In 1954, Frank Sinatra asked Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne to write him a Christmas song. The pair—who also penned “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?,” and “Three Coins in the Fountain,” among other famous songs—knocked out “The Christmas Waltz.” Styne had a waltz melody kicking around, so they figured they’d used it on their new commission. Using a waltz for a Christmas song was apparently so different at the time that the idea was included in not only the title but the line “this song of mine in three-quarter time.”
The song has been covered like crazy over the years, and I prefer one of the most recent versions, by She & Him. I’m not a big fan of the duo, but I really like their Christmas record; I think the holiday format is a good fit for their sound. This song starts off A Very She & Him Christmas, and I like how Zooey Deschanel undersells the song, as if pointing out the delicacy of the season. There’s a serenity to this version that I think is missing from other interpretations, especially Sinatra’s original, which features overbearing background vocals and soggy strings. Deschanel and guitarist Matt Ward nail the intimacy at heart of “The Christmas Waltz,” with its home-y imagery and personal message. They also treat the song’s beautiful melody with the respect it deserves.
Is there a worse band name than The Pains of Being Pure at Heart? “What about the Strawberry Alarm Clock?” you might say. Or, “Have you not heard of a band called Staind? Limp Bizkit?” Nope, nope, nope. The Pains of Goddamn Being Fucking Pure at Heart tops them all in its pure preciousness. Gross.
And yet they make music that I love. The band specializes in indie pop from years past; their self-titled debut was a Cure/Smiths workout that provided the best jangle pop since 1986. Their second album, Belong, was something else entirely. Though the band’s pop hooks were present and accounted for, the jangle had been replaced by heaviness.
“Belong,” the record’s first track, is cheeky in its misdirection: in its first few seconds, some high guitar notes sound like the band’s first record, and then comes the roar. I love that entrance, and I love the fact that it sounds like a blatant Siamese Dream rip-off. The sound, surprisingly, perfectly fits a band formerly preoccupied with sounding light and dreamy. The dreaminess is still there—the vocals are light and hushed, and that high guitar stays the course—but make no mistake, “Belong” is pure weight. “We just don’t belong,” sings Kip Berman, as anger (or is it very confident contentment?) roils below. This is the sound of a band maturing. I can’t wait for what they do next. (Let’s hope they start with that name.)
Repetition has its place. It can be infuriating—x, I’m looking at you—but in some cases, repetition brings with it the panicky urgency that only romance can provide. Take, for example, “Need You Now,” a piece of synth-pop so insistent, so unforgiving, that it basically forces its way into your brain. (And it stays there, you’ll notice, for a few days.)
Cut Copy has always catered in this kind of music, but Zonoscope marked the point where the band decided to make their songs as catchy as possible. Well, maybe I should pull back a bit: I have no idea whether that was a conscious decision, or if the band even thinks of the record that way. But that’s how it sounds to me.
“Need You Now” is the rare song in which the chorus is quieter and calmer than everything else. This doesn’t always work, but in “Need You Now,” it works wonders. When he sings the title phrase, Dan Whitford sounds like he’s trying to calm the music down so he can get his point across.
I love the song’s video, too. Maybe it’s just the novelty of seeing a guy in a baseball uniform with a bowling ball (and various athletes with battleaxes), but I think it’s a good match for this song. It’s as if Cut Copy has enlisted all of these athletes and asked them to try every feat of physical endurance, in case any of them worked. After all, they need you. Now.
That up there is one of my all-time favorite record covers. Not only is it a gorgeous photo, I think it beautifully captures the hope and melancholy of Undun, The Roots’ hazy, abstract character portrait. “The photograph itself,” says photographer Jamel Shabazz, “represents the hardships that inner city youth face each day of their lives trying to overcome obstacles and is representative of the lack of resources.”
Undun is easily the Roots’ most abstract record to date. Most of the group’s work, fueled by Questlove’s clockwork percussion and percussive flow by Black Thought and Dice Raw, is immediate and direct. Which isn’t to say that’s simple—The Roots’ masterwork, Things Fall Apart, is especially complex—but it’s there, either exploding, imploding, or unquestionably burning a fuse.
