Vampire Weekend and “Album-As-Installments”

In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.

Indie pop icons Vampire Weekend made headlines last month by releasing two new tracks, their first since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City.  For fans, this was exciting news, throwing them into a frenzy of anticipation.  As a casual listener, I was interested in hearing the songs, and marked the band’s return as something I would want to review later in the year when the full album dropped.  But, the release of the new tracks also came with the news that they would not be releasing their album by traditional means, opting instead to release two new songs every month until the album drops, which will result in six tracks being pre-released total. 

Singles are nothing new.  Since music first became distributable, artists have been releasing single tracks as promotion for their LPs.  With the advent of digital music, this became an even more popular promotional method, as musicians began putting out singles on iTunes and now Spotify and other streaming platforms.  And, with the digital world geared so much towards playlists, singles make more sense than ever, whether they appear on “curated” playlists by streaming moguls and algorithms, or in your own personal library. 

Although the move towards an album-as-installments-based plan on Vampire Weekend’s part is relatively unsurprising, it does make one think about how the art of the album is evolving in the digital age.  Because of the mass availability of an endless supply of music, artists are having to find new ways to make themselves stand out, especially when it comes to releases.  Beyoncé set the trend of the “surprise album” with her self-titled record in 2013 by simply posting the full track-list online with no prior warning or promotion.  This has become a popular method among BIG artists since, and hence has somewhat lost its shock value, but the surprise effect is one that many still opt for. 

When a band as big as Vampire Weekend chooses to release a record in installments, it causes me to wonder whether this will become the new norm sooner or later.  In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.  Perhaps Vampire Weekend understands this, and are capitalizing on this awareness.  It causes me to pause and wonder how many other artists will follow suit. 

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned and over reacting, but as an editor of a blog dedicated to showcasing the album as an art form, I was a bit disappointed by their decision.  The power of the album is to create a world that is experiential, a feat that is not possible in two songs.  I did listen to the two tracks, and did enjoy them.  But, I think I’ve made the decision to save the others until the full release.  To me, the power of the album has always lied more in the full experience, not in the song-by-song consumable rush of things.  As the music industry continues to shift and change, I hope that the album format remains a medium that artists continue to give their listeners, allowing them to partake in a brief escape from their daily lives that is longer than a few moments. 

However . . . if you just want to listen to the singles . . . here they are, free of charge.

Fall In Love With Quiet: Or “Why You Keep Clicking Lofi Hip Hop Beats To Study/Relax Too”

“There is a rhythm to life. You got this… ride the wave.” – Some Random Guy In the Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio Live Chat

Something that I think gets overlooked too often on music blogs much like the one you’re reading right now is “vibe” music. Music that sets out to set a mood, and should it choose to tell a story, it does so in a subtle, usually instrumental way. I think there’s a huge place in our everyday lives for this music.

Luckily for us capitalist underlings, a large corporation also had this thought back in the 40s. Muzak, a term that would become an insult rather than a copyrighted moniker, was a company that found their niche in creating music that would boost the productivity of the average american worker, and encourage store consumers to spend more.

Muzak could apparently make workers happier and more productive. Muzak patented a system called Stimulus Progression that offered 15-minute blocks of instrumental background music that provided listeners with a subconscious sense of forward movement.” (MentalFloss.com)

For better or for worse, this science proved to be questionable at best, but the concept that music can soothe the mind, or focus you on a task is still strongly supported. According to the UMD Medical center, it’s actually good for the heart. “Listen to music. Music is an effective stress reducer in both healthy individuals and people with health problems. Research finds that listening to soothing music can decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels in heart patients” (Florida National University). So the science is there, but you already knew the effects that calming music had on you when you’re trying to focus. It acts as a buffer, a conduit for thought; provides framework but not enough stimulus to distract you or “take you out of it”. It’s the 21st century version of listening to the rain at night; which is, unsurprisingly, a common sound sample in this genre.

There’s something magic about certain tempos, certain grooves, and certain instrumental tones that calm us. The sounds are soft but defined, dark but not foreboding. They feel like a cold summer night, the kind of night that conjures memories of fire-lit evenings and hoodies. There’s a specific feeling that follows putting on nice headphones, or putting this type of music on in the car at night that feels warm, safe, and inviting.

