Song of the Week: Février, Vincent Vallières

Click Here to listen to “Février,” by Vincent Vallières

Tonight, a legacy post from Turntablr, the spiritual predecessor to Vintage Voltage. And it’s only appropriate, given the winter we’ve had in the Northeast so far this year.

You know who knows about winter? People from Québec. They regularly get the kind of snow that would even make a penguin think twice, but rather then run away, they embrace it. This song, by French-Canadian pop singer Vincent Vallières, is a great example.

The name of the song translates as “February,” and the lyrics are sort of a free-wheeling association of all things wintery, from “February, little red nose/February, a bit drunk” to “February, lose your gloves/February, on skis.”

In three minutes, Vallières provides a great ode to “the little month that never ends” backed by strong handclaps and some random whooping. The song sounds like something he recorded in the midst of a booze-soaked night with a bunch of friends in a cabin—it sounds natural, and above all, fun. It’s an incredibly simple mix of musical elements that just works. There’s definitely a little sense of humor in the mix too: from the cough in the background at 0:35 that accompanies the lyric “Frileux et gripé” (roughly translated as “chilly and sick”) to the low whistle that sounds when Vallières mentions “le vent du nord” (“the north wind”) at 0:39.

Perhaps the reason why I enjoy this song so much is because I can actually understand the lyrics—it’s tough sometimes to appreciate songs in foreign languages, especially if you’re big into lyrics, although I hope you’ll get a kick out of this nonetheless.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 5-1

And we’re back! After a week of intensely scientific tabulation involving a horde of lab rats and a rather nifty slide rule, the editorial team here at Vintage Voltage has arrived at the top 5 songs of 2014. These are scientifically proven to be the best songs of the year, guaranteed to induce eargasm by the second chorus.

Ok, not quite.

The fact is, I’m just one guy. I can’t pretend that I listened to everything that came out in the last 365 days (apologies again to FKA twigs), and I don’t really have much of a finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not. But these songs meant a lot to me in the past year. They made me stop and listen really hard, and then hit the replay button. That may not be a very scientific criterion for inclusion, but these songs are my songs, and I hope that maybe they’ll become yours too.

5. Madman, Sean Rowe

There seems to be a few unifying factors going on in this list so far—rootsy guys with beards (cf. Ray LaMontagne), and singers with voices that will give your subwoofer a workout (see the next song by George Ezra). Sean Rowe has a voice I would know anywhere, dark and sweet as red wine. “Madman,” off of his album of the same name, contains a lot of elements that made me like “Desirée” so much: a soul/R&B groove removed from his solo acoustic work, bright, trebley guitars. But mostly for me it’s about that voice. If I could wrap myself in it like a buffalo robe, I would.

4. Budapest, George Ezra

I first heard this song sitting in my friend’s kitchen during the infamous 2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Riots–a story for another time. The song didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but after rediscovering it on the radio a couple months ago, I couldn’t get enough of it. When I first heard it, I thought the song’s vocal hook, the way Ezra stretches out “you” in the chorus, was kind of gimmicky. It is, but now I think it’s ok—especially because Ezra has such a nice voice, sounding like a slightly higher-pitched Sean Rowe (a rosé to Rowe’s claret). But beyond that, the song reminds me of Buddy Holly’s work—simple, not afraid to be a little silly (“be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby”), and relentlessly, criminally catchy. This song dominated my life for about a month after rediscovering it. His album will be released in the US on January 27th. It’s going to be big.

3. Christmas Eve, Nickel Creek

As a set of songs, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line is really satisfying. There’s not a weak moment on the album, and the band sounds wonderful together despite coming back after a long hiatus. I knew all this when I wrote about the album back in April, but now after months of living with this music, there’s a few tracks that float to the top.

“Christmas Eve” is all about expansions and contractions, with the sonic spectrum unfolding into a broad, full sound, and then condensing into simpler elements at the beginning and end of the track. It’s like a series of deep breaths, in and out. And deep breaths are necessary given the sensitive nature of Sean Watkins’ lyric, which resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back in April. The falling-out he describes so frankly has elements that are expressed in the music and vice versa. The confusion and mourning finds expression in small motifs, and Sara Watkin’s violin solo injects a shot of tea & sympathy into the whole arrangement. Nickel Creek isn’t the first band to create such a deft symbiosis between words and music, of course, but I think they were one of the bands that did it best this year. “Christmas Eve” is a song that has followed me and grown with me, and one I’ll always associate with 2014.

