The Soundscapes of M83

•08/28/2014 • Leave a Comment

One of the joys of pre-ordering something, weeks in advance, is forgetting about it until the day it shows up, unexpected, as a happy surprise. This happened to me last week with the re-release of M83’s 2005 album Before the Dawn Heals Us, and since it arrived I’ve been re-discovering the wonder that is their unique brand of music.

I’ve been a fan of M83 for a few years, and I’ve always found it hard to describe their sound, but the word that comes to mind is, simply, “big”. Each track is a thrill ride, as much a work of art as it is a construction project, with layers upon layers of melody and texture being stacked high until, at its climax, the listener is struck by a towering wall of sonic energy, a soaring soundscape thick with emotion yet somehow remaining ethereal. The feeling of M83’s music stretches from the most jubilant and rich (e.g. “Steve McQueen”) to the most heartbreaking (e.g. “Wait”), but is always fueled with sharp passion. It is atmospheric in nature—dream pop for the soul, with a hint of the spiritual underlying it all.

 

“Teen Angst” feels like a triumph, laced with minutes-long crescendos that burst into fireworks, but the lyrics betray an underlying melancholy in line with the title, and theme, of the track. It’s an adrenaline rush, but one with reservations. Ultimately, though, it’s the perfect example of the emotional pendulum that is M83.

 

One more thing that M83 does incredibly well is finish off their albums—sometimes with a bang, sometimes with an extended, satisfying postscript. The closing track from Before the Dawn Heals Us is a wonderful example of the latter. With a more ambient, post-rock feel, “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” quickly builds up its theme and then, for the drawn-out finale, slowly and deliberately expels the last breaths of the album before ultimately fading out to black.  

There is much, much more amazing music on this and all of M83’s albums, and this post only scratches the surface. “Midnight City” got some quality radio airplay a year or two ago, and remains one of my favorites. “We Own the Sky” has a more traditional rock sound, but it is still definitively M83, with a gripping hook and terrific vocals. Overall, listening to M83 is a singular experience unparalleled by any other band.   

It’s a stressful week. Happy Tuesday.

•03/04/2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m in the midst of a particularly monstrous week at school, so it’s music like this that keeps the monsters at bay and my stress level down. This song is even from an album entitled simply, “Happiness”. Perfect.

Ben Howard is wonderful.

•01/22/2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m cheating on my own (poorly established) rule and posting some introspectives on a Wednesday.

Usually when I’m studying or working on homework, I find that it’s difficult to focus when there’s music with lyrics in the background, because I wind up listening to (and singing along with) the familiar words instead of focusing on the task at hand. So I mostly opt for post-rock or other ambient, instrumental music, which fills the silence nicely.

For some reason though, I can listen to Ben Howard’s entire album, “Every Kingdom”, on endless repeat while working and find no distraction. But it’s hardly just space-filler; I really think it’s a terrific album when I actually fully focus on listening to it as well. I can’t put a finger on why this particular music is perfect for both background AND foreground noise, but I think it is.

I first discovered Ben Howard when his song “Promise” was used in an episode of House, M.D… I dig a good song placement in TV shows (who doesn’t really?). This one starts all quiet and airy (actually the track is basically silent until 30 seconds in), but I love how it picks up with a little more purpose in the later refrains, punctuated by his percussive guitar strumming. After I obsessed with this song for awhile, I bought the whole album, which was deservingly nominated for the Mercury Prize (the British Album of the Year award) in 2012.

It didn’t take me long to decide that the whole album was brilliant, and I’m having trouble even picking 2 or 3 more songs to feature here…

“Under the Same Sun” is a little more upbeat but has some similar features: Nifty guitar work, a chill and introspective feel, and poetic lyrics laced with meaning. I’m particularly fond of the fade-out at the bridge and the “coda” at the end.

“Only Love” was getting some US radio airplay in the last year or so, at least on SiriusXM AltNation. It’s a bit more radio-ready, with more of a soft rock feel than the moody singer/songwriter style of some of his others. The drumset pulse in the background keeps you tapping your toes and bouncing along more so than with his quieter stuff. But even if it’s more conventional-sounding, I don’t think it’s much of a departure from the rest of the album.

One more, and I really love this one for the lyrics. You can visualize the tent in the woods, the jokes and stories around a bonfire, the drinks and dancing, as he weaves a simple tale of a campout with great friends. How great is the line “hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags”? “Old Pine” always makes me smile and recall memories of experiences like the ones he describes.

All in all, “Every Kingdom” is full of warm and happy-hearted music from a very talented musician and songwriter. I’ll continue listening to this one over and over, no matter whether I’m in the middle of a long road trip or a long study session.

The brain does silly things. Part 2.

•12/18/2013 • Leave a Comment

I raked leaves in my backyard today for about an hour and a half. Raking leaves is one of many mindless tasks you do in which you can totally zone out, think about other things, or just let your mind wander (kinda the definition of mindless, I suppose).

As previously discussed here, when you zoom back out from an intense focus or you come back to reality from a good stream of consciousness, it’s funny what you stumble upon when you sort of “tune back in” to your own brain. For me, it’s random songs that I haven’t listened to in months or years, coming out of nowhere. Two more popped up in my brain today while raking.