This feeling, I will dare to say, is peace. So much of our days are spent with a checklist in one hand and a heavily caffeinated beverage the other. A paper, some homework, a test, a last minute Not A Sound post because the Head Editor is sick, or just the stresses of feeling the need to move forward every day as quickly as you can. “Chill” music offers you a brief, but welcomed respite from these feelings through nothing more than a few un-quantized kick drums and a warm piano sound.

So go ahead, boot up some of those lo-fi/jazz/chill playlists, because now more than ever, it feels like we as a generation need something that not only encourages stillness, but romanticizes it.



I’ve included the link to the now infamous “lofi hip hop” radio, and my personal favorite I found while listening to it during my writing tonight, so enjoy!

“There is a rhythm to life. You got this… ride the wave.” – Some Random Guy In the Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio Live Chat

http://mentalfloss.com/article/28274/muzak-history-background-story-background-music

https://www.fnu.edu/benefits-studying-music/

What Makes a “Classic” Album?

Let’s say you’re like me, and anytime you have a few extra bucks, you roll on over to your favorite used record store for a few hours and bask in your hipster glory. One of my favorites to visit during such (rare) times is Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.  Jerry’s is a vinyl geek’s dream.  Walk in and you will find boxes on top of boxes full of records spanning the entire lifetime of the format, covering all genres.  Let’s say you go to the rock/pop section, which in itself takes up a quarter of the warehouse.  You start thumbing your way through the stacks, in hopes of finding something by The Beatles, Prince, Bowie, maybe Springsteen.  Instead, you would likely be able to find massive stacks of music by relatively unknown pop bands from the sixties, or a plethora of Barry Manilow records.  You’ll be lucky if you find a Bowie covers album, or maybe a scratched Capitol Records version of one of the Fab Four’s early releases.

This is not because these records don’t exist.  They aren’t rare.  The Beatles are one of the most popular bands of all time, selling millions of LPs and singles over the course of the past 50 some years.  The fact is, people don’t get rid of these records often, and when they go on sale, the folks at Jerry’s put them right up at the front so that the costumers will see them and snatch them up within minutes of being on the shelf.

That is because these albums are true “classics.”  Their influence has lasted for decades.  Despite the fact that the Beatles broke up in 1970, they continue to draw new fans with every generation, and hence are more difficult to find at record stores than a band like Bread.  My question is, what makes an artist or an album stand out in this way? What qualities of popular music continue to draw people in and stay relevant for years?  Why does Walmart sell Pink Floyd merch?  What is up with the resurgence of Fleetwood Mac in popular culture?

I would argue that there are three broad categories of classic albums.  As a disclaimer, I’m not saying that all “classics” fall into these categories.  There is such a thing as an “underground classic,” or artists that have a dedicated cult following long after they are gone.  I’m not devaluing that.  Additionally, artists could have multiple albums that exist in any of these categories, or sometimes albums might blur the line between two, or all three.  But, in terms of popular culture, there are three categories of “classic” albums that stand out to me.

Mastery of a “tried n’ true” method

These are albums that demonstrate a deep knowledge of a tradition.  Yet, instead of being boxed in by that tradition, and making a paint-by-numbers folk album for example, they add something new to the conversation through their work.  Think of artists like Johnny Cash.  Cash knew country music better than anyone.  Country, folk, and blues were genres that had existed prior to his career.  His music was not “re-inventing the wheel” so to speak.  He just wrote really damn good songs in a genre he had a mastery of. Often times, as was more common in the fifties and sixties, his albums even included many covers of other people’s songs.  Yet he is still one of the most revered American musical artists.

So what sets Cash’s work apart from the countless mimickers that followed, all of the covers of his songs, and the lookalikes in the industry?  Although his sound was not necessarily groundbreaking in the way that later artists would be, Cash managed to add something newto the conversation through his unique image, presence, voice, and writing style.  His country background melded into the rock-n-roll aesthetic and persona that he had acquired by working with Sun Records, putting a unique spin on what qualifies as “country.”  It is not always easy to put your finger on what makes these artists stand out, but it shows in the influence that follows their career, even after their death.

