4: "I Don't Want To Die" by Ryan Power

This is another one that came my way when I lived at the loom with Will Graefe (WM/Star Rover) and Jeremy Gustin (Star Rover/Delicate Steve/Albert Hammond Jr) and Ben Davis (Cuddle Magic/Anais Mitchell). I have a vague memory of Will & Jeremy singing along to it gleefully in the living room. 

Back when I was a young buck plotting to make my way in the jazz world (bear with me!), I spent a lot of time thinking about improvisation. One thing young improvisers tend to do is construct very choppy solos built of brief, disconnected ideas. They'll venture an idea, and then a chord change will catch them off guard and they'll land flat on their faces and stop. It's a bit like learning to walk. Anything unexpected knocks you over. 

I spent a whole year of my life back then focusing on phrase length, trying to trust myself to adapt my ideas in real time, to trust that I could land on my feet if I just kept going. Obviously it doesn't always work, but being surprised by music is a wonderful feeling, both as a player and as a listener, and the only way to allow it is to take risks all the time. Being an improviser as a young musician is a great lesson for that reason. You get used to publicly fucking up all the time and fighting through it. 

I wandered there a bit but basically this song is a testament to the power of phrase length. The entire verse basically feels like one unfurling breath. It is, melodically, one of the strangest things I've ever heard, and very beautiful, almost in spite of the cheesy sounds used (more on that later). I love way the melody just grows further and further, twisting through weird chromatics and rhythmic adjustments. Each time you think it's done resolving a new phrase attaches to the end of the previous. It's just a marvel to behold. A plant growing in timelapse.

Nerding out for a sec: Trying to decode how it's done I realized one trick is that when the melody naturally resolves back to the one chord (when it should feel settled and done) the harmony avoids the one and instead leaps to some new and tense place, forcing the melody to keep moving. The tension in one element is always pulling the other forward. Very cool. Around 1:46 at "doesn't feel well" is a good example of this.

I also really dig the use of mundane & casual language mixed in here. And, while we're on lyrics, this is an incredibly wise and concise line, about suicide here, but applicable to anything: "you will cause someone pain / when you flow / when you change"

This song also resonates with me because it is pretty clearly about severe anxiety/depression (except the part about pirates and pilates, I have no idea what the fuck that is). In that spirit, the cheesy synth sounds used, the goofy falsetto la-la-la-la-la that starts the second part of what I think of as the chorus, and the yacht rocky vibe of that intro chord progression with the dotted quarter hits, all kind of echo for me the horrible cosmic humor of those ills:

Recently I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with three people who are among the most important to me of anyone I've ever known. I love them all and they love me. At the time I was battling with some pretty horrible downs (like Power, I was wondering - why? is it the winter? do I need some vitamin D?). I had the day off and was spending it doing only what I wanted, and yet...

Crossing the bridge and looking out over the newly snow covered city, I registered that it was beautiful. I could see that. I couldn't feel it. Looking at the people I loved, I knew who they were and that they were important to me. But I couldn't feel it. All I could feel was despair, a pervasive heaviness of my body, a feeling like I wanted to cry but didn't have the energy, a winding spring of tension at the knowledge that my despair was being noticed and causing pain. It was so stupid. A perfect moment, and I've never been more miserable. It was almost enough to make me laugh. 

3: "Don't Be Cruel" by Billy Swan

The first time I noticed Billy Swan was when I went into the back room of the cafe I work at to see who was playing the broomstick-up-my-ass, awkwardly tight shuffle rock that was driving me insane. I shuddered and noted the name as someone to avoid. 

At some point later I heard this song and felt like an idiot. But hey, you've got to be a big man to admit when you're wrong. Especially on the internet, where evidence of your previous scalding takes is easy to find. In my defense, the cafe has very reflective walls and any music that's densely produced tends to sound terrible there. 

I think I mentioned this, but minimalism and clarity has been all the rage in the isolated space of my head lately, and this song is a fantastic example. Think of how much worse this song would be if the hi hat was on all 4 beats for the first minute. Even when it comes in, it's mixed so low and accented so softly on those beats as to be almost invisible. We don't get anything strong on those beats until the last 20 seconds of the whole song. 

The organ drone that disappears underwater everytime the vocals or piano come in is the secret key to this song. It only stops in the drum break and following bassless verse, and it's what makes the drum break feel so sparse and the subsequent bass & organ reentry feel so huge. Something you notice when you mix* music (or try to) is how removing a seemingly invisible element can just gut a song. I suspect that would happen here with the organ. It's a load-bearing drone. 

"Don't Be Cruel" also employs one of the oldest tricks in the book, which is syncing the bass up exactly with the kick drum. Old tricks STILL work, guys. Some things just feel good.

Listening to this song (and to a lot of music from before the internet PR hustle era) I am reminded of how powerful it can be to sit BACK. The song starts with 10 seconds of unadorned organ drone. The vocal phrasing is one bar of melody to three bars of empty space. At the turnaround it goes to one bar of melody and two bars of empty space. That (along with staying off the I chord) is all it takes to build the tension here. 

Most bands at the moment are desperately afraid of evil mustache-twirling gatekeepers listening to 10 seconds of an organ drone and screaming "NEXT!" at their computers. It's understandable. Most of the gatekeeping takes place in private and none of us really know what the hell goes down. The natural response is to show off, to throw everything you have at them, but this song, which has been an obsession for me lately, shows another way. Listen to all that space, baby.

