Mining for Beauty Within the Noise

Remembering both my grandmother, Mary Bradford, and Low’s Mimi Parker — two women who operated unconventionally within their shared faith — through the lens of challenging music.

My grandmother, Mary Bradford — writer, poet, editor, and teacher — also happened to arguably be one of the greatest Facebook commenters of all time. A few years ago, I shared a YouTube link on Facebook to the song “Heaven” by the Walkmen, calling it “triumphant,” “epic,” “magnificent,” and “a top 5 song of the decade.” The song’s main refrain implores the listener to “Remember, remember / all we fight for.” My grandma commented:

“EXCUSE me — what am I to remember? Being attacked by this noise?”

In classic Mary fashion, she had responded with a takedown as epic as the song itself, eviscerating it in just 12 words.

My grandmother’s comment surprised me. I wouldn’t characterize “Heaven” as a challenging or inaccessible song. After all, it did soundtrack the finale to one of the most popular TV shows of the last decade, How I Met Your Mother, so it has the potential for mass appeal. But I guess, sometimes to the ear of a listener, a song’s inherent beauty or power might fail to emerge from behind a particularly loud guitar, a strained vocal, a deluge of sound effects.

Mary, or “Nama” as she was known to my cousins and me, passed away this month at the age of 92. It’s sad to be without her, but I am heartened by the fact that she lived a full and meaningful life, and I’m incredibly grateful for the 33 years I did have with her.

Notwithstanding her distaste for what I considered to be a beautiful song, in other, more important contexts, Mary Bradford knew how to exist in difficult environments. She made a habit of digging into and reveling in the beauty sometimes hidden in those environments. As a lifelong intellectual and feminist in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (widely known as the Mormon or LDS church), she often seemed like a walking contradiction to more traditional, conservative members of the faith. (Her life and work were expertly captured in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s Salt Lake Tribune obituary.)

“Some people thought I was a little uppity,” Mary said later on in life. “I should’ve been having more kids instead of trying to write things, you know. I loved the church… I was happy in the church.” Despite operating outside of the traditional norms of the church, she still made a place for herself within its literal and figurative walls. In one of her essays, she wrote, “I formed the notion that the church was ‘my’ church, that it belonged not only to its leaders, but also to me.”

Already a writer, poet, editor, and teacher, Mary served as the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in the late 1970s, an independent publication that, at times, generated controversy among church members by publishing scholarly articles that addressed progressive topics such as the place of feminism within the church. She would work with the Dialogue staff to compile the next issue in the downstairs of their house in Arlington, Virginia, while her husband, Charles (“Chick”) would conduct business related to his position as bishop of the local ward in the upstairs of their house. Both provided leadership and engagement with Mormonism, but it was wryly acknowledged within the family that the authorized, church-sanctioned version occurred upstairs and the more tendentious version took place in the less exalted downstairs realm.

In 2015, Mary published a collection of the personal essays she had written throughout her life. In Dialogue’s review of the collection, Joey Franklin aptly summed up my grandmother’s worldview: “[Bradford’s essays read] as a reminder that authenticity depends a great deal on one’s willingness to engage with all aspects of one’s self, and that between the poles of sanctimony and cynicism, there is a hopeful place where art and faith can thrive, not in spite of, but because of each other.”


My grandmother’s death happened two days after that of Mimi Parker, a core member of Low, one of my favorite indie bands. She passed away at the age of 55 from ovarian cancer. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much in common between Parker and my grandma, but when you think of them as Mormon women living unconventionally within their worlds, the similarities start to click.

Mimi (pronounced “MIM-ee”) Parker, and her husband Alan Sparhawk, met in elementary school in northern Minnesota and started dating in high school. Sparhawk grew up Mormon, and actually attended BYU for a year before returning to Minnesota with Parker, who joined the church as an adult. Sparhawk and Parker moved to Duluth and formed the band Low in the early 1990s, serving as the band’s main members for almost 30 years — Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Parker on percussion and vocals — along with a rotating cast of bass players. They toured the world and gained critical acclaim, but always returned to their humble home base, raising two kids together and growing their deep roots in Duluth.