“Konstantine” by Something Corporate is an absolute doozie, one of the most intensely personal songs I’ve ever heard. The violently raw emotion of the song is entirely genuine, as lead singer Andrew McMahon wrote the song for an ex-girlfriend after a tumultuous relationship, and at times I almost feel uncomfortable listening to it. It’s straight out of an angst-filled, teenaged diary, describing the moodiness and heartache of that first weird relationship(‘s ending). It’s awkward. It’s haunting. And as far as I can decipher it is 100% unrelated to raking leaves in your backyard…but what do I know.

Shifting gears entirely, at some point later on I arrived at this song. “Richard Cory” may be Simon and Garfunkel at their angriest and most vindictive (though, admittedly, I am far from an expert on the duo). The song comes from their iconic 1966 album “The Sounds of Silence”, and it underscores certain themes of wealth and greed and social class that surely endure today. It’s a story that has always existed. On a simpler level, it’s a cool song. Even the opening notes of the first bass lick have an angry sound to them that carries throughout, and the story ends with a bit of a kicker that’s at the same time entirely unsurprising. A quick Google search reveals that this song is an adaptation of a poem written in 1897 by Pulitzer Prize winner Edwin Arlington Robinson, and that Simon and Garfunkel are far from the only musicians to put the verses to song.

Anyways, cool stuff as always. I wonder what new old songs my brain will drum up the next time I’m washing the dishes or walking to the bus stop. Stay tuned.

Introspective Tuesdays: Finding inner calm

•11/05/2013 • Leave a Comment

I love how much music can affect my mood, and in no time at all. All it takes is the very first guitar strums of Kings of Convenience’s “Gold in the Air of Summer” to feel that wave of relaxation. The doubled vocals and the meticulous imagery of the lyrics weave together to create the dreamy simplicity that is this song. And the concept of “leaving it all behind” and starting anew described here works as a metaphor for finding inner calm.

This is also one of those songs for which I will always have an association because of where I first heard it. In this case, a high school friend put it on a mix CD she made for our group of friends one summer. It’s funny how little details like that, about where or how you first discovered something, can stick permanently.

Introducing Introspective Tuesdays

•10/29/2013 • Leave a Comment

“Introspectives” are among my favorite kinds of songs. It’s just the sort of music that makes you feel all kinds of feels. You can’t really call it sad, or emo, it’s just music that makes you, well, introspective. It’s the soundtrack to getting lost inside your own swirling thoughts, sitting back and listening to your stream of consciousness. It’s some of the music that makes me feel the warmest and happiest inside, despite its sometimes melancholy nature. And it’s the kind of music I love to listen to when I’m driving alone in my car in the dark with the windows half-down at 9:30 on a Tuesday.

And I was doing just that tonight as my iPod was shuffling through my “introspectives” playlist when this gem came up. In the spirit of the name of this blog, I’m introducing this occasional series with a song by The Damnwells, who, as a sidenote, are really terrific at making all kinds of music, not just this kind. But here’s one of my favorites, “The Same Way”.

It’s amazing how one song, one piece of art, can produce such tranquility.

Until next Tuesday.

Jimmy Eat World has been great for a long time.

•05/20/2013 • Leave a Comment

Both before and after breaking out with “The Middle” in 2001, Jimmy Eat World has somewhat quietly been making a lot of really good music. Over the years, I’ve slowly acquired a handful of their songs, off of friends’ recommendations and what I’ve heard on the radio. But a few weeks ago I went all out and downloaded their entire discography. It does not disappoint.

While the band’s musical style ranges from driving, drum-pounding rock (i.e. “Pain”) to mellow, melodic, nigh emo (i.e. “For Me This Is Heaven”), one thing that remains constant is the energy and passion wrapped into every line of frontman Jim Adkins’ lyrics.

From their 2001 album Bleed American, “A Praise Chorus” is a really cool song, but I also love it for what it is: A literal praise chorus. This song is how the band tips their collective cap to some of their favorite groups and songs that inspired them to make music in the first place. The first two verses contain a great message (as always) about living in the moment rather than worrying about missing out, and I think the stuttered lines are a pretty neat effect too. Then, starting with the line “Crimson and clover/over and over”, they allude to seven different songs of inspiration (Wikipedia has a cool breakdown here) before it ends with a repetition of the chorus. Really love what they do here, and furthermore, the song is endlessly catchy by its own merit.

For something a little more chill, “Movielike” (Invented, 2010) is sweet, sweet ear candy. The way the chorus ends, with vocals blending into big guitar splashes, makes me smile every time. And the lyrics are so relatable, describing that realization that real life doesn’t always go the way it does in movies. I’ve been walking around singing that “Ohhh” as the song ends for days.

One more upbeat one, for good measure: “Big Casino” (Chase This Light, 2007) is definitely one of my favorites. Seriously, how great is the line, “There’s lots of smart ideas in books I’ve never read/When the girls come talk to me I wish to hell I had”? I love the big booming bass line throughout the song and just how happy it sounds. This one definitely gets me bobbing my head along as I listen.

These are just a few highlights, and with a new album, Damage, in the works (to be released next month!) I’m pretty excited to keep listening. Even though some of their music is 10 and 15 years old, it’s always fun to discover a band like this as if they’re brand new.

 
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