I got a thing for cheesy, cinematic music. Helen Stellar’s “I/O (This Time Around)” is completely made for movies. Specifically, it’s perfect for flashbacks, or the classic montaaaage. Enter Cameron Crowe, the musical soulmate. Songs in his movies were some of the songs that made me want to carry the fire of music. He has a brilliant ear for soundtracks, (but for me) a slightly less impressive eye for films. I found this song through him and through a friend, as it’s featured in a flashback scene in his 2005 movie Elizabethtown. Great soundtrack, pretty horrendous movie.
The musical equivalent of cinematic to me is the 9th harmony. Let’s say for a middle C major triad – C E G. The ninth is the D (an octave and a tone above the root middle C). When you hit those 4 notes together (C E G D) you automatically are taken to an introspective, heart on your sleeve kind of place. It’s pensive, it’s teenager, it’s satisfying for that indulgent looking-out-the-window moment we all have in the car while listening to music. When the melody returns home, guitars always go to the C major triad and the singer goes to the high D ninth. Nice and goopy.
And there are the sinful delights. There are some more I-IV-V vibes for you to chew on. Thick delay on the piano sounds like rolling, hummocky hills. Vocals completely plunged in Nestea. Spacy Pink Floydy noises never hurt. Fuzzy tremoloed sounds. Overt transformational messages. Driving and effective bassline (albeit boring). Verses that sound like choruses (#1 reason). The only thing I don’t fawn over is the chorus drum part, sounds a bit awkward to me and needs to feel bigger. But that piano/atmosphere/ninth feeling is a hard one to deny, lovelies.
Pop is something Canada does really, really well. Maybe it seems like I’m reaching for another pop post, but I’m actually not.
During my teenagerdom, my sleeves were tagged with the scrawlings of east coast powerpop bands. These groups were my version of social salvation in those typical disjointed times. Where music acts as a good guidance counsellor you actually like. It was simple music, but it’s this type of music that commonly makes one understand its power and communitizing qualities. From grades 9-12, I was socially in limbo – not fully down with the super cool A-list basketball players, but also too cool for other “lesser” cliques. So I ended up where many other social intermediaries settled – Student Council. Later in high school I found people that loved this music as much as I did, even though it was in an ironic way. So we started a shitty band. And I belooonged ! I found that place to be exclusive and superior and cool. It felt right and it still does.
My older brother had a large impact on me in high school period, and an even greater impact on what I listened to. He was high school A-list, and I still felt like it was important to climb the list ladder. So I listened.
It primarily came down to THE Halifax Pop Explosion of the 90s, the clear flagwavers of the movement being Sloan. I still think they were truly great.
Sloan – Take The Bench
Sloan didn’t care about how close the Beatles were to their respective chests – it was undeniable, very witty, thought out, fun pop music. Then the “second tier” of bands followed in the promenade, and it was my chance to really impress people with slightly obscure band names. I was 17 and I felt like a young Cameron Crowe. Thrush Hermit, Local Rabbits, Super Friendz, Flashing Lights, Eric’s Trip, and The Inbreds. Really bands like Sloan and Thrush came down to revived Beatles and The Who, where Eric’s Trip and Local Rabbits followed a modern influence of American 90s indie like Pavement and Sonic Youth. Growing up on the Beatles, I already leaned towards certain sounds, but I was thirsty for it all. More importantly, after thinking Pearl Jam was the be all throughout my earlier days, I was encouraged that great pop rock music could be more feminine than grunge, and that’s even without the out-of-control Chris Cornell hair.
And now we jump to the 00s. Luckily, we still have great reasons to celebrate straightforward pop music from the east coast. They destroy the rest of Canada in this department right now, so I present Exhibits A thru infinity.
Mardeen – Kids
Mardeen – Pretty Smart
I still don’t know why this band isn’t at least a national household name. Their debut record Read Less Minds is just unabashed fun. Every song is a winner, I’ve said this many times. Unassuming, fun energy, and brings back the wit and the subtle swagger of east coast rock. The pre-chorus starting at (0:56) of “Kids” is exactly what people should want in a pre-chorus – drenched in hook but with the knowledge that something epic may just punt your whole body after the turn.
