Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Cost of Religion

Eef Barzelay wrote "Jews for Jesus Blues" as the leader of Clem Snide, shortly before the alt-country band broke up in 2005 (they reformed in 2009).  As the Weather for "The Traveler," the 18th episode of Welcome to Night Vale, this song explores the negatives of being saved.  The country elements of the song (shuffle beat in the snare, slight twang to the voice, banjo) sets up the expectations for a typical country revival song.  But Eef's view of religion is more complex, as indicated by both his birth in Israel and the title of the song.  The narrator of the song was trying to fill the perceived emptiness of his life.  He did so by being reborn in Jesus.  But he regrets this action, and the reason for this regret is unclear.  The title might suggest that it is because he went against his cultural heritage of Judaism.  The third verse says "I don't wanna suffer and I don't wanna die / I want the clouds parted in endless, blue sky / But someone up there has a different plan / Now that I'm saved, I wish I was damned."  God has a different plan than his vision of eternal life with no suffering and strife.  He thought he would be free of his sins, but instead he feels guilty.  Is it the work that is demanded, that we all must love one another as we love ourselves?  This love requires effort, and perhaps suffering. 

Between the second and third verses, a very distorted electric guitar solo clashes with the country music tropes.  It is like a parody of a slide guitar solo.  Is this the feeling of a Jew stuck among Christians, not exactly fitting in?  There is also a Hammond organ sound in the background of the third verse and the coda, coming to the forefront as the singer stops abruptly.  It is rather disturbing, with very heavy tremolo and a kind of distortion at the very end.  Did he stop himself out of shame, or was he interrupted by death?  Either way, it is an upsetting moment.  Religion isn't easy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

B-girl Ballads

Mystic was the Weather in the "Valentine" episode for the first year of Welcome to Night Vale.  Her rap, "Neptune's Jewels," is a valentine to a love on a pedestal.  The chorus states that he is the one that she would do anything to keep happy.  In the second verse, Mystic makes it clear that her attraction is more than physical, more than sexual.  "It's the way you make me wanna live instead of die."  Backing vocals make some of Mystic's raps melodic, especially "But you put a new hue in my blue, added a perspective to my concrete views..."  This is a great phrase on learning to trust her emotions.  The melodic chant makes it sound like a quote, perhaps that is a saying of her (potential) lover's.  The language in general has an interesting juxtaposition of street slang and polished poetic imagery:  "I would fly into a merciless sun steal you the sky 'cuz you're the one."

The introduction is also interesting, with mysterious vocals that I (and my family) can't figure out.  Are the purposefully vague murmurs representative of her previous confused loves, or her initial hesitation before falling head-over-heels for Mr. Perfect?  Either way, the whole piece makes a nice Valentine.  Won't you be my Sade tape in the coldest spring?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Can't Be the Wounded Man

I had intended to write my next post on music from Night Vale yesterday, but I'm glad something kept me from doing so.  For I read the final third of John Green's Paper Towns this morning, and realized what was keeping me from feeling a strong connection to Barton Carroll's "Those Days Are Gone and My Heart is Breaking." 

The narrator begets a child, but "couldn't stick around" and never even remains in contact with the mother or the child.  This attitude, the lack of responsibility for the child is foreign to me.  I immediately start judging him as a bad person.  It is easy to treat him as a one-dimensional character, just as several characters in Paper Towns realize that they had been doing the same.  Yet ultimately I know that we are all people trying to live the lives we have been given.  I don't know what kind of life the singer had before he left his town.  It implies he had friends, but these friends are abandoned (or abandon him).  He had a mean streak, and a rage over being held back from what he thought he deserved.  I did not grow up with similar feelings.  I grew apart from friends, and I've had feelings of being held back.  But ultimately I always felt the responsibility was on me, and I couldn't imagine abandoning my children.  I don't have the same wounds that the singer has, just as Quentin doesn't have the same wounds as Margo.  I haven't read Walt Whitman's poem, "Leaves of Grass" but Quentin interprets it as showing that while we all are connected, we can't truly know one another.  I don't think that is true with everyone, but there are people that I cannot relate to.  This is not their fault, and I need to remind myself not to judge harshly because of this.  The song's narrator has clearly grown as a person, no longer filled with rage but rather with regret.  He no longer feels held back by others, recognizing that he needs to put in the work to make connections and to earn his keep. 

The melody is very repetitive, within a major pentatonic collection of notes.  But the third line of each stanza is performed very quickly, within a single measure, which changes the flow.  There is a lot of space after this third line, setting up the fourth line as a different end-rhyme (AAAB). These unpredictable rushes and pauses can exhibit the narrator's nervousness in trying to reconnect with his old friend.  He knows he has made many mistakes, and needs to come clean in this attempt to reconcile.  Perhaps this is a first, easier step towards making things right with his son.  The last stanza eases the rhythm of the third line and doesn't rhyme as exactly.  Besides bringing things to the present day, the last stanza changes the refrain from "Those days are gone and my heart is breaking" to "Those days are here, and my heart is waiting."  He is thinking about the future, I think he is trying to fix the damage he did to his son and his ex. 