 

Examples: Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’ Changin’, Whitney Houston’s self-titled album, Nirvana’s Nevermind.

A tasteful combination of genres

Sometimes, an album comes out that attempts to cover every genre under the sun. These albums tend to come off as cheap imitations of the original form.  Think about the current Island and Latin sounds that have been popular on the radio over the past few years by artists like Drake, Cardi B, and Twenty One Pilots.  A song like “Hot Line Bling” may be catchy, but sounds like a week imitation of the reggae genre, under the guise of being “influenced.”  This type of song usually turns out to be a fad replaced when the next trend comes in.  Another example is in the early 2010’s when all you heard on the radio were singles by Mumford And Sons, The Lumineers, and Gotye.

Amidst this slog, an artist will occasionally make a record that tastefullycombines genres to make a unique piece of art, that has mass appeal, while also showing a loyalty to the forms that it is influenced by.  I would argue that The Beach Boys’ Pet Soundsfalls into this category.  The record creates a unique soundscape through by writing pop tunes with classical arrangements.  Music critics continue to gush over every aspect of this album, even just listening to the instrumentals alone.  The combination of classical and pop does not come off as hokey or just someone trying to mesh things together that don’t belong; rather it listens as a unique piece of art by someone who had a deep respect and understanding of both traditions.

 

Examples: The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, Sufjan Stevens Come On, Feel The Illinois!, and Bon Iver’s self-titled album.

Something totally different

Let’s be real, anyone can make a noise record.  It’s easy to hook up a Stratocaster to a bunch of delay petals and brag about how artsy you are.  Many albums have been released that are “different” from most music people have heard, but different doesn’t always equal good.  What sets apart the noise as something that listeners will latch on to and discuss for years to come?

Think about the Beatles reallytrippy stuff from the Sgt. Pepper era.  Tracks like “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” come to mind.  The mainstream world in 1967 had never heard anythinglike that before.  While it could be argued that these songs come through a combination of multiple genres, I would argue that the contrast is so harsh that it was more something almost entirely new.  These songs were weird, but still had a mass appeal. Songs like these tend to be ones that we look at as bench marks by which we measure how popular music has changed overtime.  Albums that are total game changers but still have pop sensibilities are remembered and loved for generations, making them difficult to come by at your local record store.

 

Examples: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless,Radiohead’s Kid A

Dynamics: On, Off, Left, Right, B, A, Start

At the center of every great pop song, orchestral piece, or ambient synth-based horror movie score is a conscious or intuitive understanding of dynamics. Giving a song a beginning and an end, or the intentional lack thereof, is an important part of using music to tell a story.  “Dynamic” is often used to describe music that spends some of its time being quiet and some of its time being blisteringly loud, but I’d like to offer up (or rather repeat what I’ve learned from people smarter than me) the idea that there is much more to dynamic music than stomping on a distortion pedal and deafening an unsuspecting listener.

Movement can happen in a song through (deep breath) volume, melody, the choice of instrumental tone (or timbre), the types of instruments used, layers of instruments or voices, space, complexity, dissonance, harmony, chord changes, tightness, sloppiness, the choice of words, the intonation of speech, the rhyming pattern, the length of a given section, repetition, stopping short and a million other dimensions that can make a song feel like it’s progressing from beginning to end. Movement, in all these dimensions, becomes a tool to the songwriter or composer.

You may be wondering: “But Sean, you uninformed and uncultured slob, what about music that doesn’t change much over time? Ambient music, film scores, even simple hook-based pop music? Does a lack of dynamics make them bad?”. To which I would say, “read the first sentence ya nerd” followed shortly thereafter by a far more friendly “no, of course not”. A lack of dynamic change can be just as much a powerful choice as an abundance of dynamic change. Familiarity, comfort, mundanity, and a feeling of a continuity can all be expressed by maintaining a constant dynamic. A song that sets out to capture one particular moment or feeling wouldn’t be served well by an evolving sound that changes dramatically from beginning to end; a song’s movement should match the story it’s trying to convey.