Two Hours Traffic – Nighthawks
This is what irks me – no disrespect to Two Hours Traffic, but they don’t deserve what they got. If Mardeen was given their chances, boy oh boy. This is their only song that I’ve really enjoyed, and even then I really only want to stick around for the first verse and the first chorus. The first line is perfect, too.
In Flight Safety – I Could Love You More
I’ve had a soft spot for In Flight for many years. Their first record was one of those records that I wish I wrote. I was simultaneously jealous and enamoured. A great mix of Sigur Ros atmospherics with homey lyrics and folk aesthetics. Singer John Mullane feels like a kindred spirit, and from the handful of times we’ve chatted, I think I’m right. Compassionate, aware, and good dollops of romanticism. It’s also a bit crazy that as their influences have changed, mine have changed in the exact same way. From an obsession with reverb ala Sigur Ros to a slightly embarrassing fondness for cheesy Britpop to a more controlled love of darkish, sentimental, well-revealed rock like The National. This band does not fit into the aloof and apathetic hipster cool mold, and that’s why I like them. It always comes back to the cheese, man. They’ve had blips of popularity, but they still are quietly creating beautiful pop music.
Wintersleep – Migration
Wintersleep brings in grungier, folkier, and darker elements to Halifax pop/rock. They remain as one of my favourite Canadian bands.
This all started when I was walking downtown and realized something – I look at as many people as I can see. As a basic human level of interaction, I think we all should all work at that. I then proceeded to make fun of myself for how much that sounded like a poorly-derived and likely over-delivered Snow Patrol lyric (or something as equally unfortunate). Cheese and corn are often a key part of pop music. We all know pop is pop because we all feel alienated by the more difficult concepts we don’t understand. But that shouldn’t be a reason to downplay its value. It may not challenge one’s tastes, but it at least still connects people with something outside themselves.
Lyrics that are direct, barely veiled, with those feelings we’ve all felt. The universality at the exact same time as the inherent intimacy. The classic epic contrast. That’s where the power comes from. It’s where music carries the fire.
The brooding voice, that heartfeltiveness, perhaps some warm nostalgia, and some self-indulgent creative confessions. Welcome to pop music, self-indulgence. The water is balmy. In a way, self-indulgence and cheese go hand in hand – a drum solo, an Usher song with exaggerated swagger, a disingenuous declaration of love, and every song Motley Crue ever wrote. Annoys some people at certain times, but comforts many.
Mark Kozelek and his offshoot groups (Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters, solo) have been winning hearts and minds for a long time. This song was my first introduction to the man. Hope you enjoy, and explore more of him if you like his voice/vibe. Lots of goodies.
Pop is not just about catchy melodies. It’s also about catchy rhythms.
Holy Fuck – Lovely Allen
It’s a car commercial, and it’s great. I like this song because they are amazing arrangers with great rhythms (ie. bass and drums). This song barely focuses on any significant melody, just a nice bassline, great sounds, and dynamic. Not to mention, without an amazing melody the sounds have to be great. And they are. Great contextuality, smart, poppy, joyous, slightly sloppy and unkempt, and I don’t miss a voice. It’s also rare in a pop song where the bass takes the majority of the melody in the beginning. Admittedly I think they took a page from Broken Social Scene’s first record but more music like that in the world makes the children chant and drink Coca Cola.
An interesting trend I’m noticing in popular music is how big rhythms are completely dominating big melodies in popular esteem. It’s why Timbaland is a cagillionaire, why dance punk is so popular, why electronic music in North America is growing quickly. Kick on one, snare on 2, kick on 3, snare on 4. Harder than it sounds, but I feel the world of melody is being really under-appreciated these days.
Let’s face it, it’s not cool to be a guy who loves melody right now. To overly generalize, I feel like rhythm is more of a masculine quality while melody is more of a feminine quality. It’s why whiny, overdriven, melodic rock is popular with girls and skinny jeans boys, and why hip hop is more popular with men. Lyrical content is obviously a factor, but it’s just a veil – big and simple beats for big and simple men.
