day to day experience. Tedeschi’s voice helps you understand. She has so much restrained power and soul in her voice. This is a song that illustrates perfectly why Tedeschi’s voice makes this entire record.

3. “Sara Smile” – Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates

It’s always funny to me when a song like this one shuffles up because had I been asked whether “Sara Smile” was in my Top 1000 Most Played Songs in my iTunes library, I would’ve said no. I like Hall & Oates as much as the next guy; in fact, probably a little more than the next guy (their second album Abandoned Luncheonette is the subject of an upcoming blog post). I’ve given all of their core albums quite a few more listens past just the singles. But often, artists like Hall & Oates are remembered for their hits because their hits are fantastic.

This song is no exception. While it doesn’t have an immediately catchy hook like “Rich Girl” or “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Sara Smile” could be considered H&O’s breakout hit, as it was their first single that broke the Billboard Top 10.

Daryl Hall handles the main vocal, but the harmonies in the chorus are a great example of what these two guys could do together. “Sara Smile” is the perfect example of why H&O are often labeled “blue eyed soul.” Soul music done by white artists. This whole song is so R&B heavy; there is a very good chance if you’d never heard of H&O before and heard this song, you’d assume it was a black group singing it. The soft, atmospheric feel of the music and the interplay of vocals in the chorus make this feel like a cut straight off an O’Jays record or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. This might not be Hall & Oates at their catchiest, but it’s definitely their grooviest.

4. “Bigger Than My Body” – John Mayer, Heavier Things

It’s crazy to think that this song takes me back more than a third of my life span. “Bigger Than My Body” was the first single released from John Mayer’s sophomore album, Heavier Things. By the summer of 2003, when this album’s release was announced (it came out September 9th of that year, great birthday present for me), I had completely devoured his first album because I had found an artist who spoke more directly to me than anybody I’d ever heard before. This was also right when I was really starting to gain a foothold into what I liked musically aside from DC Talk and Dave Matthews Band and I’d venture so far as to say that this was the first momentous album release of my musical lifetime. The first one that made a real, significant impact. I loved his debut album, Room For Squares, and kept pinching myself to think that I was about to get more music from this guy.

And I’m glad this was the first song I heard from the album, because it prepared me for the stylistic changes JM was undergoing. He was still a pop artist to the core, but he was slowly starting to integrate a wider range of genres into his music. “Come Back To Bed” is a straight blues-burner and “Daughters,” although released on the album as a sappy acoustic ballad, started as a slow blues jam that he co-opted back into its original form just a few years after this with the John Mayer Trio. He also started playing with electronic effects, not in any way that would actually scare off listeners and fans, as is evidenced by “Bigger Than My Body.” The intro line alone is just a effects-heavy electric guitar and he was able to easily replicate this sound live, but when my 15 year old ears heard it, I thought it was a universe away from what he’d brought us on Room For Squares.

Listening to it now, it’s almost quaint. If I heard a song like this now, at almost 30, I’d probably give it short shrift, but I get completely why it spoke to me. This is an inspirational tune, dealing with the feeling that you’ve got so much more inside of yourself than what you’ve been able to let loose. It’s about untapped potential, and what kind of teenager feels like they’re able to completely and accurately communicate their identity to the world? I was an easy mark for this song and it hit the bullseye.

Does this song hold up? I’m not as moved by it as I used to be, and I’d say my primary motivation in listening to this one would be nostalgia. As I said before, a little quaint, just a tad kitschy, but damn if JM doesn’t know how to write an effectively mesmerizing chorus. This guy is a guitar-driven hook machine, and the fact that this chorus sounds as good as it did 12 years ago is the proof.

5. “Tonight You Belong To Me” – The Bird And The Bee, One Too Many Hearts EP

“You know, while you were playing that just now, I had the craziest fantasy. That I could rise up, and float, right down the end of this coronet, right through here, through these valves, right along this tube, and come right up against your lips, and give you a kiss.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well I didn’t want to get spit on me.”

