The Shins: “So Now What” / James Mercer’s Saving Grace

2017 has been a banner year for 2000’s indie zeitgeist-dominating blog rock. We’ve already gotten albums from Fleet Foxes, The xx, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear, with full-lengths soon to come from the National and LCD Soundsystem. It may come as a surprise to you, due to the relative lack of fanfare, but the Shins actually released a new album this year as well, just a few months ago. I guess they aren’t changing many lives anymore.

The record, entitled Name For You, is pretty unremarkable. It’s not bad per se, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the same sense of possibility and whimsy that defined James Mercer and the Shins of the 2000’s. “Kissing the Lipless” thrills you, “Pink Bullets” drips with potent melancholy, and that underwater synth line on “Sleeping Lessons” is magical. Even Port of Morrow, released in 2012 with a brand new lineup after a five-year hiatus, was solid all the way through (check out the insanely fun “Bait and Switch” or the leisurely and rewarding “40 Mark Strasse”).

Name For You is bland though. Songs like “Painting a Hole” and “Half a Million” are fine enough, demonstrating some interesting sonic touches, but where’s the emotion? Where’s the sense of wonder? It’s all so run-of-the-mill, and it makes me sad.

HOWEVER. There’s one song on Name For You that stands out, called “So Now What.” The track was actually first released three years ago, as a part of the soundtrack for the 2014 Zach Braff movie Wish I Was Here. It makes complete sense that “So Now What” was written long before the rest of the album. Mercer must have been riding a creative high in 2014 that didn’t hold over. “So Now What” is not flashy or attention-seeking, but the mid-tempo groove and simple melody have staying power. Mercer’s voice drifts through the clouds, dreamily singing “I had this crazy idea / Somehow we’d coast to the end.” At their best, the Shins are a band that can take you places other than where you’re currently sitting, and cause you to think about life and relationships and the past. Mercer couldn’t do it for a full album this time around, but at the very least, I’m glad we have “So Now What.”

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

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

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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.
 
 
THE LEAD-UP
“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.'”
 
 
RECORDING
“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 na├»vety 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.”
 
 
WHY IT’S THE BEST
“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.”

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.

Grimes: “REALiTi” / What Could Have Been

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Grimes is a perfectionist, she cares what the public thinks, and she’s delusional. That all sounds much harsher than I mean it to be, but it’s mostly true. Grimes, who creates ingenious, enveloping soundscapes all from her computer, scrapped an entire album’s worth of songs last year, claiming that it “sucked.”

Her decision to forego the album was partially due to negative public opinion of her one-off single last year, the poppy, radio-friendly (but still radio-shunned) “Go”. Grimes originally intended for Rihanna to sing on the track, but her camp declined, so she released it herself, causing a rift among her fans between those that appreciated her new direction and those that hated it. Grimes noticed the backlash and decided to start over.

But this week, she released a demo from the “lost album” called “REALiTi.” In the video description, she calls it “a mess,” but if it’s a mess, it’s a transcendent and beautiful mess. It’s an amazing song, and it makes me REALLY want to hear the other tracks that were scrapped. Grimes is an unparalleled talent — witness it here.

Blast From The Past: Death Cab for Cutie – “Summer Skin”

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Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

Your favorite band from middle school is coming out with a new, post-Zooey Deschanel album entitled Kintsugi. They played a few of the songs live already and they honestly sound fantastic. A wave of nostalgia caused me to revisit some long-lost Death Cab songs, and in the process, I remembered just how good “Summer Skin” is.

In 2005, Death Cab released Plans, which contained some of the band’s biggest and saddest hits (you’ll of course remember “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”). But my favorite track off that album (and maybe in all of Death Cab’s catalog) is “Summer Skin.” The band’s famously melancholic lyrics may have resonated with me more in 2005, but they still pack a punch: “I don’t recall a single care / Just greenery and humid air / Then Labor Day came and went / And we shed what was left of our summer skin.”

But anyone who knows me, knows that while I appreciate good lyrics, it’s the music that hits me hard. “Summer Skin” has the most underrated, killer bass line I’ve ever heard. Seriously, listen to that bass moving up and down the scale. It’s inspired pages upon pages of bass covers on YouTube (I mean, check out this dude’s fingers — they’re going all over the place). Bassist Nick Harmer is channeling some real Paul McCartney-level melodic bass here. Take a listen:

Beach House – “Lazuli” / Pure Bliss

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Beach House’s excellent album Bloom was released today to rave reviews. “Lazuli” is one of those tracks that pummels you with its “epicness” halfway through. The song changes gear at the 2:33 mark — after being stripped down to its basics, layers of sound are gradually added. First come the guitar arpeggios, then Victoria Legrand’s lead vocals, followed by the bass. Once the backing vocals come in, you recognize how amazing “Lazuli” is.

Lotus Plaza – “Remember Our Days” / A Hidden Gem

I was walking home from work at the embassy the other day and, as per usual, slipped my iPod earbuds on. I was pumped to (internally) rock out to some White Stripes as I walked through downtown Santiago on this cloudy and cold day, but I got held up. Let’s back up. During the last hour of work, I had decided to throw on the latest Lotus Plaza release, Spooky Action at a Distance, since the album was pretty chill and wouldn’t disturb my coworkers, busily calling local Chilean mining companies. I had listened to the album a few times before and enjoyed it, but hadn’t gotten much out of it. Well 5:00 PM rolled around and I hadn’t finished the album, so the ninth track, “Remember Our Days,” was queued up when I got out the iPod. I decided I would listen to it a bit before switching over to some “Ball & Biscuit”, but I became entranced. It’s a beautiful little song. Nothing grand, but simple and awesome. I can’t stress how important the atmosphere around you is in determining your enjoyment of a song. And on this cold day, this track was what I needed.