Note: Oddly enough, the entire Internet seems not to have the album version of this song available for me to link to. I’ve included a link to an inferior live version. You should try and find the album version on Spotify or something–it’s really worth it. Sorry, gang.

2. Seventeen, Lake Street Dive

I’m in love with this entire band and would take them all out for a nice steak dinner. Lake Street Dive sounds like nothing else out right now that I’m aware of, and not just because of Rachel Price’s sublime voice. They are an unabashedly brainy band, conservatory-educated, and they let it show in songs like “Seventeen.”

Of course, there has always been brainy music out there, as any Rush fan would loudly and insistently tell you. The Lake Street Dive difference, however, is that their musical complexity is accessible and unexpected. “Seventeen” changes tempo three times (!), seamlessly, the bass part mocks the pop/rock standard of only playing roots and fifths, and the drumming is tight tight tight. They also experiment with vocal texture by playing Mike Calabrese’s fuzzy high tenor off of Price’s liquid alto, a contrast which helps spotlight each voice.

They’ve done their homework, too. Sounds are cribbed from Motown, jazz, and the lighter side of rock, lyrics from Tom Petty (the hotel, you’ll note, is in Reseda). In many ways, Lake Street Dive is the ideal Vintage Voltage band, taking old sounds and making them new with great musicianship and a certain reverence.

1. Little Maggie, Robert Plant

So why isn’t Lake Street Dive number one? Well, they almost were. But in the end, although they made old sounds feel new, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space-Shifters managed to make new sounds feel old and comfortable while still being innovative–a far more difficult task.

Anyone could rightly expect Plant to just retire at this point. He’s got plenty of cash and respect, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him–he’s restless in the best sense of the word. For this album, he’s gone for an English folk/West African/blues sound with touches of electronic music. Just let that sink that in. There is no way that should work, but Plant and his band manage to find the commonalities between the styles and fuse them into this captivating blend that doesn’t seem to fully belong to either past or present, to one side of the Atlantic or the other.

“Little Maggie,” though not one of the singles, is the clearest expression of this sound, I think. It’s a traditional folk tune, but there’s pentatonic riffs played by banjo and doubled on a West African instrument called a khalam. The things that sound like fiddle breaks are played on a riti, another African instrument. And then there’s the pulsing synth bass. It’s almost too complicated for me to explain, so just hit the link. It’s like nothing else you’ll hear this year.

I can understand why Plant ripped up the Led Zeppelin reunion contract a month or two ago—while Jimmy Page acts as custodian, Plant is not done growing.

That’s it for another year, y’all. Thanks for reading–hope you found something to make it worthwhile. Best wishes for a safe and happy 2015.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 10-6

There’s nothing I love more than year-end Top 10 lists. Someone at Pitchfork is probably declaring the Top 10 list dead even as I write this, but for the rest of us they’re a great way to catch up on all the music you might have missed this year while you were brushing your teeth or whatever. And because every person will build a different list, they’re also a great opportunity for polite, thought-provoking discussion, or more accurately, a good excuse to defriend someone because FKA twigs’ album didn’t even crack their top 5.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names on here, but there’s also plenty of new faces (spoiler alert: no FKA twigs. Sorry.) We’ll do numbers 10 through 6 tonight, and then return with the final five next week.

10. Back to the Shack, Weezer

I can’t pretend to be more than a casual Weezer fan, and I was introduced to the band at kind of a weird time—right in the “Beverly Hills” era. So “Back to the Shack” doesn’t really succeed in making me nostalgic for 1994, especially because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot like Golden Era Weezer (“Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” etc.). The lyrics are a little cringe-worthy; I think if you have to write a song about how you’re rocking again, you’re likely not.

But damn it if this isn’t a catchy, bouncy tune from the Weez. It’s actually probably most like “Beverly Hills” in that it’s big on pop fun and relatively low on angst. For me, it’s always good to hear a new Weezer song on the radio, because it proves that the power-chord punk-pop that I grew up with is still alive out there somewhere, and Rivers Cuomo et al. are the guardians of the flame.