This song is a little ditty from 1926, but you might know it best if you’ve seen the 1979 Steve Martin movie The Jerk. In the scene, Martin and his lady love, played by Bernadette Peters, walk along the beach at night, serenading each other with this tune. It’s a very sweet scene.

If you’ve never heard The Bird And The Bee, let this song be a brief introduction to the gorgeous vocals of Inara George and the bubbly pop art musical tableau of producer Greg Kurstin. This duo has been making music as The Bird And The Bee for almost 10 years now, and this tune is a decent representation of their sound.

There is something so special about their music. It’s so dreamlike; very atmospheric and ethereal. The instrumentation is so very electronic, done on synthesizers and keyboards and effects-heavy machines, but they manage to create the most organic sound from all of these machines. On top of that, Inara George’s voice has the softest and sweetest timbre I’ve almost ever heard. Her voice is breathy without being obnoxious. She sounds like a backing track on Pet Sounds.

If you like this tune, there is a huge chance you’ll like the rest of their stuff, because this is certainly not their best. Certainly, the sweetness of this song is perfectly suited to the blend of The Bird And The Bee. But George’s vocals are best when they are just purely hers with no blending male harmonies. And there is more shimmering in this tune than normal. Kurstin’s orchestrations might consist of many of these same instruments and machines, but his arrangements are often more unique than this. Some are more complex, some are less, but there is less to dig into in this tune than on their records.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 13

1. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life

This is probably the first song of Stevie’s that I heard and really heard. I know I’d probably heard his songs growing up, at least the big ones, like “Superstition” and “My Cherie Amour” and “Pasttime Paradise” (by way of Coolio, by way of Weird Al), and most like “Sir Duke.” But I remember really hearing this song for the first time, back in 2004, I believe I was listening to the radio in the car with Colleen and she perked up when “Sir Duke” started playing. If her ear perked, so did mine, so we gave this a listen while we drove.

I remember being struck by the hookiest hook of all time in that opening horn riff. Talk about an earworm; that riff can get stuck in your head for days. I was so moved by it that I resolved to learn how to play that riff on my newly purchased electric guitar. It was fantastic ear practice, and it came at just the right time for me, when I was beginning to discover lead guitar and how awesome it can be to play more than just chords. This horn riff was like honey to me.

But the song has a lot more than just some kick ass horns. The rhythm guitar in the verses is pretty great, and even more subtle, the bass guitar part throughout the song is either mirroring the horn riffs or going all over the freakin’ place on the last few choruses. It’s layered on pretty softly though, so you’ve got to focus to hear it. Once I heard it, my hat flew off in honor of the bassist Nathan Watts, because he really evokes the magnificent lines of guys like James Jamerson and Joseph “Lucky” Scott.

But what’s awesome about this tune, aside from just being super fun, is that it is an ode to Stevie’s musical heroes, and in a more general sense, an ode to music itself. “Sir Duke” is a celebration of one of the purest and most wholesome aspects of music as an art: it’s universality. Music has a way of breaking down barriers and uniting people in a very primal way, and that’s so perfectly illustrated in the way Stevie’s created this tune. At their most uninhibited and vulnerable, I feel like most people would have to find some pleasure or joy listening to the song that Stevie’s written, and that’s a beautiful testament to both Stevie’s talent and also his art.

2. “Mind Trick” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

This tune is a perfect example of how Jamie Cullum manages to stay a middle-of-the-road artist for me, despite the fact that he’s got more talent and musicality than 95% of artists today.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about this song. But it lands in the filler category for me. Cullum is a very unique artist; he can perform a straight forward jazz standard and sound right at home among Sinatra or Martin or any of the jazz crooners from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then he turns into a chameleon, shifting effortlessly between genres and embarking on covers that sound so radically different than the originals.

And if that’s all he did, without a doubt, he’d be one of my Top 5 Favorite Music Artists. But then I run into a tune like this, which again, is not a bad song, but it just doesn’t ever really take off for me. I don’t feel compelled to put this on repeat.