I love this song, I love this man. Music is great because I can tell what kind of person he is by this song, especially because it’s the first song off his new record (Soft Airplane). We all know the first song is often the mission statement. The first paragraph of the essay. Shrill but shy, dark, smart, wimpy and beautiful.
The beauty of Chad VanGaalen lies in his contrasts – super poppy vocal over crispy banjo, over morbid lyrics about beaten pets, over battery powered fuzzy synth and African thumb piano. All true. The mid-chorus breakdown (1:27) in this song is pure pop joy. Sunny trumpet, clumsy clarinet, 1-2-3-4 singalongs, and that skippy hand waving feeling.
Update: I just realized I had posted this song already, so I present another one of my faves.
Building on the post below, This pop talk is a selfish opportunity for me to showcase a song that is great and pop-like.
I like it when pop is loud-ish.
… And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Let it Dive
It’s been about 2 years since I’ve heard this song. This song is one of those songs. Zing those songs dot com, Chris DePaul and 1 other reader of said website.
First, a great rock anthem has to religiously exercise the inner air drummer demons out of me. Not always that difficult, but this song makes me feel like the conductor of a Dave Grohl rock opera, and that is simply a beautiful thing. Second, big and great guitar tone. That’s some amazing overdrive. Third, guilty pleasure drum sounds – big, Bonham/Grohl school styles, warm. Fourth, nothing like big 5ths and octaves to get your blood moving in the morning. You get to get on your stadium anthem shoes, and you get to celebrate a breakup with joy. Fifth, the end is still well done, and it’s fun. One of my favourite things to do when listening this song is keeping the quarter note beat when the band drops out at 1:07 through the track. When it comes back in, you feel like King Midas when everything comes back in on 1.
First let me say that I am a Wilco appreciator, not an Ashes of American Flags-waver. Tweedy has a voice like an old friendly creepy neighbour, the musicianship of the band itself often verges on virtuosic, the songs are often fun, often provocative, but sometimes aimless (Ghost is Born jam songs), sometimes bland (a lot of their early stuff for me). I also don’t remember having the conservation with Alix about “pop” per se, just Wilco. But I’ll bite.
I first present War on War on Letterman. This song is more pop to me than almost all of your posted offerings.
First of all, if we’re arguing for their pop-quotient, this is too easy. A major, E major, and D major all over this song in a straight up 4/4 style. Nothing could be more American guitar pop. Melodically and lyrically, it’s quite straightforward. In a nutshell :
“It’s a war on war / you’re gonna lose / you have to lose / You have to learn how to die / if you wanna wanna be alive”
“Just watching the miles flying by / you are not my typewriter / but you could be my demon moving forward through the flaming doors”
Melodies are pleasant, happy, slightly plain. Lyrics are a bit better than average, especially 2nd verse. Arrangement is great – super poppy with some nice flair. Love the keys part, a lot. Wilco also has one of the best drummers in North America playing for them. The legend of Glenn Kotche is well known, mere mortals like us would barely understand. Polyrhythms, phasing rhythms, all the crazy shyte. But he can also perfectly pound drumskins for an American pop song.
Okey, another example:
First, this is a pop song. Personal, informal, four chords, repetition. The other thing I appreciate about Wilco in general is their sense of humour. It’s obvious on their new record (Wilco “The Album”), but Heavy Metal Drummer brings in some innocence to what would normally be considered a serious record (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). As a rock mythologist, Alix my dear ! You would appreciate the humour and simplicity in this song. To me this song pays tribute to their fondness of country elements. Listen to the whole song please, especially those words.
” I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing KISS covers beautiful and stoned “. Funny. Anyone that loves rock music identifies with some of the cliches in this song. Twirling drum sticks, bleached blond hair, women falling in love with drummers.
Ok one more.
This is pop. Mid-tempo, classic rockish, alt-countryish. Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan… that just sounds good. One of my favourite Wilco lyrics of all time is in this tune – ” This is what love is for / To be out of place / Gorgeous and alone / Face to face”
Just because Wilco succeeds at mid-tempo doesn’t mean they’re bland. Anyone else with me ? I know of at least a few. Have at it, Hoss.