Parker’s death hit like a ton of bricks, as anyone’s would at her relatively young age, but especially since she was fairly quiet about her diagnosis. She was mourned widely by the music community, including by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney.

Though Low’s sound evolved over time, the foundation of their music was always Parker and Sparhawk’s entwined, lockstep harmonies. When it comes to vocal harmonies, Low is up in the rafters with the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Beatles. On “What Part of Me,” perhaps my favorite Low song, no note or sound is out of place.

Some singers need the help of a studio to tune their voices, but not Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. When they performed live, their vocals were just as powerful as on their records, if not more so. (It certainly helps when you’re singing in a neo-gothic church.)

Low released 13 albums over the course of their career, and on the group’s last two projects, their sound took a much more distressed turn, as they dialed up the distortion and ran their instruments through filters to the point of making them almost unrecognizable. On the most recent album, last year’s HEY WHAT (my favorite album of 2021), they excelled at letting the beauty of their harmonies and songwriting shine through the static.

If my grandmother didn’t care for the alleged “noise” of “Heaven” by the Walkmen, I can guarantee you she would not take a liking to HEY WHAT. Take “Disappearing” as an example. I think it’s an absolutely gorgeous song, but you might think I’m crazy. I can hear the skepticism now — “How can a song that sounds like a Boeing 777 pulling off a runway be construed as ‘gorgeous?'” It’s because through it all, the backbone of the song is still Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals. The onslaught of processed airplane-hangar guitars that enter halfway through are accompanied by the duo’s celestial harmonies ascending, all amping up to form a cathartic, satisfying climax that makes my hairs stand on end.

“More”, the album’s penultimate track, is an even more extreme example of beauty becoming disguised as it’s caked with production. It’s a song “dominated by a ragged, glitchy, all-consuming guitar riff,” as I wrote last year, naming it the third best song of 2021. “Parker’s hypnotic vocal harmonies make it more than just a droning hard rock song — it’s an alluring, transportive experience… [‘More’] deftly juxtaposes aggressive noise with striking beauty.” In Rolling Stone’s review of the album, Kory Grow summed it up best: “Few bands have stared into the abyss quite like Low, parsing the frailty of the human condition, testing listeners with glacially slow tempos, encrusting beautiful melodies in sparse textures or dissonance. And no band has done so with the same beatific grace as Low.”

Low’s more recent inclination to fill their songs with noise and distortion makes the moments of pure beauty all the more impactful. The process of unearthing these moments as you listen, and feeling their sweet release amid the chaos, is immensely rewarding.

My grandmother would have hated HEY WHAT, but the key to loving the album is not dissimilar to the central tenet for how she lived her life — mining for beauty within the noise.


Mimi Parker always felt like a real person — unassuming, humble, authentic, just like my grandmother. Parker was a midwestern, Mormon mom with a passion for baking, who happened to also possess a subtly stunning voice and use it in a creatively adventurous, renowned indie rock band. Mary Bradford was a small-statured Mormon mom and grandma who loved the color purple and reveled in everything her progeny did, who also happened to be a prominent and influential writer and thought leader for many church members. They both had creative sparks — Parker through music, Mary through essays and poetry. They both seemed demure, but never hesitated to tell it like it is. If we went out to eat and my grandma wasn’t a fan of the food, make no mistake, she would say so. And Alan Sparhawk, Parker’s husband and bandmate, said of Parker, “She did not suffer boring music. She did not suffer mediocrity.”

It’s not outlandish to think that traditional Mormonism doesn’t necessarily mesh well with intellectualism and exploring challenging ideas (in the case of my grandmother), nor hitting the road to play and record indie rock music (as Parker did). But Mary and Mimi both shared a view that the two seemingly incongruous worlds they each embraced were not only not at odds, but both of them were incredulous at the idea that they couldn’t exist and flourish in both worlds.

It came naturally to Mary to be both an intellectual writer and a Mormon. “In the mind of some, piety and publishing don’t mix—especially independent, scholarly publishing in a church context,” she wrote. “But our response was: They do too mix!”

To Parker, she openly wondered earlier on in her Low career why being Mormon was considered such a peculiarity: “I wonder where the Mormon fascination comes from? In England, that was all any journalist could talk about. And it’s starting to become a bigger deal over here [in the U.S.]. But we don’t get particularly upset about it. People just like to say that we’re this quiet band from Minnesota that is two-thirds Mormon, but hey, you know? We write some songs, too.”