So maybe I can find connections with this wounded man.  There are plenty of mistakes I need to repair, even if not at the level of abandonment.  I can understand the nerves, and the relief once a hard step is taken.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


I'm torn on what to do.  The Weather in episode 15 of Welcome to Night Vale is a song by Tom Milsom, who has been accused of statutory rape.  This puts me in a similar situation as fans of Woody Allen who believe the accusations of rape levied against him.  Does one separate the art from the artist, condemn the art because of the artist, or account for the bad aspects of the artist as well as the good when considering the art?  There are plenty of jazz, classical, and rock musicians who have done horrible things, from Wagner's anti-Semitic remarks and Gesualdo's murders to James Brown's alleged abuse of his third wife.  Yet I still appreciate their music.  So I will analyze "A Little Irony" by Tom Milsom, while condemning the acts he is alleged to have done.

This is a love song, from the perspective of a mad scientist.  Unlike Jonathan Coulton's "Skullcrusher Mountain," Milsom's scientist has listened to the voice in his head (his little irony?) to kill everyone, including the girl he fell in love with after freezing her. 

The scientist is apparently an accomplished pianist (and British), giving himself a florid introduction.  The first verse and chorus stay solely with piano accompaniment, as he contemplates freezing the world to keep it from getting worse.  The rest of the band joins in as his heart starts beating in the second verse, a rather on-the-nose example of text painting.  Another example is the pause on "stop" in the first verse.  This effect (and the whole world-freezing) might have been influenced by Joss Whedon's Doctor Horrible.

Milsom's chord progressions are rather interesting.  The whole piece is in E major, with  plagal cadences at the end of each stanza of the verses.  The chorus oscillates between I and vi chords, I suppose demonstrating the uncertainty of the mad scientist to share his love/oops-sorry-I-killed-you thoughts.  More interesting are the F# major chords that come between the vi and IV chords in the verses.  These major II chords fit better as semi-tonal voice-leading - the E and G# slide up to F# and A#, the F# and A# slide down to E and A - than in an functional sense.  The second and third verses add tonicizations of the vi chord, and the bridge weakens the only dominant chords with deceptive resolutions and chromatic planing. 
Verse 1:  Time should stop moving / And never go beyond today / If we could find a way to stop / The world would be okay

If I'd thought about it sooner / It wouldn't have been downhill / But I'll make the best of what I've got / While I've got it still

Chorus: Do you wanna know / A little irony about me / I don't know if I should say / This little irony about me

Verse 2:  But it's funny 'cause my heart has started beating / It never has before today / It must be something in the way / She looks at me

She started screaming / Before I made the earth stand still / Of all the people I could kill / It had to be


Verse 3: But it's funny because love was just a Feeling / Irrelevant before today / But now I've gotta find a way / To make her real

Freezing / Was just for me to get away / But now I need to learn to stay / And make her real

Bridge:  When all the world around me / Moved so unpredictably / A moment never lasted long enough / For me to see the reason why

Love never came to me / It moves unscientifically / But now you're trapped and I can Find a reason now to ask you one more time

Coda:  But you'll move me more forever / Than you ever could before today.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lieder Ohne Worte

Just this morning when attending the weekly school recital hour, I recalled that every bit of Weather on Welcome to Night Vale that I had analyzed was text-based.  I wondered if an instrumental work would be coming up, I couldn't remember from my binge-listening last fall.  And Night Vale delivers, with a piece by the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra.  A 2007 article on About.com describes this group as around 60 musicians, including rappers, DJs, and singers.  The piece on Welcome to Night Vale, "Movement 1: Invocation of the Duke," sets up a latin beat with low saxophones, percussion, and some subtle record scratching.  The repeating eight-bar bass line hovers around scale degree 5 of a harmonic minor scale, occasionally jumping around to grab some additional notes, but never resting on tonic.  Over this beat, two violins trade eight-bar solos.  The first entrance is rough, the rhythms don't quite fit the 4+4 phrase that the bass line has established, but after this rushed entrance the rest of the solos continue the latin beat on the harmonic minor scale.  The augmented seconds give an exotic feel to the solos, along with the continued avoidance of tonic as a resting point.  Right at the Golden Ratio of the chronological duration (63 out of 102 seconds), the violin solos stop and the brass starts playing a riff that slowly gets louder and more ornate, with high trumpet shakes and sustained string chords.  By the end, I wasn't sure whether I should be hearing the E major chord as the dominant of A minor, or as its own tonic.  That rotation of the A harmonic minor scale results in the E "arabic" scale, also called the Phrygian Natural 3 scale, or the Dominant b2 scale.  One live performance by the Orchestra does pair this song with "Reap What You Sow," which is in the key of A minor, so that reinforces the feeling of "Invocation of the Duke" as an introduction.

