Single Shot: Genghis Kahn

Posted in Music on April 8th, 2016 by Tom

gkahn

So I have a pretty horrible record on prognosticating a given year’s “song of summer,” but this year I think I’m on to something. I’ve been a big fan of the Miike Snow project for several years now, and their lead single from the just-released iii is something special.

As if this song, the most accessible Miike Snow track to date, wasn’t enough of an earworm, you have what is one of the sweetest music videos I’ve ever seen to go along with:

The video presents a really clever narrative to accompany the song and the production touches (costumes, lighting) are really spot-on. Between the tune’s infectious ooo-oohhh’s and the absurd(-ly amazing) dancing that goes along with it, I’m quite confident saying that ‘Genghis Kahnshould be the jam everyone is rocking all summer.

iii may get a full write-up here, it may not. Like all Miike Snow albums, it’s a bit of a grab bag- some of the gimmicks pay off while others aren’t for me. But also as with their past work, when they hit the sweet spot it’s a thing to behold.

Tell your friends about this song. Tell them everyone is going to be listening to it this summer!


‘Genghis Kahn’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Featuring:

Kintsugi

Posted in Music on May 26th, 2015 by Tom

Death_Cab_For_Cutie_-_Kintsugi

Having followed music the way that I do for a few years now, I should stop being surprised when a band actually bounces back from an album I thought was not-that-great to produce something amazing and wonderful that you can’t put down (Ed. Note: See reviews of Shout Out Louds and Frightened Rabbit). I’m happy to add DCFC to those ranks with a ringing endorsement of Kintsugi. I didn’t expect to have a lot of strong feelings about this record, to be honest. Codes And Keys didn’t really blow me away, and my life lacked the emotional turmoil that usually precipitates an Acute Deathcab Event.

Next thing you know, though, ‘Black Sun’ is on the radio, and I’m thinking “that’s not so bad,” and the full album is in my ears before I think anything of it. For a bit of background on the album, including the recently transpired amicable departure of producer/musician Chris Walla from the band, this is a decent writeup. We’ll get on to talking about the music that resulted, though. I found plenty to like initially on the record. ‘No Room In Frame’ is the opener, and while it might be tempting to read into this as a lament for the now-deffunct Gibbard/Deschanel marriage, I feel like that’s too hot of a take for your lowly author. I like the guitar hook, though.


‘Everything’s a Ceiling’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

My favorite song on the whole album is ‘Everything’s a Ceiling‘. It’s my habit to hear the melody and instrumentation first, and lyrics after, so on the 7th or 8th time through the record when I started to pick up on their weird digging motif, I was pretty confused. Of course, if you actually pay attention to the context, it makes perfect sense. The narrative of the singer being abandoned by his digging partner/lover in the fruits of their labor only to understand that person to be repeating the process elsewhere is a solid concept on which some of my favorite lyrical turns are built:

and I’ve got nowhere to go except further below
so I keep digging
and it gets darker everyday
but I see no other way than just committing

and if the earth is as round as they say
then I won’t find another place
from where I break back through
that’s farther away from you

I know it’s the physicist in me, but the identification that the furthest two points on a spherical surface can possibly be is the diameter seemed a clever observation to make in a song like this. There’s some other parts of the song that are also very closely tied to the geometry of literally being in a deep hole. The composition really won me over, with the lyrics perfectly suited to the melody and tone.


‘Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)‘ follows immediately, becoming I think the only DCFC song I’ve ever felt compelled to dance to. I really enjoyed the varied textures of the guitar work on this track, in spite of not being able to make heads or tales of the lyrical content. The ‘El Dorado’/’Ingenue’ combo is the only area of the record I lose a little interest in. Both tracks, the former in spite of a driving line of percussion, feel slightly dragging. One could argue they’re necessary though, to slow the pace to a point where a track like ‘Binary Sea’ becomes appropriate.

It’s a relatively unadorned track, compared with the trappings its predecessors have, but this seems to buttress the theme of the song. Listening to it a few times, I can’t help but feel I am the precise target of the sentiments expressed within the song. Most people alive today spent the majority of their lives in a pre-internet age of slide rules and shelves full of encyclopedias. A smaller, but growing fraction of people have lived most of their lives post-internet- viewing with some respect but also occasionally (as in the song) derision these arcane things that used to make the world go (landline phones, checkbooks, etc.). It’s weird to belong to the cohort straddling that sea change and the track captures some of the eeriness and unease which that entails.

Ed.’s Note:
I had this record in pretty heavy rotation when it came out almost a year ago. In fact, I’ve back-dated this entry to when I wrote the bulk of it back in May, 2015. It took nearly a year to come back and punch this up for publishing (4/4/2016), but I was actually really enjoying giving Kintsugi a couple more spins to get in the headspace to finish my comments. It’s a good one, even if my review is a little late to the game.

Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi

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Picky – The Best Music Player for iOS7

Posted in Music, Technology on August 1st, 2014 by Tom

THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF OUR SEMI-REGULAR FEATURE:
“WHY DOES THE APPLE UX TEAM HATE MUSIC?”

