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Map Ref 05: Uncharted Waters

This is a tough song for me to write about: not because of its lyrical content (which is, admittedly, fairly personal), but because I have no fucking clue as to how the track ended up where it did.

To put it another way—"Uncharted Waters" went through lots of iterations. I mean lots. At different points over my two years of writing, I made demos for "Uncharted"  which resembled "Idioteque" by Radiohead, "Sporting Life" by Sea & Cake, "We've Been Had" by the Walkmen, and "Pilot" by the Notwist. After I arrived at the rough arrangement that's on the record, I tried the song with live drums all the way through, then only in part of the song. I added acoustic guitar, then took the guitars out. I recorded the vocals at 128bpm, then at 120, then at 131.

You get the idea.

"Uncharted Waters" was a slog until the very end. About 9 months into writing the record I reached something of a breaking point and had a sincere crisis of confidence, which nearly led me to stop working altogether. This happened during a writing session at the house of my collaborator and friend Steve, who advised me, rightfully, to step back for a while and take a break (an event which I discuss at length during a podcast interview with Nicholas Young of The Machine). His specifically suggested that I try working on some other kind of creative endeavor to free up my mind.

So I did exactly that.

The result of this time away from writing Geography actually turned into another record altogether. During that 2-week period I had fun toying with a Korg R3 and Ableton Live, making abstract, rhythmless sound experiments inspired by Merzbow and Sam Prekop's excellent Old Punch Card. The results of those sessions are going to be released next year under the name Contretemps, the second full-length offering from my label Safety Records.

But back to "Uncharted Waters." The recommendation to take some time off worked, and not too long after that I found the arrangement that is on the record. It's one of my favorites from Geography, too, so perhaps it was worth the heartache.

 

With regard to most of the other tracks from the LP, I can tell you *exactly* which songs I was listening to as reference points. Not here: "Uncharted" reminds me most of Eno's Another Green World—and though I listened to this album throughout the making of Geography, it wasn't necessarily used as a specific template. I will say that my liberal use of EBow here (as well as on other songs) is very much inspired by Archer Prewitt's solo work, as well as his guitar playing in Sea & Cake. The drums weren't actively inspired by Radiohead's "There There," however after hearing Mike play through the drum pattern on a live kit, I realized that I was unintentionally referencing this track.

The only active reference was for the drumless breakdown—taking place about two-thirds through the song's runtime—which borrows heavily from the gauzy, corroded textures of Fennesz' Black Sea. It's a beautiful and sometimes harrowing album, one which seems to perfectly capture the feeling of being lost at sea.

 

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Map Ref 04: (For Dad)

The Downward Spiral was the first record I had ever heard that incorporated an instrumental piece on a record primarily comprised of songs with vocals. That LP's title track was also my introduction to ambient music—even though I didn't have a term for it as a 13 year old, I found myself fascinated with its subtle, melodic textures, its strangeness, and the contrast it offered to the much harsher tracks surrounding it; it was, and still is, my favorite selection from NIN's second full length.

In the following years, NIN profiles and interviews with Reznor pointed me to Godflesh and, as a result, Justin Broadrick's side project Final, not to mention COIL, Autechre, and Aphex Twin (whose Selected Ambient Works II is, as I recall, the first fully instrumental album I ever purchased). The Downward Spiral and subsequent albums I discovered in its wake turned me on to the idea that music could push against the existing context of pop music and not necessarily require lyrics. It's about as important of a turn as I can think of in the evolution of my musical taste, and I owe Trent Reznor a sincere debt of gratitude, all over a penultimate album track which I suspect many NIN fans mistakenly skip right over.

Since then, I've found that most of my favorite records contain beatless interludes—Kid A, Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, and Another Green World are three that come to mind—and I'm fairly convinced that every City States album I make from here on out will contain a song of this type. "(For Dad)" is a first for me, a vocal-less track that flows in both structure and theme from the song that precedes it. Its droning organs muted glitches are very much inspired by the softer moments on Oval's Systemisch (an all-time favorite of mine).  And though I hesitate to define it specifically as a dirge, it is most certainly designed to serve as a coda for "To Remember", whose lyrics were inspired by the eulogy I gave at my father's memorial service.