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*non-musician explanation: mixing is basically adjusting the relative volumes of each instrument as well as where in the stereo spectrum they are placed (on headphones: is the trumpet in your left ear or right? both?). You can go down a lot of spiritual and philosophical rabbit holes, but basically mixing requires endless repeated listening, while trying to mentally toggle between hearing differences in extremely minute details and then hearing how they affect the mojo of the song as a whole. Mojo is a technical term. 

•  •  •

P.S. would be remiss not to note that this is a version of an Otis Blackwell song initially made famous by Elvis. This slow and spacious version gives it such a new face I didn't even recognize it! Damn.

1: "Again" by Cuddle Magic

Ok. So, Cuddle Magic are my friends. No, I don't like that band name either, but who fucking cares? It's a band name. They're all stupid. This song, however, is beautiful.

First things first: the slight crunch in the guitar tone is delicious and addictive and I could listen to it forever. It's also almost entirely reverbless, which makes the upbeat picking pattern really pop against the hi hat once the drums come in and push the song forward. It never leaves that pattern. Lately I've been very into songs that do one thing incredibly well, pin one mood and splay it like a butterfly in a case. Songs can take a momentary feeling and stretch it into 3-4 minutes of bliss. And then you can listen to those 3-4 minutes over and over until you wear all the flavor out like a piece of gum and have to move on to the next one. That's how we all listen now, right? Luckily, 10,000 songs will have premiered on Stereogum by next Thursday. 

The lyric "neon lights and road signs" combined with that chord shift always tugs at my heart. Kristin and Ben are wonderfully precise singers. The way they weave harmonies together is pleasurable almost in the same way as watching professional athletes perform. They're just so fucking good at it. But it still comes off as casual. Not a hair out of place, but they woke up that way. 

CM also pays great attention to detail: on the 3rd "let em in" the "in" is dropped in a lovely and surprising suspension. Their horn and string arrangements are always impeccable, and this is no exception. The drum part stays neatly locked in a 2 bar pattern, no matter what swirls around it. This helps the song feel circular, which most of my favorite music does. It's hard to find the starts and ends of phrases, and that makes it so much easier to get lost in the song. The repeated "again" was the first element that startled me into paying real attention to this song, and it holds me still, punctuated by vibraphone peals that make the words feel like thoughts arriving wholly formed from nowhere. 

It's easy for me to get caught up talking about small elements of arrangement and lyric and phrasing because they're tangible, but of course they're only the parts, not the sum. "Again" to me breathes openness and possibility into the air. I feel hopeful just hearing it, like driving through the first tollbooth of the roadtrip. 

Introducing: Elsewhere

Hello and welcome to Elsewhere, which is where I will talk about songs I like and that I did not write. 

I hear you out there. Pounding your fists on the table. "A music blog? For chrissake, what is this, 2004?" I know. I know. I already did this back in the day, and I quit for a reason. Well, lots of em. 

But: It's February and the winter doldrums that thoroughly engulf Brooklyn this time of year are making all my friends tell me they're moving away again. More snow is falling as I type. My room is a mess. My girlfriend's in another state. It's Valentine's Day. At work this afternoon a woman handed me her credit card and it felt like she'd just taken it out of an ice bath. I shiver every time the subway doors open. My friend Pete got a 165 dollar parking ticket and then was late to work because his orange-ticketed car was iced over (NYC car owners know there is no worse feeling than spotting that offensively cheery orange from the far end of the block). A black cab took a turn through a walk signal today at about 30 mph and nearly killed me. They didn't even brake at the point when I know they must have seen me, and I found myself hammering on the rear window as they passed and screaming "IT'S A FUCKING WALK SIGN" like that was a thing I feel ok doing in public. In short, Fuck February. 

On the other hand, Feb and I, we have to coexist for another two weeks, and I'll be damned if I'm just gonna roll over and spend those hours just watching the endless scroll until my brain glazes over like Pete's car. I'm gonna be a part of that endless scroll.

I've always loved making mixes for various purposes. Driving, sleeping, fucking, cooking, despairing, feeling like an all around badass. I love music as focal art but I also love it as color for the world or as medicine for moods. My old cavernous loft in Bushwick was always freezing because the windows leaked (leaked is inadequate, they leaked air like a fire hose leaks water) but the room just got warmer when Bill Evans or Lennie Tristano was playing.  Listening to Jim O'Rourke's organ drones at a low volume on the subway on headphones makes even the most mundane eavesdropping into a religious experience. Crossing Prospect Park in a blizzard: Arvo Part's Fratres. Alone in a cabin in Michigan for 3 weeks: The Flying Burrito Brothers cover of Wild Horses. When depression threatens I listen to music so opposed to depression that they can't possibly coexist. I also do pushups. When it takes over I listen to wallowing music until I get bored. 

Anyway, last night I made an updated version of a sleeping playlist I've had in some form since I lived in Copenhagen and I remembered what joy it gives me to play new music for people, to talk about the minute details in the mechanics of the music that somehow translate to the surging of the heart. 

So, starting tomorrow, please enjoy the sweet sounds of Elsewhere.