Whether Parker felt it or not, there is no getting around that being a practicing Mormon in the music business is extremely anomalous. Brandon Flowers is not the norm. I almost teared up while reading the Minnesota Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune’s accounts of Parker’s funeral, held at the Mormon church in Duluth, because of how familiar the little details of it sounded to me, also a lifelong church member.

Granted, the funeral sounded as familiar as it could be while having dozens of acclaimed musicians sitting in the pews alongside members of the Duluth Ward congregation, but still… a printed recipe for Parker’s famed cream puffs was included with the programs, with some of those cream puffs made and provided by Relief Society members for the service; a photo of the aforementioned rotating cast of bass players in what is very clearly a Mormon church foyer; a tale from David Gore (the Star Tribune labeled him as the “church president,” so knowing that wasn’t true, I verified that he was the Duluth stake president) about the first day he attended church in Duluth when in town for a job interview and hearing Parker and Sparhawk singing “Silent Night” from the pulpit; “How Great Thou Art” being mentioned as one of the hymns played; post-service refreshments in the cultural hall.

If these sound like mundane details, maybe they are, in a vacuum. But it’s not often you hear about an indie musician’s funeral containing elements like these. It’s poignant for me, as both a Mormon and a big fan of Low.

Parker was open about her Mormonism, but never put it front-and-center. Low’s songs often touched on spiritual themes, but were never blatant or preachy — they simply reflected the couple’s own experiences with spirituality and religion. On “Holy Ghost,” Parker examines her inner turmoil and the peace that a spiritual being can bring: “Some holy ghost keeps me hanging on, hanging on / I feel the hands, but I don’t see anyone, anyone / Feeds my passion for transcendence,” Parker sings.

“Now I don’t know much, but I can tell when something’s wrong, and something’s wrong. But some holy ghost keeps me…” She doesn’t finish her sentence at the end, tailing off into “oohs,” but the warmth of the closing chords gives the impression that this holy ghost did its job as a comforter. In an interview on SHEROES Radio, a show that focuses on spotlighting women in music, Parker discussed finding solace in prayer in light of her cancer diagnosis.

Ultimately, especially going through the cancer diagnosis, I really relied heavily on [spirituality]. I would pray, and I really felt like I did receive comfort, and I received help because of those prayers. And I had so many people — friends that were close to me — that were praying for me every day. And I really feel like that made a huge difference.

It seems kind of magical in a way, and it kind of is. But I think we need some magic. We need some magic in this life.


It’s heartening to see Sparhawk and Parker as examples of well respected and clearly progressive members of my church who lived authentically. At Mary Bradford’s funeral, authenticity was a common theme as well. If she had decided to suppress her personality and beliefs to better fit in with the majority of her fellow church members, then she would have lost the uniqueness that made life meaningful not just to her, but to others on the margins who looked up to her and respected her. She was an anchor for her peers and readers who also didn’t want to follow the status quo. To many, that is her most important work — that she made others’ lives feel valid, because of how she chose to live her life. She impacted others just by being herself.

Shortly after Parker’s death, Sparhawk posted a tweet from Low’s account announcing her funeral.

It was simple, but it hit me hard —a tweet mentioning future plans at the LDS church, right before advocating for equal rights and justice, and being unapologetic about both. It’s something my grandmother would have done. Traditional norms can be hard to navigate when you feel like an outsider, but to Mimi Parker and Mary Bradford, sometimes it’s worth being “attacked by the noise” to unearth the beauty lying just beneath it.


Book References

Mary Bradford, Mr. Mustard Plaster and Other Mormon Essays, p. 36 & 60.

Other Reading/Listening

My favorite Low songs (Spotify playlist)
Low’s La Blogotheque performance
Low’s NPR Tiny Desk performance
“One Tree,” poem by Mary Bradford
Mary Bradford’s obituary
Salt Lake Tribune’s remembrance of Mary Bradford
Duluth News Tribune’s account of Mimi Parker’s funeral
Slate’s rememberance of Mimi Parker

Thanks to Taylor Parsell for her editing help and added insights.

