Sunday, November 29, 2015

Giving thanks

No proper post for you this week, I’m afraid.  I’m coming down off a lovely Thanksgiving weekend, still stuffed with pie and potatoes and ... well, stuffing.  We had a lovely, quiet meal here at home.  A part of our family’s tradition is for each (human) person to come up with three things they’re thankful for.  This was the first year that our youngest was really old enough to participate in that tradition.  It was quite entertaining.

I, of course, am thankful for many things ... more than three, even.  For instance, it occurred to me that I am thankful for you, dear reader.  I’m thankful that you keep on reading, week after week, despite my rather firm admonishments to just cut it out.  You’re quite stubborn in that way, you know.  And I wanted to let you know how much I admire that in you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Perl blog post #45

This week I’m returning again to my ongoing Perl series on my Other Blog.  You may want to check that out if you’re technically inclined.  If you’re not, you’ll have to wait until next week for some more exciting bits here.  Well, as exciting as it gets around here anyway.  Try and control your anticipation.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Darkling Embrace I

"Welcome Your Nightfall"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

“Dark and vaguely creepy” is a territory my mixes mine quite often.  In fact, when I hear such a song, there are easily four or five possible destinations where it could wind up.  But sometimes none of them is an exact fit and you just have to start a whole new mix.  Such was the case when I stumbled upon Bat for Lashes.

Half Pakistani and half British (and born in the former country and raised in the latter), I most likely found her while exploring “similar to” type links of the anti-folk singers such as Regina Spektor and Feist.  And, while she does display some of that sensibility,1 she also has great range.2  Her track “What’s a Girl to Do?” has a vaguely creepy vibe at the beginning, then transitions into a very pretty (if still somewhat dark) love song—or, more accurately, a song about the death of love.  I tentatively slotted it for Smokelit Flashback, but added a note to myself that it had sort of a Dark Shadows vibe.3

I add notes such as this to songs in a mix all the time.  Sometimes all the note says is “group with the above?” and I stick the song underneath a song which has a similar vibe.  When enough of those accumulate in a row, I start thinking it might be time to break those tracks out into their own mix.  And so it happened with that Bat for Lashes song.

For one thing, it gave me a place to put a couple of bands that I learned about from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Now, I’ve talked about my fascination with this excellent example of early Whedon before on this blog, but I failed to mention the music.  Whedon has a gift for choosing music, much as he has a gift for many other creative inputs to a show, and there are several artists whose existence I am only aware of because they were playing at the Bronze, or just in the background of a crucial scene, and I said, “whoa, what’s that music?” and then I looked it up and then I went out and bought the album.  Two such bands, Devics and Trespassers William, both from my current hometown of LA, are represented here—Devics is so much in this vein that they contribute two tracks, in fact.  Both are described as dream pop,4 but both have a dark edge that made them perfect for the show, and perfect to accompany the Bat for Lashes mix starter.

Then there’s “Carousel” by Melanie Martinez.  You may recognize it as the original song from which the theme for American Horror Story: Freakshow5 is derived.  Martinez rewrote the original lyrics to make them fit the show even more closely, but the music is the same.  Even before its association with what may be the best anthology horror series of our time, it had a pretty creepy vibe to it.  But it’s still, at its heart, a song about love ... the more bitter, more frustrating side of love, perhaps, but love nonetheless.

And that’s what these songs have in common: they can be dark, and disturbing, but in the end they’re all songs of the heart.  Whether it’s Martinez pointing out that “it’s all fun and games till somebody falls in love,” or Bat for Lashes talking about “when you’ve loved so long that the thrill is gone, and your kisses at night are replaced with tears,” or Devics complaining that “I still wait like a fool” (or their dark take on the Billie Holiday standard “The Man I Love”),  or Trespassers William proclaiming simply that “Love Is Blindess,” all these songs touch the heart in some way ... and they’re also all kinda creepy.  Thus: Darkling Embrace.

