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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 3

1. “Love Gun” Feat. Lauren Bennett – Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer

This is one of my lesser played tracks off of Cee Lo’s genius 2010 solo album, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad tune. It’s probably got a much higher skip count than it should. What’s tough about an album as solid as The Lady Killer is that it’s easy for strong tracks to fall through the cracks while one is obsessed with the four or five truly stand out tracks.

This one starts with the cocking and shooting of the eponymous “love gun” and it sounds like Cee Lo’s audition for a James Bond theme. The guitar sounds lifted directly from a Bond movie’s opening credits, and the orchestral strings sound like they’d be accompanied by stylized “BANG!”s and “POW!”s, a la the old Batman TV show. Cee Lo’s got this fantastic way of nailing down very specific genre sounds with his music, and this whole tune is a perfect example of that. It’s also maybe the most thematic tune on the whole album (The Lady Killer…love gun…). It might not be immediately catchy like “Wildflower” or “Cry Baby” so it’s easy to skip, but it’s a fun, albeit slow, song.

2. “I Love N.Y.E.” – Badly Drawn Boy, About A Boy

This is an instrumental from the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book, “About A Boy.” Good book, and surprisingly even better movie. About a self-centered rich guy whose life runs into that of a socially outcast boy with a depressed single mother. The whole soundtrack is awesome too, Badly Drawn Boy’s got very unique sounds that lend themselves well to the feel of the movie. I believe this particular song plays during the scene where Will first meets Rachel and is completely floored by her. The musical theme of the song is carried through much of the soundtrack, but it’s teased out most thoroughly on this track, and it is a very simple melody over achingly beautiful chords. Add some strings and you’ve got a tear-inducing instrumental piece that I’ve loved since I first heard it.

3. “In Repair” – John Mayer, Continuum

This is a great JM tune, an anthem about coming back to the land of the living after a particularly bad break up or other such depressing life event. I don’t think I’ve heard him do this one at any of the shows I’ve seen, but I’ve heard several live versions of the tune, and boy does it have room to open up and be a pretty kick-ass show closer. Even on the album, JM’s got an extended chorus that he just riffs on, so multiply that by 100 and you’ve got the live version. In this very cool documentary video of the writing and recording of this song, it was done in one afternoon and as soon as he found that weird reverbed, delayed pedal tone that made his guitar sound like an organ, the rest of the song came quickly after. What I love about that video is that it completely breaks down how this song was put together from the very first seed of the idea to the end product. You hear JM find the pedal combo that gets that organ sound, you see Charlie Hunter (guitarist featured on D’Angelo’s Voodoo) come up with the transition to the bridge completely on the fly on his 8-string guitar. You can even hear lyrics that were eventually scrapped once JM got the lyrical theme hammered down, but you can hear him sing the lyrics before he’s got the final melody in place. The most impressive thing is how he rips the actual guitar solo you hear on the finished product not 6 hours since the song was born. Watching that documentary gave me a completely new respect for a song that I originally kind of shrugged off. This tune is a great example of what happens when great musicians get together and get inspired.

4. “No Pause” – Girl Talk, Feed The Animals

I’ve been afraid of getting a Girl Talk song since I started the Shuffle Lessons series. But it was bound to happen, so let’s get into it. The song starts with Missy Elliott’s “Work It” and it really blasts off at 0:18 with Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” providing the backdrop over the chorus of “Work It.” It then transitions into Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause” over Heart’s “Magic Man.” We then jump over a short interlude of mixed songs and get into “Shake That” by Eminem Feat. Nate Dogg over Yael Naim’s “New Soul.”

As with every Girl Talk song, this is an insanely complicated mash-up of tunes new and old. Obviously I did not list every single sample that Girl Talk used for this particular track, but the easiest ones to hear are covered. In terms of lyrics, the “Rebel Without A Pause x Magic Man” is an awesome mash-up, but musically I like the “Work It x I Can’t Wait” portion, as the musical foundation from Nu Shooz elevates Missy Elliott’s original song. The end of this track kind of tailspins for me and seems to jar my ears with the transition from Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” lyric into the bouncy jingle of “New Soul.” It’s just not the smoothest transition and my ear doesn’t like it.