Presumably the Duke that is being invoked is Duke Ellington.  Another track invokes The Clown, probably a reference to Charles Mingus.  The podcast episode is "The Man in the Tan Jacket," who is a character that no one can clearly recall or describe.  This haziness fits with the tonal ambiguity of "Invocation of the Duke," unclear whether it is an introduction or a stand-alone piece.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Busker Power

Mount Moon is the busking name of Wesley Bryon, in honor of the Pokémon location.  Despite what Welcome to Night Vale claims, he is not the New Jersey-based indie rock band with the same name on Band Camp.  However, he has renamed himself as Jazz Casual.  Bryon's voice is captivating, using rough vibrato during the chorus to portray his frustration and passion.  He hugs his small guitar, and grimaces as he sings in an androgynous register over the tinny strings.   The form is straightforward, with some interesting chord choices while staying diatonic and functional.  Each verse  has two stanzas set as periods, and the chorus is also set as a period. 

Some of the words are hard to make out from his singing, I wouldn't have caught all of them without help. That is a shame, as there are both interesting poetic devices and neat juxtapositions at play.  One that does come out clearly is the "know/no" homophone pair in the chorus.  This song fits well both for a busker playing in the subways, and as the Weather for "The Story of You" in Welcome to Night Vale.  That episode tells the story of a day in the life of a person (not Cecil), who doesn't really know himself, having been removed from his previous life.  The narrator in this song is disconnected from his mother, is not proud of his accomplishments, and is feeling the weight of mortality.  The chorus has a defensive element, which fits with the shaky voice and high-strung guitar, as he realizes that he won't succeed in life, and is feeling judged by all the people around him.  The person in the episode rebels by taking something from the desert.  Perhaps Bryon's character will also rebel.

Verse:  There once was a time that we knew damn well we’d be wise beyond our years

now we’re old and it seems we’re getting dumber.

There once was a rhyme that would bring peacefulness to both of our ears

but this music lets us know that we’re not getting any younger

My mother would not be proud of my mouth

but I can get a sense out that is sacrilegious without sounding like a sailor.

Every time i go home for the holiday and tell her how it’s been.
 see the hurt, it’s obvious I have failed her

Chorus:  But you don’t know, 
no you can’t go where I’ve been.
And I don’t know
, no I’ll never get where I’m going

Verse:  ‘Cause ever day I hear somebody saying something like "Yeah, I just got back from China, backpacking and feeding food to children."

I have never strayed too far away from this east coast where I remain
in my heart I am so envious I could kill them.

And I am running out of time to do the things that I said I was put on this earth to do by God and His heaven.
Seems that I believed in something then. Dear Lord what happened to my head. Now the days go by so fast that I lose time because I don’t sync it

Chorus (2x)

Monday, April 07, 2014

Pretty dissonance

I'm struggling right now with how to teach my Popular Music class about dissonant and consonant harmonies.  They already have problems with identifying the tonic of a piece, and this is really pushing them.  The Weather for episode 12 of Welcome to Night Vale has a very clear example of dissonant harmonies in Anais Mitchell's "Of a Friday Night."  This would have been a great blog post to publish last Friday, but I didn't even start listening carefully to the piece until Saturday morning, so that serendipity was already lost.  I instead did a bunch of biking and decided to wait for Monday to post this.

The stark piano introduction sets up a cluster of notes against oscillating B and E bass notes, sounding like an homage to Erik Satie:

But this is both simpler, and more complex.  The right hand doesn't move, filling different roles against the two bass notes.  The first chord is a B minor triad with an added ninth, that half-step clash in the top two notes.  When the left hand moves to an E, the right hand creates an E13, a seventh chord with extensions of the ninth and thirteenth.  But this chord is missing the third, so it is ambiguous in quality.  Given the context of the minor tonic chord, and the remaining half-step clash in the upper voices, it is likely to hear this second chord as an E minor seventh chord with the added ninth and thirteenth, so a iadd9 - iv13 progression. This is denied by the melody, which uses a B Dorian collection of notes, so the E chord gets an implied major quality.  This is important, because that E major chord takes over as tonic in the chorus, providing a bright contrast for the good old days against the darkness of the ghost town.

The bass line gets embellished, and the meter changes from a weak 3/4 to a clear 4/4, yet with the same progression as the voice enters.  This shift in meter is odd, and doesn't happen again in the song.  Is the introduction the real ghost town, and the 4/4 beat the remembrance of a remembrance?  This gets a little Inception-y, but as I interpret the lyrics, there are at least four time periods referenced:  1) when the poet is a young man; 2) when the poet is old, but there are young men filling the streets; 3) the present time when the town is empty; 4) the future for which the narrator is waiting.  So the introduction represents time period 3, the B Dorian verses represent time period 2, and the E major chorus and bridge represents time period 1 and the potential of time period 4, suggesting a cyclic nature to time.  Hence the two oscillating chords, with the static upper notes, the dissonances that change without changing.

I love the pause and drop of Mitchell's voice to a low G# on "midnight writer" in the chorus and the little chromatic notes on "young men" and "those" in the first two verses.  I'm not positive what midnight writer means, the pause could suggest that the narrator is censoring herself, or to emphasize that it is important that the night life was filled with writers/creators/memorialists.  The chromatic bends portrays the old poet's aching memory of his own youth, and the narrator's aching desire for joy to fill her own life.