Of course, the dream pop bands are going to be naturals for this.  “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May,” for instance, is completely unintelligible in terms of lyrics—as are pretty much all songs by the Cocteau Twins—but you still know it’s creepy and yet touching at the same time.  “The Carnival Is Over” by Dead Can Dance is a bit more obvious.  And the combination of Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti that produced the great Twin Peaks vocal tracks is a no-brainer as well: “Falling” works perfectly here.  And then we have our volume opener, “Melodies and Desires.”

You know, Lykke Li is a big deal in Sweden.  She’s won two Swedish Grammys and something called an EBBA.  On the other hand, if you’re American, there’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of her at all.  Shame.  Her style is primarily electro-pop, with touches of trip-hop, neo-soul, and electro-jazz.6  But “Melodies and Desires,” the opening track of her amazing album Youth Novels, is breathy, and metaphorical (“I’ll be the rhythm, and you’ll be the beat, and love, the shoreline, where you and I meet”), and still just a little bit dark and overcast.  It’s the perfect opener for this mix.

In the less obvious camp, in some ways the “oldest” song on this mix is “Winter Kills” by Yazoo:7 I don’t mean “oldest” in the sense of “first released” (although it happens to be that as well), or even in the sense of “first written” (which would have to be “The Man I Love,” which was written in 1927 by the Gershwins, for a Broadway show it was never used in).  Rather I mean the song which has been in my collection the longest.  Upstairs at Eric’s is one of the earliest albums I ever bought, and still one of my absolute favorites.  While most of that album is “traditional” synthpop (although pioneer Vince Clarke can be credited with inventing much of that tradition) made unique by the bluesy vocals of Alison Moyet, it has several moments of divergence, including the ultra-bizarre “I Before E Except After C” and the chilling “Winter Kills.”  This latter song has always fascinated me: I wrote an early poem based on it,8 and I always knew it would end up on one of my mixes.  For many years I had it slotted for Wisty Mysteria,9 but as soon as this mix emerged, I knew it had to land here.  It’s the perfect closer for the volume, and also provides the volume title.

Likewise, Donna Lewis, whose “Beauty & Wonder” leads into “Winter Kills,” is primarily considered a pop star.  Her albums were among those belonging to The Mother that I burned digitally for her to make sure we’d always have a copy.10  I’d never heard her before, and, honestly, generally speaking I remain unimpressed.  But, like many purveyors of pop, every once in a while she manages to produce something beyond simple, interchangeable radio fodder.  This is one those few that Lewis achieved.11  It’s not quite as dark as many of the tunes on this mix, but it fits in pretty well, and provides a contrapuntal transition from Devics to Yazoo.

Then we have Fever Ray, who I discovered via her amazing song “If I Had a Heart” which was used as the theme song for the History Channel’s Vikings.12  We’ll see “If I Had a Heart” on a future mix,13 but for this mix I decided to use “Concrete Walls.”  It’s difficult to describe Fever Ray, but it’s vaguely akin to anti-folk meets dark electronica.  “Concrete Walls” is perhaps the strongest example of this: it’s dark, overprocessed to the point where you can barely recognize that it’s a female vocal, and has enough electronic feedback that it almost sounds industrial.  It’s slightly faster (though I wouldn’t say more upbeat) than the other tracks on this mix, and I almost removed it several times.  But in the end I decided it was the perfect lead-in to the more measured and ethereal Cocteau Twins offering.

Darkling Embrace I
    [Welcome Your Nightfall]

        “Melodies & Desires” by Lykke Li, off Youth Novels
        “Falling” by Julee Cruise, off Floating into the Night
        “Past the Beginning of the End” by Trentemøller, off Into the Great Wide Yonder
        “Never Tear Us Apart” by Tashaki Miyaki, off Under Cover [Covers]
        “Missing Persons” by Go West, off Go West
        “Living Behind the Sun” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “Horse Tears” by Goldfrapp, off Felt Mountain
        “What's a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes, off Fur and Gold
        “Carousel” by Melanie Martinez, off Dollhouse [EP]
        “Concrete Walls” by Fever Ray, off Fever Ray
        “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” by Cocteau Twins, off Victorialand
        “Love Is Blindness” by Trespassers William, off Different Stars
        “The Carnival Is Over” by Dead Can Dance, off Into the Labyrinth
        “Cerises pour un dîner à deux” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
        “The Man I Love” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “Beauty & Wonder” by Donna Lewis, off Blue Planet
        “Winter Kills” by Yazoo, off Upstairs at Eric's
Total:  17 tracks,  76:31