Part OnePart Two

We spent most of last week discussing the abysmal state of the default iOS 7 music player- mainly that it’s pretty but not exactly high-functioning. Without any further lamentations, I offer what I believe is the best app in the game: Picky, by developer Charles Joseph.

You have the standard three sorting options (listed in decreasing hierarchical order: Artists, Albums, Songs), plus playlists. The primary draw for me was that the artist list can be filtered to only list artists for whom you have more than N songs, where N is a user-specified integer between 1 and 30 (I find that 7 does the trick, personally). This takes me from an artist list of 964 entries down to a far more manageable 228. Artists are represented by the album cover of the earliest work in the library, which is a classy touch.

Each artist sub-menu is sortable by title or ascending/descending release date, a feature I have literally been missing since 2010 (when I surrendered my iPod to become an iOS person), as well as a “play all” option. The individual album sub-menu features a shuffle button, and a clever mechanic to build a custom queue. My listening habits don’t demand this functionality, but it’s quite well executed:

It is also worth noting that the developer has done an amazing job of deeply and seamlessly integrating this with whatever under-the-hood machinery drives the standard iOS 7 music player. Play counts are recorded as normal, and playlists, including “smart” playlists, appear almost exactly as they should (one glitch: folders of playlists appear under the “Smart Playlists” heading, and humorously include every single song in your library! But: the playlists that should have been in that folder? They’re just fine, in their proper place in the alphabetic list).

A recent update even integrated functionality of sub-sorting the “compilations”-tagged albums into their own space (accessed at the very top of the “Albums” sorting screen), addressing the most niche feature I could have hoped to make it to Picky. I use it to tease out classical music, film scores, soundtracks and mixes from friends from more ‘primary sources’ such as LP/EP/Singles.

Picky’s settings are mostly sprinkled throughout the app itself, but a few more global settings live in their own page, featuring the details of artist sorting (giving you a choice to sort by either the “artist” or “album artist” fields, or to combine them!) and some aesthetic tweaks. The latter gives you access to the dynamically colored player (gives the player a hue to match the dominant color of album art), which is fantastically executed. It also can toggle artist images, the appearance of “cloud music” (something your humble blogger, old-fashioned as he is, can not comment on), and the ‘dark theme’ for those preferring a player with a little more… black.

So that’s a brief overview of the app. At time of press, it was $1.99 on the US app store- and I just can’t emphasize enough how completely worth the money it is for anyone giving even a fraction-of-a-damn about how their music is sorted. As a parting thought, when I started using Picky in November of 2013 I reached out to developer Charles Joseph about how much I liked the app, as well as with a few requests. He proved quite friendly and receptive, and less than one year later, I’ve seen the app meet every desire and expectation I had for it. Buy his app and start enjoying your library again.

Picky is available for purchase on the iTunes Store.

iOS7 Music Annoyances
(Solutions To Follow!)

Posted in Music, Technology on July 31st, 2014 by Tom

Greetings, blog readers! It is tonight I once again make my Nth triumphant return to the medium. It’s been quite a while since May, but I’m dusting off the ol’ keyboard and getting right back into it. Well, maybe not right away. Today’s post is more of a process story.

‘Process’ in the sense that the act of consuming music presents a unique set of challenges, ones entirely distinct from simply finding good music to listen to, which is the concern we typically address here.

God forbid you just wanted to listen to 'Separator'...

God forbid you just wanted to listen to ‘Separator’…

I guess, in what’s now Part 1 in my series titled Why Does the Apple UX Team Hate Music?, I’ve already started part of this discourse. Start there.

Briefly, the native Music app on the iPhone was pretty much terrible for even a modestly-sized library until iOS5, when it became marginally less terrible.

iOS6 saw exactly one (1) update to the music app, and if I recall correctly it was that the faux aluminum slider knob was given a ‘sheen’ lighting effect making use of the accelerometer data. ‘Neat.’ As stated previously, I’ve given up hoping for a customizable Music app. Audiophiles, or at the least library-organization-nuts like myself, are not, and have never been, the force driving changes to Music or iTunes.

If you don’t believe me, look at any substantive update to either since in the last 3-4 years. We got Coverflow, which made a lot of really cool commercials, and is fun to play with until you realize every single non-album track is it’s own gray music-note tile; and the new organizational scheme thrust upon iTunes in recent years which has a pretty slick adaptive color pallet that’s too beautiful (and it is beautiful, don’t get me wrong) to be cluttered with any useful metadata ever; and the Browser is gone, too; remember Ping?; Match sold some people more songs, and Radio is working as hard as it can sell even more… iCloud serves some purpose I’ve yet to divine. They did fix the search bar from resting the list view when you cleared the field, which is a small victory.

Admittedly, there are some shrewd business moves in there, and credit must be given to the graphics crew- it’s all gorgeous. But it doesn’t do anything. Form is supposed to follow function, but instead function is left to fend for itself while iTunes gets all tarted up for its photo shoot. Long story long, there’s no recourse for people who want to sort large libraries in specific ways that are not the obvious defaults configured for a music library consisting of: 6 full albums (Journey’s Greatest Hits, Queen’s Greatest Hits, Some Nights by FUN. because you really liked ‘We Are Young’, American Idiot, The Joshua Tree, and whichever Black-Eyed Peas album had “Pump It” on there), and over 100 singles (mostly KeSha) purchased from the iTunes store or imported from [p2p client c. 2005].