The Golden State Warriors are the Beatles, in More Ways Than You Know

It’s not just the dominance and consistency. There are more similarities than you might think, especially as the Warriors approach a possible crossroads.

It all started with this tweet from a Warriors fan account during this year’s NBA playoffs:

It’s true. The Houston Rockets are clicking right now, largely due a dominant, record-setting run by James Harden. And they look like they all know their role and love playing with each other.

The Golden State Warriors used to look like that. They rapped to a Big Sean song on the team plane. Their bench celebrations were top-notch. Dancing abounded. They brought out the best in each other.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they still recapture that magic. They still have moments of pure joy — but not quite as often as they did a few years ago, when the novelty of dominance was still exciting.

And then I realized: The Golden State Warriors are the Beatles. And more specifically, the 2019 Warriors are the 1969 Beatles, on the precipice of a possible breakup after years of excellence. And it’s happening exactly 50 years later.

Here are all the similarities.

1. Both were/are world-dominating and consistently excellent for extended periods of time.

The Beatles took over the world in their heyday. No musical artist before or since has been so consistent in their creative output and has so thoroughly permeated popular culture. The same goes for the Warriors — their grip over the entire NBA, winning three of the last four championships with a stacked lineup and launching their best players to increased stardom, has been unbreakable.
2. The four best Warriors players each have a Beatles alter ego.

Kevin Durant = John Lennon

KD and John are both remarkably talented and innately gifted. Their natural abilities are unparalleled. They know how to have fun and enjoy their surroundings, but they’re also both prone to mood swings, can get in their own heads to the detriment of those around them, and both looked checked out at times in the later years.

Steph Curry = Paul McCartney

Both Steph and Paul are virtuosos in their respective crafts. They’re naturally fun-loving and usually in good spirits, sometimes to the point of corniness. And they’re good at toeing the company line, gravitating toward doing what is best for the brand. They’re not going to go out and say something outlandish that makes waves, unlike Durant (lashing out at reporters, refusing to answer questions about free agency) or Lennon (“We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”)
Durant/Curry Combo = Lennon/McCartney Combo

Together, the combinations of Durant/Curry and Lennon/McCartney are historically exceptional. All four of those individuals are great on their own, but they have the potential to be even greater with each other. Nothing can beat a KD/Steph pick and roll (when Steve Kerr deigns to unleash it), just like nothing can beat a Lennon/McCartney composition. They’ve also had some really good times together, and often enjoy each other’s company.

Golden State Warriors Dancing GIF by NBA - Find & Share on GIPHY

But while each one can flourish with their partner, it’s not a seamless marriage for either pair. For them to collaborate well, it takes some effort — they are not necessarily natural fits together. KD and John have completely different personalities than Steph and Paul.

To sum it up, this is probably how John looked at Paul when Paul was trying to record “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”


Klay Thompson = George Harrison

Klay and George are the stoic, reserved ones. They both possess quiet senses of humor. And they both have the ability to completely take over and own the moment, shining brighter than any of their more accomplished group members (Klay’s 37-point quarter or 60 points on 11 dribbles; George’s “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). But Klay and George are still clearly the third-most prolific members of their groups.

Draymond Green = Ringo Starr

Admittedly, their personalities are pretty different. Ringo is not a hothead like Draymond. However, their roles in their respective groups, and how those roles are perceived, are strikingly similar.

Both Draymond and Ringo possess skills that undoubtedly improve the group’s performance, but those skills often go wildly underrated due to their other limitations. Draymond is not a great scorer, but his passing, defense, energy, and high basketball IQ grease the Warriors’ wheels. Ringo is not the most technically proficient drummer, but his reliability, rhythm, and his understated style brought the best out of the other Beatles.

While much of the criticism they receive can be unfair, or go too far, there are some real questions about whether they would be as good and impactful in other groups. They certainly benefit the most from their “systems,” be it Steph, KD, and Klay’s phenomenal scoring ability, or John, Paul, and George’s outstanding songwriting.
3. If rumors come to fruition, a breakup is imminent.