It’s a really simple ditty about how music helps get through a break up. Nothing too fancy, and the music fits it well. It is a really pleasant mix of jazz organ, a nice upbeat pop tempo, some “na-na’s” from the background vocalists. It just doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s pleasant, and that’s about it.

If this is your first introduction to Jamie Cullum, please keep listening to him. Go find another song. Listen to “Get Your Way” and “My Yard,” this album’s opener and closer. Both fantastic tunes. Or if you’re looking for his skill with covers, listen to his cover of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.” It still floors me. What has always left me wanting with Jamie Cullum is that while he has the ability to write songs that stop me in my tracks (like the Rihanna cover, or “Wheels,” or “Take Me Out (Of Myself)”), I feel like songs like “Mind Trick” are a lot easier and therefore more common on his albums. But again, I’d take middling songs like this one over the pap that other jazz-pop musicians put out (I’m looking directly at you, Bublé).

3. “Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek & The Dominoes, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs

This song has the distinction of being the earliest Eric Clapton song that really touches me. Sure, Clapton’s got loads of good songs from his work with John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, but I remember hearing this song for the first time and reacting differently to it than I had to any of Clapton’s other early work.

Listening to it now, I keep coming back to the hook. There’s something about hearing Clapton plead with his love, “I don’t want to fade away…” He communicates some serious anguish. This is a man on his last leg, begging to be able to stay with his love.

His vocal is almost indistinguishable from Delaney Bramlett, and I wrote briefly on a review of Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot why I wasn’t in love with them or Delaney’s voice. However, while they sound shockingly similar, Clapton’s vocal is bolstered completely by the musical component. He employs such a perfect mix of guitar tones all over this song, some clean and when he needs it on the chorus, some very crunchy.

It’s the crunchiness of his tone on the chorus that sets off this interesting juxtaposition between it and his vocal. His vocal sounds as crunchy as his axe does. But when these are placed on top of this gorgeous chord progression and added to the interplay between his multiple guitar parts (this song was recorded before Duane Allman joined the album sessions), it creates this southern rock symphony of sadness. This is the only way this guy would be able to beg for his love to stay.

Urban legend has it that he wrote this song for Patti Boyd, Clapton’s future wife yet then-wife of his friend and former Beatle, George Harrison. I’m not sure what you want to call it, irony, a slap in the face, a gauntlet thrown, but his guitar solo could not sound more like Harrison.

4. “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” – Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head

I must have tons of Coldplay in my Top 1000, because they are definitely making the biggest showing in all of my Shuffle Lessons volumes. Thankfully though, my iPod gave me a more vintage era Coldplay track, as most of the previous ones have been from Mylo Xyloto.

It’s difficult to hear a Coldplay song from AROBTTH or Parachutes without feeling a twinge of sadness. Coldplay now is nothing like Coldplay back then. They are a band that blew up almost too quickly. Their debut, Parachutes, was so highly lauded that by the time AROBTTH came around, they were battling expectations so unfairly high that they were nearly doomed to fail. This was magnified tenfold with the arrival of their third record, X&Y. For my money, AROBTTH is a fantastic sophomore release, despite the constant comparisons to U2 and derision from critics about abandoning the sound of their debut.

This album continues the slow exploration of expansive anthems that Coldplay would eventually become known for and would become their undoing. This particular track is a great example of that. While tunes like “The Scientist” and “Politik” take the anthem theme and run with it, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” is a great example of Coldplay’s early skill in knowing how to build the tension of a song really well.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar strumming the oddly tuned chords that form the basis of the whole track, and without anything else, it’s a difficult to tell where the song is headed. Everything changes with the introduction of the drums at the 0:45 mark. While all the other instrumental parts of this song are hinged around the strummed chord progression, this drum beat is barreling along all on its own. It creates this sense of urgency, like a train in danger of derailing. All the instruments are working together but the drums are on their own and keep this song moving.