For the rest, we have a track from Goldfrapp,14 the nearly gothic “Horse Tears.”  Also Tashaki Miyaki, who I discovered via a video game,15 doing a cover of “Never Tear Us Apart.”  The original by INXS was definitely not a candidate for this mix, but Tashaki Miyaki’s take on it adds the darkness to the pretty that Farriss and Hutchence instilled in the original.  And while Go West is primarily thought of as a new wave/synthpop 80’s band, they do have a bit of range, and “Missing Persons” is an uncharacteristically darkly pretty tune from their debut album.

Which just leaves us with the two instrumentals.  Trentemøller is another band discovered via my favorite video game, a Danish electronica artist who (like fellow Scandinavian Ugress) is equally comfortable with instrumentals or guest vocalists.16  “Past the Beginning of the End” is dark and somewhat trippy, but with an inherent prettiness that’s hard to miss.  It’s tougher for an instrumental to embody what Darkling Embrace is all about, but this one does so.  And of course Angelo Badalamenti, the composer of those great Julee Cruise tunes from Twin Peaks (one of which we have here, even) is a natural fit as well.  In this case I’m using a track from the soundtrack for The City of Lost Children as a quick bridge between the sudden stop of “The Carnival Is Over” and our second Devics contribution.  This is one of my favorite movies, and the soundtrack makes some great incidental music.  All of it is vaguely creepy, although most of it skews even darker than this mix.

Next time, we’ll explore the path to dreamland.


1 As we’ll discover in the fullness of time.

2 I currently have 6 of her songs slotted for 6 different mixes, which might be some sort of record.

3 Meaning more the music than the show itself, and not referring at all to the Tim Burton remake.

4 In fact, Trespassers William’s album Different Stars, which is the one containing the track used here, was issued on the UK label owned by Simon Raymonde, of dream pop giants the Cocteau Twins—who are also featured here.

5 A.k.a. season 4.

6 Meaning she has great range as well: currently slotted for 7 songs in 6 different mixes.

7 Known as “Yaz” in the US, for some reason.

8 Not a very good poem.  But I plead youth.

9 Which we shall come to in, you guessed it: the fullness of time.

10 CDs in The Mother’s truck live a hard life.

11 Just two across two albums, in fact.  We’ll see the other one on a future volume of Smooth as Whispercats.

12 The show itself is not as good as the song, in my opinion.  But it isn’t terrible either.

13 Which we’ll come to ... yeah, you know the drill by now.

14 Who, you may recall, we first heard on Smokelit Flashback III.

15 See Paradoxically Sized World III for full details.

16 Like many darkwave bands, several of the newer electronica artists do about half instrumentals and half vocals using an ever-rotating cast of guest singers.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

birthday time again

Another birthday weekend for our family: mine this time, as it happens.  I didn’t really want to do much, so it’s been mostly sitting around just avoiding any responsibility for a few days.  And, as it also happens, part of the responsibility I’m avoiding is writing this blog post.  So, you know, I didn’t write one.  What you’re reading is just a figment of your imagination.  What a vivid imagination you have!  Keep it up.  Perhaps you can imagine yourself a post you might actually want to read.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Paradoxically Sized World II

"Burning Holes Right Through the Dark"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

By now you probably realize that, by the time I start really organizing the first volume of a mix, I usually have enough music for two volumes.  Thus, a volume II is often just “volume I continued.”  This second collection of songs from, as well as inspired by, LittleBigPlanet is mostly that, although you’ll notice a few extensions to that overall concept.  First of all, I managed to expand beyond just the original game (and the first handheld version) by including one song each from LBP 2 and the PSV game.1  Secondly, while last time I mostly observed a strict alternation between songs from the game(s) and tracks that just felt to me like they ought to be in the game, this time I feel free to go on longer sprees, with a stretch of 4 songs from the games, and two stretches of 3 and 4 tracks (respectively) from outside sources.