         Subverting this idea can also be a powerful tool. Presenting horrible events with a carefree disposition, jangly guitars, and dancy rhythms (e.g. much of “Bubblegum” by Kevin Devine) can communicate sarcasm or highlight the absurdity of our tendency to live life as if violent injustice is a perfectly alright status quo. Dramatic change between sections can convey the volatile nature of a person or event, such as Slow Mass’s use of major tonal and volume shifts to show the inner existential turmoil caused by pointless, “cyclical living”.

 

The idea that every aspect of a song or album should reflect its place in the world being created or presented by the artist is key to creating what Zack and Ian (Editors in Chief) refer to as “a world album”. The world being presented can be big or small, and the timeframe in which the story takes place can be short or sprawling; the dynamics of a song or album should be coherent with the world being built, and how the world is meant to be viewed by the listener.

 

    Next time you’re listening to a record (or writing one!), try and follow the dynamics of each section or each track. What story is it telling, how is it choosing to tell it, and how is it asking you to listen?

 

Songwriting: Writing Voice Over Singing Voice

Over the last two decades TV shows such as American Idol and it’s sleeker copycat The Voice have enraptured American audiences. Part of the success of these programs is the underlying implication that the viewer gets a voice in choosing who the next radio star might be. Millions of talented singers have auditioned for these shows and performed their hearts out to cheering crowds in the hopes of winning their ticket to musical stardom. However, as should be fairly apparent, most of the winners of American Idol and The Voice rarely become the radio stars of tomorrow, or even sleeper stars in their own right. How is it that the same incredible singers lauded by the world one year often fade to relative obscurity the very next year despite the high-level recording contract they just won?

 

The answer is simple: there is a lot more to being a great artist than having a great voice. Don’t get me wrong, a good voice definitely helps, but it has never been the be-all-end-all of an artist’s success. To illustrate this, let’s contrast the plight of these TV Show contest winners with the plight of country music legend Willie Nelson. Like many country singers, Willie Nelson got his start in Nashville, Tennessee, but unlike our friends from American Idol he didn’t get his start as a singer, but as a songwriter writing songs for other people. Nelson’s goal was to be a singer/songwriter, but in the notoriously competitive Nashville music industry he was told that he didn’t have a good enough voice to hold his own as an artist. In fact, it was not until he moved from Nashville to Austin, Texas that he was finally allowed to pursue his artistic endeavors. The rest, of course, is history. Willie Nelson is now a 12-time Grammy winner and one of the most recognizable names in country music, building a longstanding career off the prowess of his writing voice despite early criticism of his singing voice.

 

The same trait that held true for Willie 50 years ago still holds true today: a strong writing voice makes up a lot of ground if your singing voice isn’t quite at Tina Turner levels. Most people don’t care about the ins and outs of your vocal technique so long as you’re hitting the notes (and many people don’t even care if you hit the notes in today’s musical landscape), so long as you’re adept at finding catchy melodies or writing lyrics that demand attention. The only way to be truly effective at either of those things is by spending time developing and maturing your writing voice.

 

Let’s back up for a moment and define what we mean by the term “writing voice.” An author’s, or here, songwriter’s writing voice is their writing style: what makes their specific work recognizable and determines the character, attitude, and perspective of their music. Each voice is unique to each individual writer and when exercised, or perhaps more accurately, when released properly sets the work of a given writer apart from other writers. When this is done well it not only makes your music more distinct, but it also makes it more relatable. One of the biggest mistakes that many young artists make is trying to make their art more universal by making it less personal. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more you try to make something that everyone can relate to the less relatable, less impactful, and ironically, the less universal your art usually becomes. The reason for this is that all people are personal and experience themselves as a person both through introspection and through interaction with the everyday world around them. Thus, when you write a song that talks about your own life, emotions, interests, and interactions in a way that only you would think to do, it becomes immediately relatable even if the listener has never had the exact same thought or experience, because when immersed in your song they simultaneously see the world through your eyes and their own eyes.

 

What I am not suggesting is that all impactful art is confessional. That is another trap that many young artists find themselves in, where songwriting becomes solely an exercise for confessing their darkest fears and insecurities. Although these kinds of songs are often relatable and emotionally impactful, they relay only one part of your experience as a person (no-one, no matter how traumatic their lives is limited only to traumatic experience). What’s more, not every song has to confess something introspective, but in fact can profess something about the larger world the artist lives in. When an artist’s writing voice becomes a fluid extension of his/her own character and perspective he/she can both confess any internal, emotional experience and profess anything he/she believes or experiences externally without ever sacrificing context. When this is paired with an ear for melodies that naturally complement the emotional contour of the lyrics, one’s vocal aptitude becomes less and less of a concern. For this reason, I would argue that developing one’s writing voice is the most important part of growing your craft as an artist.