But, as with many Coldplay songs, the release they find in their hooks is just so palpable. This is exemplified in each chorus, but especially in the last bridge at 3:45. I think it’s this release that made Coldplay hammer out so many wildly popular singles. They’ve got this incredible skill of building up all this tension, creating this urgency and then letting every instrument hit its mark and everything culminates in this fantastic hook or explosive bridge and it really makes you feel the emotional/musical release. It makes for some really satisfying music that keeps you coming back.

5. “Blue In Green” – Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue

And then my iPod throws me a curveball. This is the first time Miles is making a Shuffle Lessons appearance, which isn’t all that surprising as most of the Miles in my collection probably hasn’t broken through to the Top 1000.

But what a great song to kick off the jazz genre. This is my favorite tune off of Kind Of Blue, one of the most famous jazz records of all time. Interestingly enough, there is some dispute as to whether Miles actually wrote this song (he contends he composed each tune from the album) while pianist Bill Evans is often thought to have written this particular song. Either way, both men create true beauty on this song.

I enjoy this album most at nighttime, in a dimly lit room, needle hitting the vinyl as I’m hitting my second or third cocktail. The beginning piano chords are hypnotic and arresting. It’s these kinds of chords that made me start playing the piano again this year. Hearing the intricacies of the intervals, seeing a thousand accidentals on a page of music and thinking it could never sound good with so many sharps or flats and yet when played, Bill Evans makes this riff sound so sublime. I can’t explain it but it makes me feel so many things when I can stop, close my eyes and let this music wash over me.

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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.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 11

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons here.

1. “Back Broke” – The Swell Season, Strict Joy

This is one of my sad favorites off of the Swell Season’s follow up to the smash hit Once soundtrack. It’s a gorgeous song, but I think it can serve as a weird warning signal to the Swell Season’s future. Marketa Irglova is almost nowhere to be found on this particular song. It’s mainly just Glen Hansard’s hushed vocals on top of a spare instrumental arrangement. He’s playing a mournful chord progression on his guitar that is just so softly complemented by a haunting combination of piano riffs, string accompaniments, and a restrained second guitar part. There is a whisper of vocal harmony, but rather than a clear harmony part sung by Irglova, it’s more a chorus of soft voices singing behind Hansard. The musical component definitely leads towards Hansard’s solo record. Lyrically though, this is right in the Swell Season’s wheelhouse. A song of a broken relationship that the singer can’t leave. Sad stuff, and it’s couched in a pretty depressing little musical tune. Incredibly beautiful.

2. “The Line” – D’Angelo, Voodoo

A powerful song from Voodoo; it reads very much like D’s manifesto coming off of the success of his debut album Brown Sugar. D’ had been working on Voodoo for nearly 4 years, and the pressure was on from his record company, the music industry, and his fanbase to release a follow up that was worth the hype. This song sounds like a response to that adversity. He lays all of his fears and trepidations on “the line” and says no one can judge him but God. I wonder if this was a therapeutic song to write and record, because its essentially a defense of his artistic method. Musically, this track is sparse, but the interplay between what you can hear is awesome. I’d hesitate to even say there’s a dedicated chord progression in this song. The one time the main chord changes is when the bass dips down for one bar right before the 5 minute mark, then it’s back to business as normal.

3. “Touch It / Technologic” – Daft Punk, Alive 2007

This is kind of a tough one because it’s a mash-up of two songs I’m either not crazy about or don’t really know. Alive 2007 is best listened in one straight shot, because the album is really faithful to the Daft Punk concert experience. Tracks change without you even knowing, so really, the entire album is like one giant mash-up track of lots of Daft Punk songs, not unlike a Girl Talk album. I will say that I certainly enjoy these songs spliced together more than I like either one on its own. It’s got a much better tempo than the originals, and when the song morphs from “Touch It” into “Technologic,” it really starts to pick up. The Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riff that comes in softly just after the 3:00 minute mark is a great transitional bridge between the two songs. Because at 3:42, the song really pops. This is a classic example of Daft Punk taking an album release and making it much better live. Makes you wonder what they would do with all of the awesome stuff on Random Access Memories.