Finishing this and releasing this song has actually given me a confidence in making instrumental music that I hadn't quite anticipated—so much so, that next year I plan on releasing two non-City States LPs. The first is from a project called Contretemps, which is a bit more abstract and noise-oriented, in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, Merzbow, and Sam Prekop's Old Punch Card. The second project, Modal Voices, is more structured, sounding a bit like Tim Hecker with hints of Terry Riley and Steve Reich mixed in for good measure. More on those projects in the coming months. Stay tuned.

 

 

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Top 50 Songs :: 2008-2013 (So Far)

Inspired by similar lists made by Scott Tennant and Mark Richardson, I thought I’d create my own best of from the last 5.5 years.

I’m actually a bit surprised at myself over how many of these tracks are non-singles; (or maybe I should be surprised that more of these songs weren’t released as stand-alones). A few of these are also concretely linked to specific places and times:

  • The School of Language and Week That Was singles, as well as Sea & Cake’s “Weekend,” were three that I had on repeat right around the time that we started City States—you could call them inspirational.
  • I listened to “Out Go The Lights” in my car about two dozen times during week after my dad died (which I was drawn to because of its overall notions of loss, and because it was a band we both enjoyed together, not because of any darkness=death metaphors that can be extracted from the lyrics).
  • "Holcene" was a song I remember specifically having to turn off at work—I heard it for the first time while contracting at a fantastic studio downtown called GravityTank, and the song’s lonely guitar intro was so affecting that I found myself getting misty-eyed while sitting at my desk.

And perhaps it’s just a current fascination, but “Art of Almost” is the easy winner for me. Full-disclosure: it’s a strong reference point for the opening track on the album I’m making. But in addition to the inspiration I’m taking from it as a musician, I’m also generally fascinated with way that the song seems to occur in movements, the way that instruments seem to bubble up, take command, then eventually drop out over time. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the shared language that emerges between the traditional and electronic instruments, as if the divide between the “real” and “synthetic” is arbitrary or imagined (this is a continuing preoccupation for me as both a musician and as a listener). For me, “Almost” feels very rooted in the here and now, yet also otherworldly and strange, like looking at the planet from 100,000 feet.



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Selections are in rough order of ranking (a one-song-per-band rule is mostly followed, save for the arguable Field Music / Week That Was / School of Language overlap):

Wilco - Art of Almost
Portishead - Machine Gun
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!
Eno / Byrne - Strange Overtones
Low - Murderer
Bon Iver - Holcene
Bobby Womack - Please Forgive My Heart
LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
The Week That Was - The Airport Line
Spoon - Out Go The Lights

Meursault - Crank Resolutions
Radiohead - Separator
School of Language - Rockist Part 1
Walkmen - Heaven
Deerhunter - The Missing
St. Vincent - Marrow
Field Music - Precious Plans
The National - Sorrow
Hot Chip - Slush
Antlers - I Don’t Want Love

Serengeti - PMDD
Matthew Dear - Deserter
Wild Beasts - Invisible
Grizzly Bear - Sun In Your Eyes
Dirty Projectors - Impregnable Question
Destroyer - Blue Eyes
Swans - A Piece of the Sky
Santigold - L.E.S. Artistes
Bear In Heaven - Lovesick Teenagers
Björk - Crystalline

No Age - Things I Did When I Was Dead
Kanye West - On Sight
Merzbow & Richard Pinhas - Tokyo Electric Guerilla
Akron / Family - Sometimes I
Tame Impala - Be Above It
PVT - Shiver
Mannequin Men - Flyin’ Blind
Radian - Git Cut Noise
Blur - Under the Westway
Here We Go Magic - How Do I Know

Mountains - Choral
Tune Yards - Bizness
Sea & Cake - Weekend
Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk To Dream
Vampire Weekend - A-Punk
13 & God - Old Age
Coldplay - Chinese Sleep Chant
Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
Animal Collective - My Girls
James Blake - Limit To Your Love

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