There have been rumblings all year that Kevin Durant is possibly on his way out once this season finishes. The New York Knicks, with their cap space and big city lights, are said to be the main threat to plucking him from the Warriors. The reason these rumors persist is because KD hasn’t really done anything to quell them. He has seemed distant throughout the 2018-19 season. This is, of course, purely based on speculation, but it has often looked like he’s not happy as a member of the Warriors and needs a change of scenery. That’s absolutely how John felt in 1968-1969 as well. Even though the Beatles were at the top of their game still, it was all getting old. John was still participating, showing up to the Let it Be sessions in early 1969, but he wasn’t fully there. A lot of that had to do with Yoko Ono entering his life, which begs the question: are the New York Knicks the Warriors’ Yoko Ono?

Anyway, for both the 2019 Warriors and the 1969 Beatles, everything was starting to feel stale. Which brings me to how I thought of this comparison in the first place.
4. Each Warriors championship corresponds with a post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles album.

Time to make this extended metaphor even more ridiculous and fun — comparing NBA championships to Beatles albums (and a Beach Boys album). And, to make the metaphor even more perfect, each championship comes exactly 50 years after its counterpart.

2015 Warriors Championship = Rubber Soul
(2016 Cavaliers Championship = Pet Sounds)

First off, the Warriors’ 2015 championship was their Rubber Soul. After their quick rise to stardom and some solid, promising performances, both the Warriors and the Beatles reached the mountaintop for the first time. It was the Warriors’ first championship in 40 years, and the Beatles’ first transcendently great album.

By extension, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship the following year is the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. When LeBron James and the Cavs unexpectedly won it all in 2016 and took the crown from the Warriors, it was akin to Brian Wilson hearing Rubber Soul, being blown away, and responding by striving to top it, which resulted in the glorious Pet Sounds. Both the 2016 championship and Pet Sounds are LeBron and Wilson’s respective crowning achievements.

So yes, LeBron James is Brian Wilson. And, because the universe loves us, that means Kevin Love of the Cavs… is Mike Love of the Beach Boys, his literal uncle. I’m not joking — NBA star Kevin Love’s uncle was literally in the Beach Boys. You can’t make this up. The only slight issue with this narrative is Kyrie Irving is really the true Mike Love counterpart: each the second-most famous members of their groups, and both lacking requisite respect and appreciation for LeBron James/Brian Wilson, the ones who made the Cavaliers/Beach Boys as good as they were in the first place.

2017 Warriors Championship = Sgt. Pepper’s

The Warriors responded in 2017 by signing Kevin Durant and going on a dominant playoff run to win the championship — their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They went 16-1 in the playoffs, reaching their maximum potential with everyone firing on all cylinders. The pinnacle they achieved is very similar to the non-stop creative breakthroughs and cultural takeover the Beatles achieved with Sgt. Pepper’s, which is often considered the greatest album of all time.

And to earn that 2017 championship, the team had to conquer LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The oneupmanship had continued, just as it did when Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds and responded with Sgt. Pepper’s. Reports say that Paul played “A Day in the Life” for Brian Wilson before its release, and its gravity demoralized him. It wasn’t the sole cause of Wilson’s descent from his musical peak thereafter, but it was a factor. Similarly, LeBron hasn’t won a title since 2016, his Pet Sounds championship.

2018 Warriors Championship = The White Album

The Warriors’ 2018 championship was their White Album. The Warriors and Beatles were both not quite as cohesive as in years previous. There was a splintering among them that knocked the team chemistry out of whack just a bit, but through sheer talent, they both still created a classic.

2018-19 Warriors Regular Season = Let it Be Sessions

Then this season came. The Warriors are still good, but it’s getting a bit harder to keep it together. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green got in a public and heated disagreement early in the season that has arguably cast a pall over the season and messed with team chemistry even more. The crack in the armor was never larger than when the Warriors blew a 31-point lead to the Clippers in Game 2 of their first round series. They looked dead out there. Their hearts were not in it.

This makes the 2018-19 regular season and first round of the playoffs their Let it Be sessions. I already mentioned that John was distant during the recording sessions, but those times were also famously fraught with disdainful sniping and contempt, in addition to some creative stagnancy.