4. “Peaceful Easy Feeling” – Eagles, Eagles

You know how you might have heard a song a hundred times in your life and then one day you hear it for what seems like the first time? I heard this song for the “first” time in March of 2013, cruising on a yacht in the Pacific ocean off Miami. I wouldn’t have thought to put Eagles on, but thankfully Chet did and I think we all immediately chilled out. Even though we were on the wrong coast, it just fit the moment, and we all immediately felt lighter. Lots of Eagles music has the tendency to make me feel light as a feather, probably because they are the musical equivalent of light as a feather. There’s so very little that’s complicated with Eagles, and this song is a perfect reflection of that. Soothing strummed acoustic guitars, a clean electric solo with a bit of twang, and a simple drum/bass complement that evokes a cool breeze. A perfect song for sailin’.

5. “I’d Rather Dance With You” – Kings Of Convenience, Riot On An Empty Street

If you’ve never heard Kings Of Convenience, this isn’t actually the most representative song they’ve got. It’s a great tune, to be sure, but it stands out from the rest of their songs as probably the most movement-based thing they’ve ever done. What I mean by that is that it might not be the most fast-paced song they’ve got, but it’s got more going on than any others. There is an actual, noticeable drum rhythm, which is rare for these guys. You’ve got the interplay between strings and keys and guitar, which is a hallmark of their style, but this particular tune is such a unique blend of these three and when laid on top of the drum track, makes this one an actually radio-friendly(ish) tune. It’s a lot of fun, although ironically, probably not the best song to dance to.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 10

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.

1. “Wait Until Tomorrow” – John Mayer Trio, Try!

JM3 was the product of JM’s musically-rebellious career phase. Radio made him a pop star with “Wonderland” and against his wishes, further boxed him in with the release of “Daughters.” In response, he grew his hair out and started this power trio with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan. As a JM fan since around 2002, this was an insanely exciting part of his career where I learned a great deal about his musical influences. For example, I knew he was a Hendrix fan before this, but his covers of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Bold As Love” were concert staples during the JM3 tour and really reinforced how nuanced his Hendrix fandom was. This particular song was a fantastic choice for a cover, and it fit perfectly into his goal of breaking boundaries and finding out how far he could take his new-found musical freedom. “Wait Until Tomorrow” was a song where Hendrix highlighted his rhythm guitar skills, and that’s exactly why JM chose it. In this cover, JM has the chance to stretch some rhythm playing muscles during the extremely complex verses (while he’s singing to boot) and then blast through an intense solo at the end. If you listen to his guitar during the verses, it is all over the place. It’s not just some simple I-V chords underneath the words. His hands are making the most of that guitar neck, and he’s keeping the guitar singing it’s own melody alongside his voice. This cover is a fantastic example of how good the JM3 was for JM’s career. With the JM3, JM had nobody to hide behind. It’s like taking your guitar amp’s reverb knob down to zero; you’re left with just your naked guitar tone and you hear every single mistake you make and it helps you improve. Trial by fire. Playing with the JM3, he had nothing to stand behind other than his own guitar chops. You can hear it in this song completely. The solo itself is a masterful mix of a blistering lead guitar solo while still holding to the rhythm section of the melody, keeping the song moving and keeping the listener conscious to where they’re at in the song.

2. “Princess Of China” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I’d argue this as my favorite song off of Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay swung for the musically-experimental fences and parked one in the “hits” section. When I first read Rihanna was featured on the album, I was extremely dubious, but I shouldn’t have been. I’m not sure why this song works so well for me, but it’s got this futuristic blend of musical styles that’s rooted in an incredibly gorgeous soundscape. In my review of this album, I remember describing it as having a decidedly “steampunk” sound, or something to that effect, and I think this song was the one that really conjured that image in my head. There’s feedback, there’s tinny sound patches, all on top of this stainless steel, factory-like beat. I see robot workers sweating grease and oil as I listen to this. I doubt it’s what Coldplay was shooting for (lyrically, this seems to be a relationship song), but whatever this song is, it’s something that has real beauty behind its mechanics. The coda (“cause you really hurt me…”) is classic Coldplay, finding a chord progression designed to crush human emotions.

