Daily Song Study

Archive for the ‘songs’ Category

Anna Robyn Thomas – Little Albert

In songs on March 25, 2015 at 10:09 am

It’s happening more often these days. I hear a really interesting and catchy tune, look it up, and find that its creator is under 21. I blink a little every time, dumbstruck that something so complex could emerge from a mind addled by hormones and the fog of early adulthood. It isn’t something that was terribly common in years past.

A number of explanations present themselves. Firstly, the proliferation of home studios makes it far more likely that any young talent will have the chance to get taken under some producer’s wing, the better to flesh out their songs and help the artist advance to their next stage of growth. Add to that the prevalence of incubators like School of Rock or Girls Rock Camp, and many of the old roadblocks get shoved to the side.

However, this alone doesn’t explain someone like Anna Robyn Thomas:


Starting out playful, the tune gathers a creeping menace as it builds, leaving one at last with the sensation on having been taken on a very dark trip indeed. How does this spring so fully from the mind of a 19-year-old?

Consider that all creative works are built upon the bones of those who came before. This is not to take away from the artist. No Beatles without Elvis, etc. But in 2015, we have several decades’ worth of canon laid down by the likes of Tori Amos, Aimee Mann and Kate Bush, plus more recent broken-piano luminaries like Regina Spektor and Ben Folds. In this light, a new artist like Thomas is not only possible, but probable. As R.E.M. built on the Byrds & Patti Smith, so too does Thomas add her own combination of innocence and observational acumen to the annals of quirk-pop.

Much like Little Albert, the artist is shaped by what she has seen and heard. In the modern age, that can encompass a dizzying spectrum, and with all these elements mixing like nucleotides in the primordial soup of the internet, we can look forward with fascination to what new combinations will present themselves in years to come. If Thomas is any indication, we will not be disappointed.


Heather Maloney – Dirt and Stardust

In songs on March 18, 2015 at 10:13 am

(editor’s note: Okay, so it won’t be daily, but I do miss sharing stuff that’s floating through my headphones, so here we go again…)

In explaining newer music to people with more classic tastes, one of the things that’s hard to quantify with any precision is the immense lyrical shift that has developed in recent decades among the striving class of songwriter I gravitate towards. On the extremely young end of the spectrum we have Heather Maloney:

I chose this tune not only because it’s good, but also because it updates and augments a very traditional theme, that of the rambler. The fact that it’s being sung by a woman is helpful in freshening up that narrative, but lines like “please make my castle out of sand” or “my body will not last longer than a metal band” provide a casual and less bombastic delivery of the author’s intentions.

In addition, the tail end of the chorus overturns the standard pose of the rambler as some immortal orphan with no connection to family or friends, noting that “I am made of dirt and stardust, my daddy’s dreams, my mother’s heart,” concluding at last with “please don’t put silk flowers on my grave,” a fitting acknowledgement of life’s fleeting nature.

Songwriters like Maloney thwart the conventional wisdom that all anyone writes anymore is baby baby, when of course pop music has always been rife with crummy lyrics. Look deeper, and you will find people doing their damnedest to speak their minds with a pitch-perfect mix of clarity and artfulness. Whether the mass media pays attention is another matter entirely.

Pink Floyd – Paranoid Eyes

In songs on February 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

I’ve admitted before that my favorite song is by Paul Simon, but my favorite album of all time is easily The Final Cut by Pink Floyd. As I’ve written, it’s difficult for me to separate Roger Waters’ works into single tunes, since they are so closely interwoven with the whole, but this one stands well on its own.

The lyrics perfectly bring us into the veteran’s post-war world, the world they made and that we inhabit, as the album reminds us. The instrumental break in the middle is noteworthy as well, in that it doesn’t contain a solo per se, but a musical shift which changes the dynamics subtly to help bring us into the final verse. Sonically, there is almost too much here to even begin discussing, which is one of the reasons this album is so remarkably unique. I encourage you to give the entire song cycle a listen.


Events moving at a rapid pace in my own life have led me to put this blog on hiatus for the foreseeable future. I enjoy writing about music, but my primary job is the making of music, and thence must my attentions be turned for now. I hope you take some time to enjoy the archives in my absence. 

Safe travels…

Waylon Jennings – The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want To Get Over You)

In songs on February 13, 2012 at 11:16 am

The outlaw country movement of the 1970s was similar to the punk movement in that it emphasized a return to simplicity, and Waylon Jennings certainly exemplified that approach.

Actually being able to hear the space between notes is a rarity in modern recordings of almost every genre, and a track like this is a good reminder of the power that emptiness holds if we will but allow it to exist.