9. I’m Not the Only One, Sam Smith

Is it too easy to call Sam Smith the male Adele and be done with it? Both Brits sing modern pop that is a distant descendent of Dusty Springfield, and both have heart-stopping, jaw-dropping voices. “I’m Not the Only One” is Smith’s “Rumour Has It,” slightly more up-tempo than the first big single, and similarly about cheating on someone. As Smith hits the chorus, the effortless transition to falsetto along with the word “crazy” calls to mind Cee Lo Green circa Gnarls Barkley. If you don’t like this song, you must be some kind of monster. Which is ok, I guess.

8. Sins of My Youth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of all people, deserved a number one album this year. Not necessarily because Hypnotic Eye was the best album of 2014, but because they are an American institution, and in my opinion, kept rock & roll alive when everyone else had left it to rot. “Sins of My Youth” is the quietest moment on the record, a meditation on mistakes made and left forgotten. Texturally, it’s a sonic treat, with beautifully rich tremolo guitars and Steve Ferrone’s dry, close-mic’d drums. It’s a little reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm” in some stray moments but it’s much more accessible, and nowhere near as bloated.

7. My Wrecking Ball, Ryan Adams

I spent a lot of this summer and fall trying to explain to people that I wasn’t talking about 80’s hitmaker Bryan Adams. This is the solid-gold truth, and not a lame attempt at the least creative joke in history.

Ryan Adams has been around for a good long while and is wildly prolific (equal emphasis on “wild” and “prolific”), but there was a three-year gap between his last album and his release this year. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of the songs I liked best off of it, and it’s served as my entry point to the rest of Adams’ catalogue. It’s an alt-country ballad in the best tradition about the death of his grandmother. The first verse, with its implicit comparison between a beat-up car and the narrator is beautifully and starkly heartbreaking.

Also, Adams’ set at Newport Folk this year convinced me that it would be a blast to see him live—it not only rocks super hard, but is also funny and genuine. Listen to it here.

6. Drive-In Movies, Ray LaMontagne

This song finally sold me on Ray LaMontange. His typically powerful voice is turned down here, creating a dusty, breathy sound rather than the full bellow he summons most of the time. Musically, the track is a slick slice of Americana, with steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and an easy-rocking tempo. There’s some definite Byrds-like sparkle to the production as well. Lyrically, it’s a nice vignette of a slightly wayward youth spent sneaking cigarettes and blowing pocket money at the drive-ins. I’m not sure how many drive-ins there are left in the country now, but there was at least two within an hour of where I grew up, and LaMontagne captures them perfectly. I miss those drive-in movies too, Ray.

Song of the Week: Texas 1947, Guy Clark

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Click Here to listen to “Texas 1947” by Guy Clark

If you know your country singer-songwriters, Guy Clark is probably old news to you. You already know that he was close personal friends with Townes Van Zandt and has mentored dozens of the most successful names in alt-country, like Lyle Lovett. But if you’ve never dug deep into 1970s outlaw country, please believe me when I tell you Guy Clark is one of the best songwriters of the past 40 years.

“Texas 1947” shows you why. The plot of the song: train isn’t there, train is, train isn’t. That’s probably as simple as you can get, narrative-wise, but Clark describes this vignette with such color, such a vivid sense of detail and ability to describe old things in new ways that the song is hardly about the train at all. That’s why, I suspect, it’s called “Texas 1947” and not something trite about trains.

Take the opening verse: “Bein six years old I had seen some trains before/so it’s hard to figure out what I’m at the depot for/trains are big and black and smoke and steam, screamin’ at the wheels/bigger than anything, at least that’s the way she feels/Trains are big and black and smokin’, louder than July 4/but everybody’s actin’ like this might be somethin’ more.”

Right away, the narrator gets established. Know-it-all six year old, avid train fan. You get an impression for how the kid feels about the trains—giant, loud machines, but with an inexplicable allure (the feminine pronoun is very much intentional, I think). But despite our narrator’s jaded view, there’s something new going on here, something that’s captivated the whole town.

Or as Clark puts it (again in the voice of this six-year-old Texan): “you’da thought that Jesus Christ hisself was a-rollin’ down the line.” This is actually the real theme of this song—never mind trains and six year olds. It’s called Texas 1947 because there’s a feeling throughout the song that this modern new train has irrevocably changed this town. It has brought the future speeding through the lives of everyone in town: “Texas 1947” thus denotes both a beginning and an end.