3. “Up In Flames” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

Two songs off the same album? A Shuffle Lessons first. Unfortunately, most of what I wrote about the tune “Us Against The World” is perfectly applicable to this song. One of the weaknesses of Mylo Xyloto as an album is that there were a few songs like this that seemed like fraternal song twins, but bordering dangerously close to identical. One big difference between these two songs is this one is slow, methodical and sparse in its production, with a lot less going on than “Us Against The World.” When Coldplay keep their songs simple, with no instrument overload, they manage to create this musical ecosystem unlike any other artist, and this song is just a really nice example of that. This song is pretty heavily rooted in simple piano chords and the metronome-like drum beat. Lots of reverb, but without lots of instruments to fill up that reverb space, it creates this gorgeous transitory white space. All instruments drop out just before the 2:00 mark and the listener is left with literally just musical ephemera. It’s breathtaking. And as if it wasn’t enough, the last chorus finally hits this emotional release with the addition of a beautiful guitar riff. It’s an extremely simple guitar tone, very straightforward but adding so much depth to the overall mix of sounds. These sorts of musical climaxes are why I will never stop listening to Coldplay. At least their old stuff.

4. “Spanish Joint” – D’Angelo, Spanish Joint

The story of this song is smooth groove, the depth of which I know I will never fully understand. There’s too much going on here, too many influences and genres and vocal layers and instrumental layers that most likely, there are probably only like three people that truly understand how much this song represents and encapsulates. I don’t know enough about Afrobeat musical culture to get from where this song is really born. What I do know is that given a focused listen, you can find new elements every time. For some reason, the percussion is standing out to me more than normal. Actually, more than ever, because I didn’t really ever notice it before. Aside from the beautiful salsa beat laid down by Questlove, there are some intense congas going on behind it. Technically, this song is a stand out on Voodoo, I just wish I could explain why. I do know that guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter is laying down the guitar parts on this one, both rhythm and bass simultaneously on a custom eight-string guitar/bass combo instrument. Insane. Even in the intro, the way Hunter pulls off such a clear sound from both bass and guitar parts at the same time is miraculous. The quality of the recording is due in large part to Russell Elevado, the sound engineer during the Voodoo sessions. For Hunter’s weird guitar/bass combo, Elevado tied the separate pickups for those two parts into distinct outputs so while there is a slight blend, you can still hear the parts so uniquely in the recording. Phenomenal work. And like other songs off of Voodoo, you can hear like 32 vocal layers on this one. This entire record feels so vibrant and real, like it’s a first take recording. There isn’t a moment on all of Voodoo where I feel differently; a perfect example of that feeling is at 4:42 on this tune, when you can hear D’Angelo tell the band they’re going back to the chorus during the last instrumental breakdown. It feels organic, like we’re listening in not on a final product but rather something being created in real time. Makes for a fascinatingly groovy listen.

5. “Life In Technicolor ii” – Coldplay, Prospekt’s March

Seriously, three Coldplay songs out of five randomly chosen? My iPod must love them. This song alone is almost worth the purchase price of this culled-from-Viva La Vida-sessions EP. It’s basically just the intro from Viva La Vida but morphed into an actual song with lyrics and a chorus. And while I think I like the instrumental better as it fits so well with the theme and feeling of Viva La Vida, this is a very rousing number that makes your heart feel big. Listening to this extended song after devouring Viva La Vida for the five months in between these releases was interesting because it made me wonder why they chose the shorter instrumental to intro Viva La Vida and didn’t just turn it into the full-blown song that’s on this EP. I think lyrically they had used the “Now my feet / won’t touch / the ground” concept more than once, especially as it’s the title of another song off of this EP. I’m glad they chose the slightly more restrained version for the full album, but this tune is a pretty cool look into their song-selection process.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 9

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.