5. “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream” – James Taylor, In The Pocket

This is a fantastically sad song about an alcoholic old boat captain who has forsaken his love of the sea for the safety of the mainland and can’t get over his regret. This is one of those killer JT tracks that I serendipitously stumbled upon because it is the song after “Woman’s Gotta Have It” on the album, and every few months or so I go on a tear of listening to that song because it is awesome. But letting the iPod play on after that one ends led me to this tune and the melody is what kept me from skipping back. JT’s got this great skill of mixing lyrical melodies so well with the rhythm of his tunes; they just live so harmoniously together. His line that begins “All I need is the sea and the sky…” is not only a heartbreaking lyric, but the way his melody jumps in time with the rhythm sounds so good.

And yikes, talk about a terribly sad song. Why did Captain Jim leave the sea? He doesn’t get into that, which is a great move for the song. Sadness that comes from feeling like you’ve got untapped potential is common, but even worse is the sadness that comes from having what you loved and being the reason you don’t have it anymore. Captain Jim is completely cognizant of the position he’s placed himself in, that he’s looked at like a crazy person and that he’s lost his mind in The Bottle, but the memories of where he belonged, where he fit and where he found purpose is such a downer. Captain Jim is the case for better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost, because he loved and lost and he’s continually paying that price through depression, alcoholism and social ostracism.

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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 2

The only note I want to make before I launch into this set of songs is I’m shuffling my Top 1000. Rather than my whole library, I’ve chosen to shuffle just the Top 1000 playlist because I’ll have loads more to say about any of these songs rather than say, “A Horse With No Name” by America. That said, here we go.

1. Take Your Time Feat. Corinne Bailey Rae – Al Green

I believe this is the very first song I ever heard off of Al Green’s Lay It Down, way back in the spring of ’08. I was in Spain and this tune had leaked a few months in advance and I remember thinking, “Whoa. He might have a massive, modern classic on his hands.” That was correct. The whole album is just the densest, richest, lushest music he’s ever made. It’s absolutely as good as his prime albums from the early ‘70s, but with a whole new layer of depth, thanks to master producers ?uestlove and James Poyser. But enough about the album. This tune is just a sweet love song about slowing things down. Corinne Bailey Rae guests on this song, and she adds just a great voice alongside Mr. Green’s. He does his little talk-ish ad-libs and she sings a more straightforward part, but when they combine during the chorus it’s just a fantastic blend that sits perfectly on top of the rest of the tune. And talk about a lesson on incorporating string arrangements into your song. Yowza, the strings float this tune along like a leaf on a crick. There is nothing here that needs to go any faster.

2. The Only One I Know Feat. Robbie Williams – Mark Ronson

This one is one of the more forgettable tracks off of Mark Ronson’s Version, his album of (mostly) covers with guest artists. This particular track is a cover of a song by the UK band The Charlatans, a band I know nothing about. As I’ve never heard the original before, this is the definitive version of this song for me, which means I lose out on any artistic critique due to its nature as a cover song. Most of this album consists of covers out of left field, spun with Ronson’s trademark “‘60s soul with a modern twist” sound. Lots of great horns, addictive rhythms, etc., but while this tune has most of those elements, it just falls flat. The featured artist here is Robbie Williams, another UK singer I know nothing about. He adds little to the song that makes me want to keep playing it. And most often, this tune gets a skip from me.

3. The Cave – Mumford & Sons

I don’t think I’d heard banjo played in such a grand, majestic way before I heard Mumford & Sons, and specifically this song. I was a little behind on the Mumford train, heard them (and this song) for the first time when they played with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers at the 2011 Grammy Awards. The performance was great for a lot of reasons, but this was the song they played, and it made an impression on me. These guys are great. The biggest criticism I’ve read of their album Sigh No More is that it’s lots of the same, which I get, but what they do, they do so well. What’s the problem with having an album that stylistically sounds very similar when that style is awesome? This song especially just has the best hook in the world. Best I’ve heard with a banjo anyway. This album helped me recognize a completely original and unseen (by me) part of folk music. Up until this song I had heard folk as primarily a quiet genre. This song blew that misconception out of the water. Yeah, folk can be quiet and beautiful, or it can be raucous and beautiful. One could almost label this song folk-rauc.

4. Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois – Sufjan Stevens

Keeping in mind the goal of writing succinctly for these Shuffle Lessons, it is unfortunate that iTunes landed on a song by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan has an incredibly literary form of songwriting that feels at home among Emerson or Thoreau. One could easily write a seminary dissertation on his Seven Swans album. This tune, the Side 1 Track 1 of Illinois, is a perfect example. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the song captures the fear and wonder of those involved in an alleged UFO sighting in Highland, Illinois in 2000. If you doubt, listen to the song again. He uses the word “revenant” not four words in. Are you kidding me? What a songwriter. Listen to all of 10 seconds of any Sufjan song and you know the guy is a deeply talented artist. He can write (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a profoundly dark and beautiful song about the innate horror of our fallen human nature) and he can play. I don’t know how he seems to write music that seems so unheard of. Like when I first heard this song (even more so this whole album), it was like I was hearing a new genre for the first time. Or seven new genres for the first time. He just combines instruments and time signatures and melodies and song structures in such unique ways and creates something wholly his own. This song is just perfect though. Haunting, short, mysterious, affecting, and perplexing. Much like a UFO sighting?…

5. Quiet – John Mayer

This was one of the first JM songs I ever heard, more than 10 years ago. Holy cow that is a long time. But this is originally the kind of music that originally hooked me, super simple guitar yet incredibly melodic, and lyrics that encapsulate feelings I hadn’t heard communicated so well in song before. This song is a perfect example of what a great songwriter JM is, even from the get-go. This whole song is about the Sunday Night Blues, which I had always felt but never really heard discussed in real life. Like Sunday nights always just felt off to me. I felt extra lonely or weird or sad or unmotivated on Sunday nights. It just felt like the world was cold and had nothing to offer that made me feel alive and happy. Kind of the same thing as the feeling I got on Christmas night. But then I heard this song, and I heard this feeling being sung. And played. Like exactly. He paints perfect word pictures here that explain exactly how I was feeling but couldn’t say. “3:02 / the space in this room / has turned on me / all my fears / have cornered me here / me and my TV screen.” He completely captured the Sunday night angst that so many 15-25 year olds (and probably others) feel. He played this song in Iowa City in 2003, and he introduced it by saying, “Sunday nights cannot be trusted.” Feel free to hold whatever opinion about the guy as a person, but damned if he can’t write.

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He’s back.

Damn. This is some deep, cold-blooded funk. 12 years later, you can’t rush genius.

-Jon

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January 26, 2012 · 8:26 pm

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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Allen Stone or Traditionally Black Music Deconstructed by a White Guy.

I was watching a DVR-ed episode of Conan recently, as I often do, and the guest line up was as follows: Chris Colfer (Kurt from Glee), Charlyne Yi (from House), and then Allen Stone. If I don’t recognize the last guest, it’s usually a stand up comedian and I like to watch those guys, so I decided to give it a whirl. Yet in the monologue, Conan said “…musical guest: Allen Stone!” Blah. Sounded like a bad country artist, so at that point I nearly turned it off but I have really enjoyed the guest interviews Charlene Yi has done with Conan in the past, so I decided to watch at least her segment. She is just the most bizarrely cute girl; she interviews like a ten year old who’s high and surprised she is on a talk show. And Conan clearly loves her, which makes for an all-around funny interview. Catch her if you get the chance sometime.

So her segment ends, and I am getting ready to turn it off when Conan introduces the musical guest as a soul singer from Seattle. My brow immediately furrowed in confusion over that description and then this performance happened:

Holy cow. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a voice and singer that are more mismatched. I mean this guy doesn’t fit at all. He looked like Brett Dennen’s hipster twin but the song that he played was as far away from that as you can get. He completely blew me away. When I showed Colleen the video later that day, she had the exact same stunned expression as I did after it ended.

And after I got a hold of his album and have taken it in a few times, a new question has been rolling around in my head. What is soul music? I hear that term all the time and I use it all the time, but do I really know what I mean?

Where did soul come from? Wikipedia’s intro statement on their soul music article reads as follows: “Soul music is a music genre originating in the United States combining elements of gospel music and rhythm and blues. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is ‘music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.'” There is a lot to unpack there, but the main point is that soul music really came into being in the ’60s, when genres really started getting melded together in new and innovative ways by black artists. They took the religious passion of the African American churches and injected it into the melodic snaps and claps of rhythm & blues. Soul music in the ’60s was loud, energetic, and meaningful. Soul singers made you feel what they were singing. Can you compare most of today’s popular music with what you hear when Aretha Franklin sings to her man that he makes her feel like a natural woman? Damn if that’s not real and sensual and pure. When Sam Cooke sings “It’s been too hard livin’, but I’m afraid to die, cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky…” in the masterpiece song A Change Is Gonna Come, I get chills. Who hasn’t gone through hardship and questioned their entire life philosophy? These are real thoughts and feelings that people across racial boundaries, across age and gender and socioeconomic lines really deal with. In the liner notes to their album Naturally, Gabriel Roth (bassist and producer for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) writes: “Somewhere between banging on logs and the invention of M.I.D.I. technology we have made a terrible wrong turn. We must have ridden right past our stop. We should have stepped down right off the train at that moment when rhythm and harmony and technology all culminated to a single Otis Redding whine. That moment of the truest, most genuine expression of what it means to be human.” That’s exactly it.