Build a World, Not a Sound

What makes an album stand the test of time? What is the secret ingredient that pushes a good album into great territory? When confronted with these questions people generally sort themselves into one of two categories: a great album is either 1) an album where every song stands out on its own merit or 2) an album where each song works cohesively with the others to create a whole work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nowhere is this divide more obvious than the debate between two of The Beatles biggest albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their eponymous White Album, with fans of the former almost always coming from the “cohesive work” position and fans of the latter almost always coming from the “standout songs” position. Both sides certainly have their merits, but neither is without their flaws either.

While an album full of great standout tracks is an impressive feat, a common flaw with this method is that it often removes any flow from the album as a whole. In this situation the album itself isn’t really special at all, it is merely a collection of great songs, more like a portfolio than an artistic medium unto itself. I would argue that The Beatles White Album falls into this camp, however, that is not to say that all song-focused albums do. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is an album composed almost entirely of radio singles, but it also works well in sequence as a cohesive unit.

On the other end of the spectrum, focusing more on cohesion may almost always make an album flow better, but it can also lead to generic, formulaic songs or conversely to some of the hokey and bloated, albeit amusing, failed experiments of forgotten 70s prog-rock bands, where the album’s grandiose story is thrown haphazardly over the same three riffs for 14 minutes at a time. An album that gives you ten copies of the same song may be coherent, but it is not greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, an album whose sum is greater than its parts is no great accomplishment if all the parts are awful.

So where does this leave us? If an album lacks cohesion, then it loses its character as an artistic medium and becomes only a container for songs. However, if it is cohesive at the expense of depth and/or diversity then it lacks any real staying power. Even combining the two categories to say that a great album must have strong cohesion and be comprised of lots of standout tracks leaves a lot on the table. Such a theory may capture the essence of an album like Rumours, but it doesn’t capture the brilliance of an album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There is no definitive equation to explain what sets great albums apart from their peers, but I would argue there is one common thread that holds true most of the time, though it is not a concept commonly applied to music: world building.

I would propose that, for the musician, writing an album is similar to the process of world building for the novelist. You must create a space where the songs on your album can believably exist with one another and you must, proverbially speaking, give your audience something interesting to look at. This can be done in a myriad of ways, but for our purposes we can narrow the process down to two general components: scope and depth. The scope of an album here refers to the range of musical dynamics in the arrangement, anywhere from the simple quiet versus loud dynamic all the way into contextualizing different styles and sounds together. On the other hand, the depth of an album usually has more to do with the melody and the lyrics (if the song has lyrics), providing differentiation between songs based on melodic movement and variation, or through artful lyrical craftsmanship.

When a great album has a small scope, it almost always has sizable depth. For instance a great minimalist folk album may not have a ton of musical variation, but it will be set apart either by its lyrical craftsmanship or the emotional power of its melodies, generally a combination of both. Conversely, great albums with large scopes often have a shallower depth comparably, usually because the busier or more unusual the arrangement the harder it is to put compelling melodies to it, and thus the harder it is to put lyrics to it. There are of course the rare few albums that pull off a large scope and sizable depth, such as Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, which leaves us with three general types of great albums: a small scope/sizable depth album, a large scope/shallow depth album, and a large scope/sizable depth album.

Thinking of writing albums in terms of world building seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom given most artists early in their careers, which is: “find your sound.” While that advice isn’t bad per se, it often ends up leading to formulaic music when artists inevitably take it as “pick a genre you think suits you and do whatever it is people in that genre do.” It takes many artists years to break free of this simple, often self-imposed cage and begin making the music they are capable of making. Part of my goal as an editor here at Not a Sound is encouraging artists to push their craft and helping them to break out of the creative cages they end up stuck in. So shake off those shackles and when you start writing that next album remember to build a world, not a sound.