You may also recall from last time that I noted that there were only two tracks on this mix2 that were originally compoosed for the game (as opposed to music that first appeared on an artist’s album and was only then used in the game).  As it happens, they’re both on this volume: opening track “Orb of Dreamers” is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s take on the main theme of the game,3 from their second volume of video game music.4  The theme was composed by Daniel Pemberton, who also does movie scores as well.  He composes a lot of the incidental music in LBP, including the second in-game original track I use here, “The Appliance of Science,” from his album Little BIG Music.

Finding a volume title was once again difficult: of the five tracks containing any vocals, two are not in English, one is nominally in English but you only know that if you look up the lyrics on the Internet (that would be “Atlas,” by the quite odd Battles),5 and one contains a single line repeated over and over (“My Patch” by Jim Noir, the simplistic but quintissentially catchy tune found in the Meerkat Kingdom level of LBP 1).  Which only really leaves one choice: “Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit, which is the lone representative of LBP 2.  Happily, it’s a great choice: unlike the mostly instrumental version used in the game itself, the original version has some great lines, including the one we use for our title here.  This is easily my favorite Passion Pit song ever.6

Other than hearing the words to “Sleepyhead” for the first time, there probably aren’t a lot of surprises here for you if you actually play the LBP games.  If you haven’t played the PSV version, you might be pleasantly surprised by the lazy downtempo strains of “Eyen” by Plaid.  Or perhaps you’ll be surprised (as I was) as just how catchy “Volver a Comenzar” by Café Tacvba7 is, once you’re no longer trying to figure out how to gauge the momentum on those stupid springs in the Wedding Reception level and you can just listen to the song.  I’m not the most fluent speaker of Spanish, but I get by; my rough translation of the chorus:

Si volver a comenzar,
no tendría tiempo de reparar

is something along the lines of:

If you go back to the beginning,
there’s no time to fix what’s broken.

But really you don’t even need to understand what they’re talking about.  It’s an infectious little pop gem in any language.

Among the tunes from outside the games, many will still be familiar: the DJ Krush track near the beginning of this volume is off the same album as the in-game track of his towards the end.  There’s another from Ananda Shankar,8 which sounds so LBP-ish you’d swear it was direct from the game (but it’s not).  KOAN Sound is an LBP band as well; although “Lost in Thought” is not from the game, they do have a song in LBP 3.9  We also see another track from Bonobo, who isn’t featured in the game (though he really ought to be), but we did see him on our last volume.

The real find here though is Ugress.  A purveyor of electronica from Norway, Ugress fits my definition of “moderately obscure”—AllMusic has a discography but no biography, and Wikipedia has a skeleton article, full of “citation needed” notations.  But this guy is brilliant.  Like many modern indie artists, his music is easy to find online, much of it for free, but you won’t mind paying for it.  It’s that good.  I primarily recommend Resound (which contains the track we see here), but other good choices are Reminiscience, Cinematronics, and Unicorn.  One of his songs10 was chosen for LBP PSV, which is how I found him,11 and now I fancy we’ll see him on every volume of this mix from here on out.  But Ugress has range as well: so far I’ve put songs of his on four different mixes, which says something about his versatility.  Obscure he may be, but it’s far less than what he deserves.  I’m glad LittleBigPlanet introduced me to him.