And this is where it becomes really important for me. Soul started as a traditionally African-American genre of music. But at its core, soul is so much deeper than that. It’s called soul for a reason. If it was strictly a genre of music for one people group, it’d be called skin. But it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or any other color. Anyone can relate to feeling love or love lost, questioning the deep life question. And love is universal. Soul, at the most atomic level, is universal.

So let me throw this back to Allen Stone. Thankfully, skin color does not determine a soul singer (see: Dusty Springfield, Adele, Susan Tedeschi, Steve Cropper, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, etc.), so is he a soul singer? Of course he is, if for no other reason than his incredible tune Unaware. That song is beautiful, whether he’s singing about the government or a dame who’s done him wrong. He sings from inside, and you can hear the raw emotion in his voice. That’s says soul to me.

So how the heck would I describe soul? On the surface, certainly not by the shaggy, blonde-haired, gap-toothed hippie singing on Conan. Yet that is soul, all the way. Soul is bass that knows it can play more than the root note. Soul is knowing how to use horns in a subtle way. It’s bobbing your head backward on the 1 and the 3 beats instead of forward. Soul is a drummer that can be sloppy in the most controlled way, or adding a new rhythm within the main rhythm. These are all musical elements of soul, and somebody else might define soul in a totally different way, and that’s OK. What I’m sure of is that I know it when I hear it. I get goosebumps when I hear it. Here are a few examples of that:

http://youtu.be/Qgp7hlkfstI (goosebumps: 3:55, the rhythm change in the drums)

http://youtu.be/bb6cBKE3WzQ (goosebumps: 0:15, the whole freaking chorus)

http://youtu.be/-4Yz_bUTlbo (goosebumps: 3:15, the keys part that comes in is heartbreakingly beautiful)

http://youtu.be/XrjXLbQQmZA (goosebumps: 0:24, that seventh chord)

http://youtu.be/TgRplZMRJvI (goosebumps: 0:15, when the verse really starts)

http://youtu.be/ShO6KKaEoZQ (goosebumps: 3:00, when they sing the chorus together. I swear, Adele has the voice of Sister Act 2-era Lauryn Hill. Chilling.)

http://youtu.be/wz2_N_9ggHI (goosebumps: 2:57, the bass. The bass!)

http://youtu.be/24gjW4Oqj2k (goosebumps: 2:10, the bridge. Beautiful combination of both voices and John’s guitar part.)

http://youtu.be/dAao_2_pNCo (goosebumps: 3:34, the horns, and 3:47, when his vocal line and guitar line trade places)

http://youtu.be/UdYRzH10L2M (goosebumps: the whole thing. SRV could do no wrong)

http://youtu.be/dZkjo3mNmsA (goosebumps: first seconds you hear the bass. Man that bass is funky)

http://youtu.be/ccenFp_3kq8 (goosebumps: 0:42, when the synth part comes in)

http://youtu.be/TmaKSpTIJzI (goosebumps: 2:51, when the chorus drops out and the new chord progression kicks in)

http://youtu.be/U438sZlUj4w (goosebumps: 4:52, the last chorus into the “Booty” part of the song. The vocal layering stops me in my tracks and sheer groove of “Booty” brings it on home. Legitimately though, as I’ve said before, this entire album could go on this list.)

These are all songs that I’ve heard from the last fifty years that I’ve thought “Man, that is soulful.” And you’ve got a huge mix of genres and feelings and passions and faces here. It’s a transcendent genre of music. In the end though, when I say soul, I just mean music that I like. It’s music that means something, and means it to many people. The things that matter in life matter to more than just me. They ultimately matter to everyone, and these themes are represented in soul music. That’s what makes it so enduring.

-Jon

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Five videos.

I feel as though I haven’t done this in awhile. Here are some videos hilarious or awesome for one reason or another. No connection between them, just some great, random stuff I hope you’ve seen.

1. Gun Report Fail

While I try to stay away from things and people who use the phrase “FAIL!” in real life, this video actually made me laugh out loud by myself in a public place. I felt silly holding back my laughter.