When the train finally passes, the words get percussive and rhythmic, mirroring the chug of the train—lots of repeated “s” and “sh” sounds. The train itself only gets outlined in the barest terms (colors, speed), and then it’s gone. It’s another shrewd narrative choice: how do you describe something that’s so fast you never really see it? Like in every other type of writing, Clark shows that less is always more.

If there’s one knock on Clark’s songs, it’s that musically a lot of them sound the same, but “Texas 1947” is a bit of an exception. There’s that great descending riff to open that generates momentum immediately—it sounds like the ending to an overture that you just missed because you walked in the theater late, and bonus points for the sheer nuttiness of sticking a bass clarinet in the mix.

Song of the Week: Cré Mardi/La turlette du rang des Sloans, Le Vent du Nord

Click here to listen to Cré Mardi/La turlette du rang des Sloans

I don’t always listen to French-Canadian folk music, but when I do, I prefer Le Vent du Nord. This is another installment in our ongoing “I can’t understand the lyrics” series, as this song is entirely in French. But, like with Getz/Gilberto, I don’t really think you need to understand in order to appreciate the music.

Here, even more than in other songs I’ve written about, simplicity is the watchword: Voices and percussion alone propel the first half of this medley. For the first 40 or so seconds, all the instrumentation is provided by two feet tapping a triplet pattern. It’s an instrumentation that I’ve only heard in this type of music—a sort of seated tap dancing—that allowed fiddle players two hundred years ago to accompany themselves as they played.

At around 00:43, more percussion comes in. Although they sound like castanets, I believe they’re either bones or spoons. Listen to the complexity and constantly evolving patterns the percussionist is playing—the driving polyrhythm pushes the song right along until the 1:50 mark, when the rest of the unusual instrumentation builds in.

The vocal patterns are classic call-and-response, a form that you hear in music, traditional and otherwise, throughout the world. The lead voice says a line, and then a group repeats it back. This kind of form is in sea chanties, chain-gang chants, blues songs, etc. It’s everywhere.

And although I know I said you don’t need to understand the lyrics to enjoy it, they are pretty funny. The lead singer has a very inflated opinion of himself, boasting about his hat (made of kindling), his rat-skin vest, etc., to which the group responds “I’ve never seen anything so handsome!” This continues until a turn in the last verse, when the group finally responds “I’ve never seen anything so ugly!” You can find a translation here.

The second part of the piece, “La turlette du rang des Sloans,” is a fiddle tune that features a penny-whistle type thing (maybe it’s just a recorder?) as well as a fantastically named old instrument called a hurdy-gurdy. If the music sounds a little repetitive, that’s because it’s supposed to be. Like a lot of traditional music, this came about as a dance tune, and the music is designed to keep people moving and happy. The call-and-response vocals continue with some pretty tricky scat singing—see if you can keep up.

Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”

 

Song of the Week: A Momentary Lapse of Judgement (Live), AJ Croce

Click Here to Listen to “A Momentary Lapse of Judgement (Live),” by AJ Croce

Before you ask, yes, AJ Croce is the son of Jim Croce, one of my most favorite singer-songwriter from the 70s. Though this live acoustic version is reminiscent of what his dad did, I think AJ actually sounds closer to Elvis Costello here—his voice has that same reedy honk and his chord choices are a little more complex than the relatively straightforward songs his dad wrote. Though the recorded version of this song is firmly in the country category, this version has a more complex sonic palate—kind of a honky-tonk western swing tune. (Also, “this version has a more complex sonic palate” may be the single most pretentious clause I’ve ever written.)

What really drew me to this version of the song, though, was the chemistry between Croce and his guitarist Michael Bizar. The guitar duo is, I think, one of the most flexible pairings in pop music. There’s a lot of different sounds you can coax out of just two instruments like that, and these guys know how to maximize their sound. Bizar’s entrance at 00:36, for example, is just percussive strumming, which gives the song a rhythmic backbone without drums—a technique bluegrass players have used for years. The two men work in harmony to fill each other’s sonic space, a technique Keith Richards calls “guitar weaving.” To do it right, you have to really know your partner, as Croce and Bizar do. Croce seems to be able to anticipate where Bizar is going with his solo lines, and adjusts his comping accordingly. That kind of telepathic connection is one of the best parts about playing music—it’s startling how you can get a feel for what another player will do. It doesn’t hurt that Bizar is a great lead player who has an ear for crafting solo lines that crest and crash like waves.