Much like last time, there’s a strong influence from my satellite provider’s “Zen” music channel.  The biggest one in this case is Reef Project, whose “Ocean Trigger” is actually the mix starter.  Reef Project is even more obscure than Ugress, with a sparse discography on AllMusic and nothing at all on Wikipedia.  Judging from the voiceovers on some of their tracks, many of these tunes were used as incidental music for a marine biology documentary or somesuch.  But the tracks without the extra educational content are pretty nifty, and “Ocean Trigger” is easily the best of these.  I heard it on the music channel one day and went, wow, that really sounds like a LittleBigPlanet song.  Paired here with “Song 2,” the DJ Krush track from the Islands levels in LBP 1, they form a vaguely creepy block which dovetails nicely into the laid back wanderings of KOAN Sound and thence to our quirky closer, “The Appliance of Science.”

As I did last time, I’ve added a note for each track used in a LittleBigPlanet game: either 1, 2, 3, PSP, PSV, or Kart.  If a track doesn’t have a note, it isn’t from an LBP game (that I know of).

Paradoxically Sized World II
    [Burning Holes Right Through the Dark]

        “Orb Of Dreamers (The Cosmic Imagisphere)” by London Philharmonic Orchestra, off The Greatest Video Game Music, Vol. 2 

        “The Beginning” by DJ Krush, off Jaku
        “Eyen” by Plaid, off Double Figure 

        “My Patch” by Jim Noir, off Tower of Love 

        “Atlas” by Battles, off Mirrored 

        “Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit, off Chunk of Change [EP]

        “E-Pipe” by Ugress, off Resound
        “Kota” by Bonobo, off Animal Magic
        “Sarasa” by Susheela Raman, off Love Trap
        “Volver a Comenzar” by Café Tacvba, off Sino 

        “Jungle Symphony” by Ananda Shankar, off A Life in Music: Best of the EMI Years [Compilation]
        “Yay Balma” by Taffetas, off Putumayo: Music from the Chocolate Lands [Compilation]
        “Main Title” by Jon Brion, off Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Soundtrack]
        “Ocean Trigger” by Reef Project, off Hydro Dynamic
        “Song 2” by DJ Krush, off Jaku 

        “Lost in Thought” by KOAN Sound, off Dynasty [EP]
        “The Appliance of Science [Little Big Planet Dub]” by The Daniel Pemberton TV Orchestra, off Little BIG Music [Videogame Soundtrack]

Total:  17 tracks,  77:57

And that just leaves us with the block of world music that kicks off the second half of this volume.  We start with Susheela Raman, British-born of Indian parentage, singing in Telugu.12  Exotic, but still poppy.  Then into the tune from Café Tacvba, who hail from Mexico.  Then back to the Indian subcontinent for Ananda Shankar, then a song from Taffetas, who combine a kora player from Guinea-Bissau with a guitarist and bassist from Switzerland.13  There are vocals here, but I don’t think there’s any actual words—just a formles, ethereal voice.  Bridging this block and the next is the main theme from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion, which is strangely reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s score for Beetlejuice.  So it’s a perfect way to introduce the echoey, underwatery “Ocean Trigger.”

Next time, I think we’ll explore the intersection of creepy and romantic.


1 “PSV” means the PS Vita, i.e. the second handheld version.

2 At least so far.

3 I.e. the music that plays over the opening credits and spoken word intro by quite excellent voice talent Stephen Fry.

4 We’ll hear another track off this album on a different mix, in the fullness of time.

5 True story: for the longest time, everyone in our house was convinced that the chorus of this song was: “Fecal worker, fecal worker, going down.”  Apparently the Internet thinks it should be: “People won’t be people when they hear this sound.”  We like our version better.

6 Unfortunately, that’s not saying much.  I’ve really tried to like them, primarily for the sake of this song.  But so far I’ve found nothing to compare to the big bag of awesome that is “Sleepyhead.”

7 Or Café Tacuba, as it’s sometimes written.  I gather either is correct.

8 I told you we’d see him again.

9 Which we’ll see in volume IV.

10 Which we’ll also see on volume IV.

11 Recall that even though I’ve never personally played LBP PSP, PSV, or Kart, I know what songs they use.  Yay Internet.

12 I’m pretty sure it’s Telugu.  Either that or Sanskrit.

13 If you speak French, you could find out more about them from this page.  There’s an English bit at the bottom, but it’s not nearly so detailed.