1. “X&Y” – Coldplay, X&Y

This is one of my lesser-played tunes off of Coldplay’s third album. It just doesn’t have that initial catchiness that encourages repeat listens, yet it’s still a good song. I think I like/not love this song (and this album) because I’m prone to like anything Coldplay does, but this album definitely got a lot of flack when it was released for being kind of cold and emotionless. I can understand those criticisms listening to this song. Again, like/not love, there just isn’t anything in this tune that grabs you and emotionally shakes you by the shoulders like “What If” or “Fix You.” Listening to it closely, I feel like the guys in the band were swinging for the fences with another grandiose anthem but the end product seems a little overblown.

2. “Modern Nature” – Sondre Lerche, Faces Down

I first heard Sondre Lerche on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, when he performed the title track off of his sophomore album Two Way Monologue. I loved it, and I didn’t listen to him much again until he did the soundtrack for the movie Dan In Real Life. This song was the major song he’d already written that was featured in the movie, and it’s a nice one. It’s hard to describe Sondre Lerche’s music, but he’s got a very distinct sound. This song is a great example of it; plunky, a generous use of 7th chords, but not in an overtly cheesy way. It’s got a pleasing mix of acoustic/electric guitars, intriguing rhythm/percussion sections, and for this particular song, he’s accompanied by a female vocalist and their voices play very well against each other. Nice song.

3. “Love That Conquers” – The Swell Season, Strict Joy

This poor duo. They star in the movie Once and everybody freaks out about how great they are, and they can never live up to the hype of that movie or the soundtrack. Which is a shame, because if Strict Joy was a debut album and nobody had heard of them before, I think it would’ve been a bigger critical and commercial success. Remember how much everybody fawned over The Civil Wars when Barton Hollow came out? That album and Strict Joy are kindred spirits. Especially this song; it’s got a very strong Civil Wars vibe musically. Think “I’ve Got This Friend” with a different rhythm. In terms of the album, I gave this tune fewer listens than others, but it’s certainly a pleasant song. It’s got nice interplay between the acoustic riff and whatever acoustic instruments are adding ad-libs throughout the song. And as always, the voices of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sound like a match made in heaven. Today’s pop culture music scene could stand have more music made by this pair.

4. “London Skies” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

If you’re looking for the trademark sound of Jamie Cullum’s original tunes, look no further than “London Skies.” Oddly enough, this is not a piano-driven tune, but it still fits his sound so well. Fantastic guitar hook here, and it’s always nice to hear that from a piano player by trade. Lyrically, this is a beautifully-written love letter to London. What I love is that the London he’s writing about is not an all sunshine and roses city, but rather a city painted by gray. I read this as a hopeful song, even though it could be read as a depressing picture of the city. For the one day that I was in London, I saw this description come to life, and it was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I didn’t want the city to be sparkly, I wanted a little bit of dinginess with clouds that held back the sun, even though you knew it was there. The musical/lyrical complement in this song is what makes it so well-written; the lyrics on their own can read a bit sad, but when they’re put over the music, it adds that hopeful element that makes this song so great.

5. “Right As Rain” – Adele, 19

This tune is an exercise in scarcity. You’ve got drums, Adele, three or four back-up voices, and a bass and organ. Talk about simple. When you’ve got arguably the best pipes of our generation, you don’t need flowery arrangements. This song is built to highlight Adele. And she coasts through this thing. What’s crazy about listening to Adele is that it always seems effortless, she could sing anything thrown at her without breaking a sweat. This tune is just a simple ditty that was probably fun for her to sing. I also need to point out the insanely subtle back-up singers that show up in the second verse, providing a nice backdrop of “oooh’s” that complement Adele’s voice so well without overpowering it.

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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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