2019 Warriors Playoff Run = Abbey Road?

The Warriors are still immensely talented, and are favored to win it all if they kick it into high gear. So, despite the staleness and the reduced team chemistry, can the Warriors overcome it all and make a final masterpiece, a.k.a. win one final championship together, a.k.a. make their Abbey Road before Kevin Durant leaves the group? We shall see.


P.S. As I alluded to before, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the Beach Boys, LeBron James is Brian Wilson, and the New York Knicks are Yoko Ono. If you want to extend the metaphor even further:

Steve Kerr is George Martin.
Harrison Barnes is Pete Best. (These two were suggested by a fellow Twitter user.)
Bob Myers is Brian Epstein.
DeMarcus Cousins is Billy Preston.
Monta Ellis is Stuart Sutcliffe.
The Houston Rockets are the Rolling Stones.

You can surmise the reasons behind all of these comparisons for yourselves.
Read more: The Similarities Between Kanye West and Kobe Bryant

50 Years of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Greatest Pop Song Ever

An examination of what makes the Lennon-penned Beatles track so special

A mellotron, three cellos, four trumpets, a bit of sound engineering mastery, and the inner workings of the mind of John Lennon. These are some of the special ingredients that constitute “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the best pop song ever created, which turns 50 years old today.
“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”

In late 1966, the Beatles were at a crossroads. They had unanimously decided to stop touring, weary of both the slog of the road and the inability to hear their own instruments over the screaming crowd. Lennon had just given an interview where he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” a quote that incensed America’s heartland. (Later, he clarified that he meant the Beatles’ popularity had risen to such a level that their influence on youth had eclipsed that of Christianity.)

Regardless of his intention, many fans had already turned on the Beatles. Combined with the unsatisfying chaos of their live concerts, morale in the group was at an all-time low. After what became their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, the band decided to take a much-needed break from the three-year-long whirlwind of Beatlemania. Paul McCartney wrote a film score, George Harrison went to India, and Ringo Starr relaxed with family, while Lennon went to the coast of Spain to act in a film by Richard Lester called How I Won the War.

In November, the Beatles reconvened in the studio to start work on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first track they tackled was a pretty little slice of a song Lennon had written and demoed during his time in Spain, called “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Even before it germinated into the full-sounding, multi-instrumental version we know today, you can hear the seed of something special in this demo. Lennon’s lyrics are part nostalgia and part uncertainty. The lyrics are built around memories of playing on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home close to where he grew up in Liverpool, but it’s full of stops, starts, and stutters — “I think, uh, no, I mean…” and “That is, I think…” Lennon once said, “The second line goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.'”
“I think, uh, no, I mean, uh, yes, but it’s all wrong / That is, I think I disagree”

It took a significant amount of ingenuity and persistence for the final version to come about. George Martin, the group’s producer since the beginning and true “Fifth Beatle”, regularly worked with Lennon and McCartney (and occasionally Harrison) to help them execute their vision for a song.

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

McCartney was usually relatively specific when relaying to Martin the sounds in his head and how he wanted them represented on the record, often suggesting specific instruments and even helping with the arrangements. Lennon was much more vague, indicating certain feelings or emotions he wanted to convey in the song, and expecting Martin to follow through with the specifics. When recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” earlier that year, Lennon said he wanted it to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks,” leaving Martin to figure out how to realistically accomplish that.

After recording a few takes, Lennon wasn’t satisfied, frustrated that none of the recordings exactly matched the sounds in his head. This discontent resulted in the most remarkable technical aspect of the song, something that goes largely unnoticed. Indeed, the very fact that it goes unnoticed is what makes it so remarkable. Lennon decided he wanted to use the first part of an early take and combine it with the second part of a later take — the only problem is the two takes were recorded at different tempos and in different keys. Melding the two together appeared to be impossible. When Martin expressed his strong doubts, Lennon nonchalantly told him, “You can fix it, George.”

He was right. Lennon’s naïvety produced brilliance. The group’s sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, sped up the first take and slowed down the second take so that the pitches matched, and somehow the tempos miraculously matched as well. Right at the 1:00 minute mark, the track shifts to a completely different take recorded two weeks later, with seamlessness. The dreamy first part gives way to the busy, more varied second part, contributing to the uniqueness of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
“Let me take you down”

My taste has changed and evolved in my quarter century of loving music, but one thing has remained the same since about the age of 10 — “Strawberry Fields Forever” has been my favorite song of all time. Not just my favorite song as a child, or my favorite song by the Beatles, or my favorite song of the Sixties. My favorite song by anyone, ever.