Not so Undun, a brief but affecting record filled with lyrical questions and unresolved musical phrases, not to mention some symphonic touches cribbed from Sufjan Stevens. I love “One Time,” a song that asks, Why bother? Why bother even playing this game, if it’s only rigged to make the disenfranchised lose? Why am I rushing for the bus if it’s only going to bring me to the job that provides low wages and disrespect? All the while, that piano just repeats its circular phrase, over and over, until the repetition breaks for the revelation (sad as it is) in the chorus. To make it to the bottom, such a high climb.
The Roots have never been concerned about providing answers, but Undun finds them at their most ambiguous. Undun isn’t about answers, or even about questions. It’s about shortcomings and dreams deferred. It’s about what happens after questions are asked and no answers are given. It’s also, however, about keeping your head up when it’s hard to; using the littered mattress to find air and light.
Eef Barzelay’s voice gets to me in a way that most voices don’t, and I’m not sure why that is. There’s just something in it—clarity, maybe, or vulnerability—that immediately makes me pay attention. It’s also an enormously effective voice no matter the song, and given the range of his band Clem Snide, it could be featured in any kind of setting.
Clem Snide has a handful of great original songs, but they’re equally good at arranging and performing covers. The band put out an EP of Journey songs a couple years ago, and it’s pretty great. The acoustic arrangements, coupled with Barzelay’s voice, make the songs sound sad and wistful. You may think you never wanted to hear Journey’s power ballads, including the immortal “Don’t Stop Believing,” as quiet pop songs. But you may reconsider after hearing them, because these versions highlight just how good the songs are, from the straightforward lyrics to the pretty melodies that you never noticed before.
“Any Way You Want It” is my favorite from Clem Snide’s Journey. It’s arranged simply but impeccably, from that faraway piano to the plaintive background vocals. Journey’s original version of the song made the title sound like a confident guarantee, but in the hands of Barzelay and company, it sounds more like resignation. Like the best covers, this one transforms the song while keeping its primary source’s many strengths intact. That’s hard to pull off.
“Any Way You Want It” isn’t available on YouTube, but you can hear it here.
There’s something about the combination of voice and electronic music that I find really fascinating. The draw may be as simple as the contrast between the synthetic and the organic, and how, when combined, one can sound like the other.
In the case of SBTRKT’s song “Never Never,” DJ and singer Aaron Jerome’s warm, honey-coated voice provides an interesting counterpoint to the rapid-fire snares and thunk-thunk-thunk keyboards. At the same time, however, Jerome’s vocals become more choppy as the song goes on, and the track’s electronic elements become smoother and more prolonged. It’s as if Jerome is facing off against an emotionless void and, if not winning, understanding its use.
On the other hand, if there’s anybody who doesn’t need to learn the use of technology, it’s SBTRKT. His self-titled debut is an excellent record, one that melds ’80s and ’90s R&B with club music. That’s a very trendy aesthetic right now, to say the least, but Jerome is one of the few people doing it right. By making his productions sound open and full of space, you start noticing what’s missing, in the best possible way. Not for nothing is the guy’s name pronounced “subtract.”
If there’s one thing that the dance-pop takeover of the charts has showed me, it’s that dance music can be warm, fun, and human. I should have known that all along, of course, and it’s my own fault that it’s taken me so long. But that’s how these things go sometimes.
The main catalyst behind the genre’s recent resurgence is Scottish DJ/producer Calvin Harris. Even if think you don’t know him, you do: that’s his beat underneath Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (a song partially credited to Harris despite the fact that Rihanna is the only one singing). His record 18 Months features “We Found Love” alongside equally infectious songs, including a few that feature Harris on vocals. The record’s main single was “Bounce,” a song that I’m catching up on after somehow missing it in 2011.
Like the production on Harris’s other work, the song’s beat is big and full, its synthesizers round and warm. Another one of Harris’s specialities, the drop, is in full effect here: around the 3-minute mark, the tension gradually ramps up to an inevitable release, a gimmick as effective as it was with the “aah, aah, aah”s of “Twist and Shout.” Here it helps illustrate Kelis’s release from the relationship that caused her so much harm.
Speaking of which, I love how the word “bounce” is employed here: Kelis and Harris use it in the “getting out of here” sense, but it also denotes a kind of joy and celebration, which the music mirrors by, well, bouncing. “Bounce” is in a minor key, but it sounds like hope, as if a new, fruitful relationship is on the horizon.