Gary Floater – Dust Off the Dulcimer (One More Time)

In songs on February 8, 2012 at 9:55 am

We return to the legend of Gary Floater, the fictitious songwriter created by Owen Temple and Adam Carroll, a phantom outlaw for whom they have thus far created two “tribute albums.” This one is awesome from the very start.

Within a few lines, we are taken into Grandpa’s living room and know the man well. Songs like this help reinforce the point that just because something is ostensibly a novelty tune, that approach has absolutely no bearing of the quality of craftsmanship.

Natalie Merchant – Crazy Man Michael

In songs on February 7, 2012 at 12:06 pm

In yesterday’s study the words Fairport Convention came up, and it reminded me of this tune.

Written in 1969 by band members Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick, it is covered here beautifully by Natalie Merchant, who included it in her 2003 collection of folk songs, The House Carpenter’s Daughter. In the liner notes, she asks the very difficult question of what precisely makes something a folk song. There are no easy answers, and the lines blur with each successive generation of reinterpretations.

Certainly one element is timelessness, which this tune exemplifies. It could just as easily have been written in the 19th century as the 20th or 21st. The tale has particular resonance to anyone who has had dealings with mental illness, but metaphorically speaking it reaches far beyond that topic.

In many ways humanity does not change, which may be one reason that there is even such a thing as folk music. That is the blessing and curse of consistency.

The Decemberists – Sons and Daughters

In songs on February 6, 2012 at 9:16 am

As mentioned before, doing retro right is tricky. One of the most innovative bands in that regard has been The Decemberists. They have retrieved the idea of progressive folk a la Fairport Convention and mixed it with all manner of modern influences, while using a lyrical vocabulary better suited for the 19th century than the 21st. Somehow, it works.

On this tune, they’ve even revived the melodic device known as a round, as in “row, row, row your boat.” Set against wheezing harmoniums and buzzing bouzoukis at first, the song at first appears to be a straight throwback. Slowly, though, layers are added, each more modern than the one before. The dynamic break three minutes in gives way to a tremendous unison chorus that makes a perfect album ender, as this tune is.

A sort of side note: Though the days of the album form are waning, I have a fascination with songs which seem (and often are) custom-made to close a record. There are certain artists who are better at it than others (Genesis comes to mind, as does U2). It is a dying art, although as a poor musician I certainly see the value in being able to release music in a less cumbersome format. But it’s good to see modern artists like The Decemberists embracing the challenge for a few last hurrahs.

Weezer – Perfect Situation

In songs on February 3, 2012 at 1:25 pm

We’ve discussed the rise of the niche nerd market before, and few bands have made more hay out of it than Weezer.

Having risen in the culturally fraught 1990s, their secret to longevity has been the ability to cross over between hipsters and actual social outcasts. Oh, and writing really catchy songs. This one is noteworthy in that its chorus has one actual word and a bunch of “whoa”s. Artists like Sheryl Crow have had success with the approach of putting the lyrical meat in the verses and letting the choruses be essentially brainless, for which this is a good example.

The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise

In songs on February 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

I’ve mentioned the more progressive side of Alan Parsons & Eric Woolfson before, but here is a gem from the poppier end of the spectrum.

This tune has many strong points. The melody is sweetly sad, with an arrangement to match, as are the lyrics. The production is understated, and Parsons cleverly holds back a section of the orchestra until the 3-minute mark to give some extra punch as the song progresses.

The real stroke of genius here was drafting former Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone. As good a singer as Woolfson is, Blunstone inhabits the narrator’s voice with a pitch-perfect melancholy delivery that makes any other voice seem unthinkable in retrospect.

The tune’s sax-driven coda may turn off some listeners, and it certainly time-stamps the record. But for me at least, it doesn’t diminish the overall listening experience. Parsons & Woolfson always drew on a mixture of the old & new, and this song retains a distinctive mark of that combination.

Dada – Dorina

In songs on February 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Anyone who’s been in a band knows how hard it is to turn a jam into an actual song. The aforementioned Dada do this with great aplomb.

The song is essentially a succession of guitar solos, punctuated here and there with creepy lyrics and dynamic shifts, similar to the approach Pink Floyd used throughout much of their career. Having a number of distinct sections and riffs to spread out along a 6-minute song trajectory is a good way to make sure you keep people’s attention throughout.

It’s a great showcase for guitarist Michael Gurley’s work, which could just as easily have been presented in a purely instrumental jam format. Here it is a component of something larger, which often is the best employment of virtuosity.