It’s never easy to explain why a particular song is your favorite song. So much of it is tied up in emotions and memories and experiences that only you’ve had. Certainly the technical genius needed to make the final version of the song work contributes to the song’s lore, but that doesn’t fully account for why I love it.

In part, “Strawberry Fields Forever” represents the most dramatic turning point of the Beatles’ career. The sheer speed of their transformation has always amazed me. In August 1966, they were playing a Little Richard cover to screaming fans with suits and clean-shaven faces. Three months later, they were sporting mustaches, wearing colorful frills, and blazing a trail for complex psychedelic rock in the recording studio. The Beatles’ innovation and trend-setting were at their peak as 1966 transitioned to 1967, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the period’s soundtrack.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-12-01-42-pmAs far as the specifics of the song itself, the melody has always transfixed me. Unlike McCartney, whose melodies went up and down and spanned many notes across the scale (just listen to “Yesterday”), John Lennon’s melodies always had a small range of just a few notes. Listen to when he sings “Living is easy with eyes closed” — every syllable of that line is sung on the same note. But it’s cathartic. Like the way he stretches the word “low” into three notes on “I mean, it must be high or lo-o-ow” — I always appreciated the way he sung that.

But what it really comes down to is this: I love every single moment that every single instrument plays. I relish every time a new trumpet line comes in (like when they soar in the second verse as he sings “No one, I think, is in my tree”), or a new cello line (at the end of the third verse, during “That is, I think I disagree”), or when I hear those backwards cymbals, or Ringo’s manic drumming in the chorus. Each individual part is perfect on its own, but they’re also perfect as part of a whole. The interplay between all the instruments and the beauty that springs up from the cohesion always made me feel like anything in music was possible. I remember listening to it as a 12-year-old on my Discman (that was a CD player, kids) and being completely blown away. It’s gorgeous, it’s mind-opening, it’s supremely weird, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before or since.

Ian MacDonald, the late music critic and Beatles scholar, wrote of the song, “While there are countless contemporary composers qualified to write music hugely more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.” That directness, spontaneity, and originality is why I consider “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be the greatest pop song of all time.

First 1:23 of the song:

Full song:

UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn’t include this clip that I just watched in an excellent Consequence of Sound post on the Beatles’ stark 1967 reinvention. After playing the promotional video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” live on his show, Dick Clark goes into the audience and asks what people think of the Beatles and their new look/sound. Let’s just say they are NOT fans. Luckily there’s one individual at the end who goes against the wisdom of the crowd, and says, with an awestruck smile: “I thought it was great.”

Our Unique David Bowie Experiences

We can agree on why we all miss him. But we can’t agree on his best work. And that is beautiful.

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David Bowie passed away two days ago after an 18-month battle with cancer. I have never been so sad and shocked at the death of an entertainer, which took me a bit by surprise. I’ve never considered myself a Bowie expert or anything, but I’m realizing just how strong of a personal connection I had to the man and his music.

Why do we miss him so much? I think we can agree on a few reasons.

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Poptimism Won 2015, Who Won ‘1989’?

Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, and ‘Peak Poptimism’

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For those who don’t obsessively peruse music blogs, “poptimism” is a strain of music criticism that celebrates top-40 pop music and the mega-stars that bring the hits to life. Music magazines, websites, and publications such as Pitchfork and SPIN rose to prominence through their celebration of punk, indie, underground rap, and other genres far from the mainstream, dissing the vapidity of chart-topping hits along the way. But over time, pop has overcome its stigma. “Poptimism” has thoroughly permeated the ends of the blogosphere, to the point that praise for the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Carly Rae Jepsen has become the modus operandi of most music criticism (see the links on each name for examples). The fact that Pitchfork bestowed its #1 song of 2013 to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake, perhaps today’s biggest pop juggernaut, would have been unheard of a few years ago. It’s no longer an embarrassing display of naiveté to love “Call Me Maybe” or “Teenage Dream” — it’s a sign that you’re an impartial judge.