And whatever. That’s what most people do and that’s fine. Hell, I have my own obligatory KeSha single somewhere in there. But I also have every studio record (except Pablo Honey, shame on me!) from Radiohead’s entire career. So you can imagine then why the recent iOS7 update, wherein albums no longer get their own submenu, would be a Pretty Bad Scene for me (see, right). You click ‘Radiohead’ which may or may not be accompanied by the cover of an album -sometimes it’s one you hate, sometimes it’s one you don’t even own!- and sometimes it’s a picture of the band that you may or may not have ever seen in real life, making the functionality of some visual association aiding in search all but excised from the damn thing.

Thank goodness we got rid of all the skeuomorphisms though; what are we, savages? (Jokes on me, though. In a rarity for a native app, there were none to be found in any iteration of Music, excepting the aforementioned ‘shinny’ volume slider.) Has anything improved? No. Nothing has improved.

I parenthetically promised solutions, and they will follow this post shortly!

Optica

Posted in Music on May 7th, 2013 by Tom

opticaTo say that I approached Optica with some trepidation is putting it mildly. 2007′s Our Ill Wills is a frontrunner for my favorite album of all time, and in lieu of the disappointment that I found 2010′s Work to be, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for me and the SOLs.

I’m happy to report though that Optica makes for a tight, consistent, and moving listening experience. In terms of overall balance, it is one of the few records where I really like the back end more than the front.

The opening riffs on the sun-drenched ‘Sugar’ signal a return to brighter days for our Sweedish pop masters. ‘Illusions’, for me, really represents the sound I was looking for on Work but only caught glimpses of in tracks like ’1999′. It’s just fast enough to dance to, but not frantic; not to mention a beautiful example of how lyrics can manage to be enthralling and yet mostly meaningless.

The bizarre choice of lead single/gimmick of ‘Blue Ice’ is lost on me, and when I first heard it, I resigned myself on the spot to the fact that the SOLs as I’d known and loved them were gone. ‘Blue Ice’ is the exact kind of song I’d come to loathe/ignore on Work. In the end though, the track ends up being a much needed structural pause before we are finally treated to the focal point of the album:


‘14th of July’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

14th of July‘ was the moment I was waiting for. Once and future kings of my pop taste, the Shout Out Louds are back. Droning synth and wailing riffs wander through surprisingly well-crafted beats, which frame the painfully nostalgic lyrics that really packs some emotional weight/baggage:

Take me down on the 14th of July
Take me to the fireworks
Show me how fire works
Take me down
Take me to the room / where you grew up
I bet its got a great view
I bet no one loves you

Throw in a break-down bridge before crushing the chorus one final time, and you have the centerpiece of the record, as well as a subtle harbinger of what’s in store.

‘Burn’ is perhaps the canonical retro, lazy-sunday throwback song of the collection. Think days at the beach, matinee movies, and long walks through the neighborhood near dusk. In that vein, ‘Walking In Your Footsteps’ is proof-of-concept that the SOLs can write 70s pop so convincingly you’d swear it was authentic, not to mention a lot of fun.

‘Glasgow’, which I’ll call the first part of this track is a strange, unoffensive number, but the watery, ethereal flute-led melody which follows it steals the show, and turns the page to the final act of Optica which proves to be its darkest, and most memorable.


‘Hermila’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The sheer vibe dripping off of ‘Hermila‘ cements it as one of the best songs on the album. Bebban Stenborg lays a soft, cold croon on this eery tale of pursuit and demise. I can’t quite grasp the narrative thread here, but the lack of definition almost makes it creepier. The band has done painful, sad tracks before, but never anything this sinister. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and worth future pursuit.

Still holding out for some Out Ill Wills-flavored material? ‘Chasing the Sinking Sun’ proves well worth the wait. Excellent percussion through and through, which complements well whatever digital-marimba-filter-type-thing the melody comes out on. Plus I love the refrain,

We were here / that I know
We lost our minds here / long ago

‘Circles’ is the last breather we get before ‘Destroy’, which I consider the complementary song to ‘Hermila’. The flute here is used to a very different effect, a sharp burst of noise in contrast to the distorted cries heard in the background. The song wanders, but in a forlorn, desperate way, that you imagine could be born out of long, dark Swedish winters.

And so, Optica ends not with an exasperated, careless ellipses, nor a definitive exclamation point, but a dissonant question mark. I don’t know what this album means for the future of the Shout Out Louds, but with a much richer pallet of sounds than we’ve seen on anything previous, it’s nothing but encouraging.

I’m done wanting a new Our Ill Wills; that record would probably pale in comparison anyways. The band has something different and fantastic up their sleeves, and even if Optica isn’t quite a triumph of that sound… well, let’s call this the comeback.

Shout Out Louds – Optica

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