2. Triumph at Episode II ticket line

OK this one does not allow embedding so I implore you: click the link to watch the video. It is the segment from Late Night with Conan O’Brien (still reigns supreme as the best late night talk show) where Triumph the Insult Comic Dog goes to the waiting line for the premiere of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I might even put this in the running for Top 10 Funniest Bits ever to be on any of Conan’s shows.

The Darth Vader joke is the freakin’ funniest thing ever.

3. Proof is in the Pudding

Thanks to my West Coast friend Nicholi for posting this on Upside-down Smile’s Facebook wall. This guy is from Germany and his videos are him explaining how ridiculous American idioms are to non-native English speakers. This one is my definitely my favorite.

4. Rainbow Sponge Lady

I’m not sure where I first saw this, might have been Neatorama. Regardless, this one is really a hoot. Colls and I have watched this numerous times and have been entertained each time. I love when she laughs in delight.

5. Life’s Too Short

This is the name of the new program written, directed, and acted in by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. It follows the life of a showbiz dwarf, who is played by Warwick Davis. The few promos I’ve seen are pretty funny, especially considering the previous work Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. These three men originally first met on the show Gervais/Merchant show Extras, where they did this scene, one of the funniest of the entire show.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do.

-Jon

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Martin Sexton.

EDITED (9/07/11): Found this amazing video of Martin performing his song “Hallelujah” live. Please watch. His voice makes my heart feel things.

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing Martin Sexton play a solo show at the Iowa State Fair. I haven’t seen a show as good as his in years.

I’ve known about Martin for a long time. I think my first exposure was probably about 10 years ago, when a cool older kid in youth group who liked weird music introduced Joel and I to the song “Candy.” I’ve listened to him on and off since then, never really falling in love a particular record but enjoying a variety of his songs. This concert opened up a whole new side of his music that I’d never really caught before.

This guy has absolutely one of the most soulful sounds around. His stuff is very Americana without crossing over completely into just straight folk music. I don’t want to call it “rock,” but that seems most fitting. It’s like heartland rock and roots rock and blues rock all jumbled with just the slightest pinch of jazz (he scats from time to time). A lot of songs are very anthemic, but not Coldplay anthemic, more like pre-Born To Run Springsteen anthemic. Very everyman music, like music you’d listen to driving in a dusty old pickup truck, driving towards the Rocky Mountains on a lonely two-lane highway as dusk sets in. It’s stuff to sing along to.

He pulls this sound off perfectly in concert. It is incredible to see him perform; he transforms his guitar into the most rhythmic machine and pulls sounds out of it I can’t describe. The first thing I noticed when he started to play was just how percussive he was able to make his guitar. He didn’t need anybody along with him because he made his one instrument sound like seven instruments. And this was no convoluted guitar pedal manipulation, he just manages to coax an insane array of sounds, both rhythmic and melodic, out of his guitar, as he’s singing some crazy lyrical rhythms. With just his voice and guitar, he creates these incredible musical atmospheres that pour over you. Really amazing stuff.

I’ve never heard a guy sing like this. He has almost a Jack Black-ish voice, but if Jack Black was about seven times better and had the most incredible falsetto ever. Seriously, I don’t know how Martin does it, but his falsetto is just so solid. Not a hint of waver, he is as solid singing falsetto as he is singing with his gut. A fitting example would be the song “The Way I Am.” In this song, he does this part that is very nearly a yodel, but he transcends into this stirring amalgam of breath and melody, hitting notes just shy of lederhosen. He’s actually released two recorded versions of this song, one on his debut album In The Journey and another on his 1998 album The American. I enjoy the earlier version better because you can hear less production on it. He went into a booth and played his guitar and sang into a microphone and behind him you can hear the silence in the studio. He turns a great song into a chilling performance.

I would absolutely recommend going to see him if you get the chance. Something else I noticed in his show was how socially minded he seems to be. A lot of his lyrics have a slight spiritual undertone, and they seem to be very much pro-love. Only a few of his songs hit a bit of a political tone, but without getting overtly pro-left/right he hits more on this social theme of making the world a better place. Depending on what side you fall on, you can interpret it as either right or left. But rather than taking sides in a futile debate of “Which party is better?” his songs promote love and peace and the well-being of humanity. In a society where that worldview might be often touted but rarely acted out, it’s refreshing and inspiring to hear these songs.

Martin is phenomenal. I hope you get a chance to see him, or buy a record, or somehow get his music in your head. And I’ll leave you with this song, which was his encore at the show we saw. As much as I hate fan-made videos, this song is too good to pass up.

Enjoy.

-Jon

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