With the release of Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s behemoth of an album, 1989, we have officially reached “peak poptimism.” We are now in a society where there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If someone like Ryan Adams had covered a Kelly Clarkson album ten years ago, I guarantee it would have been a completely ironic exercise. The culture was just not one where the critically acclaimed underground mixed with the pop stars. But today, in an age where poptimism reigns supreme, Adams can talk about 1989 in an interview and say, with total honesty: “These songs are incredible. You break them down from what they are to this raw element, and they’re just super powerful and they can tear you up.”

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The Exhilarating Emotional Heights of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places”

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“I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.”

The ultimate power of music lies in its ability to channel feelings, memories, and emotions. You can be transported back to places you cherish, alongside people you love, at the click of a “play” button. You’re back in the stands at that high school football game, back at that party where you made your crush laugh, back on that road trip you took with your college friends.

Jamie xx knows music has this power. In fact, he knows it so well that his songs don’t just invoke memories — the music is literally about the concept of music invoking these memories. The production on his latest album, In Colour, was inspired by underground London raves in the ’90s, but it’s not meant to actually sound like the trip hop blaring on those club dance floors. In Colour is meant to encapsulate the feelings and emotions associated with going to a late-night rave in the city. The highs and lows, the excitement and the loneliness, the boundless elation and the quiet disappointment associated with a night full of adrenaline and expectations. These aren’t the songs that were playing at that high school football game, or the party, or the college road trip — these are songs that remind you of what you were feeling during those events.

Right in the heart of In Colour lies the musical and emotional climax, “Loud Places.” Jamie xx, who rose to prominence as the backbone of The xx, employs his bandmate Romy Madley-Croft to sing about “[going] to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with, who will take me home.” She also reflects painfully on her ex, who “[goes] to loud places to find someone who will take you higher than I took you.” The subject matter is melancholy, to be sure, but the music itself is uplifting in its wide-eyed wonder. A nostalgic haze hangs over the song, as the various electronic and instrumental elements fade in and out of focus — the rhythmic bells and whistles, the handclaps, the single guitar lick. The bass hums so deeply that it feels like it’s coming from inside your chest, with the thumps of the drum machine as the heartbeat. That build-up of thumps eventually leads to the most perfect, pure element of the song: a gospel chorus breaking through the surface and releasing the tension.

The chorus is a sample of Idris Muhammad’s 1977 song “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” The lyric goes, “I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.” It’s a beautiful couplet that furthers Jamie xx’s meta intentions of paying tribute to music. The chorus is not bombastic or attention-grabbing. In fact, you may not find it special or distinctive at all. But it’s the context that Jamie xx gives the chorus that make it truly special — the combination of crescendoing drums and Madley-Croft’s dramatic “didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?” line preceding it, along with the bass, piano, and handclaps that accompany it. These sophisticated surrounding touches are what Jamie xx does best.

That chorus appears three times throughout the song (at 1:01, 2:38, and 3:30). In the first two instances, the piano and percussion are also prominent, competing for space right along with the voices. The third time, the piano and additional sound effects are buried in the mix, leaving room for that beautiful chorus to dominate. Combined with the deep and permeating drum beat, the final chorus provides an enduring moment of musical catharsis. You anticipate it coming, but it’s more subtle than, say, a drop in a Skrillex song. It’s gorgeous and blissful in its subtlety. It’s exhilarating.

Jamie xx feels music in your eyes, and he just wants to celebrate it.

Sufjan Stevens and Our Parallel Memories of Eugene, Oregon

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Sufjan Stevens and I share something in common: we both grew up spending summers in Eugene, Oregon. I used to go with my family to visit my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins, often for weeks or months at a time. Stevens went to stay with his mother and stepfather for a few years, from the ages of 5 to 8.

The instant I heard that Stevens’ new forthcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, would center around Oregon, a rush of excitement flooded me (there was even a track specifically called “Eugene!”). Stevens obviously has a history of paying tribute to different states, and so I looked forward to putting the album on and letting Stevens’ always-exquisite songwriting take me on a trip back to a place that I hold dear. I knew that the album would also deal with the death of Stevens’ mother, but I subconsciously pushed that to the back of my mind. I wanted to focus on Oregon.

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